In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, writer and anti-caste rapper Sumeet Samos found himself on an unexpected train journey to his home in Koraput at his mother’s insistence. Caught up in the frenzy of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) movement and his other engagements as a student activist, the train journey back home brought back memories of his childhood in Tentulipadar, Odisha and the dense caste networks that defined his childhood as a Dom, Christian boy.
Now, he was returning to his stomping ground after having fulfilled his communities’ wildest aspiration: he had graduated from Jawaharlal Nehru University, travelled internationally as a rap artist, and also secured a comfortable job at a multinational corporation in Delhi. Against the background of these events, Samos was reminded of the numerous hurdles he has had to overcome in his career while also mourning the loss of his closest friends, the Adivasi sociologist Abhay Xaxa, and the Dalit scholar Muthu Krishnan.
Normalisation of caste discrimination
In many ways, Samos’s autobiography, Affairs of Caste, published by Panthers Paw Press, is a homecoming from various stages of his life. Yet, this book diverts from the intense interiority that has characterised the form of the Dalit autobiography to pursue a deeper sociological engagement with the networks of caste that have moulded Samos’s journey as public intellectual and artist.
Most scholarship on Dalits has typically reduced the burden of caste to their abjection and poverty, or it has fetishised their historical suffering for an upper-caste readership. Samos is interested in turning away from this anthropological gaze, and refers to himself as a “participant observer”, interlacing moments in the contemporary political history of Odisha with episodes of his life.
Steeped in the history and cultural politics of the Desia land, Samos traces the consolidation of local Brahminical identities from the reign of the Suryavanshi dynasty of the 15th century, the migration of upper-caste Hindus from coastal Odisha in the twentieth century, and the generation of Komatis who arrived after the Srikakulam rebellion of the ’70s. Samos clarifies that a Desia identity is primarily linguistic; it is referred to as the motherland of several communities, but is never personified with the same nationalist figures like Bharat Mata.
Samos’s insistence on outlining the sociological field of his childhood is integral to his critique of Hindu nationalism, as the Hindu right typically intervenes and proliferates through a rebranding and appropriation of local histories. Comprehending the complexity of local caste relations, therefore, is fundamental to developing a grammar of resistance to Hindu majoritarianism, as it demands paying attention to the diverse ways in which local histories of Dalit and Adivasi communities offer pathways of writing alternate histories.
In Affairs of Caste, Samos investigates the “relational, dynamic, and changing dimensions of caste” that encompass elite Indian academics, progressive organisations, and media outlets that operate from metropolitan centres. The erasure of caste in their progressive discourse, Samos explains, is not only a gatekeeping measure that systematically excludes Dalits from positions of authority, but is crucial in exhibiting a liberal, progressive discourse that secures the politics of caste at its core.
“Untouchability in India”, Samos writes, “gets normalised on the pretext of cleanliness, differential habitations, exclusive socialisations, caste gatherings, occupational differences, food habits, and cultural markers”. While most conversations surrounding caste provincialise the phenomena to rural India, Samos intentionally highlights the obliviousness of urban, liberal elites who unconsciously practice rituals of purity and pollution, and yet do not possess the analytical tools or political will to name it as such.
Astutely navigating the major political events in Odisha in the first half of the book, Samos describes his initial schooling in Semiliguda, the monopolisation of resources by Sundi and Komati businesses in Koraput, and the Maoist uprising in the late 2000s. In his detailed account of the conflict years, Samos notes that factions of the left had effectively exploited Adivasi and Dalit cadres who were at the forefront of the struggle, but were ultimately mistreated and abandoned by upper-caste leaderships.
In detailing the dominance of caste over these struggles, Samos points out that binary reading of resistance to state power often overlooks the complex challenges that Dalit and Adivasi groups face while participating in these movements. In reality, the idea of a revolution is far less romantic, and fractured by the localised manifestations of caste and class power.
Forming a political consciousness
In the second half of the book, Samos adds a distinctly Ambedkarite touch to describing his foray into education and student activism at JNU. There are several poignant moments when he recalls his preparation for the entrance exams, and the accidental misreadings of the results. His own penchant for education was fuelled by the necessity to transgress the rigid psychic and social boundaries of caste. Although the tone of Samos arguments are occasionally polemical, he narrates incidents from his student life in JNU to critique the discourse of meritocracy, which often becomes a platform for upper caste elites to voice their dissatisfaction with reservation policies.
Samos deftly maps the extent of caste supremacy in this scenario, as he elucidates on the pipeline of elite Indian academics who dominate Western academia, accumulating generations of cultural capital. In contrast, most Dalit students work hard to master the codes of social interactions or networking at institutions of higher learning in India. In such instances, what is necessarily referred to as a “small world” of influential Indians is most often an isolated caste world that results in the systematic exclusion of Dalit students.
Folded into the narrative is also Samos’s own journey with Dalit Christianity, addressing the debates around conversion amongst Adivasi and Dalit Christians in Odisha. At a time when anti-conversion laws have been passed in at least five states to monitor the activities of minority Muslim and Christian population, Samos’s brief historiography illuminates the double discrimination Dalit Christians face from sectors of the Hindu right and the upper-caste Christians. Advocating for extending reservation policies to Dalit Christians, Samos’s identification with Dalit Christianity is equally a critique of the mainline church’s decision to remain apolitical in times of grave crisis for Dalit Christians.
Samos’ career as a rapper is merely a fragment in this narrative, but it is explicitly tied to the formation of his political consciousness and involvement with the Birsa Ambedkar Phule Student Association (BAPSA) at JNU. Although JNU has a reputation for being the centre of progressive student politics in the country, Samos underscores the erasure of caste in its political discourse and the differential treatment of the safai karamchaaris on campus until BAPSA became a major electoral player. In this social milieu, BAPSA’s anti-caste orientation was instrumental in breaking the institutional silence around caste, and altering the vocabulary and terms of protest in the university.
In describing the long arc of his journey from Koraput to Oxford, Samos takes various detours to ground moments of political awakening with concrete sociological data; yet, the seams of the story occasionally hang loosely, as there are multiple temporalities and political geographies that inform his political consciousness, but are not adequately synthesised for the reader’s comprehension. In several instances, the voice of a budding anthropologist brimming in the text, especially in his mention of Thomas Eriksen and Finn Nielson, clashes with a more generalised criticism of identity politics online, losing sight of its narrative centre.
Drawing from a range of scholarly works, cultural texts, and lived experiences, Affairs of Caste attempts to depict the multitudinous ways in which caste determines identity while portraying the enormously difficult task of overcoming its structural impositions and fostering an Ambedkarite, anti-caste consciousness. As it is evident in Samos’s prose, this consciousness does not come easy; in fact it demands a rigorous reading of central works in Dalit literature and Ambedkarite literature.
Methodologically, the book provokes one to look for a critique of caste beyond its representative politics and performative ideologies, and move towards asking tough questions of structural reform around land redistribution, caste census, and sexual violence against Dalit women – institutional measures that exceed the outreach of a single individual. Although these different threads are not always brought together in the text, they necessarily hint at an alternate politics of solidarity that can emerge while tending to the micro-local imaginations of Dalit communities.
Affairs of Caste: A Young Diary, Sumeet Samos, Panthers Paw.