Caste is an institutional ‘lockdown’ that has existed, developed, and fortified itself in an organic relationship with the material conditions of history. In his pioneering journal Mooknayak, Dr. Ambedkar used a potent metaphor to describe the caste system— a multistoried building with no staircase connecting the floors, in which people live and die in the same floor they were born in. This image perfectly depicts the confinement essential to the caste-hierarchy, with decreasing degrees of humanity as we progress down the scale. Is it any wonder, then, that a massive human catastrophe is crashing upon those who have been categorized as ‘migrant labour’? Is it not a continuation of the age-old caste practices under which dalit-bahujans are nothing more than labouring bodies with no personalities, aspirations, or dignity? In that rubric, labour itself is pollution, and the purer you are, the further your distance from it and those who perform it. Braj Ranjan Mani writes: “The vast majority of those in menial and despised occupations—in the farm, factory and households— belong to the lowered castes, while the overwhelming majority of those in… coveted professions… are from the upper castes”.

The lack of dalit-bahujan and specifically Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe representation and stake in media and ‘intelligentsia’, including the academia which postures as a left-liberal vanguard leads to the situation wherein the flesh-and-blood sufferings are reduced to talking points, research papers and momentary spectacles evincing patronizing ‘concern’ or ‘pity’ for casteless ‘poor people’, to be recycled and appropriated as required in the ‘scroll-and-move-on’ environment of the social media echo-chambers of ‘Digital India’.

It is acutely apparent and condemnable that the dominant and savarna controlled media have not called them ‘Indians’ or citizens often enough, and have reduced their whole identities to the occupation into which they are forced by historical circumstances to eke out a living. Heart-rending events such as the goods train which ran over a group of exhausted migrants sleeping on the tracks in Maharashtra, of a labouring family ‘quarantined’ in a toilet in Madhya Pradesh and the bondage imposed upon toiling people in Karnataka and Gujarat, denying them means or ‘permission’ to return home because their blood and sweat will soon be needed to ‘restart’ the city’s exploitative and fundamentally anti-human economy by its ‘builders’ (an ironical term!) and proprietors, clearly shows the continued sense of entitlement and ownership of a conglomeration and oligarchy of privileged castes over the deprived masses. The incident of the goods-train in Maharashtra happened to human beings who belonged to the Gond Scheduled Tribe, and their deaths are thus an institutional murder, sanctioned by the structure of state and society, and a result of historical oppression that displaces them and pushes the into exploitative relationships with dominant castes.

Similarly, D Parthasarthy focuses on the humiliating fumigation of labouring people in ‘Rule by Dehumanizing’. He says that the tight control of the state and its perennial surveillance over all attempts to win “the battle for the reclamation of human personality” in Ambedkar’s terms, is near-absolute. His disturbing imagery presents the current situation as that of pest control and extermination of microbes and rodents who must scrounge and scrape and scurry about with their heads down lest they be caught, beaten and brutalised for ‘violating’ the lockdown or attempting to provide for themselves: “If you protest you are dehumanized. If you seek to escape you are treated as brutes. Our only choice is to live as scavengers and rodents, to ceaselessly toil.”

Shambhu Kumar Singh of National Dastak insists that poverty has a caste, and the ideology which enforces a perennial sense of insecurity and material deprivation lies on a continuum with the ideal of Brahminical, patriarchal social order where the many are born and raised to serve the few. It is an ugly exposé of India’s ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ which shows us images of pregnant women walking unimaginable distances, desperate people cycling for miles, crushed in road accidents, leaving behind orphans just as unwanted and unsupported as themselves. Indeed, Ambedkar’s words to Gandhi seem to resonate from so many parched and exhausted lips: “I have no homeland”. The present position of “powerlessness” and unorganized fragmentation of the dalit-bahujan labouring masses is the result of a history of being “at the receiving end of all communication— information (nay, disinformation), sermons, commands, and the like” as said by Debi Chatterjee. Mani has also argued that these marginalised people comprise a suppressed and disenfranchised ‘other India’ who have been systematically pushed out of the policy framework of the state while the “privileged class nurtures the illusion that what is good for it is also good for the country as a whole”. Viewing the banging of plates, the reinstatement of the Ramayana TV serial, showering of petals or the frenzy to donate in ‘PM Cares’ as mere incompetence, distraction or even corruption is an incomplete analysis. These acts speak to the underlying consciousness of Brahmanical supremacy through specific performances that signify closing ranks and rallying behind one’s group interests.

In all, at a time of widespread disease and the consequent fear and paranoia of these ‘other’ bodies the caste-based morality that has defined and degraded our civilization over the centuries stands exposed. Our bourgeoning middle classes, empowered by consumption, would rather feed street dogs than organize food and shelter for the hundreds of stranded and desperate humans who they are only too happy to see existing in droves from ‘their’ cities. The urge to elide and obfuscate the realities of caste is strong: for example, the petition in the Supreme Court asking for ‘social distancing’ to be replaced by ‘physical distancing’, considering the casteist connotations of the former term in Indian society, was not only rejected but also fined. But all those of us with hearts and minds and a conscience must resist this, foreground the struggles and aspirations of the dalit-bahujan masses, and work ceaselessly towards the annihilation of caste which is a labour of sweat, blood and sacrifice like no other.

footnotes

 

  1. Debrahmanising History by Braj Ranjan Mani. Publisher: Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 2014
  2. Ideas and Movements Against Caste in India by Debi Chaterjee. Publisher: Abhijeet Publications, 2010
  3. Supreme Court rejects letter petition for using the term ‘physical distancing’ instead of ‘social distancing’ :

https://www.livelaw.in/top-stories/sc-imposes-costs-of-rs-10000-physical-distancing-instead-of-social-distancing-156463

  1. D Parthasarthy’s article: ‘Making Brutes of us all: Rule by Dehumanizing’ published on Countercurrents:

https://countercurrents.org/2020/04/making-brutes-of-us-all-rule-by-dehumanizing

 

My name is Arjun Banerjee, a first-year Master’s student in English Literature from Delhi University. I have been educating myself on caste-based issues since my undergraduate days, and exposing myself to literature and life experiences that come from a dalit-bahujan space. I have interned at Navayana, an anti-caste publication, in 2017. My aim is to be able to write and educate the predominantly savarna circles in which I live and operate regarding the realities of caste and bring about a meaningful, systemic change, however small.   


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One Comment

  1. Avatar Shiva Shankar says:

    The author should drop the accursed surname ‘banerjee’.