Caste Matters author Suraj Yengde: 'There's a new class of global Brahmin of each society'
Through the story of his life growing up in a basti, the discrimination Dalits face everyday and the love and creativity that binds the community together, Suraj Yengde challenges many notions in his book Caste Matters. In this conversation, he speaks about his experience as a Dalit in the West, the radical rebellion that is Dalit love, and how Brahmin participation in the anti-caste movement can be made more meaningful.
Through the story of his life growing up in a basti, the discrimination Dalits face everyday and the love and creativity that binds the community together, Suraj Yengde challenges many notions in his book Caste Matters.
When Dalits exercise the virtue of love in a Brahminical society, their act of love is itself rebellious, says Yengde.
Liberal Brahmin passive anger does not mean anything; I want them to learn from mistakes and be more upright in fighting against the hardcore values of their community, he adds.
Through the story of his life growing up in a basti, the discrimination Dalits face everyday and the love and creativity that binds the community together, Suraj Yengde challenges many notions about caste in his book Caste Matters. An academic activist, he is currently an inaugural postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.
In this conversation, he speaks about his experience as a Dalit in the West, the radical rebellion that is Dalit love, and how Brahmin participation in the anti-caste movement can be made more meaningful.
First off, congratulations on the book. Babasaheb had once mentioned that his five-year stay in America and Europe made him forget that he belonged to an ‘untouchable’ community. You’ve been staying in the West for years now, but in your book, you write, “I have no agency or free will to live the way I want to anywhere in the world.”
Do you think caste has grown into a mechanism of oppression even in the West? If yes, how?
Caste, as Babasaheb had understood then, was a global problem. When he thought of his past and about his university days abroad, he was nostalgic. We all have warm memories of our good days where our intellectual dynamism shoots like a rocket, in multiple directions. Babasaheb was certainly happy that he was able to be what he most cherished: a bookish nerd. He loved books and he adored them more than anything in his life. He is reported to have once said that whosoever took away his most prized possession – his books – he would not hesitate to shoot that person.
Babasaheb was a bookworm and a student with intellectual hunger. He regarded education as a process of common learning premised on experience. Ambedkar grew under the influence of pragmatists – John Dewey being one of them. Pragmatists defied any rigidity of knowledge. This must have been like a godsend for an extremely curious, and untouchable student at that, like Ambedkar, who was educated within the un-relatable, unscientific and un-modern Brahminical education system in India.
This, as well as many other factors contributed to him becoming a student of knowledge — a concept different from other forms of education.
In this way, Ambedkar went about meeting and interacting with students from across the world, some of whom were refugees, progressives, conservatives, and some who came from peasant families. Looking at the vast array of courses Ambedkar took (they were 60 in total, over three damn years. “Was he insane?” my Harvard colleague once remarked, in admiration. One can only guess, considering students at Ivy League colleges struggle to keep up with four courses per semester. Ambedkar took an average of 10 courses, including the summer one.), one can only imagine the kind of subjects he was exposed to and the diverse kinds of people he may have met.
He was also a student of anthropology, a subject that was radicalising the theory of society. Economics, sociology, philosophy, politics, and languages – this man had big plans, as far his academic interests are concerned.
In his process, Ambedkar was frankly too busy to be bothered with the issue of petty divisions like caste. But did it affect him? I would think it did. Recall Lala Lajpat Rai asking Ambedkar to join the nationalist struggle, and Ambedkar flatly refusing it. It is primarily a caste tension that Ambedkar brought to the fore. As an untouchable, he knew that these privileged savarna children would fancy their motherland far away from home. But the moment they step into their motherland, they would continue to be the rajas, feudal lords, merchants and all the established professions they inherited, with casteism at their core.
That is why we see Babasaheb being turned down by his Indian friends from Columbia during times of dire need in Baroda. They exhibited their inability to help this highly educated man.
Similar tensions continue to exist between the caste-sensitive or caste-neutral privileged kids coming to Europe or the Americas.
Caste has a role to play in putting down emerging Dalit voices.
