Caste in the USA, Episode 10: Challenging caste supremacy on social media, and how Savarna silence breeds impunity

'Caste In The USA' is a podcast series examining the pervasiveness of caste discrimination among Indians in the US, hosted by Equality Labs' Thenmozhi Soundararajan. This is Episode 10.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan December 02, 2020 17:06:23 IST
Caste in the USA, Episode 10: Challenging caste supremacy on social media, and how Savarna silence breeds impunity

Editor's note: Firstpost is holding a series of conversations with Indians in the US, across its campuses, offices and households, to understand how caste discrimination pervades the community just as much as it does back home in India. Hosted by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Dalit rights activist, artist, technologist and executive director of Equality Labs, the podcast cracks taboos about caste among Indians in the US. Listen to more episodes here.

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In Episode 10:

"For a Savarna to do some kind of virtue signalling for the Blacks, they do not have a direct oppressor relationship. If it is rewarding then they would do it, why not? But to be able to stand up for people oppressed by their own class, to stand up for reservation which is positive discrimination, to help people oppressed by the Savarna’s own class — it is not like this person is stupid for saying #BlackLivesMatter, but not doing it for Dalits," says Prakash, a Savarna from the South Asian diaspora in the US. While most educated dominant caste Indians like to proselytise a general, liberal stance online, the truth on smaller WhatsApp groups and anonymous Twitter accounts remains starkly casteist.

One of the editors of Savarna Rehab, Prakash joins Thenmozhi Soundararajan for a conversation on challenging casteism online and unravelling the dominant caste ideals he grew up with.

"They change their tone based on the anonymity they have, and also the environment they are in. So on WhatsApp groups they know they are exposed but it is private to that particular group, and they know who exists on the group and who is reading their messages," says Prakash.

As someone with the privilege of being upper-caste in the US, since Prakash's livelihood is independent of his caste identity, it has made it easier for him to introspect. He also knows about how oppressed communities are subjected to casual ignorance, tone-policing, and gaslighting from behind a screen.

Savarna Rehab was introduced as a medium to hold a mirror up to the ugly realities of caste hierarchy. However, violent threats, unwarranted reporting and frequent bans on Facebook, coupled with silent Brahmins not wanting to get their hands dirty by tackling ignorant comments, led to the page eventually shutting down.

"The silence is really built in, which lays the framework for impunity. And so to be able to talk about these issues or use humour or direct confrontation, we have to do whatever we can to chip away at these hegemonies," observes Thenmozhi, of privileged caste individuals who don't speak up in the face of blatant oppression.

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Listen to Caste in the USA, Episode 10 here:

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Read the complete transcript for Episode 10:

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Jai Bhim and Jai Savitri, everyone. I am Thenmozhi Soundararajan, and this is Caste In the United States with Firstpost. Today’s episode is an exploration of caste on social media. Joining us is Prakash, one of the editors of Savarna Rehab. He is going to share with us some of his unique experiences challenging casteism online, and what he has learned about the dominant caste journey of unlearning caste. Jai Bhim and welcome Prakash.

Prakash: Jai Bhim

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: So Prakash, social media has been a powerful forum where DBA voices really have come to find some space in challenging Brahminical culture. As a Savarna, you have also been challenging your own networks through your Savarna Rehab page. I wanted to ask, what are some of the trends of resistance you see when you bring up these issues?

Prakash: Thank you, Thenmozhi, for having me here. You are right, social media became a great platform for many Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi people to have their expression online. There were many other platforms as well, but on social media, they were able to reach out to a larger section of society. But they faced the same issue, that now their posts were directly in the face of Savarnas who were going through a honeymoon period online, because as you know, they felt as if that space also belonged to them, just like other spaces.

What I observed was that some of the bigotry was outright bashing people who are marginalised, but they were also glorifying their caste origin. I observed all of this and what I felt bad about was that there were many resourceful Bahujan, Dalit, Adivasi participants or users of social media, who are also very well-established activists — when they would speak of very basic issues around caste, they would have to face a lot of trolling, a lot of angry reactions. These came from people who were supposedly college-educated, but the level of questions they asked almost felt like they had no clue about the realities of society. That’s when I felt people who are from Savarana origins should give some time, energy and some labour to deal with these people who were gaslighting and not allowing a bigger discussion to take place. To address some of that, some of us friends decided we need to do some labour to handle this Savarna ignorance and fragility, and also to support people who are expressing these thoughts — how to support them and to validate their arguments or whatever they are trying to say.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: So what are some of the distinctive ways in which Savarnas use social media, whether it is Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter or even TikTok?

