We need to use our privilege and influence to amplify Dalit voices, without falling into the trap of occupying their space and claiming to speak ‘for them’.
they do not see colour.
you are invisible.”
Nayyirah Waheed was talking about race in America when she wrote these lines, but she might as well have been describing the way urban upper class savarna Indians engage — or rather, don’t — with caste. Cocooned in our supposedly liberal upper-caste bubbles, we grow up blissfully oblivious to the ongoing violence — physical, social, economic — of casteism even as it goes on all around us. When we think of caste at all, we think of it as a thing of the past, couched in the rosy, nothing-to-see-here language of CBSE textbooks that taught us that casteism ended the day India outlawed untouchability.
As we grow older and read a newspaper or two, we may be surprised to learn that caste still endures in 21st century India. But we console ourselves by telling ourselves that this happens only in rural India or amongst the urban poor, because of course the poor can’t be expected to be as enlightened as us well-educated city folk.
We remain secure in the warm, comforting delusion that we could never be casteist, because we don’t even talk about caste. We take pride in not knowing what caste we belong to. It never strikes us that this is the logic of the ostrich. That this “caste-blindness” we are so proud of renders us ignorant of the hundreds of ways caste still governs Indian society.
That being unaware of our own caste is itself a form of privilege, one that is never afforded to Dalits. We stick to this state of denial even when we’re presented with evidence to the contrary, comfortable in the fact that our privilege will protect us from the consequences of our wilful ignorance. Until, as a group of Delhi musicians and the Piano Man Jazz Club found out this past week, it doesn’t.
Last week, the posh South Delhi club announced on Facebook that they would be hosting a band called “Bhangijumping” on June 5. For those who don’t know — which is far too many of us — “bhangi” is a term coined by upper castes in the 19th century to denote members of a Dalit caste employed in sanitation and manual scavenging.
The etymology of the term is disputed, but it has come to be used as an insult for anyone considered “filthy” or an addict. Soon after the announcement, people started commenting on the post, pointing out how the band’s name was casteist. The band — led by New Delhi musician Akshay Kapoor — claimed that they were unaware of the offensive nature of the term, saying they only intended to juxtapose the cannabis preparation “bhang” with “bungee jumping”.
In a “clarification” dripping with pompousness, Piano Man Jazz Club owner Arjun Sagar Gupta also claimed ignorance and said that after a discussion, the band had decided to change their name. Unfortunately, he chose to append the clarification with a tone-policing paragraph that dismissed the concern and anger of Dalits calling for a boycott, calling them “small-minded” and “aggressive”, asking them not to visit the club and ending with a pithy “Lets (sic) focus on the art, shall we?”
As the online protests intensified after this arrogant non-apology, Gupta finally realised the depth of anger and belatedly decided to look up why the term “bhangi” evoked such a strong reaction. To his and the club’s credit, he responded with a second clarification — a real apology this time — and cancelled the event. But by then the damage had been done.
The overwhelmingly upper class and upper caste indie music scene was already up in arms at this “challenge” to their privilege and their right to offend, and they went on the warpath.
My Facebook newsfeed was flooded with people claiming their “solidarity” with Piano Man, as if the club were the real victim in this situation. Some chose to gaslight the protesters, dismissing their anger as a publicity stunt or crying farcically about “reverse casteism” when they were called out.
Others asked for a private gig for the band, with the offensive name unchanged. A few went even further, slut-shaming the Dalit women commenting on Gupta’s post or deliberately using “bhangi” and even worse casteist slurs and then patting themselves on the back for “standing up for free speech”.
One obscenely oblivious musician called struggling musicians “the Dalits of the professional world”. To be fair to Gupta, most of these commenters were only tangentially related to him or his club, and he tried to shut them down. But savarna anger and self-righteousness, once provoked, will not stop till it draws blood. As of this morning, the abuse continues.
