As the Chandrayaan-2 mission unfolded, different aspects of the episode were reported in the media –– from “that” hug, to the profile of the ISRO chief who rose to prominence from his humble background. Some jokes about the scientist making an Udupi mutt trip (instead of the usual Tirupati darshan) to pray for the success of the mission were also floated on social media. But those were just that: jokes.

Where the mixing of spirituality/ superstition with science should draw sharp criticism, public displays of faith by Indian scientists are not just condoned but met with fond indulgence in India. So cute, we think, that these big scientists behave exactly as we do and bow before the powers that be.

No one wants to acknowledge the proverbial elephant in the room that normalises and even glorifies such irrational, unscientific behaviour: caste. Centuries of Brahmanical hegemony have legitimised such paradigms to the extent that we do not recognise their absurdity and injustice even when they hit us in the face. We think nothing of the traditional “proprietors” of (the business of) religion and knowledge mixing the two things up.

Like a clever virus

In his new book, Caste Matters, Suraj Yengde takes this bull by its horns – or the elephant by its trunk – and places it squarely in our line of sight. Following in the footsteps of his intellectual predecessors, like Jyotirao Phule and Babasaheb Ambedkar, Yengde takes it upon himself to lay bare problematic foundations like these on which Indian society still operates.

Irrespective of the law, caste-based discrimination continues to be the truth of millions of Dalit lives in India. After almost seven decades since the Constitution was adopted, the chasm between legislation and social reality remains unbridged.

Some of the defenders of the caste system offer tone-deaf arguments about how it was, and is, simply an honourable system of labour division and no more. While some other “liberal” savarnas even claim that caste does not palpably exist in India anymore, because they don’t see it. Yengde recognises these blind spots, and knows the resilience of the system and its ability to masquerade and spread – like a clever virus.

He defines the ubiquity of this monster thus:

“Caste as a social construct is a deceptive substance, known for its elemental capacity to digress from its primary motive of existence that governs this oldest system of human oppression, subjugation and degradation. Originated in the Hindu social order, it has infiltrated all faiths on the Indian subcontinent. As old as the order of Indic civilisation, the phenomenon of controlling human capacity, creativity and labour has been core to its ideological performance secured by strict legal order. Caste in India is an absolute sanction – of the dominant class over the dominated...”

He goes on to offer a detailed breakdown of the caste ecology, elaborating how it works on the levels of sociality, cultural discourse and politics.

Slices of life

The credibility of Yengde’s assertions comes not only from his academic record (at Harvard University, among other institutions), but also his lived experiences. A first generation scholar, he had a childhood which was not unlike those of millions of underprivileged Dalits in India. His perspectives are gleaned from both academic and historical sources and personal episodes.

In one particularly heartbreaking instance, the author narrates how he first realised his Dalit identity as a 10-year-old. His grandmother had once taken him reluctantly to her employer’s home to satiate young Suraj’s curiosity about her place of work. The boy needed to use the bathroom urgently, and went ahead. The humiliating ramifications of using an “upper caste toilet” dawned upon him when the employer found out and gravely scolded and insulted his grandmother for this terrible “breach”.

“This incident brought home to me my beingness as a Dalit…I was lesser than the bathroom that was a receptacle of shit,” he notes.

Numerous other examples of Dalit experiences are sprinkled through the book, tantamount to discrimination on various levels. Despite being on the constant receiving end of psychosocial and even physical violence, it is a strong ethic of love that keeps the Dalit going, says Yengde. He presents a heartening narrative of Dalit love that shines like a beacon of hope through a book that is otherwise about numerous darknesses.

And yet, love is anything but easy in these quarters. “To love in a casteist society is violence and a violation…Insubordination and defiance form the methodical process of Dalit love.” We only need open a newspaper to see what the consequences of Dalit insubordination often are.

Defining Dalit-ness

However, Yengde’s critique is not restricted to the oppressive upper castes. He uses it repeatedly as a foil, but keeps the idea and identity of a Dalit at the centre. Chapters one through five shed light on the many dimensions of Dalitness – from religion, to political philosophy, to class to capitalism – and the ways in which Dalits navigate a savarna narrative of the world.

In his chapter on “Neo Dalit Rising”, the author explains where the ideas of Dalit nationalism are derived from – and how – even as he criticises his community’s overt faith in the Constitution and its promise of equality. But he reminds his readers that even though Ambedkar crafted it, he himself wanted to burn it down like the Manusmriti, because he realised that Indian society was fundamentally unequal and there was no use talking about legality until social disparities were abolished.

In the chapter titled “The Many Shades of Dalits”, Yengde elaborates on Dalit categories – something he calls “castegories”, viz., token, elite self-obsessed, and radical. There are sub categories too, based on political/philosophical leanings, education, class, etc. Needless to say, a majority of these classifications are critical. He makes no bones about calling out those Dalits who cause more damage more than good to Dalit liberation, by wanting to emulate the very people who oppress them.

In the fourth and fifth chapters, titled “The Dalit Middle Class” and “Dalit Capitalism”, respectively, Yengde trains his lens on that category of people who have come to represent Dalits in the age of information. Though some may be far removed from the pitiful ground realities of some of their community, they use their intellectual capital to push back ideologically on centuries old hegemonic frameworks. Yengde showers both praise and brickbats on the Dalit middle class.

He then explores the idea of “Dalit Capitalism”, which is closely linked to this class. But he deems this construct itself fallacious because “the term Dalit is analogous and anti-oppression. The defining trait of the Dalit community is to resist oppression in any form. And capitalism chooses to continue oppression. This juxtaposition is unfeasible and cannot go hand in hand,” he concludes. The key to economic progress, he believes, lies in Ambedkar’s vision of modified state socialism.

To fight together

Although he warns against the pitfalls of deification, Yengde does hold all of Ambedkar’s guiding principles dear, like all his Dalit peers. One such principle was recognising true allies, no matter what their social standing. Though severely critical of Brahmins and their created social order, both Ambedkar and Phule knew the importance of support from their Brahmin friends and associates. The author acknowledges the contribution of such genuine Brahmin allies and comrades to whom the Dalit people and movement owe some thanks in the sixth and last chapter, “Brahmins against Brahminism”.

For a moment this choice of conclusion feels like betrayal; a sudden slamming on the brakes, a reversal of his fiery momentum. A thawing, a softening of stance, a flicker of the Stockholm syndrome. Perhaps it is Yengde’s way of sparking compassion among the upper castes to encourage them to take up the cudgels on behalf of their Dalit peers, the way many cis-het people support the LGBTQ community, or whites support blacks. Or, perhaps, Yengde is righteous in his demand because, as he puts it, “Dalits cannot and should not fight their battle alone. The reason is obvious. They are fighting against a fiction that is not their creation.”

Caste Matters, Suraj Yengde, Penguin Books.