Prakash: So I can speak about Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter — on all these three platforms, or in fact four —you can also add LinkedIn — these Sarvanas show a general behaviour, I have observed. They change their tone based on the anonymity they get and also the environment they are in. On WhatsApp groups, they know they are exposed, but it’s private to that particular group, and they know who exists on the group and who is reading their messages. They are very open about their bigotry; they are always sharing material that could be a casteist joke, or glorifying their own heritage if they are in a WhatsApp group with family or if they are in a WhatsApp group with their college friends. They talk as if reservations are the biggest tragedy that ever hit India. If something newsworthy happens, they will probably look for a casteist angle to that. They will blame Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis for practising casteism — it is an echo chamber, basically.

Now if you move onto Facebook, it is slightly more public, so there they have a different kind of play: they will either keep silent about some issues, or they will try to tone-police or gaslight, but it depends on what their circle is. If they are all college kids who are connected to other college students, they will probably share nasty stuff on private groups, but in the diaspora, there are many people for whom posing as a liberal in America is very rewarding, so they will not directly post. They will do other things like gaslighting and tone policing, or silently ignoring big issues, for example the case of Dr Payal Tadvi or even this current CISCO case. They will not have any opinion about that, and in fact, they will do their best to gaslight.

And then on Twitter, many of them have handles that cannot be directly connected to them, through which they are able to say things that they won’t even say in front of their families. But they can do it in a much more hands-off way on Twitter, also because the platform does not yield itself to a richer discussion. Because of the character limit, it’s very easy to say something nasty and run away. That’s the general trend that I have observed.

This does not mean that on Facebook, while running our page, I did not get a lot of horrible threats — people who assumed that I am a Dalit, they would comment and use slurs against me. This has also happened. We try not to doxx anyone, but there have been cases where we have threatened to take legal action, and more often than not, they run away. These people are not very smart either, they have pictures of themselves on their profiles, they will pose with their motorbikes which clearly have a number plate on them, so it would take us 30 seconds to get to their real names. They come with a lot of confidence, but they are themselves on very shaky ground, so that has also happened in many cases.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I think this is a really important place for us to dig in more. If you think about the internet or social media, the Id of the human species, we really see both the light but also the darkness of how badly people behave. And some of what you are talking about here, Prakash, is that when dominant caste people are in their own spaces, their nasty casteism that comes out. As a Savarna who has been seeing this and went on to become one the editors of the page Savarna Rehab, you are someone who has been addressing some of the contradictions that exist within the dominant caste psyche; that they feel so confident while saying Black Lives Matter, at the same time say some utter casteist shit about reservations or caste-based atrocities, or even about Rohith Vemula. In the diaspora, we have consistently seen that dichotomy, and Savarna Rehab became a crossroads where some of those discussions happened. I am just curious, can you share a little for people who never visited that page: what were you guys trying to do, and what were your experiences of engaging with dominant caste people like?

Prakash: Yes, thank you for this opportunity. The page purposefully has a misleading title that suggests that we have a cure for dominant caste behaviour, whereas it was more about triggering a page where we wanted dominant caste people to come and get a little bit of exposure to their behaviour. There are two things right — there is dominant caste behaviour where they post about Black Lives Matter; a lot of dominant caste people would like to virtue signal online and would like to appear as liberal, and they would come to our page to get some masala because we were very meme-friendly and everybody loves to bash another version of bigots. But people rarely point the light on themselves. There are a lot of people who would mock the orthodox casteism, but they would not be willing to introspect the casteism that happens in their own spaces and benefits them.

Even for the Black Lives Matter movement, we have to look at it this way: it is interesting from the Savarna point of view, because for a Savarna to do some kind of virtue signalling for the Blacks, they do not have a direct oppressor relationship. If it is rewarding, then they would do it — why not? But to be able to stand up for people oppressed by their own class, to stand up for reservation which is positive discrimination, to help people oppressed by the Savarna’s own class — it is not like this person is stupid for saying #blacklivesmatter, but not doing it for Dalits. What we really wanted to do was expose people to situations in their own spaces.

Initially, people got attracted because we made a lot of fun of orthodox casteism, and a lot of people jumped onto our portal thinking we are just another fun page, but the fragility started to come out when we started questioning people about their own culpability, and I should give credit to people who were not triggered by it and probably learnt from it, but more often than not, it would come out as angry responses. The thing I observed which I was very unhappy with was that even the well-meaning dominant caste people kept quiet, they would not get their hands dirty, so to speak,  if they would see someone get triggered. They would just stay away and wait for us or other Bahujan pages to fight these people. Through silence we create more problems — that’s my experience on this.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Can you give me an example of one of these situations that triggered dominant caste people to feel extremely fragile on Savarna Rehab?

