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The violence within

Legal and constitutional safeguards, education and economic progress will not by themselves suffice to resolve caste conflicts in India. If we want a social order free of exclusion and dominance, explains Edward A Rodrigues, we need to reinvent the victim-victimiser relationship, with the victimiser not only giving up the process of victimisation but directly and overtly standing up for the victim, as the grassroots movements of the ’60s and ’70s did

In the decades after Independence, it was commonly believed that the discriminatory and exclusionary phenomenon of caste could be eradicated by invoking both the Constitution and the overarching modernisation programme of planned economic development. Particularly for the scheduled castes, the constitutional provisions were vital in ensuring, among other things, protection against caste discrimination and violence perpetrated on them by the upper castes. Yet more than half-a-century later, contemporary Indian society is faced with the sobering reminder that caste has not vanished; on the contrary, this system of discrimination and exclusion continues to proliferate, reinventing itself in a myriad ways. Notwithstanding its other interpretations, in this article, ‘caste’ will be understood as a system of discrimination and exclusion. It is in this sense that I seek to make a case for casteism as a form of violence that is embedded within Indian society.

In the 1950s and ’60s, many scholars from the social sciences such as Rajni Kothari, M N Srinivas and S C Dube, among others, held that traditional caste solidarities would gradually give way to more universal and secular solidarities aligned with the nation and its aspirations of becoming a modern society. It was believed that a modern educational system, a jurisprudence based on secular law, a modern press, as well as the scientific rationality underlying the spheres of production and economic modernisation could together establish the foundations of a modern India freed from the fetters of caste tyranny and exploitation.

Yet, despite the existence of all the above, Indian society has become even more caste-conscious, infusing an instrumentalist working of caste throughout the social, economic, political and cultural fabric of society. Notwithstanding the adaptive potential of caste as represented by sociologists like Susan and Lloyd Rudolph in the 1970s, it is this instrumentalist character of caste functioning that has overtaken all other dimensions of caste behaviour in the contemporary Indian context. Whether it is votebank politics and the formation of caste alliances, caste violence in the agrarian sector, the re-emergence of caste panchayats, control and access of institutions and resources within the economy, etc, in all these different spheres, caste instrumentalism functions either to exclude or undermine others in the pursuit of control and privilege. In this sense, caste functions as a deeply divisive force, constantly reinventing solidarities whose ultimate goal is the pursuit of its own self-interest. Any notion of a larger collective orientation is immediately the object of deep suspicion from the different caste groups, or, additionally, such collective orientations quickly become sites of competing caste interests.

In such a situation, the potential for conflict is often very great. It is not surprising then that the Human Rights Watch report of 1999 titled ‘Broken People’ observed caste violence as the worst kind of violence to have afflicted modern Indian society in the past half-century. It is therefore useful for us to acknowledge the systemic character of casteism and the role it plays in perpetuating a violent social order in contemporary Indian society. 

How does one make sense of caste violence in contemporary Indian society? What are some of the measures that have conventionally been deployed to overcome such violence? To what extent can efforts at conflict resolution open up new ways of thinking about caste that are both reflexive and critical of the instrumentalism alluded to above?

These are some of the questions that need to be engaged with in our effort to interrogate casteism. The effort here is to explore the inner dynamics of caste practice with a view to understanding how exclusion and dominance persist in modern Indian society. Caste violence, I want to suggest, is symptomatic of a deep-rooted hatred/antagonism towards those who threaten to destabilise the existing structures of exclusion and dominance. Thus, even as prejudice and irrationality pervade the mindset of caste, it is inequality and dominance that circumscribe the structure of caste violence in contemporary Indian society. Implicit in this is the understanding that both at the level of structure as well as the level of everyday practice, casteism evolves into an ideological legitimation of exclusion and dominance.  

Not surprisingly, even as the law would render illegal and offensive traditional practices of caste exclusion and dominance, it is this ideology of casteism that gives rise to newer strategies to escape the eye of the law as well as to perpetuate the practice of caste. Additionally, the problem of caste violence becomes even more complicated when one begins to position its different moments of representation within the domain of the public and the private. It is important to highlight this public-private representation of caste, if only to foreground the rampant existence of the ‘caste’ sentiment, particularly in the case of those upper castes for whom the public display of caste would invite legal repercussions. The retreat into the domain of the private not only renders caste outside the gaze of the law, more importantly it allows for the unhindered practise of caste irrespective of the values of citizenship and Constitution that dominate the public sphere.

Given the solidity of this private domain and its deep-rooted resistance to change, Milton Singer, among others, pointed to the ‘compartmentalisation of psyche’ amongst Indians in their everyday life. Equally, it was B R Ambedkar who observed that this absence of a unitary self amongst Hindus, combined with the instrumentalism that motivates caste interests everywhere, creates the preconditions for casteism to become a practice of everyday life across all castes, high and low, and in all parts of Indian society. Not surprisingly then, various scholars have pointed out that caste violence is greatest amongst those who stand adjacent to each other, as compared to those who are positioned at opposite ends of the caste hierarchy. It is this overarching experience of caste in the everyday life of Indian society that must account for its ideology that is deeply rooted in prejudice and irrationality but which nonetheless serves as a vital force for legitimising exclusion and dominance.

