By Raj Shekhar Sen
Here’s the rub, if you will. Yes, something so terrible has happened – the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, India, on the suspicion of possessing and eating beef – that it has shattered our belief in humanity, making many Indians feel sad and pessimistic. So much so that many of my concerned friends have stated to me and expressed on their social network that they do not want to live in India nor do they want their sons and daughters to grow up in India. As much as I agree with these sentiments and respect their opinions (disclaimer: I myself do not live in India, currently), I have my reservations about such a claim. I have to say this: the people who can say that they don’t want to live in India anymore (and many have said that to me personally recently) are the ones with the greatest social safety net in the country. Their anger is, perhaps, valid but I’m not sure if their expression of it is right.
I have been a victim myself to jokes on how I eat and drink Shakespeare and Ray, as I am a Bengali. Yes that is what we do, taking sly pride in our so-called literary and intellectual culture. Yet, I have ignored the Santhals and Oraons, who are as Bengali as I am and, perhaps, cannot even spell Shakespeare. I have also conveniently ignored the people of Naxalbari, who are Bengalis, too. In short, I have appropriated Bengali culture on behalf of bhadroloks like us.
In a cruder form of this cultural pride, I have seen in many north Indian cities car stickers proclaiming with almost a vulgar chauvinism, ‘Jatts do it’ or ‘Singh is King’. When I see these, I laugh them off. But the truth is being able to proclaim who I am with this pride is a privilege that many do not have in India. To put in other words, ‘the idea that we do not know that we have that privilege is a privilege itself’.
Ask yourself: Have you ever claimed with pride how your ancestors were traditionally in the army, practiced medicine, possessed a lot of land or, heck, were teachers or traders? Have you ever felt a need to cover your identity in ways that you sometimes feel safe, when someone assumes you are of a different caste than what is conveyed by your actual last name? Have you ever cringed at the idea that you may be mistaken for a different caste because of your last name? In simple words, have you ever had any reasons to disassociate yourself from your actual identity in a public setting? I think not.
Can you, however, relate to most characters in mainstream culture and claim with pride just like the people above that you are an ‘X’? If this is true, you have some sort of a privilege you are unaware of. I know Theodore Allen would agree with me.
Similarly, the people, who say they don’t want to live in India anymore, are able to say that because they have upper-caste and upper-class privilege in the country. Such privilege ensures that 9 out of 10 times the authorities and powers-that-be will work for them. Again, I applaud their empathy for Mohammad Akhlaq and feel as bad as they do for his ghastly murder. However, I cannot help but look at their proclamation of privilege with a sense of sadness.
Recently, all over social media we have seen a proliferation of memes about caste-based reservations. I saw a meme making fun of Rohit Sharma (the cricketer) for getting a century while the Indian team lost. The meme joked that this often happens with the general category in India.
I do not and cannot argue with such people because they believe that caste exists because reservations exist. They talk of merit and how the upper-class is discriminated against in the same breath. Here people think that caste-based reservations are provided to uplift the poor lower-castes out of poverty and should cease to exist once they reach a certain financial stability. It is as if once a Dalit or even a Muslim reaches a certain economic level, they are able to shed all the historical baggage that they are forced to bear. As if, they are accepted in the mainstream society.
It is privilege at work when someone thinks that caste erases itself with economic prosperity. I have had close family associates rejecting marriage proposals from doctors and IIM/IIT graduates because their last name was dicey. In no way I am claiming that my experience forms the basis of the Indian caste/class experience. But if you think hard about this, could you say with certainty that you have never talked of someone’s last name being dubious, especially behind their back. Or haven’t you met someone, who told you his name and followed it with a clarification that though his last name sounds like that of a person belonging to the SC category but he isn’t.
When we talk of privilege, many people, including my friends, accept their privileged life but what they easily overlook is how their own privilege enables them to leave India. I mean think of a lower-class Muslim in Bihar or a Dalit in MP or even a farmer in Vidarbha or a tribal in Bastar. Could they as easily think of leaving India for a safer and better life abroad?
And then there are others in social media sharing memes and jokes about the unfairness meted out to the upper-castes. As if everything from the media to pop culture and cinema wasn’t pandering to them enough. For example, most watched TV shows by TRP in India are either based on Brahmin or Thakur families even if the setting is rural or hosted by one. However, the same people refute univocally of ever partaking in any activity related to caste-based discrimination. Yet, if one takes a stroll in any of the posh neighborhoods of A, B and even C grade Indian city and reads the names in the mailboxes, one would get an idea of the caste/religious demographic in India.
In 2011, only 2 out of 427 faculty members at IIT Chennai were SC; IIT Mumbai had zero. In 2010, even in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, “regarded as a bastion of progressive social scientists and historians—only 3.29 per cent of the faculty [was] Dalit and 1.44 per cent Adivasi, while the quotas are meant to be 15 per cent and 7.5 per cent, respectively.”[“The Doctor and the Saint”, an introduction to BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, Navayana, 2014, p 34.]
We must realize when we talk of wanting to get out of India we only talk from a position of privilege. While I agree with such a position, I can’t help but cringe a little.
When I started writing this, my intention was not to be pedagogical at all. However, I cannot help but throw some numbers and surveys at this point. An extensive study conducted by Oxford University vehemently spells out the misnomer that the private sector does not check applicant’s last names and hires people based on ‘just merit’. The study goes on to show how equally qualified Dalit and Muslim résumés are less likely to get selected than the upper-caste ones, and it also talks of other “hidden nuances of caste prejudice in the language of globalization that contemporary India speaks.” For example, selecting employees on food preferences.
Here I tried explaining the privilege that supports us not just in proclaiming that we are done with India but to openly state what we feel. The ability to express oneself openly and freely without any fear of repercussions is also a sign of privilege that we haven’t been able to accord to others around us (the most recent example is that of Akhlaq).
When I talk of the upper-caste/class privilege, I know that this sounds a lot like the white privilege talked about in the USA. But there is a difference that I cannot help but mention. There is nothing like an Indian American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) or a Dalit history month on public TV or exhibits in museums that seek to educate the upper-castes in India about a long and dark chapter of their past (and present). There are, however, multiple two line memes and jokes that argue otherwise and make many of us peddle our own persecution complex that cannot be backed by anything but these childish jokes.
However, I am indebted to many of my friends, who in the midst of their daily lives, express their deep sense of connection with the underprivileged and tell me that they deeply care. But the sad thing is that those who are most affected by this structural problem do not even have the time to sit and reflect at their plight. For them, between trying to ensure a continuous wage and a daily fight of reclaiming some dignity, no time is left. We must be cognizant of the fact that many Indians do not have the luxury of leaving India as well.
Faiz said, ‘Laazim hai ke hum bhi dekhenge.’ I wish I could say that too.
Raj Shekhar Sen is based out of San Francisco, California, having lived the majority of his life scattered around cities in Central India before renegading to the US of A. He considers writing to be primarily a hobby but has been fortunate enough to be published in a few journals, including Nivasini and Aquirelle. His day job is internet surfing and sometimes business consulting.
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