Sunday, August 16, 2015

To Be And Not To Be

To Be and Not to Be
Let a million Ambedkars bloom, so that the spaces in our hearts become meeting places
As a Brahmin born middle class woman from no particular leaning trying to understand caste for the last 15 years or so – yes, I was, like all Brahmin born middle class – shamefully impervious to this horrific system before that – I now stand more puzzled than ever.
Over these years, I have tried publicly denying my caste, religion, inter dined, inter mingled, closely befriended and stayed with people from different castes and wily nily, them with me.  And guess what: this un-brahminising (not all consciously) did not make me seem any less of a brahmin, it did not make me seem any less privileged in the eyes of society, and nor did it take away from any one’s dalit identity.
Being anti-caste, Brahmin-born and stating both of these publicly is a strange place to be in. We are a small but growing lot. We are out-casted from both sides. That those who support or want the caste hierarchies preserved do this, is of no botheration. We could show them our middle finger or, if we want to be more mature, try and make them see how wrong they are. This is a battle that we heartily take on. But more painfully, on the other hand (see I’m already dividing) is the suspicion from the very people whose dignity that ‘upper caste’ people like me, are trying to stand up for. There are unsaid limits on how much, or in what way a non-dalit can engage with caste. Crossing this line evokes sharp reactions and personal attacks. After all the strides made, there seems to be more room for antagonistic extreme postures; less for middle ground. The general message is: “if you are concerned about caste, you do your own cooking and let us do ours.” But then, when do we sit together and eat? If the crime of caste itself is that it is territorial, should the struggle to eliminate it succumb and build territories into itself?
The Brahmins will not let dalits be (oppression). Dalits will not let brahmins be (empowerment). But Brahmins who do not want to be Brahmins, and Dalits who do not want to be Dalits, where do they be?
I happened to be born in a Hindu Brahmin family. This was no choice, nor fault of mine, just as it was not of any dalit to be born in a dalit home. Now that our births have taken place, what can we do? Are we going to remind each other of this till we die and pass it on to the next generation?
Why don’t we both see that from now on, our struggles are indeed common? That to oppose caste based oppression and support equality and dignity of all human kind, I too want to and necessarily need to shed my caste? That a right-thinking (not politically but socially) upper-caste born person who is not just fashionably anti-caste, has much pain and anguish and wants the same equal and free society as a dalit would? That there is no more ‘us’ and ‘them’ in our minds and if you can accept that, how can we merge our fundamental values which are the same and turn it into an unstoppable force, a strength? Why has Ambedkar become yours and not mine, when he is ours?
The rape of a woman in Delhi can send a nation into tizzy. The rape of a dalit woman becomes a dalit-only issue. Why have we come to this? In our zeal to assert identities (we are all responsible here) – haven’t we fortified the very walls we want to pull down?
The Bhagana dalits turned to Islam. But who took this decision – their men or women? So is rejecting religion the only way? A woman who is oppressed cannot take a way out by “becoming a man” or “becoming Buddhist” or “becoming nothing”.  She stays there and fights to be respected for just what she is, a woman.
Dalits are looking for a way out. But they are also looking for a way in. And up. They want no more oppression as dalits, but more opportunities as those who now have them. They want no more pain but more power, as those who now hold them. The brahmins and ‘upper castes’ of today who can acknowledge this, are ready to offer one big deep sincere apology for the past and welcome them with open arms. The rest, is politics. To succumb to it is to lose an insight we have collectively gained, and our collective numbers. It is a terrible loss, a retrogression.
What we need is a conviction of love. All organized religions profess it, but they have also come to profess other things. The thing about love is it doesn’t need a religion, or isms. Only individual practice.
We can fight in our corners the same adversary in different ways but somewhere, the forces need confluence to remind us of our collective strength. We need a meeting place.
Arundhati Roy said in an interview (Outlook March 10, 2014)– “we need Ambedkar, now, urgently.” Indeed we do. Not one but millions. What we need urgently is to let him freely take seed in each of our hearts – dalit hearts, brahmin hearts, and what-have-you-hearts – and eventually erase those identities, so when we leave this world, our children won’t be talking any more as you-dalit and me-brahmin, but would have moved a step closer to a society we only write about, as of now. ‘Ambedkarism’, which stands so close to the dalit identity today will then hopefully take on a much larger connotation which will not need anyone’s endorsement anymore, as we would have made it integral to each one of us, no matter which caste we were born in.

Sowmya Sivakumar
(the writer resides in Tamil Nadu and can be reached at

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