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Replies to Devdutt Pattanaik: 'One cannot explain caste, one can only condemn it'

A selection of readers' opinions about Devdutt Pattanaik's article on how free speech and political correctness prevent India from having an honest discussion about caste.

Dear Mr Pattanaik,

The death of Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad has brought forth a surge of support for the anti-caste movement from a variety of individuals, many of whom are from dominant castes ("The two factors that prevent India from having an honest discussion about caste").

This support has pivoted on the struggles of luminaries such as BR Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule, acknowledging one’s own caste (and therefore oppressor) status, and admitting that Dalit-Bahujan people face the worst caste violence, and hence, they should lead the struggle.

However, you are the first to point out the “problems” of upper caste people when they deign to support people like us – how we don’t welcome the support with open arms, how we’re wary of the sudden love after centuries of oppression and how we’re gagging the “powerful” – though I’m not sure how that’s a bad thing, even if true.

You begin with an account of how caste came to be – “there is no oppression in the world, only hierarchy” – a controversial and oft-discredited theory of the French anthropologist, Louis Dumont.

You say, “Hierarchies are inescapable and eternal… any attempt to overturn the prevailing hierarchy will only create chaos and end up creating just another hierarchy”.

I’m not sure how to read that statement other than an endorsement of the violent caste system, with you saying that any attempt at an equal and just society is bound to fail.

Ground realities

Caste activists aren’t trying to upend the order, they’re trying to demolish it – creating a society where individuals and communities aren’t discriminated and killed based on their birth and choices, where access to resources is just and equitable, and where freedoms aren’t curtailed based on appearance. If this isn’t reconcilable with your hierarchies, then so be it.

You further go on to talk about how we’re reading caste wrong – as a violation of the social contract, instead of “inevitable” hierarchy. This again, is familiar: reducing the real-life struggles of millions of people to an “epistemological” problem. Not that there isn’t a wealth of lower caste literature on caste, but none of that paints it as inevitable or says that if one can’t handle hierarchy, one needs to step out.

You say we haven’t understood caste – as if the thousands of people who are dying as a result of the system don’t comprehend it better than you and I – because of free speech and political correctness.

But you then reduce free speech to your apparent right to hold forth on caste, complaining how people like us are stopping you from your god-given (or is it birth) right to educate the oppressed on caste.

I’m sorry to disappoint but there is no such right, though that hasn’t stopped dominant caste scholars from silencing lower caste voices and crowding them out of voicing their own oppression.

Unlike your assertion, members of privileged communities can speak about caste but we only ask them to foreground the oppression meted out by their brethren to millions of people over centuries who have had limited access to health, education, social resources and wealth.

Pushed to the margins

One cannot explain caste, one can only condemn it – condemn it for stripping people of basic human dignity, of killing men, women and children, of violently suppressing struggles and disenfranchising everyone except a handful of privileged caste Hindus.

Accusing an upper caste person of appropriating the movement comes from this memory of silencing and discrimination, where scholars have examined caste without examining their own privileges and complicity in the oppression.

Despite the wealth of lower caste literature, Dalit Bahujan academics find it difficult to exist in universities and are seldom published. Our much-beloved shops rarely stock any books by lower caste persons, and we don’t acknowledge their contribution.

Unlike your statement, millions of lower caste people are taking back Hinduism from the violence of upper caste traditions, re-imagining the epics and festivals, and asserting our right to public and religious spaces.

The death of Rohith Vemula has seen a surge of support, but most of these tend to put their own statements and justifications front and centre, instead of focusing on the powerful life and struggle of the student. It is no accident that much of this self-righteous assertion comes from upper caste scholars and academics trying to use the movement to again crowd out lower caste voices. This is what we are against. Dhrubo Jyoti


Dear Mr Pattanaik,

I am not sorry to say that your piece is rather silly and banal in its outlook, and obviously in its content. You have viewed the problems of casteism from a delusional standpoint and tried to appear liberal. Attempting to introduce your article with hints of drawing a genealogy is completely moronic.

I hope when you wrote about the first side of story, where culture is a contract, you have possibly tried to talk about the Social Contract Theory, propagated by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau. If that is what you have tried to talk about, please read those texts again. Firstly, they say nothing about what you have written. Secondly, there are several criticisms of the theory too, thus making it redundant in a way. Kindly update yourself. The point is not that the breach in the contract leads to oppression, but that the mere existence of the contract causes the oppression.

