The exclusions my inclusion demands
ONE of the editors of Seminar asked for my take on the ‘health of the Republic in its 70th year’. The editor’s invitation said: ‘I am hoping that we can include your take on how the un-included, if not the excluded, look upon this experiment.’ An experiment, yes. B.R. Ambedkar may have endorsed the term, having contributed more than anyone else towards the egalitarian ballast that drives the Constitution, before going on to warn us not to pin all our hopes on it.
At the time of the transfer of power from the British to the Brahmin-Baniya regime of the Congress in 1947, a charter for ways to include the excluded, if not the un-included, had not been drawn up. That had to wait till 26 January 1950. And I am very much among the included – of the Republic as in Seminar, and much else in life where my inclusion came about without having to struggle or, as sometimes, make any effort at all. I have the experience of being included in a pretty exclusive sense, never having experienced exclusion in my life. I have long resisted applying for Aadhaar and can afford such risks. I have never had a run-in with the police state. I enjoy almost all the rights enshrined in the Constitution without having to be even aware of it.
Only some forty years into my life did I realize how much of a privilege it is to devote a life to just thinking – something Ambedkar had advocated but believed that most Hindus, including the Mahatma, whom he called his opponent, never did: ‘The Mahatma appears not to believe in thinking. He prefers to follow the saints. Like a conservative with his reverence for consecrated notions, he is afraid that if he once starts thinking, many ideals and institutions to which he clings will be doomed. One must sympathise with him. For every act of independent thinking puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril.’1
The apparently stable world is a world grounded in caste. If you think about caste, if you begin to reason, you will not be able to defend or love caste in any way. You would want to see its end, its annihilation. Ambedkar again: ‘How are you going to break up caste, if people are not free to consider whether it accords with reason? How are you going to break up caste, if people are not free to consider whether it accords with morality?’
As a publisher and writer, I have spent my adult life with books and ideas, thinking caste. Thinking against it, wishfully. I’m the privileged middle class citizen whose life this Republic has scripted with a heavy hand. My freedoms, my liberties, my rights – as a heterosexual male Tamil Brahmin born just before the Emergency to parents who glibly supported it – have largely come to me unearned. I belong to the class and caste that is often not even aware of the enormous privilege from which it holds forth on anything, let alone caste. When such a voice is invited to write of how the ‘un-included’ may see this experiment, awkwardness becomes an obligation. Explanations are called for. Reason has to be summoned.
The editor’s email also said the ‘failure to ensure inclusion with respect and not humiliation is as stark a failure of state and nation building.’ Fact is, the idea of inclusion in India has had to be forced upon its people. In the popular imagination, it is called reservation. It is not much liked. To try and spin this into an aphorism: a people afflicted by caste, which works on the principle of exclusion, cannot ever fully come to terms with the idea of inclusion. (It is another matter that in post-Mandal times we have come to see the competitive saturation of reservation as the sole mode of inclusion, since no other solution seems to work.)
Quite often Dalits, the most excluded of minorities in the subcontinent, even when they benefit from the mandatory inclusion that reservation facilitates, suffer humiliation. If and when a Dalit is inserted into the public sphere by the diktat of the state – say the sole Dalit faculty reluctantly admitted into the English department of the University of Hyderabad run by a clique of Brahmins (where I was a student in the 1990s) – she’s made to feel miserable in unimaginable ways, both by the non-Dalit students and the faculty. The Dalit routinely suffers humiliation irrespective of class position. The realm of the private – whether in the empires the Tatas, Ambanis or Narayanamurthys oversee, in the corporate media, at the India International Centre in Delhi, or the many wealthy temples – remains doggedly resistant to the idea of inclusion. Reservation is often anathema even to those who claim they are all for inclusion.
Given that I figure among the ever-included, I shall document here the manner in which I bear witness to and vicariously experience the violence and humiliation of the excluded – mediated today by the ubiquitous media, especially social media, that turns each of us into a potential broadcaster with a ‘following’, giving one the grand illusion of participation.
