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March 29, 2010


Hi Namit, (I am going to try this again, my comment vanished yesterday)

I enjoyed your 3QD posts on Islam and the recent one on the caste system, this review was forwarded by a friend.
The Blight of Hindustan was written well, thank you for penning it. The whole of the dalit critique centers on deconstructing the concept of the Hindu nation. And this project precedes western colonialism that is before Hindustan became India, and it is in continuum. So, I was curious about why you titled it as ‘Hindustan’?

>>Theirs is not only a powerful new current of Indian literature, it is also a major site of resistance and revolt. <<

Sure, if one keeps in mind that this is also being processed, mediated and consumed by the very structure the dalits are trying to resist. Writing too is Joothan. It will not carry the power of writing in revolt as in the Black movement.

>>This is the kind of book that becomes ‘the axe for the frozen sea inside us.’ More Indians ought to read it and let its hard edges get to work inside them.<<

As to this noble thought, it is a forgone conclusion that the Indian consciousness cannot be awakened to the basic human rights violations committed on its fellow citizens. Dalit resistance is an ongoing 3000year old story, and we’ve had this century’s prominent thinkers and social reformers of the subcontinent also give up on this (tweaking the morality of upper caste Indians), as a failed approach to reform. Sad but true!


Anu, thanks. I'm glad you stopped by and recomposed your message.

> Why 'Hindustan'?

I used this word in the title because it calls to mind more explicitly a territory and a people—which foreigners once named after a river—and whose blight I speak of.

> Sure, if one keeps in mind that this is also being processed, mediated and consumed by the very structure the dalits are trying to resist. Writing too is Joothan. It will not carry the power of writing in revolt as in the Black movement.

Can you elaborate a bit more please? Are you suggesting that the agency of Dalits, because it relies on institutional power, is incapable of shaping the emerging discourse based on their own interests? I think it worked for the blacks, no?

> As to this noble thought, it is a forgone conclusion that the Indian consciousness cannot be awakened to the basic human rights violations committed on its fellow citizens.

Hmm. Do you really believe this outside moments of deep pessimism? When you say "cannot be awakened", this turns Indians into a non-human species, of which there is no evidence. I think multiple approaches are necessary, but awakening consciousness has to be one of them. On caste, do you see no change between an average upper caste young Indian today and his grandfather at the same age?

namit, it worked for blacks largely because the civil rights movement happened/s in one language. in any struggle, the written word of the oppressed carries two messages; one to the oppressor and one to the community. the most powerful writings of the dalits is in the vernacular and comes out of non-institutionalized structures. for the revolt content to deliver at a country wide level -it cannot escape passing through the hegemonic structures, and when it does, it loses its double-edgedness

>>Do you really believe this outside moments of deep pessimism? <<

moments? : )

always, in the lived realities of millions who are never going to write a memoir, yet live this life AND know it will be the same for many more progenies. statistics is boring, but if you are interested to look at what the numbers are saying, have been saying throughout history, you might pause and wonder about the non-human species that populate, dominate and live this normalized 'upper' and 'lower' caste lives. even from the 'enlightened' phase of the last 60 years since we have obtained terms like ‘democracy’ and imagine we have stepped out of the medieval, feudal mindsets of treating fellow humans as subhumans -it takes the eyes and experience of the subhuman to evaluate the non-human in the human species.

do you believe a little boy today is not being asked to sweep the school playground because of his low caste? do you believe such atrocities are sporadic or systemic in much of India? do you believe such an incident will get the nation to sit up and be offended enough to act on it, in 100 years from now? and somebody at 3QD is asking you to write on the bhotmanges, -that- dear namit, did not make it to the newspapers!

>>awakening consciousness has to be one of them<<

hmmm, very bright indian students in my univ. with breathtaking innocence said to me, they experienced no caste system, as they came from w.bengal which was communist ruled and caste played no role in theirs or their parents lives. :) i was very tempted to ask them if they ever cared to wonder why the servants, the vendors, the sweepers in w bengal don't carry the same surnames as themselves?

an average upper caste indian would still marry within his class which is his caste or caste equivalent. an average indian is still likely to ask or assess another's caste. how is he different from his grandfather? one can of course continue living in denial that we are lovely human beings.

dalits believed in the awakening of consciousness of the upper caste for too long and still do, some of us don’t care for it any longer.