In your shallow paragraph laden with hopes of a revolution, you have tried to put across your revolutionary, Marxist outlook. But trust me, anyone who has read Karl Marx could figure out the shallowness and lack of knowledge. You merely repeated certain words, which even a child who reads a little of the newspaper or listens to elders can say. It is true that the revolution will come and at any given time and era, a revolution is needed. But will you wait for one and help your hierarchical system, as you belong to that category?

You mentioned a revolution inspired by messiah or messenger of god. Why did you need to include the rational scientific leader, if messiahs are here? If you have also read world history other than Hindu texts, then you should know that revolutions in the world have always been brought or initiated by either the workers, labourers, or the people from lower strata of the society (read oppressed), or the students - never by a messiah. Are you trying to say that the birth of Christianity and Islam were revolutions?

World of hierarchy

I agree that Hinduism and capitalism work on the basis of hierarchy. But if hierarchy is “inescapable and eternal,” then conflict and resistance will always be inescapable and eternal against this very existence of hierarchy. As long as there is hierarchy, there will be conflict. Then why did you say that hierarchy is inevitable, thus hinting that we, the people of India should agree with it? Why not at least attempt to resist it?

You said: “Any attempt to overturn the prevailing hierarchy will only create chaos and end up creating just another hierarchy. Hierarchies are inescapable and eternal. Those who cannot handle the hierarchy need to step out, either physically like an indifferent monk, or psychologically, like a detached yet engaged household.”

I somewhat agree with the first sentence. Why not have an entirely different hierarchy, where the upper castes for a change switch roles with the lower caste? For several centuries, upper castes have enjoyed superiority over the rest. Let the opposite side enjoy those fruits that have been denied to them since time immemorial. They are the base of the society, upon which the superstructure of upper caste can comfortably dwell. Let for once let the upper caste people go down to the bottom, do all the laborious, scavenging jobs and struggle for once just to survive with dignity.

And can you please explain what you meant when you said that “those who cannot handle it should step out”? Are you trying to say like Rohith Vemula, they all should die? What if we neither step out, nor get to grips with the hierarchical system?

I agree that the caste system is borne out of your second story of hierarchy. But aren’t you too committing the same mistake you are accusing us of: understanding football with the logic of cricket? I don’t think caste can be explained in any other way other than a hierarchical system, which perpetrates only violence in the name of maintaining law and order. It is nothing but an oppressive and exploitative system. But I can surely see from where you have drawn your inspiration, which clearly lays bare your ideological leanings.

Speaking out

Also, free speech was never created to give voice to the opposition. Do you seriously not know the history of the world? There is a subtle difference between “free speech” and “free flow of information and communication”. Free speech is a right, given to us by our Constitution, which says that any citizen of India (definitely not just the upper caste and class) has the right to voice their thoughts and opinions, provided the public order is maintained.

What you have written in your article is basically the second thing: free flow of communication, which definitely is not made for opposition, but for the powerful to grasp even more power as they have more capital to invest.

Meanwhile, the lower strata will lose themselves in just finding a niche amidst all other powerful people, who dominate the communication field by the virtue of owning a lot more privileges and capital to sustain it.

Our current government is only interested in disciplining the people of India (Read: lower caste and class, and the minority) and not encouraging them much (indirectly) to have an access to education or a career.

The government is only curbing the original and unique intellect of students so that this kind of protest (chaos, as you called it) should never happen anywhere. The more you people will try to discipline us, the more we will create chaos, until and unless you realise and understand the inherent discipline amidst the chaos.

Till date, very few people have spoken properly about caste. Ambedkar could do so long ago. One needs to understand caste fully and then talk. It is only then that the problem will be clearer.

Let me tell you in short what caste is. Caste is an epidemic; it only kills, is vast and the sufferer dies with no control over the situation at all. The caste system is based on nothing else but exploitation and oppression. It is disgraceful and is devoid of anything to do with humanity. And there can be only one reason to study or understand caste, which is how to demolish the entire system from its very roots. It needs to be killed, not nurtured.

And before I take your leave, your prescription on understanding caste is wrong as you have wrongly diagnosed the disease. Ankhi Mukherjee

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