Artist and technologist Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the designer of a series on violence and justice that among other issues, calls out Brahminical patriarchy, caste apartheid, transphobia, Islamophobia, talks of how one cannot talk about violence without talking about intersectionality:
What’s the story behind the poster? When and how it you come up with it?
As a Dalit artist I am always trying to create work that brings forward the struggles, voices, and dreams of caste oppressed people. This poster series was co-created with another United States-based artist Shrummi8 with colour assist from Mon Mohapatra. The series has lots of different caste oppressed women and non-binary figures holding up slogans for which we simply don’t have enough visual artefacts within Indian society. This not accidental, this is part of the structural oppression that makes up caste apartheid. Only recently have Dalits stormed intellectual bastions that have been typically the outposts of Savarnas. Whether as journalists, artists, academic intellectuals, and technologists we are paving a path for the discussion of caste that centers our experiences of surviving violence. It decenters Brahminical narratives that obfuscate caste power and diminish the horror and violence of caste apartheid.
Your comments on the uproar against the use of the term Smash Brahminical Patriarchy?
The usage of Brahminical Patriarchy is certainly not a new term. From Ambedkar to Uma Chakrabati to countless Indian feminists, the understanding of how caste and gender are linked is not news. The phrase is an insight into how intersectionality in the Indian context works. As a Dalit feminist I am not interested in anything else but getting free. And we need to be able to have clarity at what is at the heart of India’s epidemic of gender-based violence. What is news is that clearly casteist trolls are eager to diminish any conversation that looks at culpability in India’s rape culture. Let’s be clear, it is fact, and not violence, to name how one caste through scripture has held hegemonic power for centuries. I wish that these trolls were as incensed by the 13-year-old Raja Laskhmi in Tamil Nadu who was decapitated in front of her mother by her perpetrator. When Savarna men face the same scale and frequency of gender-based violence that Dalit Bahujan and Adivasi women and non-binary people face then we can talk.
What was the idea behind handing the poster to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey? Was it meant to be subversive gesture?
It was not planned nor was meant in any sort of subversive process. People remix and share this art everywhere as it is part of our Dalit culture. The act of giving was an act of sharing our struggles and also the urgency of gender-based violence against Dalit women in India. We have just opened the conversation with #MeToo India and yet no one is talking about Tamil Nadu’s Raja Lakshmi the 13-year-old who was decapitated by her perpetrator for speaking out about her harassment. How many Raja Lakshmis must die before our cries are heard? Sharing art that reflects our urgency and our pain is a way of connecting the world to our vital movements of justice, healing, and accountability related to caste apartheid. Only the most cynical troll would try to pervert the call for justice. For me, if these casteist trolls spent even one ounce of this time raising the issues of caste and gender atrocity instead of this faux outrage we would not have to create posters like this.
Did you foresee the backlash when you were informed that the posters would be given as a gift during the Twitter meet?
This poster and others like it have been in circulation for over two years. There has been no backlash to this point. What changed here is that there was a potential global spotlight on the root causes of gender and caste-based violence in India because Jack the CEO of Twitter was holding the poster. For Savarnas with caste privilege, caste equity feels like oppression. And this incident is a great example of that. This is dangerous to them because to this point both Twitter and Facebook have been used by trolls to both harass and spread rampant disinformation. This incident is yet another excellent example of why the platforms continues to be unsafe for women and caste oppressed minorities from Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and Buddhists. If Twitter creates a platform for all voices then casteists cannot dominate and obfuscate the sources of caste power and privilege. So instead they create a faux outrage to distract, deflect, and deny. But no one is buying this act. No one. Imagine one little poster could cause so much troll angst only because of the threat that educated Dalit Bahujan feminists represent to caste apartheid.
Your thoughts on present phase of the #MeToo movement in India as also on its exclusions?
Tarana (Burke) is a dear sister in the battle against gender-based violence. This is not accidental that black and Dalit sisterhood was forged in the understanding of intersectionality in rape culture. This is why #Metoo India is important. It is a moment of reckoning that brings with it the incredible potential for a transformative survivor-centered path to ending gender-based violence. However, as Dalit-Bahujan and Adivasi (DBA) feminist I feel that something else needs to shift: in order to truly ensure the safety of all who are vulnerable to gender-based violence, the movement itself must include and center DBA, Queer and Transgender survivors and leaders. #MeToo India also needs to re-envision itself as one that moves beyond individual encounters and looks instead and the root causes of sexual violence. To truly do this, we must acknowledge that gender-based violence in India has its roots in caste apartheid.
Why is it important to understand the link between caste and gender violence?
Caste-based sexual violence is the blueprint for impunity when it comes to gender-based violence. This is even more compounded when we consider the experiences of our queer and trans brothers and sisters. For #MeToo India to be successful, we must understand the history of caste-based violence using sexual violence as a tool for war and colonization. Those like Thangjam Manorama, Priyanka and Supriya Bhotmange, Kafi, Delta Meghwal, Asifa, and Jisha, who were raped and murdered–and who represent millions more DBA survivors, are not only unable to come out, but are not seen as ‘model’ survivors. It’s the bodies of Dalit women, and trans women, on whom this violence has been practiced and perfected upon. In response to this violence, we invoke bold foremothers like Nangeli, who defied the sexually punitive breast tax. I honour the courageous and young Adivasi survivor Mathura, who defied the police who raped her and ultimately become the engine for the first reforms on how Indian judiciary view burden of proof towards rape. I remember Bhanwari Devi, whose legal challenge to her rapists led to the groundbreaking Vishaka guidelines against sexual harassment at the workplace, and of course Phoolan Devi, whose battle against sexual violence was core to her rise as a leader of the people, and which led to her eventual murder. We acknowledge the impact of campaigns like #LoSha, #DalitWomenFight, #Dontbearapist, and #SmashBrahminicalPatriarchy. We also salute powerful movements from Kashmir and Northeast that make the critical connections of sexual violence and the Indian military. These leaders and movements reflect the vibrant diversity of DBA articulations against gender-based violence who, at their core, continually remind the larger feminist movement that there will be no movement around gender-based violence without these voices.