WALTER FERNANDES | 27 JUNE, 2020
Do Lowered-Caste Lives Matter?
Waiting for a George Floyd moment in India
There was an outpouring of solidarity in India with the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA after police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. Many individuals and organisations sent messages of solidarity to leaders of the movement, while others wrote moving pieces in the Indian media on racism and the need for equality.
All of this is praiseworthy because the long-oppressed descendants of enslaved Americans need all the support they can get from the rest of the world.
However, most people in India did not go beyond these gestures to show a mirror to our own society. There were some exceptions; for instance, the journalist Neha Dixit wrote about the problems her family faced when a baby girl “of brown complexion” was born to it because people of the Brahmin castes are expected to be fair (white).
Arundhati Roy commented on our obsession with the colour white and used that context to discuss the casteist system in India, which treats the Dalits (oppressed) as untouchables and shows little respect for their life.
But most people in India seem to view the movement as an American Blacks versus Whites struggle.
Whereas in the USA itself it is a fight against racism as such. A large number of Whites, Hispanics and even Asians have joined the protests. This is what people working for justice would like to see in India.
To begin with our obsession with colour, a look at the marriage advertisements can give enough indications of what it means. A girl becomes highly eligible and likely to get a foreign husband (the right sort of foreign) if she is convent educated, fair and ready for an early ‘decent’ marriage, i.e. one with a high dowry. The persons’ caste is mentioned without hesitation, and the bridegroom gets a higher price if he belongs to a highered caste and lives in a White majority country: “the West”.
People living in Asian and African countries are much less valuable. Another sign of it is the manner in which Indians treat Africans living here, using pejoratives such as ‘Kalu’, and every now and then one hears of them being harassed and beaten up because of their colour. Such attacks on them are not uncommon.
Much of it is linked to the casteist system. Africans are perceived as equivalent to the Dalits or “untouchables” and as such inferior. That is basic to caste, which is racism though one may not like to term it as such.
Dalit lives do not seem to matter in our society. If they did, how does one explain so many Dalits being sent down to clean the sewers unprotected even by a mask? Almost every week one hears of some of them dying in this hazardous job. But one does not hear of governments or employers giving them protective gear, or developing alternative machinery to clean the sewers, or creating decent sewerage instead of millions of dry latrines.
One has lost count of the number of young couples killed or penalised in other forms by their own parents or the khap panchayats for marrying outside the caste. But instead of finding ways of undoing this injustice, our nationalists want us to believe that caste is not an Indian system, and that Mughal or British rulers introduced it into the country. If that is the case, how does one explain it getting stronger seven decades after the British left India?
It is time we face the reality and call it by its proper name: racism, acknowledge that Dalit lives matter and agitate for an end to casteist discrimination.
One welcomes diversity in understanding India’s past but not its distortion to suit one’s ideology. Similarly, denial of the problem is not a solution.
A current case is that of “the migrants” a big proportion of whom are from the lowered or “backward” castes. A largely highered-caste government and administration did not take their interests into consideration in all the plans announced against COVID19. The PM announced a lockdown with four hours’ notice.
Indians stranded abroad were flown back but “the migrants” had to walk some hundreds of kilometres to return to their villages. They were punished for it or FIRs were lodged against them for violating the lockdown norms. The central government even filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that no one was walking on the highways.
These lowered-caste workers had to wait nearly two months for some trains to be organised for them to return home. None paused to ask how they could survive without income and food, and how persons living in crowded one-room tenements could observe disease distancing. Their lives did not matter. The norms were meant for the “middle class”, in reality some of the wealthiest people in our society, who alone can maintain distancing.
Another example is the number of murders of Dalits for raising their voice against injustices perpetrated on them, or for demanding their right to be fully human. The Una public flogging in Gujarat and the harassment of people for speaking about the Bhima Koregaon celebration by Dalits in Pune are two of many such examples.
It is time our casted society woke up to its reality of caste-based racism. It is easy to get peace of conscience by showing solidarity with a struggle thousands of kilometres away. Such solidarity is needed but it makes no sense if injustice at home is ignored.
Caste has become integral to Indian society and every one of its communities practises it though it began as a Hindu system. This means that dominant caste persons of every community are part of the problem, so all have to become part of the solution.
In the USA the search for a solution is not left to the African Americans alone. Many Whites, Hispanics, Asians and others have joined the struggle for an end to racism. A similar move is required in India.
Persons belonging to every caste and creed must become aware of the injustice done to the Dalits of every religion, and to Adivasis, particularly the women among them, and join hands as equals to demand a new society based on human equality.
The injustice perpetrated on these families, the historical injustice done to their ancestors, has to be remedied, and that requires a strong social movement in favour of social change. Can there ever be a George Floyd moment in India as long as such caste and racist attitudes prevail?
Dr Walter Fernandes is director of the North Eastern Social Research Centre in Guwahati
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