Ambedkar and Gandhi pointed to two very different ways of addressing the ideology and practice of casteism in Indian society. Speaking from the vantage point of the victim, Ambedkar believed that casteism was an invention of the upper-caste Hindus who stood to gain the maximum from its continued existence. He believed that upper-caste Hindus must make a conscious effort to give up the practice of casteism in their everyday world. Yet, given his deep suspicion of their willingness to engage in such a practice of social transformation, he sought to take recourse in legal remedies to protect and nurture the wellbeing of the scheduled castes. But this legalistic approach, even if it served as a deterrent, could only have a limited value in confronting casteism. In addition, Ambedkar was profoundly committed to the path of education as a vehicle of empowerment for the scheduled castes.

By emphasising a renewal of traditional Hindu values, Gandhi believed that casteism could be overcome. It was his firm belief that casteism was a curse on Indian society. For Gandhi, this was a project of societal renewal that involved both upper and lower castes. Through his ashrams he was able to compel Indians everywhere to reconsider their prejudice towards dirt and defilement. Yet, in hindsight, one can only say that when it came to confronting casteism even Gandhi appeared to be both ambiguous and idealistic in the way he romanticised his Hind Swaraj and the place of caste therein.

Quite clearly, casteism remains an unresolved phenomenon in contemporary Indian society. As the Human Rights Watch report (1999) observes, casteism has also pervaded the institutions of state, thereby making it increasingly difficult for victims of caste atrocities to seek protection and justice from the agencies of the law. In large parts of Bihar, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh the report observes how dalits have faced an indifferent/prejudiced administration when seeking to complain about caste atrocities. Further, even as dalits and bahujans become empowered in a political engagement hitherto unthinkable even a few decades ago, it does not appear as if the upsurge from below is yielding a dissolution of casteism. Rather, what seems obvious to everyone is that casteism from below has replaced casteism from above. Despite our best intentions, the language of caste continues to be the discourse of emancipation everywhere in India.

How can conflict resolution point to a different way of understanding casteism? What we do know in the way that we have developed our argument thus far is that: a) casteism invokes deep-rooted hatred and antagonisms amongst different caste groups; b) casteism has ensured that victim and victimiser will always stand in sharp opposition to each other.

Any form of conflict resolution must seek to work around these two propositions by creating the conditions that will undermine the prejudice that lies at the heart of caste hatred, as well as going beyond victim and victimiser in search of a new relationship based on equality and dignity.

In operational terms, such a project of conflict resolution would be a multi-pronged engagement influencing various spheres of this malaise. Critically interrogating prejudices of all kinds pertaining to casteism must be one of the paramount goals of any exercise in conflict resolution. The growth of a critical knowledge as well as the cultural confrontation of existing caste prejudices can go a long way in undermining the mindset of casteism. But beyond an engagement with caste prejudice there must also be a reinvention of the victim-victimiser relationship. Hitherto, within Indian society, the victimiser has always believed that the problem of exclusion and discrimination had to do with those who were excluded and discriminated against. Untouchability was thus the problem of the untouchables. There was an unspoken writ among the upper caste that it was the duty of the state to take care of such problems, while the practice of casteism continued unfettered in the private sphere.

Any attempt to reinvent the victim-victimiser relationship would have to take cognisance of the need for the victimiser to not only give up the process of victimisation but, more importantly, to stand up on the side of the victim when he/she is victimised by others. It is only by persistently reasserting the victimiser’s claim that he/she seeks to stand on the side of the victim at all times and in all conditions, that both the process of victimisation as well as the categories of victimiser and victim can be declared irrelevant. To put it differently, it is time for the upper castes to sincerely believe that only when they can stand up against casteism perpetrated against the lower castes, will casteism eventually be eradicated.

Such an engagement is neither an impossibility nor out of the ordinary. During the radical and turbulent phase of the 1960s, Rajni Kothari, D L Seth and others pointed to the crucial role of Non-Party Political Formations (NPPF), which were grassroots outfits made up of young people, students, teachers, activists, including sections of the working class and peasantry. They were witness to the corruption of the model of economic development, just as they witnessed the declining role of communist parties in giving shape to a politics of emancipation.

Groups like the Yuva Kranti Dal, Shramik Sangathana, Kashtakari Sangathana, Lal Nishant, Dalit Panthers, amongst many others in Maharashtra, were deeply suspicious of both the Congress and the communists. They were convinced that only a struggle that simultaneously confronted both caste oppression and class exploitation would genuinely address the problems of inequality facing Indian society. Not only did many of them begin rethinking Marx in the context of the caste-class question, equally, many of them sought to learn from the oppressed, embracing the lives of the victims in what Paulo Freire termed the ‘process of concienticisation’. They sought to overcome the barriers of casteism by directly and overtly taking sides with those who were the victims of casteism. Many of these individuals were themselves from the upper castes; they struggled to de-caste themselves through a process of critical engagement with the victims of casteism. It is a significant point to note, if only to understand the value of these movements during that period, that when faced with the worst form of caste violence during the Marathwada riots of 1979 it was such fronts that both protected the dalits as well as stood up against the violence of the upper castes.

These were valuable experiences that could have served as the basis for a pragmatic and long-term engagement with casteism, leading eventually to its eradication. Historically, however, this was not to be. If the struggle against casteism dominated the popular imagination of ’60s and ’70s Indian society, by the 1980s casteism was strategically displaced, making way for the forces of Hindutva and the rise of Hindu communalism.

If Indian society is to find a way out of casteism, it must return to the decades of the ’60s and ’70s and re-examine some of the great experiments that were critically reshaping the social order, free from exclusion and dominance.

(Edward A Rodrigues teaches at the Department of Sociology, University of Mumbai. He is a human rights activist and has worked closely on issues of caste violence affecting dalits)  

Infochange News & Features, October 2011