As a savarna with class and caste privileges myself, it is not my intention to speak for Dalits and their anger at this blatant display of ignorance and casteism. Among others, journalist Dhrubo Jyoti does that very well in his eloquent Facebook post on the controversy. But I think this is a teachable moment for us upper caste, upper class folk to take a long, hard look at the webs of privilege that we are embedded in and profit from, and the many ways in which we consciously and “unconsciously” propagate casteism through our words and actions.
In this age of information, ignorance is no longer an excuse but an expression of caste privilege. “We don’t know” because we can afford not to know, and so we choose not to. We think our achievements, our admissions to elite schools and colleges, our easy entry into white-collar jobs or the culture industry are only a result of our hard work, and not the caste and class-based social networks that we can easily plug into.
We pat ourselves on the back for never hiring or firing people on the basis of caste, yet never ask why 90 per cent of corporate boardrooms in India are made up of Vaishyas and Brahmins. Or why a recent Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) survey of 315 important decision-makers in 37 Delhi-based publications and television channels found that not one of them was a Dalit or an adivasi.
We ignore the fact that our social circles are populated by the same upper castes — though we hide behind terms like “community” and “similar background” — while those who unclog our toilets and clean our streets predominantly come from Dalits or other supposedly “lower castes”.
We have so deeply internalised the hierarchy of caste — and the entitlement of being upper caste — that we see nothing wrong with this social and professional segregation, in the fact that “people like us” have so much social and economic power over “people like them”.
We put these blinders on ourselves, and then when we inevitably trip over our own arrogance and casteism, we lash out in anger. That needs to stop.
Every time we use terms like “bhangi” or “chuhra” as an insult, or make jokes based on crude caste stereotypes, we are reproducing the rhetoric that has dehumanised and disenfranchised millions of people for centuries.
Every time we justify keeping separate utensils for domestic workers as an issue of hygiene, as Rupa Subramanya famously did, we are justifying the logic of caste through the sanitising lens of “personal cleanliness”. The same goes for “pure veg” only colonies in Mumbai, where food choices are used as code for “upper caste” only.
Every time we make fun of college classmates for coming from a different, less affluent and non-English speaking background, grumbling behind their backs that they only got in through “SC quota”, we are exposing how deep-rooted casteism is even in our supposedly enlightened minds.
In fact, the whole conversation around merit and “unfair reservations” is most often a dog-whistle for casteist rhetoric, as was evident in the recent celebrations at the fake news that Yogi Adityanath had removed reservations from private medical colleges.
When we justify caste-based endogamy – one of the main mechanisms of maintaining caste “purity” — as a matter of “good family background” or “community values”, we are complicit in maintaining a society where only five per cent of marriages are inter-caste. And no, it isn’t people like us who compose most of that five per cent. Even as we deny the persistence of caste, we take pride in our Rajput or Brahmin or other savarna heritage, once again hiding behind “tradition” or “historical achievements”.
When we are called out on it, we point at proclamations of Dalit pride and cry “reverse casteism”, claiming a false equivalence between the assertion of the oppressor and the oppressed. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Much like casteism, I could go on and on and on.
If we are serious about living up to the liberal, idealised illusion of ourselves that we hold so dear, we need to disentangle ourselves from the casteist structures that we inhabit and benefit from. And the first step towards that is to acknowledge our caste and class privilege.
We need to educate ourselves on how caste governs Indian society and politics (this piece by Prayaag Akbar is a good starting point). We need to centre Dalit voices and Dalit anger over our own discomfort at losing privilege, and shut up and listen when they explain why something is offensive or casteist.
We need to use our privilege and influence to amplify Dalit voices, without falling into the trap of occupying their space and claiming to speak “for them”. We need to lift the veil of silence over caste, and drop the veneer of “politeness” that keeps us from confronting the casteist prejudice of our friends and family.
Because, as Nissin Mannathukkaren says in this piece, “destroying caste is not ‘uplifting’ the oppressed castes; it is about liberating ourselves from the labyrinth of caste — not by remaining silent about it, but by shamefully acknowledging the layers of historical privilege that have sedimented every pore of our existence.”http://www.dailyo.in/politics/bhangijumping-delhi-piano-man-jazz-club/story/1/17680.html