Although there are ways in which white people and other race groups look down upon Indians in general, it gets bitterer if you do not possess the élan of certain dialectical mores.
Due to post-colonial modernity, a new class of people has emerged across the world, that uses the same colognes and perfumes, wears clothes of the same brands anywhere in the world, and enjoys certain music and hums certain tunes that are universally found. This new class is the global Brahmin of each society. If it is not caste, it is race; if not race, class or religion. And on many occasions, they come packaged like an Amazon drone, dropping things in your backyard that you did not solicit.
In the book, you have written a sub-chapter on ‘Dalit love’. For me, this is a new notion. You argue that, “…love within the confines of caste also limits itself to heteronormative values. It doesn’t open up a space for love as an ultimate human virtue.”
Could you elaborate?
It’s not about Dalit love at all. Or any other love. When I say, I say it in the context of caste. When you fit yourself in the context of caste, usually you follow certain norms, dictums and diktats. You’re also trying to navigate your own personal choice with the community. You’re trying to develop new ways of looking at life. Many times, Dalits themselves have no power when it comes to operating in a Brahminical caste system.
Because of this lack of power, when they exercise the virtue of love in a Brahminical society, their act of love is itself rebellious.
It's a dangerous sort of thing for Brahminism.
When Dalits try to describe their own vision of love, they are not actually thinking of immediate gains. They are invested in the past, present and are also thinking, productively, about the future. Now this is a new thing, because when a Dalit is exercising their idea of love, they are actually embracing their ancestors, their long-cherished tradition of loving. Their love is not vulgar, cheap or market-oriented. It is something that is practiced as a supreme human virtue. It is an ultimate human destination.
So when a Dalit person loves someone from the same community, they have been doing what they have always been doing. It is not a new thing for them. It is a natural activity. It is not an exhibition of some sort. It is not a performance; it is not orchestrated. The fight has always been dealt with, internally, in their lives. The possibilities of love – to love the way they want to – did not exist in the caste system; they are always confined. That is why I said love in the caste system is always heteronormative, because it is always thought of in the sense of section-orientation; always thought as reproduction. It does not involve thinking beyond that. And I think Dalit love is not paying attention to these factors, you know, claiming beyond whatever is already presented.
In addition to ‘Dalit love’, you also explore terms like ‘Dalit rationality’, ‘Dalit power’, and ‘Dalit patriotism’ in the book. Do you see these terms as categoricals? If yes, can you explain why?
These are appreciated epistemologies of the Dalit world. It is important because the Brahminical, casteist world will never acknowledge the humanity of Dalits. More than humanity, they relate to these varied metaphors of existence. They are also trying to be universal. They are not oppressed subjects only. They have agency in their own world; though the Brahminical world does not offer them agency, if you look at their own personal lives, they are independent. They are living to their full potential.
When I speak of full human potential, it is the capacity to ask, it is the audacity to challenge the norms of nationalism, and it is to work with rationalism when scientific temper is lost in visions of any dogmatism. These are the unique virtues that the Dalit community has contributed to humanity.
History says the great tradition of the Buddha was upheld by the Dalits; it is the Dalit people who has made it their central project; it is the Dalits who have worked within existing power structures so that their profits are not confined to only themselves. They were thinking beyond their immediate needs and gratification. What they want to share and nurture in this case is humanity – one can call it ‘manavata’. And there is always a question posed, whether one speaks of the Buddha, Ambedkar, Phule or our pantheons: Tu manav jati sathi kay kela? (What have you done for the human race?) They never limit to the community or sub-castes.
This critique is not centred only on Brahmins, it goes beyond them. It applies to the sub-castes of Brahmins and other varnas who operate within, and enjoy the privilege of, power. These are the historical contributions that this community has made and continues to, and it has immense power to do. Because if you are hungry and you see that someone else is hungry too, you practice what is ultimate altruism: to make sure you give the other person whatever little you may receive. You still remain hungry, but you make sure that the person receives a little bit. You want that person to feel that you are with them, supporting them. By doing this, you also make sure that they become part of a larger group that fights against oppression. This is a very courageous act. It can be the notion of loving.
