The beginning of 2020 was alive with new public spaces being reclaimed in streets across the country. An unprecedented wave of protests against an unequal citizenship law was on. A new class of political actors had put their bodies on the line in an act of assertion — students, people from indigenous communities and thousands of women of all ages. There was a new churning in the Muslim community, which found solidarity from varied sections.
Many ordinary citizens, including me, were experiencing a shift. The question of citizenship is linked to the politics of determining who is an insider and who an outsider. It made me rethink how I have dealt with questions about my own identity.
My presumption of the city as a post-caste world had been jolted over the years, of course. It began when I landed in Delhi in 2007, after scoring a seat at a top Indian institute through reservation. While trying to fit in, I would find myself underplaying my caste identity. “It did not matter,” I told myself since I did not fit a typical narrative of victimhood. But that would often mean encountering comments like, “Oh, but you don’t look like a Dalit”. Being made to wonder if I deserved what I was getting, I could peer out from within the world of my “reserved” identity.
Am I not then an insider who knows full well how caste functions? The struggle for substantive citizenship has always been a continual one for Dalits. And here was an ideology and a law that was attempting to disenfranchise an entire community on this very question. That a Dalit basti in Seelampur’s J block guarded Muslims in their locality during the February riots in Delhi is a testament to these solidarities.
In March, as a sudden lockdown was announced, the massive out-migration from cities of migrant workers made us realise that this silent majority had been made invisible by the city, much as Dalit experience and reality has been for generations. But while we all fought to keep the virus at bay, Dalit communities had other battles to fight. There were continued reports of a steady rise in caste atrocities which got highlighted with the rape and assault of a Dalit woman from Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, who died in the heart of the capital. The deep-rooted caste-based sexual violence is common in villages, but there was an attempt by dominant caste media and the consensus it produces to deny its caste dimension.
This consensus works in explicit as well as discreet ways. Two films this year explore this phenomenon — Rajeev Kumar’s Siri, which is about the rural/urban cauldron of the agrarian crisis in Punjab, and Pa Ranjith and Rajesh Rajamani’s The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas, which shows a mirror to the “empathetic” dominant caste Indian society that typecasts Dalits as wretched bodies.
The year also confirmed that progressive academic and discursive spaces are not free of casteist slurs and stereotyping. The targeting of a Jadavpur University teacher on the mythical “merit question” was just one instance. Even more disquieting was the way anti-caste intellectuals and activists like Anand Teltumbde, Hany Babu and Gautam Navlakha were hounded and arrested in connection with Elgar Parishad, even while justice evaded the Dalit masses who faced the brunt of the violence on January 1, 2018.
As I traversed the narrow lanes of Firozabad’s Valmiki Basti in Tapa Mayapuri, I saw the plight of sanitation workers, who walk the thin line between daily humiliation and economic needs, and whose anger was amplified by the terrible killing of one of their own. “We clean your city, we get up early in the morning and sweep your streets clean, and this is the way you treat us back,” they said. These were strong Dalit women who could see through the blatant casteism of the state machinery. As the UP government cracked down on those who raised their voices against brutalities, Dalit women from Budhera’s Valmiki Basti in Delhi NCR publicly rejected caste and discrimination by converting to Buddhism.
Finally, the year has come full circle with the farmers’ protests raging at the capital’s limits. I cannot but observe the absence from the protests of Dalit mazdoors, of younger women, of migrant farm workers, whose labour makes the country run. Caste is integral to our body politic, and it will remain so in the new year. The Begumpura of our dreams will emerge only with its annihilation.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 1, 2021 under the title ‘Caste, Covid and the city’. Jennifer works with Dalit Camera and is a research scholar from School of Social Sciences, JNU.