The innocuous sounding words, ‘Thanks you for watching and please subscribe my channel’ are from a man called Ashutosh Kumar who runs a YouTube channel – it’s free in a free world where anyone can start a ‘channel’, like a Facebook page, link all this to the Twitter handle to maximize reach, and broadcast oneself. Anyone who has a smartphone and has access to social media (and dutifully Aadhaar too, linked anyway to one’s mobile number) must feel included in this particular Republic. Each of us can beam our inner light, or darkness. It all anyway ends in nothing, just as the lamp is always aware that it is dying.
In October 2016, Kumar shared on his personal channel the video of a 16-year-old Dalit schoolboy being beaten up in a Kendriya Vidyalaya classroom in Muzaffarnagar, Bihar, by class bullies. He added a two-line description, a testimony to how his mind works – if our faculty for language can ever match up to the things we are capable of doing: ‘hero of school beating single boy in class room. shame on school Administration.’
Ashutosh Kumar is everyman. Among those of us who have come so far in our lives as to click this link and watch the video, a few even make the time to respond, comment, react – offer their byte, their piece of mind, shed a little light. Some vent right there and then – this affirms the medium’s existence – and some take a long-winded route like I’m doing now. One such, very much one of us, says, ‘What a shame this is... these mother-fu**ing Pakki kids should be punished for this...’ To this, Ashutosh Kumar – who does not offer any context to the savagery on display, as if it were a scene of a lone deer being pinned down by a pride of lions on the Nat Geo channel – says in response: ‘Thanks you for watching and please subscribe my channel.’ This is his stock response to anyone who bothers to comment on the video: ‘Thanks you for watching and please subscribe my channel.’
When I checked this ‘channel’ – which was subsequently removed ‘for violating YouTube’s policy on harassment and bullying’ – it turned out he had posted just two other videos, both added a week ahead of the school video, with sixteen and three view searches. The new video of this young boy being beaten up had notched thousands of views. It had gone ‘viral’. Ashutosh Kumar had, therefore, used it to plug his channel. Each of us is a channel. In each of us hides a little Arnab Goswami, a Smriti Irani, a Donald Trump – waving the fiery little fist of power at anyone who we think does not conform. There are always people uglier than us, we console ourselves. Those who send WhatsApp forwards of lynching videos. Those who gleefully take out their phones and shoot the Una flogging of Dalits.
Meanwhile, to the right of my screen, YouTube’s algorithm lines up a list of recommendations on what I could watch next: videos of school fights in India, of abuse; ‘Deadly Student fight at school Must See’; a teacher beating up a student; and topping it all is an educational/titillating prank video (with actors), ‘Girl Sexually Abused in Classroom by Professor!’ produced by Funk You that has had some 5.3 million views.
Kumar’s YouTube ‘channel’ may have been temporarily blocked by the Republic of Google, but the video is still very much available on ‘decent’ news channels, such as the popular Telugu channel TV5 that has hosted it since 14 October last year – without pixellating the faces of the juveniles involved – and has logged more than half a million views on YouTube as of 11 July 2017.2
So what happens in the video, shot two months before it leaked out, in which Ashutosh Kumar had invested his time and hope? At an elite school overseen by the central government, a pack of damaged and frenzied Hindus of the Bhumihar caste (Brahmin landlords), born to powerful local criminals, are pulping one Dalit student for being Dalit and for his academic excellence. And for having the temerity to be a frontbencher in class. He tells a television channel that he’s tired of ‘repeating my story time and again – to the cops, to my classmates, to the media which discovered what happened to me because of a video that was posted on social media. Some people tell me it went viral.’ (Such is the profusion of horror stories that go ‘viral’ that they don’t all ‘trend’ for too long.)