Thanks, Anu. I understand much better where you are coming from. I agree things are still depressingly bad, caste atrocities are still rife, law enforcement is a problem, the mainstream media does not take it seriously enough, and I don't think this will be fixed in a hurry.

Yet, from my own experience, I can say without hesitation that the attitudes of cousins in my generation or younger—across sundry Indian cities—while not caste-blind by any means, are on average less benighted than that of their parents, let alone of their grandparents. Dalit resistance, affirmative action, and the winds of globalization have not been inconsequential in changing minds. I also think stories like Valmiki's, to the extent they reach audiences—and translations contribute to that end—help raise consciousness. They raised mine.

Come back here often. Just noticed that the April 2010 issue of Himal is all about caste, with articles from several notable writers.

Oh, I'd replace 'caste-blind' with 'non-casteist' above, which is what I meant. I also readily concede that the change I cite from my experience is not comforting to the oppressed if it is seen as too slow, which is indeed the reality of too many. In the long run we are all dead.

Hi Anu,

I learnt a lot from Shunya's post and your comments. Then I visited your blog and learnt some more.

You mentioned that your students from WB were fairly ignorant about the casteist issues that dominated rest of the country. I will elaborate a little on this issue. WestBengal is essentially no different from the rest of India in terms of caste conflicts but it has always been that the caste conflicts have yielded to the Marxist based class conflicts when it has come to a crunch.

The Dalit assertion movement in WB started somewhere in the 1870s led by the RajBansi comunity (in northern Bengal)and the Namasudras of east bengal. These were the two parties that provided the leaders of the movement during the pre-partition era. The Namasudras of East Bengal were mostly the peasant classes with two adverseries, namely the upper caste Hindus ( their landlords) and the poor Muslim peasants as their competitors. For many the Muslims rather than upper caste Hindus were their chief opponents, marked by riots in Dacca and Noakhali. When the bloody East and West Bengal partition happened in 1947, the Namasudras tried their best to retain their lands in East Bengal but this did not happen. They were forced off their lands and homes to enter West Bengal as swarms of 'East Bengal refugees' or 'Hindu minorities' along with other upper caste hindus who shared the same fate due to partition.

The political scenario in WB dominated by Communist parties and militant Naxalites (in the fringes)actively took up the cause of the peasants and working classes in terms of land-reforms and tebhaga movement. As a result the Namasudras from east bengal as well as Rajbanshis lost their 'Dalit' identities and became integrated into the 'labourer class' category. They got some landholding benefits as tenants, bargadars and sharecroppers but not as 'Dalits', never as 'Dalits'.

Moreover, till date the sociopolitical scenario in WB is dominated by 'Bengali Bhadralok'- the leading class of Bengali Intelligentsia. Their understanding of caste as an issue is that caste is regressive, traditional, backward-looking and therefore not modern. Consequently it does not figure into the political discourse which is all about modernity, industrialization etc etc. As a result, though caste system is quite prevalent in rural, semi-urban and urban areas, there is very little public articulation about caste. Caste articulations are more in domestic spheres and in the sphere of marriage alliances.

This is the reason Anu your students are not aware of casteism in WB because the Dalit uprising has taken different names at different times.

Hi Namit,

Perhaps because of the length of my comment Shunya's Blog refused to post it the first few times :)

This is just a note to thank Shunya for his thought-provoking post and Anu for her comments that led me to her Blog to learn some more on this issue about which I feel deeply.

Hi Shreyasi,

Not my students, but students from various departments gathered at a discussion on caste as we understand it now. This was after the screening of the documentary ‘resilient rhythms’.

The collapsing of caste into class by the left and its failure to change the brahminical way of life has been critiqued extensively by dalits. The bhadralok remained the ruling class, leaving the lower castes out of civil society.

Marichjhapi massacre in W. Bengal or the suppression of the Chengara struggle in Kerala are not narratives in the popular discourse for obvious and not so obvious reasons. Lack of awareness of such movements is not the reason I recalled the anecdote with students but to answer Namit’s question about the generational difference in perceiving caste, in the immediate.

Marriage or the most basic interaction between Indians revolves around caste; it is also in your face as soon as one steps into public and secular spaces. Lets take an Indian who has only inhabited urban spaces; either he/she is blind to the ragged children at traffic signals, or he/she has never wondered if those children could possibly have surnames such as Bhattacharya, Sengupta etc. It is instinctively acknowledged that destitution and exploitation does not visit those who carry upper caste surnames as themselves.

