“I don’t know when I was born— Kalekuri Prasad
but, for sure, I was killed
on this very soil
thousands of years ago.”
“Ambedkar taught us that character is the foundation of this edifice called the human society. When compassion and morality follow character, society achieves its real strength.”— Baby Kamble, The Prisons We Broke justice looks like in public
“Love is what— Cornel West
tenderness looks like in private.”
“As she tore her ragged hair— Prakash Jadhav, "Under Dadar Bridge"
in the darkness of frustration,
I, poison-drunk and restless,
would dig my fingers into the gooseflesh-navel,
profusely pouring black blood into
her psychic wounds.
‘Hey, Ma, tell me my religion. Who am I?
What am I?’
‘You are not a Hindu or a Muslim!
You are an abandoned spark of the
world’s lusty fires.
Religion? This is where I stuff religion!
Whores have only one religion, my son.
If you want a hole to fuck in, keep
Your cock in your pocket!’
I was not brought up with fixed conceptions of race and gender. My community was alive with the humour that was peppered with healthy dialogues and equally shared amongst the members of my (extended) family – male and female alike. The concept of caste on the other hand was very banal to me, until the Other made me feel the inferiority of my caste position in a high-caste society—what appeared to me then as the norm; the mothe lok as my grandma often referred to them.
My school was cosmo-caste – a modern confluence of varied caste networks represented in a classroom, reviving the democratic sanctity of the space. Students came from different castes, although a disproportionate number were from the “higher” castes as opposed to the lower end. There were three Dalit males and two Dalit females in a class of over sixty students.
The three of us boys always comforted and naturally connected with each other. Nobody had to tell us about our shared affinity. The words “Jai Bhim” would come to us naturally. Of the five Dalit students, I was the only one who came from a poverty-stricken background; the rest were second-generation upper/middle-class Dalits. That meant I was still the marginal among the marginalised.
This would become apparent during lunchtime, when our tiffins would ooze with different kinds of spicy foods. My tiffin had a chapatti and cooked methi bhaji (fenugreek leaves) and not butter sandwiches or cutlets. I had probably not eaten butter more than six to ten times till high school. Butter was alien and did not form an important component of our food.
Ghee too was highly valued. My mother would buy 100 grams of it, which was to be shared by five family members over the winter. Thus, ghee was an elite food enjoyed mostly by our dominant-caste classmates.
Ghee was equivalent to the positions of “higher” castes, more so affixed to Brahmins. “Bamanache lekra toop khaaun buddhine chapal va sudhrudh astaat” (The children of Brahmins are sharp in the brain and healthy due to the dosage of ghee), my mother and grandmother would often say out loud.
The dominant-caste students’ lifestyle, food and study patterns were starkly different from mine. Their parents were educated and could communicate with them in English, in the language of the literates, to have a conversation about their coursework. The students had their own rooms in which they could hole themselves away to study without disturbance.
On the other hand, I had to live and sleep in one room that offered no privacy to study, neither any alone time to think about exams. Television viewing, discussions, eating food– all had to be done in a single room divided by a thin wall. Although my parents tried to create a comfortable environment, the neighbourhood was a big distraction. I’d try to spend some time with my dominant-caste friends, and I would barely ever get access to their private spaces.
I recall an incident in the eighth grade when I went to the house of a Marwari friend whose parents were physicians. This was the first time I was in the house of a Marwari family. They spoke in the Marwari language occasionally, but English dominated the conversation among the children, cousins and parents, who ensured that the kids ate together and traded information about the food they were eating and the various vitamins it had. I left the place empowered with new knowledge of vitamin C in the twenty-five minutes of my luncheon hangout.
The kids were trained in accordance with the ease of their upbringing, and it was an easy segue for them to choose their career paths. It was the same with my other dominant-caste friends, who could look to their relatives or elders and draw inspiration to take up study options of their choice. These children had career paths set up for them with caste networks at their disposal. They did not have any difficulty in accessing the market and knowledge. With a smooth transition, they would be able to occupy important positions of power, reproducing the attitudes and norms of the hierarchical caste system.