Prakash: I can give it in two cases: one is the orthodox casteism triggering, and then the other case where we can talk about triggering in the modern, secular version. So in the case of the orthodox casteism, the biggest trigger point was when we shared a meme where we explained the role of the woman in a dominant caste household, and how they have to instill casteism in their children as an ideal mother of a dominant caste family. As Babasaheb said, Brahminism is the negation of equality, liberty and fraternity, we kind of mocked the fact that the role of the dominant caste mother is to instill this behaviour, which protects the child from learning about equality, liberty and fraternity and other such things. That kind of exploded and we got a lot of attacks from people who were triggered. There were attacks from a writer of some book who came to our page and she started saying really, really horrible things even about Babasaheb, we had to take screenshots with which we threatened legal action against her, and then she disappeared from the Internet. It was very violent, the kind of reactions we got from people who are outright casteist.

The other scenario for which we got a lot of flak was when we questioned the Brahminism in the Left parties or Left political parties. In that scenario also we were subjected to violent attacks by online activists, not just parties but people who subscribe to that political ideology or claim to subscribe to that political ideology. They started a hate campaign against our page, saying that we were supporting right-wing politics, instead of understanding where we are coming from and why we are questioning casteism within their spaces. They took it as if we were attacking their ideology. Obviously, this comes from assuming that the dominant caste represents the ideology of the Left, so that was another trigger point for them. We discussed how within the medical industry, casteism is playing a role in which case a lot of people from the medical fraternity, many doctors got pissed off. We even got a threat from this woman who herself was a doctor, who said something like, 'may your family not get a doctor when it really needs one.' I mean, you question casteism in any group, and that group gets triggered — that is what our observation was, unfortunately.

Caste in the USA Episode 10 Challenging caste supremacy on social media and how Savarna silence breeds impunity

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: It’s that the topic is so taboo that when you first bring up its anathema, then it starts to trigger feelings of fragility, and then outright arguments. And this is a really difficult divide, because this is how silence is really built — it lays the framework for impunity, and so, being able to talk about these issues or use humour or direct confrontation, we have to do whatever we can to chip away at these hegemonies. I think there is another key part of this story which is that Savarna Rehab was a page on Facebook, and I think many of these social media companies are deeply casteist. We were definitely part of an ongoing advocacy campaign for Facebook to not only add caste as a protected category on the moderation side, but also for them to start protecting people from casteist hate speech. I think the thing I have seen is that not only do they fail in their duty of care towards caste and religious minorities, but we are also seeing dominant caste or Savarna people using caste to shut down speech — that actually points out their caste privilege. So I'm wondering what your experience was with Facebook, and how you see casteism there?

Prakash: As some of you may know, Savarana Rehab was taken off Facebook and we lost everything we were trying to build. The comments were very resourceful for some future researcher to research on how Savarnas get fragile — and we lost all of it. So yeah, you are very correct in saying that introducing caste as a protected category for moderation backfired. Facebook may be doing the hiring of moderators just like any other company does in India. Obviously, this means that the representation of Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis is abysmal in their moderation group. They definitely do not understand or maybe they understand, but there is a huge conflict of interest for them. It is always going to be interpreted in an incorrect way. With Savarna Rehab, the first time we got banned was when enough people complained when we mocked Madhavan’s thread ceremony and compared it to someone glorifying the swastika. Facebook banned us for three days, and just to test whether this was really the cause, we made another post in which all we did was share a news article on the Ku Klux Klan family. It was some news about a tradition they have at home, and all we said was this reminds us of Madhavan’s thread ceremony — and we got another ban.

There was a time when we got banned for making a post which was nothing but Babasaheb Ambedkar’s quote in which he said that I would be happy if I am able to convince Hindus that they are sick people and their sickness is causing grave misery to the people of India. We actually mentioned specifically that it is his quote, but we got banned for a few more days after that, so all of this added up and after six such bans, Facebook just took the page off the Internet. That’s the Savarna Rehab story, but the bigger story is we saw that our reach started falling consistently. We were a page with ten thousand followers, we would reach about two or three thousand of our followers, but even when the page grew to fifty thousand followers, our posts would reach three thousand to four thousand people. So if you look at it, as more and more people started engaging with us, the reach started falling. It was an indication that it wasn’t a welcome a space to have this kind of discussion, so that’s definitely an issue. Also, it’s an uphill battle because you are always trying to stay under the radar of the platform to have some kind of speech, so yes, I would agree that the platform does not help us reverse the evil system of casteism, but it is not doing the same kind of scrutiny of casteist groups and pages, which ends up reinforcing the same inequality.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I think this is a very important point, because as another speaker in of our earlier episodes said, the growing dominant-caste itself is a physical filter, you only interact with people of a similar caste background, sanitize origin stories of your own merit and what benefits you deserve, and also your ability to succeed. Social media just amplifies or adds gasoline to what is already raging fire. I'm wondering, from your perspective, what responsibility do Savarnas now have as we see more polarisation, and how can we de-escalate the fearful responses of so many casteist people?