Did the left ideology do such a wonderful job of erasing this basic connect between observation and inference, that generations of Indians continue to think class and caste are separate categories? I don’t know.

An educated Indian is a participant and perpetuator of the caste system. He is unaware or is stubbornly willing to ignore the racist doctrines central to caste.

Even if we want to buy into this ‘forced amnesia’ post independence which pushed caste as a topic, under the carpet; how can youngsters pursuing knowledge and truth, using tools of reason and logic not wonder about how their society is organized and how it functions? What are all those qualifications for, if it has not prepared the mind to question the immediate? The historical will follow naturally.

The resistance by the oppressed is only one side of the social reform story. The oppressed cannot change the oppressor’s mindset; he can only wrest back his rights and dignity. The oppressor if he wants to change, has to do that all by himself.
Resistance presents the oppressor with a few options: denial, use of force or self-examination.
Violent suppression and massacres like the one at Marichjhapi shows which option the oppressor (in its state form) is choosing most often.
At the individual level it is often denial.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. Shreyasi, such a lovely name!


Hi Anu,
Thanks for coming back and reading my comments.

Some more thoughts on Dalit Identity Crisis in WB.

In our state the Dalit identity was thrown in a dilemma because of the huge physical and emotional displacement post partition resulting in serious raptures in the Dalit movement. The 1947 partition was an event in which even the so called East Bengal Bhattacharyyas and Senguptas were reduced to abject levels of poverty with their honoured 'surnames' severely tarnished. Ironically the Dalits were absorbed in the streaming masses of hapless refugees thereby losing their identities.

Secondly the ruling 'Bhadroloks' of West Bengal, almost invariably belonged to the upper castes : Brahman, Kayashta and Baidya but they have never claimed superiority on the basis of caste, but rather through their education and culture. Casteism was therefore never articulated in public. As if in WB the Casteism didn’t even exist !

However as a result of this 'pseudo-modernity' though the Dalits almost completely lost their identity there has been no aggressive caste-based landlordism and no known cases of caste violence in WB as we find in other provinces in India and politics has never been centered around caste identity.

Having said that, one cannot forget the Marichjhnapi incident in 1978 and its atrocities. However in WB political scenario this massacre is perceived as the slaughter of ‘poor’ East Bengali refugees rather than Dalit killings.

So my point is though the caste related brutalities were less in WB compared to other states in India, the Dalits did not get any cultural recognition either. Even Jogendranath Mandal the famous Dalit leader who was a 1952 electoral candidate did not represent himself as a ‘Dalit’ but as a ‘Refugee’ leader and got a lot of votes from the huge cross section of non-congress voters.

In the face of leftist politics in WB the Dalits found their niche in two areas-an exclusive religious sect ‘Matua’ in Nadia district and in the field of Bengali literature contributed by authors of all caste and creed.
This is however the story of the Dalits in WB.

If we take the rest of India as it stands today, we are still fighting with the evils of the caste ridden society at many levels, Dalits and Non Dalits. For instance the massacre of the kashmiri pandits and the khap panchayat killings ? These massacres don’t involve the Dalits yet they are caste associated violences all the same. What is the true name of Nandigram violence ? Is it a caste or class based killing ?

Our progress on these fronts have been depressingly slow. Yet undeniably there has been changes. As the economy of India is improving there is an increasing fusion of the caste/class system and upward mobilisation. The caste associated 'cleansing' and 'purification' concepts are gradually disappearing. The burning ambition of the younger generation today, in rural and urban areas alike is to exploit the growth opportunities to compete with rest of the world. I will not say that the students today are more aware of the caste issues and its evils rather the focus is on economic progress.

Thanks Anu for liking my name. Hope you like me in person when we meet :)


You've given me good food for thought. Yet, I hope I'm mistaken in my growing sense that you see caste as almost the sole filter of analysis. I think there is a lot going on in Indian society today, and, as you know, there is a great deal of diversity even in the Dalit movement on what the current state of caste is, how it is changing, and what strategies can hasten its demise. Consider the April 2010 issue of Himal. I was struck -- but not surprised -- by the range of opinions on caste from Dalit-bahujan writers. Of those I've read, there is a definite spectrum from CB Prasad and Kali to Omvedt and Kandasamy. One finds articulation for a range of views:

-- that there is tremendous change and there is little change.
-- that jati is getting undermined due to its detachment from old/hereditary occupations and that it is still quite alive.
-- that the modern/urban economy's caste-neutral jobs are weakening casteist exploitation but new exploitations are emerging.

