At a multi-party seminar in Chennai recently to condemn religious bigotry and protect the Constitution, Thol Thirumavalavan, president of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi and the most important Dalit political leader from Tamil Nadu spoke with acuity. He asserted that Buddhism at its core was not a religious scheme; it was a sociopolitical response to the complex realities of individual and collective life. Conceding it had later become a rule-bound religion including a form of idolatry, he spoke with knowledge and conviction about Buddhist thought and, taking that to political terrain, about the fundamental principles of India’s Constitution. Here was an individual who did not scream or spout political rhetoric against the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. He articulated succinctly, with utmost patience and reason, the need for India to uphold the values of its only universal sacred book, the Constitution.

As I listened, numerous thoughts on caste, class, access and perception filled my mind. I could not but wonder why Thirumavalavan is not seen as a person of deep thought and understanding beyond the Tamil circles. And why even in Tamil Nadu, he is bottled in as a Dalit leader. He is certainly a Dalit leader and we need him in that role, but shouldn’t he also be the leader for the rest of us? I am not reducing leadership to chief ministership; I mean it in terms of being representative of Tamils. Other Backward Classes and forward caste Tamils have accepted – whether by compulsion or choice, one cannot be sure – the politically dominant Mukkulathor and Goundar as trans-caste agents. We have done this even though elected members from these communities have often displayed their caste unabashedly. Yet, even in 2018, a Dalit leader is not accepted with the same ease. Thirumavalavan, thus, remains in a singular specificity, that of the Dalit leader.

This is not just political discrimination but also intellectual marginalisation. Ideas emerging from the marginalised are always read and heard in terms of subaltern rights, emancipation and demands for their own equality. These sensibilities are at the foundation of their perspectives, but there is a universality about them that we conveniently choose to ignore. When Thirumavalavan speaks of equality, it is not just about Dalits, it is about humanity and larger togetherness. Having seen and faced the worst human beings can offer, he gives us a far deeper understanding of our failings and limitations. But we reduce him and his intellectual proficiency to caste assertion. At the same time, when the privileged, including individuals like myself, speak of inequality, it is, honestly, only theoretical, anecdotal and observation-driven. Yet, the society seems to embrace it as transformative and substantive.

Intellectual hegemony of caste and class

Caging Thirumavalavan is also about linguistic predominance. He is essentially a Tamil-speaking politician. If only he was eloquent in Hindi or could speak the kind of English acceptable among the elite, he would be far more recognised today for the resources of his mind. It is indeed unfortunate that India knows Jignesh Mevani and Kanhaiya Kumar but has no imaginative space for Thirumavalavan. Don’t get me wrong, I feel both Jignesh and Kanhaiya are crucial to India’s political future but shouldn’t Thirumavalavan already have been among our leading thought leaders?

It is indeed a curious feature of Indian culture that political leaders from the oppressed or minority communities are rarely given the respect they deserve even if they are successful at the polling booth. Mayawati will never be credited for her mind even if she becomes chief minister a hundred times over. She will either be projected as an activist and fighter for the Dalits or demonised as an opportunist. She will not enter our textbooks as a thinking politician who contributed to the larger sociopolitical discourse. This space is easily and regularly offered to people of caste even if they embody mediocrity. Let’s not forget that even the mighty Babasaheb Ambedkar is but a reference point most textbooks. This same identity stigma affects people of Islamic faith in India. They remain Islamic markers and do not transcend into our psychological cosmos as thinking Indians. If they do slip through, then they have likely sacrificed or suppressed their religious identity. APJ Abdul Kalam is a case in point – a Carnatic music-loving Hindu-Muslim. Dalits are also expected to do the same, diminish their Dalit discourse and downplay their identity, if they seek ideational acceptance. This is never demanded of the caste Hindu.

This is not limited to the political arena. Even within the liberal NGO, activist territory this plays out very quietly. I would argue that Bezwada Wilson, of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, is probably the most intense, sharp, nuanced and lucid thinkers of our times. Every time he speaks he does with his entire body and mind, dissipates the cobwebs muddling a situation and hits upon the kernel of the problem with admirable ease. But how often do we hear him beyond the boundary of a being an activist fighting for the rights of safai karmachari. Even when we do, our mind is clouded by who he is, and who he speaks for. His words are everyone’s words, his ideas must be embraced by all and his demands must be our demands. Do we feel that way?

State elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Manipur are done and dusted, and chief ministers are being chosen. Power, money, control and caste are surely playing their part in these selections. But beyond electoral wins and losses, it is time for serious sociopolitical thought in India to be steered by voices from minority communities. The intellectual hegemony of caste and class needs to be broken. This inversion is essential if we desire substantive change in our cultural design.

I cringe as I look back at my own words at the beginning of this article. Why was I surprised by Thirumavalavan’s acumen? I had presumed that he would be all bluster and protest, an image that is etched in my mind – a creation of my own biases.