The boy in his testimony says: ‘For the last two years, I was beaten every day by two boys who are brothers – one in the same class as me, the other a year junior. At least once a week, they would spit on my face… One of the boys used to tell me that assaulting me gave him pleasure, so he had it filmed by a student. He was a backbencher, where you can cheat easily, and I used to sit in the front, but even so, he used to score poorly and I did well. So that enraged him. And when he found out I am from a Scheduled Caste, he went ballistic.’3
At a time when Dalits and Muslims have to fear for their lives, caste Hindu chauvinists have become so delusional and psychotic that they imagine they are the victims, even when they commit gratuitous violence. It’s the logic of a murderous gau rakshak arguing that his sentiments are grievously hurt by the idea of a Dalit or a Muslim consuming beef. The very presence of a Dalit in a classroom can cause offence and repulsion; the Dalit is not the victim but the one that disturbs the peace. Which is why a grossly under-reported official statistic like 45,003 caste specific crimes committed in 2015 on Dalits, averaging 123 reported crimes each day, leaves us unmoved.
‘The victim is always Hindu’, is what the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh have managed to make many think. And in our times social media propaganda plays a key role: both in inciting hatred and resistance to hatred. The Hindu right projects the idea of the nation as a jati in itself. The Republic of India is now officially an upholder of caste, and is in itself a caste. The preservation of this idea of a ‘caste nation’ depends on the preservation of each caste, each jati. So a nationalist necessarily becomes a casteist, and every casteist is wittingly and unwittingly a nationalist. Such fantastic ways in which truth can be spun make me impatient with the middle path they say the Buddha walked, the path Ambedkar followed, and with him many others as well. When it comes to this, when I begin doubting the Buddha and Ambedkar, I begin to doubt myself. I doubt if this light within, which I have been trying to switch on all these years, even exists.
Itake my eyes off this picture of the schoolboy awhile. The same day, the Poetry Foundation inboxes me its Poem of the Day, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, ‘That time of year thou mayst in me behold.’ I am reminded of how there are such beautiful ways of speaking about autumn and the autumn of one’s life, and the difficulty of loving someone you’re going to lose soon to death: ‘To love that well which thou must leave ere long.’ I allow myself to be distracted by the pleasure the poem gave me. Despite keenly listening to Kabir, who exhorts us to meditate on our in-breath and out-breath and treat breath like a precious jewel, I’m not able to singularly focus on the boy who was beaten for his excellence, the boy who excels because he is being beaten, because his success against the odds hurts them in ways their blows do not break him.
For over two years, he stands there taking it every time they feel like punching him. He seems to define Dalit in both the etymological and existential sense: broken, yet unbreakable. Without reservation – without Ambedkar – he may not have been where he was, and for this very reason, he is broken on behalf of everyone who thinks a Dalit cannot be in their midst, be their equal. As this Republic takes a decided turn to the right, there’s a mob out there – everywhere – that thinks so.
At this point, I checked myself. I spoke to a few Dalit friends about this news, this video. This, in sum, is what they said: ‘Yeah. What’s new? This is so common. It happens ever so often. You are seeing such stuff in a video for the first time. So it comes as a shock. Yes, it’s gone viral. But it always was viral. Caste is a disease, Dr Ambedkar had said. This is the daily experience of millions of Dalits. Every Dalit carries an ancestry of violence on her and his body. The threat of violence and violation is pervasive for most of us. To you, it’s all of course new. You need to read a few Dalit autobiographies and watch movies like Fandry and Sairat to know what life can be for us. You have to do research and go through a lot of stuff to know our pain that you have no experience of.
‘Often we are amused, and these days even angered, by your sudden sense of outrage and helplessness over such violence or your newfound love for Ambedkar – even when those outraged are a moral minority. We don’t need to watch the Una video either. Yet, our best actors ask, "Does one have to be Dalit to play a Dalit?" Our finest writers have decided they don’t have to be Dalit to write with conviction about Dalits. What else is human imagination for? Now, it’s the prerogative of a few of you to stop by and ask, "How do we live with this?", and then get on with your life. Our only option is to live with it.’
Such is the unspeakable divide the ‘un-included’ insisted on speaking about. Often life seems an unending atrocity for a Dalit.