When I speak of Dalit power, I mean the establishment of various ways and methods, various ideologies – a carnival or bazaar where people of other spaces, other roots, other provinces, other regions, other rationalities come together to form something unique, something noble. When I say bazaar, I say it with utmost respect for the term, for it is atmospherically a holistic bazaar. If you visit a weekly bazaar in a town or village, you will find an amalgamation of various ideologies, various businesses, and various merchandise. This is a cultural market, not a market in the capitalist sense, but a repository owned by the community. The Brahminical world and the world beyond them does not pay attention to this important fact. Because of this, our civilisation has remained stable.
Had there been no Dalit love, no Dalit rationality, no recourse to Dalit power and Dalit patriotism, and Dalit nationalism of some sort, there would not be a civilisation that could proudly claim that it has existed for thousands and thousands of years.
What has allowed this civilisation to thrive? It's not the rulers or aristocrats, but rather the subaltern people. And Dalits are at the centre of upholding this civilisation.
However, their contribution, universal vision, poetry, creativity, hard work, labour, as well as their contribution to the development of various other human faculties, has not been acknowledged. Given the opportunity, they espouse these qualities – qualities that our ancestors possessed to. I am made of the teachings and characteristics of my ancestors. The same is true of you, as well as other people. I think that is the best way of looking at the human values of Dalits – to view them as human beings. They make the world the way it should be.
In a chapter titled ‘Brahmins Against Brahminism’, you have traced Brahmin participation in the anti-caste movement, from as early as the 13th century, to the time of Phule and Ambedkar. But history tells us that these Brahmins have, from time to time, been either mere sympathisers of anti-caste issues, or have become so-called reformers without giving up their spiritual and material privileges. Brahmins who are against Brahminism have never worked with those in their own caste, whose minds are dominated by caste and who are blind to the privileges they inherit. What do you think is the reason for this? Do you think there can be Brahminism without Brahmins?
Absolutely not. Brahminism is a product of the Brahmins. Brahmins gave birth to it, they validate it, they nurture it, they theorise it, and they bring it back into the everyday empiricism of the world. Then they enjoy the glory of being Brahmins. And they are primarily responsible for making it possible. So there is no doubt that Brahminism exists because of Brahmins. As long as Brahmins live, so will Brahminism.
Simultaneously, we must pay attention to some of the people I have mentioned in the book. Gangadhar Tilak’s son Shridharpant was against Brahmin orthodoxy, and these so-called Brahmins did not accept him. We have to understand that there are certain elements that have maintained Brahminism. I look at this aspect because there are Brahmins who are oppressed too; you can be a perpetrator and an oppressor at the same time.
If Brahmins have so much love for Tilak Senior [Gangadhar Tilak], why don’t they have the same love for Tilak Junior (Shridharpant)? Because they have not invested in humanity, barbarism is what they are totally committed to. And it is their fault. Even though there are many Brahmins coming to the fore, they still make sure that their Brahminism remains alive. Does that mean Brahmins have not participated in the anti-Brahminical struggle? Yes, of course they have. And they have faced obstructions because of their own community.
The case has been similar with dominant castes who participated in the anti-caste struggle. They maintained a closed camaraderie with their community members.
And you are very right to point out that they are working very much among the Dalit-Bahujan population, not with their own caste groups; it’s a very important point that I also make in the book. I say that one needs to be a cultural suicide bomber.
Liberal Brahmin passive anger does not mean anything. I want them to learn from mistakes and be more radical, be more humanistic, be more upright in fighting against the hardcore values of their caste community, that they emulate.
That is why I have used categories such as ‘Brahminescapism’, ‘Brahminaction’ to detail the inaction and escapism among contemporary Brahmins.
Yogesh Maitreya is a poet, translator and founder of Panther's Paw Publication, an anti-caste publishing house. He is pursuing a PhD at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
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