Last year in October, I visited Harvard’s Kennedy School on a rainy morning to meet Suraj Yengde. The tall and lanky scholar greeted me with a broad smile, and we ended up talking for more than an hour about various policies for the Scheduled Castes and the hurdles in the path of uniting them at the national level. I had not yet read his book, Caste Matters that had dropped three months earlier but was aware that it had caused quite a stir among all stripes of Dalits in India. I left with the promise that I will read it once I could lay my hands on it.
Caste Matters, a mix of a memoir and an ethnographic study, is a scholar-activists’ interpretation of how caste oppression has survived in modern India despite the Constitutional provisions and laws passed to protect the Dalit. Yengde’s story about growing up in the fringes and experiencing multi-layered discrimination as a member of the Dalit community is a powerful one. It is not the first personal story and nor will it be the last. Every decade will churn out new personal narrations like this that will illuminate the disadvantages of being a Dalit in India and continue to appall us. Yet this book offers more than an individual’s story.
Some of his reviewers have criticized Yengde for his unconventional style. Valerian Rodrigues, an Indian political scientist, known for his influential work on Ambedkar, points out that he has neither clarified the differences between Dalit/Untouchable and other lower castes nor discussed the nuanced caste alignments. Raja Shekar Vundru has been more direct in his attack when he said that Yengde brought no new perspective either on caste or on Ambedkar, reflecting “puerile anger of his childhood, grossly missing the methodology.”
I disagree with these criticisms for both the reviewers missed what the book is really about. The writing is rambling in places and need of better editing. The material is dense and sprinkled with academic jargon. It can intimidate and turn away readers, especially those who are lazy not to read between the lines. Wearing two different hats—one that of a researcher, the other of a Dalit who has seen a problematic childhood—makes his task challenging. It sometimes reads like garbled 2 AM thoughts with way too much information bombarded from all sides.
However, if one spends a bit of time sifting through it, one would see his academic prowess shine through in the meticulous historical research he weaves into his narrative and the bold references that he draws. He compares the Black civil rights movement in the U.S. to the Dalit rights movement in India. One can then also appreciate his conscious decision to use illustrations over statistics to reach out to a broader audience. He does not use a glossary for he assumes that his readers know the basics of the Indian caste system and will make the minimum effort to do their digging before coming to understand the content of his book.
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The content is unfiltered yet refreshing. Yengde is unafraid to swim against the tide and mention the pesky problems the Dalit movement in India suffers from, that other scholars and activists often shy away from saying. He goes to problematic spaces, calling out the different kinds of Dalits for what they are, not afraid of alienating the excitable types. His ‘Categories of Dalits’, categorization of 1,200 Dalit sub-castes into Token Dalits, Elite Dalits, Self-obsessed Dalits, and Radical Dalits has attracted the wrath of young Dalits who have most probably not even read the entire book. Holding up a mirror to prejudices and inabilities within the Dalit community, he spares no one, not even himself.
It is his activist fury that seems to boil over and remind his readers that it is time they all came out of their comfort zones. He argues that some of Dalits did follow a part of Ambedkar’s dictum—‘Educate’ but when it came to ‘Organize’ they fell flat and allowed personal agendas and interests to win over community advancement. Also ‘Agitate’ part could never indeed roll out into a steady pan India movement. He asserts on the need to look within beyond blaming savarnas.
He brings up several topics that need serious discussion and a new approach, especially in today’s charged political ambience. He writes that India is not yet a nation. Barring its Constitution, nothing ties its citizens to each other. He then goes on to say that nationalism takes precedence over caste—and so does communalism, which is a construct of upper caste and class of both religions—for a reason. He uses the example of the Babri Masjid demolition of Ayodhya in 1992 that he thinks became a diversion from the issue of reservations for OBCs brought forth by V.P. Singh government on the recommendations of the Mandal Commission report in 1990.
Yengde is critical of how Ambedkar is placed on a pedestal, worshipped along with other Hindu deities and is celebrated as the author of the Indian Constitution, yet no attention is given to his ideas on political philosophy and economics.
On nation-building, he points out how for Ambedkar, nationalism meant collectively working towards annihilating caste. “Patriotism in an unequal society is a scheme conspired against Dalits to continue their subjugation.” (93) Yengde agrees with Ambedkar’s opinion that India needed an internal cleansing before it got established as a constitutional republic. That is the reason why despite encompassing sound provisions, the Constitution by itself fails to protect the Dalits and other marginalized populations in India. The law remains a helpless spectator when faced with social sanctions.
He calls Dalit Capitalism a smokescreen that despite promising to fight caste with capital is at best an “unfavourable inclusion”. Again, going back to his original point, until the caste system is annihilated, Dalit Capitalism will passively reinvent or slightly modify the wheel of oppressive capitalist design and not create an alternative, an equal social system.
Yengde is critical of how the Left movement in India identified the “western imperial order as the central problem while remaining blind to the local, everyday caste oppressions in the new capitalist caste market.” “A Dalit has to feel the pain of the capitalist exploitation of his counterparts in Asia, Africa, and North America… (yet he) remains agentless in the left discourse.” (235). This led to the failure of leftist intellectuals to include Dalits in their revolutionary movement.
Yengde’s pure soul can be seen bared in his first chapter where he reveals what being a Dalit means and how, despite suffering generations of indignity and subservience, the Dalits have had the will to overcome hatred. Dalit humour and love are useful antidotes to the sickness of caste. So many civil wars could have broken out, and yet that didn’t happen because Dalits historically were never in favour of taking up arms. He mentions the power of Dalit women. “Because she offers the most powerful resistance to the structures of the caste system, she is most devoutly oppressed.” (141) Yet, Dalit women have been asserting their rightful position as leaders in the greater anti-caste struggle and have become more visible since 2000 through organizations like the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights and Ambedkar International Mission.
In his last chapter Yengde hands us a vital takeaway that has the potential to play the role of unifying all Indians in the battle against the caste system. He discusses how previously Brahmins and other savarnas have participated in the fight against the caste system because they understood that caste detrimentally affects everyone, including the high priest Brahmins. The anti-caste struggle cannot be a mono-caste struggle for that will only reproduce hierarchies. Therefore, the anti-caste movement has to be multi-caste in its composition. Only then “the struggle becomes a common cause and not the Other’s cause.” (294)
While the book does not offer the solution I thought it would; it did deliver the message loud and clear that caste atrocities survive and will continue doing so until and unless people from all castes understand the urgent need to overthrow this obsolete institution.