In the aftermath of Rohith Vemula’s suicide, the HRD ministry is right to call for a dialogue with universities on discrimination. But the cultural labour of producing a genuine dialogue rather than another bureaucratic exercise is going to be immensely difficult. Our institutions are, for the most part, not geared to cater to students. They are geared to some notion of exams and syllabuses in which the individual requirements and experiences of students become invisible. Addressing these challenges requires a critical mass of people with social embeddedness and empathy, something alien to official structures.
But beyond the marginalisation of students, this dialogue will have to overcome the ideological sediments in which Dalit politics has been rendered visible. As the Gandhi-Ambedkar non-dialogue foreshadowed, encounters between even the most well-meaning and self-aware of protagonists can result in deepening alienation. The paradigm that encounter set up, between Gandhi constructing the problem as one of self-purification of Hindus and Ambedkar as one of self-respect, still marks the encounter with Dalit politics. There has been enormous change since. But it would be foolish to underestimate the depth of the challenge caste still poses. The narrative of modernity has, in some important respects, loosened the hold of caste. But it has in other respects deepened caste consciousness. A helpful starting point is to do away with the myth that modernity alone will take care of the caste question, without some real cultural labour.
The caste dialogue has become more difficult for a number of reasons. We have simply not fully acknowledged the sheer atrocity that caste has been, especially for Dalits. There is still a defensiveness that creeps into discussions: “The reality was more nuanced”, “caste is more complicated”. But all said and done, it was and remains an atrocity. The sincerity of our acknowledgement of it as an atrocity remains in doubt, impeding any understanding.
In some sections, there are kids who genuinely don’t understand caste. This could be a healthy development. But paradoxically, this amnesia only reinforces mutual suspicion: Upper-caste kids cannot understand why they are being held responsible for something they may not subscribe to; they are oddly unaware of their structural privilege. On the other hand, it makes the acknowledgement of caste atrocity even more difficult.
Reservations remain a bone of contention. There are some terrible abuses of the idea of merit to marginalise claims of Dalits. Even if we don’t go into deeper questions of merit coding a social privilege, the basic understanding of affirmative action as being against merit is flawed. The point is to widen the pool from which merit is identified, not to diminish it. But one casualty of the expansion of reservations beyond Dalits was to render invisible the specific category of discrimination. Reservations were no longer seen as arising out of a specific ethical imperative; they now came to be understood merely as an assertion of political power for jobs and opportunities. In an economy where the super-privileged can afford to secede, the real contest over reservations is not played out between the super-privileged and Dalits; it is being played out between classes whose own economic opportunities hang by a thread and others. In the long run, setting reservations on new ethical foundations will be a tough but necessary task. There is also a huge credibility gap. It is easy to trot out the idea that more education, more equal opportunity will take care of the problem. But it is impossible for any of us to look at India’s marginalised in the eye and say we have, in fact, built genuine structures of opportunity. The patent insincerity of all of us who spout this line keeps us trapped in a cycle of suspicion.
But the chasm is even deeper. The first is at the level of experience: What does it mean to grasp the reality of Dalit experience? This often plays out oddly in literature, where upper-caste attempts to portray the inner subjectivity of that experience often end in ridiculous failure. But it also plays out in social practice of commonplace micro aggression: Intentional or unintentional behaviour that communicates hostile or often patronising signals. The second is at the level of articulation. Dalit fears of being assimilated into some abstract universality are well-founded: These categories, whether of rights or class or development, do not do justice to the specificity of the experience, or they are ways of domesticating their political agency. Even the most well-meaning end up constructing Dalits as objects. And none more so than those trying to rid themselves of self-expatiating guilt. But in that chasm between specificity of the experience and the abstraction of our categories, all communication falls through.
The third level is ideological. D.R. Nagaraj once wrote poignantly, “The modern Dalit has to seek his rebirth in a state of fearful loneliness. S/he has nothing to rely upon in his/her immediate Hindu surroundings.” Modern Dalit movements have been about the creation of a cultural space that is their own. In a strange way, reactionary ABVP students understand the stakes in the Dalit movement much more clearly than the liberals: That the emancipation and cultural space for Dalits rest upon an attack on Hinduism.
One counter-response to this is to detach the social question from the question of Hinduism. This is to construct a Hinduism that can slough off its social pathologies. But the ease of the gesture, “Hinduism provides an internal justification for deconstructing caste”, does not match the enormity of the crime. In fact, the more you hear it, the more facile it sounds. One reason dialogue is getting harder is because the debate immediately becomes about an abstraction called tradition rather than the processes of power. So the debate is between a defensive Hinduism that sees Dalit assertion with fear and a Dalit assertion that sees Hinduism as a strategy for containment. So long as we have a discourse of tradition that impedes people’s freedom to fashion their own identities and spaces, the question of discrimination cannot be addressed frontally.
Politics will, by its very nature, have an investment in conflict and, to a certain extent, even victimisation. If mobilisation had taken place on quality of education, on building support structures that attend to genuine pedagogical needs, perhaps the challenge would have been mitigated. But the dialogue on discrimination is not just a legal or administrative affair. It will have to create a culture where all can feel free and at home.