On November 18, Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey was photographed with a poster bearing a call to “Smash Brahminical Patriarchy”. Controversy arose as the interpretation of this message shifted from a rallying cry against intersecting power hierarchies to accusations of hate speech against India’s small but powerful caste group of Brahmins. Author Advaita Kala drew a parallel between the supposed demonisation of Brahmins and the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany. Referring to casteism as a mere “historical ill”, Kala suggested that Brahmins were the real victims here, who, like Jews, comprise a minority group “touted to be privileged” and scapegoated for political gain.
Congress leader Manish Tewari latched on to this parallel, and Twitter was soon abuzz with claims that “Brahmins are the new Jews of India”.
It is tempting to dismiss these claims as feigned outrage or the whimpers of “Brahmin fragility” and simply wait for the controversy to pass. Yet, there is value in reflecting upon this discourse that attempts to conflate two groups with very different historical trajectories – briefly considering what it evokes, what it masks, and why it has provided a useful vehicle for claims of Brahmin victimhood.
Anti-Brahminism and anti-Semitism
The parallel suggests that Brahmins today (like Jews back then) are persecuted for their success. By celebrating caste-based successes in education and profession but denying any advantages of group membership, Brahmins deploy what anthropologist Ajantha Subramaniam calls the “politics of meritocracy”. The parallel also allows for what academic MSS Pandian has called “the subtle act of transcoding caste and caste relations into something else”. As Pandian astutely notes, caste always belongs to someone else, it is somewhere else, it is of another time. The act of transcoding caste into merit allows the group to acknowledge feelings of persecution and disavow caste privilege at once.
At the same time, the parallels being drawn between Jews and Brahmins mask the systemic nature of Brahminical oppression originally referenced on Dorsey’s placard. Like patriarchy, Brahminism is a social system that reflects not just oppression by the group at the top of the ritualistic structure (Brahmins or men), but the violence engendered by its categorical inequalities. In contrast to colonial depictions, India’s caste system has varied geographically and has transmuted over time, as mid-tier caste groups have asserted power in matters of territory, politics, and property. Yet, Brahmins have remained the structural constant, the core around which the locally specific Brahminical system has been formed and reformed. Supporting this durable social system, Brahmin agency and self-valourising ideologies – including patriarchy – have allowed this numerical minority to occupy and retain positions of hegemonic power.
The discursive association with Jews in Nazi Germany has been effective in discrediting anti-caste movements and legitimising the rejection of anti-Brahminism simply for its new association with anti-Semitism. But anti-Brahminism, as a movement that has taken shape over the past 100 years, has no resemblance to anti-Semitism. Rather, anti-Brahminism is aimed at dismantling the structure of Brahminism that has legitimated the oppression of Dalits not just by Brahmins but by all caste groups. Taking distinct forms across the country, including the Dalit Panthers in Maharashtra, the Self-Respect Movement of Periyar, and the Justice Party’s Non-Brahmin Manifesto, these movements have noted that despite their significant numerical minorities, Brahmins have stood as an elite because of their institutionalised access to education, religious authority, economic power, political influence, and social prestige. These movements have at times been criticised for pinning blame too heavily on the Brahmin and ignoring the roles mid-tier and lower castes have played in reproducing structures of caste oppression. But while these groups may slip too casually from anti-Brahminism to anti-Brahmin, they have not engaged in the kind of ethno-religious scapegoating and systematic dehumanisation experienced by Jews in Nazi Germany. Moreover, by brushing over the attempted genocide and mass extermination, the parallels between anti-Brahminism and anti-Semitism stretch beyond acceptable hyperbole.
Pitfalls of parallelism
If it was not Jack Dorsey but an Indian chief executive officer (or even an Indian-American chief executive officer) who had held the placard, this controversy may not have grown nearly as large as it did. While caste and casteism have been debated internally, their ascendance to the global stage has made people uncomfortable. Most commentators critical of Dorsey have highlighted his limited understanding of Indian social structures and expressed discomfort with the parallel he implied – as a non-Indian – between Brahminism and white supremacy, by displaying the sign designed by Dalit rights activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan.
And while that parallel simply suggests that patriarchy intersects with other systems of hegemonic power, we do agree that one should tread carefully when making claims of parallel experience and parallel oppression. We do not suggest that comparison in and of itself is the problem, but it can become a problem when another group’s experiences are decontextualised and used to mask systemic oppression. Anti-Semitism amounted to an entire group of people being stripped of voice, agency, and life. Brahmins, on the other hand, have regularly asserted their voice, authority, and interests over the course of history in assuming the role of spokespeople for the Indian social milieu.
Liza Weinstein is Associate Professor of Sociology, Northeastern University, United States.
Pranathi Diwakar is pursuing a PhD in Sociology at the University of Chicago.