Many of these authors note that the basis of caste in ritual 'purity-pollution' is reducing. Prasad notes that among the sweepers in the malls around Delhi there are as many caste Hindus as Dalits (38% each), which argues in favor of not reducing the problems of class (defined by wealth, education, language, etc.) to problems of caste, overlapping though they are. The lens of class is also able to include Muslims, who are disproportionately poor. In Britain, both race and class have been used to examine the propagation of privilege. Likewise, in modern urban India, caste and class are separate yet linked categories. And if a shift is occurring, as I believe it is -- at least in urban India -- in which a few Dalits have advanced into the middle class and many Dalit castes are coalescing into a socioeconomic underclass, including poor caste Hindus and Muslims, the question it raises is: does this represent a step in the right direction for casteist exploitation?

I agree that most of these shifts in the caste system have not come about due to a conscious awakening among the caste Hindus. I think the bulk of the change is due to the waning of the same factors that have kept traditional casteism alive for ages -- i.e., the subconscious internalization of caste hierarchy and 'pollution' that a child in a Hindu household was/is exposed to. Jobs and lives in the modern economy, urbanization, and an increasing material culture has reduced that subconscious conditioning in the new urban generation, which is growing up with somewhat different attitudes -- not more enlightened, I'll say it again, but less steeped in reflexive casteism, because it has simply had fewer opportunities to internalize its traditional form and practice. Other forms of domination and injustices may be rising but I think they increasingly turn on issues of class. Of course, rural India lags way behind, where oppression still mostly derives from traditional casteism.

Also, are all considerations of caste in marriage bad in themselves (I ask this even as I'm no proponent of any)? Is it not better to criticize just their excesses? For instance, the fact that most whites marry whites does not mean they are racists for doing so (but some are, and deserve our criticism). Such preferences can also arise out of a sense of preserving a shared culture and community. Don't the various ethnicities in LA still find reason to mostly prefer their own subgroups when it comes to marriage, and is all of this worthy of moral condemnation?

What do you think?

Namit, Shreyasi,

I will get back on the very interesting points (Namit's largely predictable ones) you both raise, in a short while. In case you have not already read this article, by Shiv Vishwanathan, do check it out. It has some data based insights. Dalits have always known this study's reality, though they never had the resources and possibility of producing empirical data to prove it. My views are based on this larger reality, apart from having a below-up interest in these issues.




Thanks for the article. Just days ago I read another report on the same survey (which indeed would be worth digging into). Can't say I found anything I didn't already know, or found surprising. This is indeed the social reality in much of India, and I see it as the writer does too. His conclusion is that "Rural India must be the focus," though I think urban India must be too, as there are great inequities there as well. You have read both of my recent articles on caste + comment threads; I hope you didn't think the article's insights would be novel to me. :)


Thanks again for sharing your perspective on the dalits in W. Bengal. I am learning.
It would be a lovely day when dalits lose their identity as dalits. : ) no, I know what you mean here. But that is a misconception about ‘a dalit identity’. Dalits are a diverse people with distinct histories, cultures and experiences. The commonality is that they are all set outside the hindu fold, to be used and exploited as a subhuman underclass. The names by which they are/were known has changed over the ages. The term dalit is a new one; it is consciously used as a mapping term to connect across differences. It is used in the retelling of histories of the oppressed people.
For example, the story of the 9th century untouchable Nandanar’s murder when he sought entry to the Shiva temple in Tamilnadu and the story of the 21st century murder of a dalit Kotwal on entering a hanuman temple in Maharashtra are stories in a historical continuum. The term dalit would not have been used in Nandnaar’s time. Now he is referred to as a dalit martyr saint.

So, you see the term has crossed time, geographies and language to connect the story line –temple entry as a form of resistance and the highlighting of the racial underpinnings of this ancient but persisting atrocious hindu practice against one section of Indians.

~ upper caste abject poverty~

Poverty of a very small percentage of the upper caste is real. They may live in the same basti as the dalit, do the same sweeper’s job, earning the same money. However, this poverty is not the same, it is not an equalizer. The upper caste will never equate himself to a dalit. The social and cultural capital of the poorest upper caste and the dalits are oceans apart.

