The Harvest Of Casteism
The Caravan|July 2020
Race, caste and what it will take to make Dalit lives matter
Suraj Yengde

On a wednesday evening in July 1967, two white police officers dragged a black man, John William Smith, into their precinct building in the city of Newark. Smith, a taxi driver, had just been arrested, for the alleged crime of improperly passing the officers’ car, and had been beaten so brutally that he could not walk. Residents of a housing project saw him dragged in, and a rumour set off: the cops had killed another black man. A crowd formed, and resorted to attacking the precinct building. For five days, violence tore through the city, with a toll of over two dozen lives. Some called it rioting—others a rebellion.

That was just one flashpoint of what came to be known as “the long, hot summer of 1967.” The United States saw over a hundred and fifty “race riots” that season, with police brutality against black people a common spark, extending a long lineage of rage—Chicago in 1919 and 1935, Harlem in 1943 and 1964, Watts in 1965, Hough in 1966, and on and on. The US president, Lyndon B Johnson, already battling public anger over the invasion of Vietnam and faced with a fresh crisis, formed a committee to answer three questions: “What happened? Why did it happen? What can be done to prevent it from happening again?”

The Kerner Commission, as part of its work, hired a group of social scientists to bolster its research. Their draft submission to the commission echoed the radical language and ideas of the rising Black Power movement, and came to some alarming conclusions. Under the present course, the researchers wrote, the United States was headed for a full-blown race war, with “guerilla warfare of black youth against white power in the major cities of the United States.” The only way out was a radical programme to tackle the poverty and socioeconomic stagnation facing black communities, to reform the police and other institutions that plainly discriminated against black people, to make drastic changes that went far beyond the “token concessions” to the community so far. “There is still time,” the researchers added, “for one nation to make a concerted attack on the racism that persists in its midst.” If it did not, “The harvest of racism will be the end of the American dream.”

This document, with “destroy” scrawled on its front page, was consigned to oblivion, until it was discovered in an archive and published half a century later. The researchers were all dismissed. Still, as the historian Julian E Zelizer notes, much of the data they collected survived in the commission’s final report, and added to its judgments. The commission presented its “basic conclusion: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

The report rejected any notion that the riots were part of some grand conspiracy, or that the people on the streets had been anyone other than ordinary black people sick of waiting meekly for change. It did not place much hope in Johnson’s social programmes, as the president had hoped it would, or lament the crumbling of the “Negro family” in line with an earlier government study, the Moynihan Report. Instead, it located the causes of the riots in police violence, institutional exclusion, unemployment and segregation, and called for “a commitment to national action—compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth.” And while the causal factors were complex, “certain fundamental matters are clear. Of these, the most fundamental is the racial attitude and behavior of white Americans toward black Americans. Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future.”

Johnson effectively disowned the report, but could not stop it from becoming public, in March 1968. For many black leaders, its frankness was a thing of incredulity. Martin Luther King, Jr, described the acknowledgment of white racism as “an important confession of a harsh truth.” The civil-rights activist Floyd McKissick thought it was a historic landmark: “It’s the first time whites have said, ‘We’re racists.’”

KING WAS ASSASSINATED the following month, after delivering a speech to striking sanitation workers in Memphis, and mass riots broke out again. Johnson did not stand for reelection later that year, and was replaced in the White House by Richard Nixon. The new president would not hear of “national action” to curb racial discrimination and inequality. He talked up “law and order,” pandering to white fears of increased black assertion, and fuelled the trend the Kerner Commission had condemned when it complained that, in several cities, the main official response to the riots was not to address the causes of black discontent but “to train and equip the police with more sophisticated weapons.”

Nixon’s template, with occasional exceptions, has survived for half a century. Even when a black man was voted into the White House, it never lost its place in American public policy. The Kerner report was a runaway bestseller when published, but the country clearly did not take its message to heart. And now, generations later, with the police killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and a rebellion in the streets, the United States is confronting the same ugly truths.

Many are looking back to 1967 and 1968 to try and make sense of the present, perhaps to wonder what might have been. There are parallels, and there are differences. One contrast stands out: the number of non-black people standing up and speaking up to say Black Lives Matter.

