You know how it goes. At the end of a seminar, the floor is opened to questions from the audience. In dramatic, yet wholly unsurprising ways, the audience interaction is often the undoing of any collective intelligence the seminar might have laid claim to. In 2015, the administration at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras derecognised the Ambedkar Periyar Study Circle (APSC) after an anonymous complaint to the Union ministry for human resource development alleged that the group was “creating hatred among the students in the name of caste”. The decision was subsequently revoked, and the first APSC seminar after its reinstatement saw the Harvard professor Ajantha Subramanian discussing merit and reservation in Indian engineering education. At the end of the seminar, a flustered audience member raised his hand to ask, “Ma’am, it has been 65 years of reservation. How much more time will it take to upward the backward?”
A similar scene unfolds at the India International Centre, New Delhi, at the launch of Anand Teltumbde’s book, Republic of Caste: Thinking Equality in the Time of Neoliberal Hindutva . An audience member wants to know the “per capita income of the average dalit”, because the problem, he stridently declares, is chiefly economic. On the dais, Teltumbde looks rather bored, and tired. He has seen worse instances of entitlement acting in conjunction with wilful ignorance.
The ignorance of history
Earlier in the day, Teltumbde is candid and eloquent over a one-on-one interview. Shaking his head in resignation, he says, “There is such a superfluous knowledge system around the critical issues underpinning caste.” He would know. A public intellectual and activist of prolific scholarship on the subjects of caste, dalit history, and civil rights, his books include Persistence of Caste , Khairlanji: A Strange and Bitter Crop, and Mahad: Making of the First Dalit Revolt among others . Having worked in both public and corporate establishments, he has studied the subtle ways in which caste operates across professions, regions, and economies.
In Republic of Caste , Teltumbde aims to critique the foundational scaffolding of the Indian republic. He writes: “...beneath the veneer of a modern, developing superpower, India remains a republic of caste.” It is a damning indictment, but one that is hard to disprove.
Republic of Caste comes in the wake of the Supreme Court judgement in March that issued detailed directions to prevent the “misuse” of The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. In the SK Mahajan vs State of Maharashtra case, the two-judge bench of Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit deemed that in cases of atrocities against dalits, no public servant could be arrested without the written permission of the appointing authority; and in the case of a civilian, the written permission of the senior superintendent of police would have to be obtained. Furthermore, the judgement “expressed concern” that the Act “should not result in perpetuating casteism which can have an adverse impact on the integration of society and the constitutional values”.
Despite widespread protests, Justice Goel stood by his judgement during the review petition, stating, “An innocent should not be punished. There should not be terror in society.”
Teltumbde’s countervailing examples draw on the Khairlanji dalit massacre (2006) and the Bhanwari Devi rape case (1992): “The women in these families experience pervasive sexual abuse, but it wouldn’t even be called rape, because it is taken for granted that the bodies of dalit women are available to upper- caste men. Now, even if activist groups pressured the police into filing an FIR, the process of investigation is so horrific and so laden with abuse that the resourceless dalit family would rather withdraw the case.” For the judges to infer that the Act is being misused going by the cases withdrawn reveals the long-standing ignorance of how caste operates, he says. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the conviction rate under the Act is a dismal 25.7 per cent.
The bogey of reservation
The impetus for anti-dalit violence, Teltumbde explains, is the convergence of three factors — “a grudge against dalits, an assurance that no harm will befall the perpetrator, and a trigger.” In Khairlanji, he points out, where all the murdered were dalits, while the state machinery — from the local police station to the hospital where the postmortem was conducted — had adequate dalit representation, the court’s judgement still ruled out the caste angle, deeming it a “revenge-killing”. Here, representation did not mean empowerment. Teltumbde writes, “This should make dalits sit up and rethink the logic of representation that has been the pivot of their movement.” Teltumbde observes, “Notionally, it was assumed that with reservation, more dalits would be able to access higher education, and occupy positions of power in the bureaucracy, thereby changing the nature of the system, as well as creating a protective umbrella for the rest of the dalit community.” That has not happened, he points out.
Teltumbde has reasons to be vehemently anti-reservation. Pointing to the abolition of untouchability, he remarks, “Untouchability is just an aspect of caste. Unless caste is abolished, how can this practice end? The newly-independent Indian state was projected as a progressive one, so untouchability was abolished while caste was preserved through reservation.” In 1935, the colonial government introduced an administrative category of Scheduled Caste, which snapped the connection with the caste system. In 1950, the Indian government restored this connection by instating caste-based reservation. It also created another Schedule for tribes, also linked with backwardness. This, according to Teltumbde, was a move that preserved caste. “If the intention to root out caste was honest, then the government would have combined the Schedules, since tribes do not come with the stigma of caste. It would have gone a long way in diluting the effect of caste discrimination.”
Reservations are simply a mechanism to ensure dalit participation, not a measure of justice, he argues further. This is how caste is written into the Constitution. “If it is justice one is aiming for, then you need to focus on three basic factors — healthcare, education, and livelihood security; and these have to be provided universally — to all people, regardless of caste or background. Without this, reservation policies will always be detrimental to the people they are meant for, especially when associated with caste.”
The chapter ‘dalit Protests in Gujarat: A Shifting Paradigm ’ discusses the Una agitation. In 2016, a video of four dalit men being publicly flogged by upper-caste gaurakshaks was shared on social media. Violent protests by dalits erupted in Gujarat. Teltumbde was involved in strategising a response together with the emergent dalit leader Jignesh Mewani. Chanting slogans such as “Keep the cow’s tail, give us our land”, dalit protesters halted their caste-based work of skinning carcasses and cleaning sewers. Some threw the carcasses into the district collectorate compound, and the decaying stench is said to have prompted the government to act, leading to 300 acres being released to dalit allottees.
“Dalits tend to amplify the social indignities they face. Not that they are in any way unimportant, but the material aspects of change tend to be overlooked. What happened in Una was that, as justice, we demanded livelihood options from the government, which, in this case, is land,” he points out. In addition to striving for revolution through tangible demands, the dalit movement also has to move away from caste-based alliances and identity politics, which lock them further into disempowering hierarchies. He points to how Mewani worked with Patidar leader Hardik Patel during the last elections. “Caste only knows how to split,” he concludes, “so there can be no identity-based solution to the annihilation of caste.”
Republic of Caste , true to Teltumbde’s aims of critiquing the foundations of the Indian republic, evaluates varied components of the state such as its electoral politics, recent flagship policies such as the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, as well as how caste interacts with the state’s neoliberal agenda. Urging us to recover our “public conscience”, Sunil Khilnani writes in the foreword, “Teltumbde tellingly dissects the complacent imagination of contemporary activism, and gets to the heart of what is at stake: our collective survival as a democratic republic.”
New focal points
At the book launch, Mewani is in conversation with Teltumbde, with Uma Chakravarthy moderating. Mewani is disarmingly honest about how no one in the movement still had any clear idea on how to go about annihilating caste. “For too long, dalit demands have coalesced around reservations and untouchability, but now the focal points of the anti-caste struggle must be public health, education, land, and roti-kapda-makaan ,” he says to resounding applause. Chakravarthy has one more point to add to his list— the empowerment of women. Patriarchy and caste violence go hand-in-hand, and dalit women continue to bear the worst forms of caste atrocities.
The audience applauds again. Briefly, very briefly, everyone seems to be in agreement. The illusion is shattered when Chakravarthy says, “Any questions?”