As to other forms of caste oppression you refer to, it is has been the dalit movements burden to consistently seek structural changes in the Indian society. If you are familiar with the phrase ‘annihilation of caste’ then you know it is not just liberation of dalits, but the complete and total liberation from this wretched social order, for all. The diverse dalit movements, in the past as well as in contemporary times, have as the core agenda –removal of inequality at all levels. Dalit resistance is one of the foremost and longest human rights struggle the world has ever known.

~So my point is though the caste related brutalities were less in WB compared to other states in India~ ? Kerala also claims the same! :)



Your reading of the himal series sums up my first comment: writing too is joothan. The series are abstract analysis by a tiny group of English speaking dalits trying to make sense of their world through Marxist or capitalist worldviews. Gail’s scholarship lets her lay it out in a simple analogy.
In case you are looking for revolutionary potential in this set of writings, which it should have, given the observation you made in your post –I, found it in Ashley Tellis’s brief essay in this series. His brutally honest acknowledgment of the contradictions and pain of being a dalit is the only articulation that spoke to me. He is an urban dalit from a metro city, not rural India ‘which lags behind in change’. Nothing more to say.

Confusing free choice of the western society with ‘free choice’ of Indians marrying within their own caste, is, what can I say? Confusion, I guess. Namit, you need to work out, whether Indians see fellow Indians as belonging to distinct ethnic groups, or linguistic groups, or distinct castes. And figure out why only one of these categories has the social and ritual sanction for marriage. Along with some pondering on why modern Indians are unable to break free from this.

Thank you both, I apologize for the length of the comment. :)

(just read your last comment Namit, did not share link for its novelty but for it being backed by data, it means a lot to me to have caste discrimination anchored in data)


My point with marriage was not that Indians approach it as westerners do. That would be, duh! What's objectionable about caste is the hierarchy, without which there would be no caste system. However, caste is also other kinds of identity, encompassing a shared culture, community, custom, language, region, and often material proximity, all important considerations for marriage the world over. I was asking whether *all* considerations of caste identity in arranged marriage ought to be condemned (in other words, why shouldn't we stay focused on condemning and combating hierarchy, and letting marriage take the course it will? **). A nuance, which I should have stated more clearly.

I liked Ashley Tellis's piece too.

** This parenthetical note added a day after posting this comment.

Excerpts from Dalit Poetry by Gandhvi Pravin

I can be a Hindu
A Buddhist,
A Muslim
But the shadow
Shall never be severed from me,

The Kuladi is done,
The broom is gone,
But the shadow
Still stalks me,

I change my name,
My job,
My village,
My caste,
But the shadow will never leave me alone,

The language has changed,
The dress,
The gesture,
But the shadow
Plods resolutely on.

Another excerpt from Dalit poet Vaghela Yeshwant

They know
Who I am
Yet feigning ignorance
They ask me:
Who are you ?

I tell them
This head is Sambooka's
These hands are Ekalavya's
This heart is Kabir's
I am Jabali Satyakama
But these feet are still untouchables

Today I am a man
Isn't that good enough for you ?

Via Himanshu Rai, I found this 2007 documentary, India Untouched: Stories of a People Apart. It more than answers Anu's rhetorical question above, "do you believe a little boy today is not being asked to sweep the school playground because of his low caste?"

"India Untouched: Stories of a People Apart'' is a documentary that journeys across eight States and four religions and depicts the continued exclusion and segregation of those considered "untouchables'' in India.

Speaking about his film ... Director Stalin K. said: "India Untouched will make it impossible for anyone in India to deny that untouchability is still practised today. My team and I spent four years travelling the length and breadth of the country to bear witness to the continued exclusion and segregation of those considered as untouchables.'

The film introduces leading Banaras scholars who interpret Hindu scriptures to mean that Dalits "have no right'' to education, and Rajput farmers who proudly proclaim that the police must seek their permission before pursuing cases of atrocities against Dalits.

"The film captures many `firsts-on-film', including Dalits being forced to dismount from their cycles and remove their shoes when in the upper caste part of the village. It exposes the continuation of caste practices and untouchability in Sikhism, Christianity and Islam, among the Communists in Kerala, and within some of India's most revered academic and professional institutions,'' said Stalin. (source: The Hindu)

The 2-hour documentary is on youtube in 11 parts (you may well consider this a blessing; it is painful to watch in one go). Here they are:

One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven

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