Black people had allies across racial lines in the 1960s and earlier, but never on this scale. Today, black people remain the main power behind the protests, but conspicuous alongside them in the streets and online are young white people, Hispanic people, South Asians, East Asians and many others—not to mention people from across genders, sexualities and religions. This diversity is a testament to the work of the activists who fought, especially through the years when so few were listening, to expand the American conscience.

The wide support still requires a critical view. Much of it is genuine, but many are not yet fully confident about white protesters’ “performative solidarity.” As the black writer Stacey Patton has asked, “Are white people protesting because they are in honest solidarity—or because it helps to soothe their own conscience or assuage their guilt?” The question applies just as much to the brands and corporations suddenly paying tribute to the black struggle—many of them with far too few black people in their own offices and boardrooms, and some directly complicit in repressive policing.

Yet the recent flood of public statements of support, whatever the motives behind them, still forms an unprecedented archive. Across the United States, people—most often white people, of a certain liberal bent—are confessing that they have not done enough, and pledging that they will do better. Even given the benefit of the doubt that they personally mean no ill, they recognise that the institutions and communities and systems they inhabit have created two societies, separate and unequal. Few will speak the bluntest truth, but its echoes are clear in what has been said. America—white America, where white people dominate power, wealth and the population—is racist.

The power of the Black Lives Matter movement has taken it far beyond the United States as well. Demonstrators have gathered in England, Germany, Belgium, Australia and many other countries with racist pasts and presents, to send strength to those marching in the United States but also, crucially, to press their own societies to settle historical accounts. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, if not the protests, arrived in India too—but here, the movement has prompted barely any self-examination at all.

Of the Bollywood stars who posted against racism, several have endorsed skin-lightening creams. Of the media outlets that carried news of the protests, all except a very few have done nothing to hold the police to account for their role in the anti-Muslim riots in Delhi just months ago, or to call out the ruling Hindu-supremacist government of Narendra Modi for presiding over a massive spike in atrocities against the country’s oppressed castes and ethnic and religious minorities. Many of the global corporations now speaking out against racism have extensive operations in India, but none has ever taken a stand for the rights of Dalits. Nor has any of India’s own corporations. It is no exaggeration to say that the case of George Floyd has received more attention in India than any of the recent incidents in the country’s endless onslaught of caste crimes. In the state of Uttar Pradesh, the young Dalit Vikas Kumar Jatav was shot after he dared to pray at a village temple, and the Dalit politician Chhote Lal Diwakar and his son were shot after an argument over land. In both cases, the murderers were dominant-caste men. In Kerala, a young Dalit man had his hand hacked off by the brother of the dominant-caste girl he loved. Government records show that hundreds of Dalits are losing their lives to caste crimes every year.

Some commentators and social-media users cared enough to point out this hypocrisy, and to ask the obvious question: when will India have its equivalent of a Black Lives Matter moment, a realisation that Dalit lives matter, that Adivasi lives matter, that Muslim lives matter, that the lives of all those pushed to the margins of Indian society have great worth? They pointed correctly to the hurdles, including casteist, racist and religious hatred. But when it came to placing responsibility where it really belongs, they missed the mark.

The tendency in this moment, as in many others, is to speak of India as a unitary mass. Of course it is not, and the largest share of those writing and posting and reading about Black Lives Matter represent a specific part of it. That part is fluent in English, digitally savvy, and well-versed enough in US politics to understand the issue at hand—a combination of traits almost wholly exclusive to the country’s social and economic elite. And that elite is almost wholly drawn from a narrow set of “twice-born” castes that form the three highest tiers of the four-tiered Hindu varna system—the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas. These castes constitute a minority of the country’s population, yet in all the institutions of social, cultural, political and economic power, they are the dominant majority. They are the people who run the country.

It is a strange sight for me, a Dalit—an outcaste—to see the dominant castes decry “Indian” racism and casteism and religious prejudice. The country is not innocent of any of these things, but these problems, especially when it comes to these castes, are not so “Indian” after all.

Consider the example of the United States. It is easy to speak of racism as an American problem, but framing it this way obscures a more specific story. In the United States, racism is a white instrument that holds down black people. Every turning point in the history of American racism, even if imperfect and incomplete, has required a change in white belief and behaviour, in parts voluntary and in parts enforced by the state.