Idecided to take my mind off the video and what I was trying to write by turning to the routine that is my life: I could not after all pretend for too long that I was so disturbed by the world around me that I had stopped functioning. Surely worse things happen, and we move on. The ordinariness of such a day had to be established; otherwise it becomes difficult for the living to pretend they should not be dead. So I got up to fix dinner. I heard a Ghalib ghazal being recited, without music.
dil mirā soz-e-nihāñ se be-muhābā jal gayā
ātish-e-khāmosh kī mānind goyā jal gayā
My heart, a hidden flame, burned unequivocally
Like burning coal that speaks, so to speak, silently
Isuddenly remembered that I had never once thought to ask, till one Dalit friend pointed it out to me, how and why India’s finest and brightest, the best Marxist historians, sociologists and economists, who taught in places like Jawaharlal Nehru University or Delhi School of Economics, men and women who influenced policy, wrote op-eds and pioneering books on what makes India India, had never once appointed a Dalit or Adivasi to the social sciences and humanities faculties (the ‘pure’ sciences, it seems, did better) for decades when the constitutionally mandated quota was 22.5 per cent.
These enlightened men and women were supporters of the Civil Rights Movement in the US, they took a firm stand against Apartheid, cheered for Mohammed Ali, many of them knew their Dylan and Marley (and some fervently joined the fights on social media on whether Dylan deserved it or not), they opposed Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, they have always passionately supported Palestine (though they are often iffy on the question of ‘occupation’ of Kashmir), they have opposed India’s nuclear programme, they weigh in on #Oscars So White, they oppose Section 377, and they see themselves as natural born leaders at the vanguard of the good fight against the right. They tick several ‘progressive’ boxes. Yet, they never read Ambedkar. Never cited him. They shut him out. Concomitantly, they have almost never had Dalit friends.
If at all they have Dalits around, it is as servants. The lines of segregation in India are very clear yet render themselves opaque – they are many levels worse than Jim Crow. Sometimes, the left-liberal-secular progressives do not mind untouchables or tribals doing their cooking; some would even let them use their toilets (though these are often reserved); let them drive their cars. It is the same old jajmani system4 adapted to the city and seamlessly woven onto a veneer of modernity.
Many well meaning leftists and academics have live-in servants and they are quite nice to them (better than right wing jajmans, one imagines). We’re talking here about some very fine people clothed in the finest fabrics, the ones that drop their guard and speak in interviews about the labels they wear (we are friends), the ones who holiday abroad (if they don’t head to the hills) when the heat gets too much, the ones who never wash their own underwear (even in their fully automatic washing machine), the ones who get the Others to wash their commodes, those who rarely register through their raised car windows, the barely clad covered-in-filth manhole workers clearing choked gutters.
Many of these individuals have achieved excellence in their chosen fields, some with Padmashris, Magsaysays and Sahitya Akademi awards or at least Fulbright scholarships adorning their cupboards. Many would say they have never asked anyone their caste; they choose not to think and become conscious of caste-as-power in their own lives, for such thinking would put some portion of their apparently stable world in peril.
The Ghalib distraction did me no good.
Having seen what they did to the boy in the video, and then hearing him speak with such dignity, at the risk of sounding patronizing I appreciate his words, his poise, his courage under fire. He says his father had given him a name that means ‘the best’. We saw how Rohith Vemula had to die for us to know what an excellent mind and a fine writer he was. Jeya Rani, a Tamil journalist, wrote recently saying that Rohith would not have received the attention he did in death had he not written in English:
‘A similar suicide happened in Aasanur at Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu. Ayyaru, a Dalit youth, decided to end his life unable to bear the caste violence inflicted on him. He too wrote a letter. Ayyaru worked as a peon in a panchayat office. Because he was a Dalit, the panchayat president Shanthi and her husband forced him to clean toilets. In his letter Ayyaru writes, "Fear is a drop of poison". The letter did not create even one percent of the impact that Rohith’s letter did. Because Ayyarus are murdered often. Murdered by ordinary people like us.’5
Rohith may have found it difficult to get anything published had he lived. Editorial writers praised his use of the passive voice after he was gone. Had his hunger strike with a few other Dalit scholars in the Veliwada continued, the strike would have dissipated and the protesters forgotten – like it happened before at the same university in 2002 when ten protesting Dalit students had been rusticated ‘forever’, disregarding the social labour and community hope each such student represented. Like them, Rohith too would have been condemned to live, having been suspended for saying Yakub Memon had the right to live.