Prakash: This a question with which I have been struggling, even for myself — what should really be our role in our personal spaces? I have always tried to push back on these things, but the thing that I learnt there was as long as I remained, like as you said, if my physical boundaries remain such that I only live within the dominant caste circles, this is not going to work. So one thing everybody needs to do is you need to bring down the walls you have yourself created which stop you from socialising with other people. You need to follow some basic manners when you are in the company of Dalits, Adivasis and Bahujans: you shouldn’t be doing tone-policing or gaslighting, you should be doing your own labour of learning. Everything is online; people call themselves educated, they boast about their merit, but they can’t do a simple internet search about the annihilation of caste, they expect others to educate them without making them uncomfortable. That’s the crux of it — people want to be educated without feeling uncomfortable. We have to give that up, nothing about education on your own bigotry will be comfortable. Prepare to be discomforted, prepare to be questioned a lot and also within your circle, do not hesitate to push back on very stupid arguments.

We somehow tolerate very stupid arguments from our elders and our teachers. How do we call ourselves educated if we keep on doing this — you have to question that very basic thing if you are unaware about the realities of India, your own society. You are exposing your own ignorance by saying those kinds of statements. You need to argue with your own people and listen to the DBAs, whereas you are doing the opposite. You are questioning Dalits, Bahujans and Adivasis and listening to people who have been promoting this evil system, so you need to switch and be prepared to be discomforted in the process.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: Before we end this episode, there is one last question that I want to ask: Prakash, you have taken such a distinctive and fierce stance around Savarna hegemony. Can you share with our listeners what was the turning point for you? Why did you decide to drop your privilege?

Prakash: So I should state that I am not currently in India, which helps me escape some of the conflict of interest, though not all. I sometimes think about this: if I were a cloth seller in Chandni Chowk today, my entire living would be dependent upon traders and associations, which would be mostly people who are Baniyas. Caste would have been essential for my survival. So obviously, in those scenarios, I wouldn’t have tried to address caste because I was removed, slightly removed from the conflict of interest. It gave me some breathing space to sort of look at this picture in a different way, and then I happened to know somebody who is extremely successful and is a staunch Ambedkarite, and has a long history of activism. I happened to have a chat with this person whom I know for a long time, but I didn't know about his caste-based identity. A very frank chat with him, a very personal story helped me realise what I was missing and it made me go back and read Dr Ambedkar’s work in a way that I was willing to question my own origin, my own complicity in the system. Because I am in the United States, there is a lot of material on racism here, and white privilege and on white fragility — all such stuff, when I was reading it, it wasn’t really about me. It was about black people and white people, I could understand the structural racism concept much easier because I understood in theory what systemic oppression looks like. When I started reading Dr Ambedkar’s work, it was a slightly easier transition for me to know that I should be willing to be uncomfortable. It was slightly easier for me, because as I said, I was removed from the direct, I had already used up a lot of privileges that came with my dominant caste compared to somebody who is still embedded in the system. It was slightly easier for me because I had taken a lot advantage of this system already, during my earlier life — so that’s my story.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I think this a really important thing for our listeners to take away, that we have more breathing room in the diaspora when it comes to caste hegemony, because no one is saying that caste operates in the diaspora the same way that it operates in our homelands. However, as you said quite eloquently, the reality is that we are dealing with so many embedded caste relationships as it relates to economic and interpersonal relationships, so in the freedom of the diaspora people can finally have a chance for some critical reflection and get to think, “do I really want to be part of a system that dehumanises people?" and "oh my gosh, I sound like a bigot." Especially because they are feeling the open bigotry from white people, it gives them a point of reference, a real mirror of behaviour to say that if I think that’s racist bigotry, isn’t this also casteist bigotry?

Prakash: Yes, thank you for pointing that out, and what I may have said can be misinterpreted, I am not saying there is a breathing space, but there is definitely a lot of advantage that is still to be had if somebody comes to the United States and becomes part of the caste-based social group. There is definitely a lot to profit from, there is definitely this inertia of your casteist practice that you can continue, but there is a chance that if you are not willing to participate in it, there is a way out of that. It is up to you, whether you take the exit or not.

Thenmozhi Soundararajan: I think that’s really what we hope all of our listeners will do, take that exit and join the large global movement to annihilate caste, because this is the time that is so pivotal. In 2020 we have such deep choices about how we can come out of this pandemic, and there is no reason for us to come out and commit to continuing caste when we actually need all hands on deck to rebuild. It's a really powerful call for people to not only practice self-reflection, but also for people to act. Prakash, thank you for bringing up these points and sharing your experiences with Savarna Rehab. We really appreciate your time and your candidness about the journey around how hard this is, but how necessary this confrontation and engagement on social media is. Thank you again for joining us, thank you all of our listeners for joining us from home, and we hope to see you on our next episode. So thank you, and Jai Bhim.

Prakash: Jai Bhim.

Transcription by Pritha Bhattacharya

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