The nation, founded by white men, was never meant to be universally democratic and equal—the continuation of slavery was taken for granted. Black people never needed to be convinced of the evils of slavery, but white people did. The American Civil War was their moral reckoning with it. Even after the slaves were freed, the white elite found ways to strip black people of their rights, their intelligence and their character. Decades of black activism forced white America to reconsider legalised segregation and secured the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination by race, colour, religion, sex or national origin. But again the exclusion and marginalisation of black people continued. More than half a century since the Civil Rights Act, black people remain in an economic stranglehold that maintains a yawning gap in wealth and opportunity between blacks and whites. Redlining policies pushed masses of black people into ghettoes, and biased police and courts pack black people into prison at a rate five times higher than for white people. Black Lives Matter has forced another moment of truth upon the white-dominated country. Which is why—though it is essential to remember the black scholar Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s caution that “Americans have short memories and long appetites when it comes to racism”—this moment holds real promise.

In India, sweeping talk of “Indian” prejudice shields the real architects of the social order from liability. The forces that give life to caste are clear. The Hindu holy books enshrined the varna system, and they have been preserved and propagated for millennia by the Brahmins, exercising their monopoly over priesthood and vast power over social thought. The other dominant castes have surrendered their minds to brahminical beliefs, and joined the project of translating these into reality. The equations between the dominant castes have seen various configurations over time, and so have their relations with changing political rulers across historical periods, but their collaboration in shaping the present state of affairs is indisputable.

Racist and religious hatred is deeply enmeshed with caste belief. By the rules of caste, all those not born into the varnas are subhuman, and their mere proximity or touch is a source of spiritual pollution. This explains the ostracisation of many of the country’s ethnic minorities—most notably the indigenous Adivasis, ranked alongside Dalits in the Brahminical hierarchy. Huge numbers of Indian Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Sikhs are from these outcaste groups, having converted to try and shake off the stigma they carry in Hindu eyes. But the dominant castes do not forget that stigma so easily, and brand them with an added taint for the supposed sin of abandoning the Hindu religion. Even in their new faiths, which espouse human equality in the eyes of god, Dalit and Adivasi converts find that a narrow elite, often converts from higher castes, continues to shun them.

Colour comes into the picture too, even if skin tone does not set apart the oppressors and the oppressed as neatly in India as it does in the West. A common belief, though not always true, associates darker skin with lower caste. Slurs of caste and colour overlap and pair together in Indians’ vocabularies. Darker groups—south Indians, Siddis, Africans and others—face rampant discrimination. Most often, the people with the privilege to determine their treatment—police and government officials, landlords, employers—come from the dominant castes. So do those in the media, film, advertising and other cultural industries with the greatest power to shape cosmetic ideals. It can be argued that the local fetish for fair skin owes a good deal to the complexes left behind by colonial rule, but this cannot be used to deflect from indigenous prejudice. The Indian elite hold up the fact that they have been subjected to racism by white people, whether in the past or the present, and from this base claim solidarity with black people. But, whether in India itself or in the Indian diaspora, this is the only form of discrimination they are willing to critique.

Casteism, racism and religious hatred in India are Brahminical instruments of the dominant castes for holding down Dalit, Adivasi, Muslim, Christian and many other lives. The refusal by the dominant castes to acknowledge this is what keeps Black Lives Matter from having any real impact here, and prevents any national introspection on how this society debases the lives of its oppressed ethnicities and castes and religious minorities.

The wicked genius of the caste system lies in what BR Ambedkar, the great Dalit thinker and leader, described as its “graded inequality.” The Brahminical order thrives on a seemingly infinite fragmentation of castes and sub-castes, the position of each dependent on its discrimination and violence against those it claims superiority over in the endless quest to defend and improve its rank. It is a near-perfect guarantor of hierarchy—self-enforcing, self-expanding and self-perpetuating, with a built-in mechanism against the unity of the oppressed. The system has survived for thousands of years without any change to its essential structure, impervious to political revolutions and ideological challenges, able to transplant into new religions and lands.