Thus, the Indian state-society is an entity of Brahmin supremacy. Every major enterprise in India functions under the strict dictums of Brahmins and other dominant castes.
To emphasise his power position gained through inherited caste privileges, the president of a leading national party and a mascot for liberals audaciously declared his Brahmin lineage as a janeu-dhari, wearer of the sacred thread. A person apparently in the race to represent over 1.35 billion people preferred to flaunt his Brahmin varna as aggressively as he could.
This move to assert his Brahmin identity was also in line with his fears to not mess with the approximately 3 per cent Brahmin population of India, and reassuring dominant-caste Hindu voters that he had their interests in mind. This is how much Brahmin supremacy wields power. Every ritual in India is commandeered under the orders of this priestly caste.
The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which is responsible for space-related projects, has launched missions to the moon and Mars. However, the take-off is always officiated by a Brahmin performing prayers. Even the directors working at the institution ensure that the Brahminic religion becomes part of its operations. Astrology-inspired numbers and specific days of the week are considered when launching satellites. Such superstitious norms have ascended into space research projects. As far as ISRO remains under control of Brahmins, they will transport caste to the extraterrestrial world.
In the armed forces too, the pattern continues. The appointed priest in the barracks is by default Brahmin. Soldiers are disciplined to worship by having roll calls (attendance) at every Sunday Mandir parade.
Citing the example of religious dominance, retired commissioned officer Lt Col GS Guha writes that the Garhwal Rifles unit religiously observes the ten-day ritual of Durga Puja, and Lord Vishnu is its presiding deity established by Adi Shankaracharya. This continues to transcend to the higher levels of defence. Very recently, Nirmala Sitharaman was anointed as the defence minister by a Brahmin priest.
Jotirao Phule had commented on this way of Brahmin business in his famous 1881 book Shetkaryache Asud (The Cultivator’s Whipcord). Phule chronicles how pot-bellied “Bhat-Brahmins” exploit the commoner’s fears. He cites the example of farmers toiling in the field round the clock organising ceremonies to be officiated by a Brahmin who demands “ghee and chapatti” and other expensive food items. The farmer is unable to afford these foods for his own children but readily makes them available for the Brahmin due to the fear indoctrinated through “their selfish religion”.
The Brahmin in India has deployed every strategy to be the supreme lord. And thus, from menstruating women to anyone’s death, the Brahmin wants to be the primary point of contact so that he can further exploit the tears and pains of people.
From the rituals before birth (garbhadhan), after birth (janma kundali, horoscope) to marriage up until death and even after death (shradh), the Brahmin has designed strategies to loot people. Phule observes Brahmins as freeloaders who seek to extort commoners. To explicate the beggarly attitude of Brahmins, Phule asks: “Can such unsociable boisterous bloated beggars be found in any other country or community?”
Phule also takes those Brahmin employees in the British government to task who doubly exploit the Shudra and Ati-Shudra peasantry. The British bureaucracy dominated by Brahmins worked in alliance to further harass the oppressed-caste people of India. The irrationality and superstition spread by Brahmins are primarily responsible for the descent of India’s progress, which is very well seen in the fact that prayers are carried out before ISRO launches.
As much as the constitutionality of the state emphasises the spreading of social and economic equality and scientific temper, it does not, however, explicitly talk about the unequal stakes inherited by the traditional power brokers. The reconciliation of the horrid past that manifests into the present remains unacknowledged. As a result, the question of reparation and inherited privilege does not feature in the discussions of dominant-caste people. This lack of historical accountability creates a group of self-declared nationalists, religionists, supremacists and merit holders that parade around as pundits proffering distorted versions of Indian society.
Excerpted with permission from Caste Matters, Suraj Yengde, Penguin Books.