Apparao Podile, the vice chancellor of University of Hyderabad, would have got on with his life more easefully had Rohith lived, and his friend Sunkanna Velpula may not have experienced the terrifying and bewildering loneliness of being the only scholar of the university to have refused to accept a degree from the vice chancellor while all his fellow students turned up in their glittering, smiling best at the convocation in October 2016. Only Velpula stood up to say, Not in your name.6
But we consoled ourselves that Vemula’s death would not go in vain. We made up rousing slogans; there are books and films being made about him; you could download an annotated edition of his Facebook posts on your phone using an app; he finds a mandatory mention in poems, especially those written about the need for writing poems.7 We hide behind what Brecht said: ‘In the dark times/ Will there also be singing?/Yes, there will also be singing./ About the dark times.’ There will always be singing. Perhaps in this Republic at war with itself, poets must be banished. They ought not to be allowed to win and accept awards in the first place so that they can gloat over having had the chance to return them; their resistance gleaming like a righteous medal. Those further damaged will make poems about not making poems.
One of the brothers who beat up the Dalit boy boasts to his victim that he derived pleasure from the assaults. He had a lackey shoot a video on the phone so that he could watch it by himself before he showed it around. This is as bad as a poet who reads his own poem over and over, and then publishes it, saying poems have to be written ‘lest poets be reduced to a moral minority’, for what else can poets do but conveniently say, ‘poems must be written because only poets return awards.’ The poet has the uncanny knack of turning what’s about you into something about himself; his excuse being he has the capacity to speak for you; he’ll say I contain multitudes; he’ll be reminded of Neruda’s lines the postman uses to woo his love in Il Postino: ‘Poetry doesn’t belong to those who write it, it belongs to those who need it.’ Such are the excuses a poet gives himself to say what he needs. Poets are no different than those who beat a classmate to within an inch of his life and make an album of their cowardice so that they can get off on it.
It’s time I said it too: thank you for reading me in Seminar.
1. Ambedkar says this in ‘A Reply to the Mahatma’, his rebuttal to Gandhi’s tepid response in his journal Harijan (15 August 1936) to Annihilation of Caste.
2. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A1TxBvlkiAQ. Last accessed 11 July 2017.
3. An as-told-to account is available at http://www.ndtv.com/blog/i-am-16-dalit-and-a-video-of-me-being-tortured-in-class-went-viral-1475960
4. Jajman, and from it jajmani, derives from the term yajamana, literally the ‘sacrificer’, the performer of the Vedic yagna sacrifice who does not perform the actual sacrifice but hires priests to do the same in exchange for a fee, dakshina. This Vedic template got adapted, rather transmogrified, in the pre-monetary economy era and became the bulwark of a ritualized exploitative system of economic extraction where services were rendered (often for free or in exchange for grain or any gift) to the landlord (not necessarily a Brahman) who was seen as the jajman (lord/master). Many scholars and ideologues have seen the jajmani system as integrative, a way in which various jatis interacted if not socialized. It is a system that also evolved differently in different parts of the subcontinent just like languages and the jati networks that exhibit a mind-boggling diversity, which makes generalizations both fraught and necessary at once. Often the untouchables-as-slaves were (and often still are) forced to offer labour that was seen as vetti or begar. The jajman or yajaman is often seen as the owner of the bodies and labour of the serf obliged to work for him.
5. ‘The Dalit Voice is Simply Not Heard in the Mainstream Indian Media’, The Wire, 15 November 2016. Accessed https://thewire.in/80117/caste-bias-mainstream-media/
6. View the short 36-second clip here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ESO5okk7i-Q. It has been viewed just 82 times as of 11 July 2017.
7. See the Hindi poet Devi Prasad Mishra’s poem, ‘Poems are Paramount’ (translated into English by Asad Zaidi), posted on http://humanitiesunderground.org/i-put-aside-the-inspection-of-my-great-talent/ on 18 October 2016.