If the elite castes ever care to confront religious hatred, racism and casteism, they will have to find the decency to attack the foundations of caste. The foundation stone itself, as Ambedkar pointed out, is the Brahminical religion, Hinduism, so centred on the varna system that it cannot survive without caste—or, put another way, that the annihilation of caste depends on the dismantling of Hinduism. To idly wonder when Dalit and Muslim and Adivasi and so many other Indian lives will matter while glossing over this reality is an obfuscation of the Hindu religion and of Indian history.

India’s oppressed castes have taken inspiration from the black struggle in the United States for over a century, seeing parallels between the evils of caste and of race, yet dominant-caste thinkers have tried to undermine claims to solidarity and shared experience. Before and since the creation of an independent India, the oppressed castes have repeatedly asked the dominant castes to recognise their plight, acknowledge their part in it, and redress the injustice. Yet at every step, the dominant castes have refused them empathy, and undermined their efforts for change. In the United States, black people are asking white people to hold themselves accountable, and they are being heard. In India, we have been asking the same thing of the dominant castes for a long time, but all we hear back is dismissal or silence.

“DALIT,” BY ITS PREVALENT MEANING, is a caste-specific term of assertion for those once called untouchables and now officially designated the Scheduled Castes. When it first emerged in Marathi in the 1920s, “Dalit”—literally “broken people”—was reserved for the untouchable castes, but the word has taken on a wider meaning over time. The scholar Anand Teltumbde has observed that Ambedkar “used ‘Dalit’ as a quasi-class term,” including “within its ambit the downtrodden and poor.” But Ambedkar often preferred other terms for the oppressed—underscoring the difference between touchables and untouchables—and it was in the 1970s, many years after his death, that the use and political gravity of “Dalit” exploded.

Credit for this belongs to the Dalit Panthers, the radical anti-caste organisation founded in Bombay in 1972, inspired by the Black Panther Party in the United States. Their legacy, largely ignored by mainstream Indian history, is hugely relevant today, beginning with their definition of “Dalit.” As defined in the Dalit Panther manifesto, the term takes in not just the oppressed castes, but also the Adivasis, or Scheduled Tribes, and “the working people, the landless and poor peasants, women and all those who are being exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion.” Part of this definition is explained by the Panthers’ avowal of socialism, but the acknowledgment of injustice based on gender and religious identity challenged the class-bound programmes typical of the socialists and other leftists of the time.

The Panthers, as a relatively small group founded in reaction to caste-based violence and injustice, centred their politics and their vocabulary on furthering oppressed-caste unity, organisation and pride. The wider coalition suggested in the definition never came together under the Panthers’ watch. Yet its foresight and importance remain undiminished.

According to the 2011 census, the Scheduled Castes comprise roughly seventeen percent of the Indian population. Combine them with the Scheduled Tribes, who form another nine percent, and the Panthers’ definition of Dalit already represents a quarter of the entire country. Add the oppressed religious minorities—with the Muslims forming the largest number of them, representing almost fifteen percent of the Indian population—and the term encompasses over forty percent of India.

By the criteria of economic and political exploitation, the Panthers’ understanding of “Dalit” also includes large numbers of the Shudras, largely grouped under the Other Backwards Classes, who form the last of the four tiers of the varna hierarchy. Shudras are looked down upon by the dominant castes and confined to middling ranks of society and power, but are ranked above the Dalits and Adivasis, who are considered to belong to no varna at all. At least one government survey has put the OBC population at forty percent. By the official reckoning of the Mandal Commission, which in the early 1980s wrote a landmark report on the social condition of the OBCs, only a small minority of this highly stratified group belongs to “upper” Shudra castes with significant wealth and power. The rest have little of either.

The exact demographic weights of all these communities are debated, but there is every reason to think that Dalits, understood as the Panthers defined them, form something at least approaching three-quarters of the Indian people. The Mandal Commission estimated that the dominant castes account for barely more than seventeen percent of the population—roughly a sixth of the total.

Indian society must be understood in this light. The massive majority of castes and ethnic and religious minorities are held subordinate by a small religious and caste elite. In the United States, by contrast, black people account for under a sixth of the population, and white people for almost three-quarters. There, the dominant majority is being made to shed its denial of the wrongs done to the minority. In India, the dominant minority holds such disproportionate privilege that it can still comfortably turn away from the damage done to the oppressed majority.

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