There are some books that have to be treated materially as books, their coming into existence being as important as the ideas contained in them.
It is not easy, to say the least, for a young Dalit student to write a book in English and have it published. It is also not easy for a young Dalit to start and successfully run an anti-caste publishing house that regularly publishes such books. Both Sumeet Samos and Yogesh Maitreya have done what they were not meant to do: they have refused to stay in the place that Hindu society had designated for them. By doing this, they have taken on a responsibility to their community; they have become part of an anti-caste writing tradition that has survived and flourished through people like them. But the process of joining this tradition has its own dangers.
Samos says, “Navigating and surviving life in rigid caste societies as illiterate masses is as anti-caste as young Dalit students engaged in student activism in universities and colleges.” While he is trying to tell us something about the grace and glory of the ‘illiterate masses’ who have managed to produce first-generation university students like himself, we can conversely also learn something about the immense danger faced by these young Dalit students in our hallowed university spaces. Just because they are in a university does not mean their lives are any easier than the lives of their brethren back home, in the dens of ‘ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism’ that are their villages. Samos makes sure we remember young students like Rohith Vemula, Delta Meghwal and Muthu Krishnan whose deaths mark just how much our universities replicate our villages.
Any review of this book necessarily involves a look at the young man who has produced this book. The book has to be read in the context of the body that has produced it, the experiences of which body in this world have led to this work. One lives as a body in a caste society and one produces as such. “Just as babies acquire a first language, we, as Dom kids, acquired the unsaid caste rules of do’s and don’ts.” The author might be dead for the Whites, but the author is of the utmost importance as far as the anti-caste movement is concerned. Because it is from the author’s caste location that the meaning of the author’s words becomes clear. The words written by Samos come from a ‘personal anti caste conviction to not be crushed.’ It is, as he says, “Our experience (which) generates the radical anti-caste conviction to escape the reality we are trapped in.”
No amount of reading can replace this conviction born of experience. Samos draws a line between himself and ethnographers like Nandini Sundar and sociologists like Dipesh Chakraborty. While Samos writes about his region and about his community through “participant observation he has conducted by virtue of his birth and growing up in that place”, the upper caste academics come and go at will; they write about the people he belongs to but never participate in their lives and wouldn’t know how to even if they tried.
“My objective analysis of texts and practices is informed by … a subjecthood largely shaped by the Desia region and subaltern-Christian tradition I was born into,” writes Samos. At this point, I should make clear that my review of his work is informed by my own desire to develop an unwavering anti-caste conviction, a desire that is both shaped by and in opposition to my upbringing and continued existence as an upper-class Jain.
Dreams, rage and identity
‘Affairs of Caste’ has the flavour of a young man’s dreams – dreams which are too big for the place in which they (the Hindus) want to keep him. While reading the book, one can almost feel the angst produced from the constraints that he has encountered everywhere he has turned. From the difficulty and loneliness of acquiring English in a society hell-bent on not allowing him to learn the language, to the constant requirement of breaking away from circumstances which threaten to swallow him whole, the young man’s journey has been full of perils.
Not only has society tried to actively stop him from outside, he has also been sabotaged from the inside. His self-regard has been hijacked; he has been made to hate himself and believe in his own “worthlessness and inadequacy from an early age.” Samos invokes African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist Malcolm X to ask, “What makes us hate ourselves?” The self-hate is as much of a barrier for Dalits as anything else Hindus have come up with, and Samos has worked upon destroying it as much as other obstacles in his path.
Hindu society has built walls which are meant to imprison young men like Samos. These walls are invisible to many like me, but become the tombs of many more like Samos. We don’t want to see these walls because we don’t want to acknowledge that we have built them. By ignoring these walls and the people within them, we want to acquire a moral identity of not practicing casteism. But when people like Samos do manage to break out of these walls, we who acted like they didn’t exist are suddenly forced to deal with this person and the walls these people have broken through, the debris of which now lies at our feet.
This is a painful experience for most of us, and this is the experience which Samos forces upon the upper caste reader. He makes us take a hard look at the crimes we allow and the crimes we commit just so we can continue to enjoy the privileges conferred by being upper caste. And it is a testament to his maturity as a thinker that he manages to do all this with love, with no bitterness, as if he is not accusing us as much as trying to heal us of our own deadly delusions.
When he says that anger should not permeate our personal spaces, or that he is writing for the future, or that his is a pride of defiance (“a positive determination inscribed on deeply negative experiences”), or that “we are human beings just like everyone else with our individual aspirations, politics, culture, intellect, conflict, families, histories, desires and creative energies” and when he says all this with a rage that is even more palpably born of love for the humanity that must exist within us (contrary to all evidence); when he wagers his anti-caste struggle on the love that must exist in the breast of every human being, no matter how low we have allowed ourselves to fall, he reminds me most of American writer and activist James Baldwin.
Like Baldwin, Samos left Koraput (his Harlem) to go to liberal Delhi (his Europe) only to realize Delhi is not so different after all. But, like Baldwin, he did find a group of people in Delhi who helped him discover who he was and what he really wanted to achieve. This group of people (the Christians from the Brahmaputra Basin are mentioned most clearly by Samos) finally, for the first time in his life, treated him not as a marked man but as a brother. While this gave him the much-needed space and confidence to become an intellectual, and to believe that he could become an intellectual, he also realized that he was in a foreign land and he could not continue to indefinitely be so.
To really become a Dom boy from southern Odisha on his own terms rather than on the terms given to him by the upper castes, and to take responsibility for being a Dom boy from the hills of Koraput, he had to go away and come back home, just like Baldwin had to go to Europe to learn he was a Black American and then journey back to America to assume his identity.
What the book tries to achieve
Samos and Baldwin may be very different people dealing with very different problems (of caste and race), but the attitude with which they approach the Upper Caste and White questions (and problems) respectively are similar. Both of them try to open the eyes of their respective oppressors and make them understand what they are doing, so they can become capable of love, because in the society which they have built and which many of them silently acquiesce to, there is yet no such possibility. From their own experience as Black and Dalit, they try to bring the gift of love to the White and the Upper Caste, respectively, not to save them as much as to save the society which they are fated to share.
Samos’ solution to the problem of his people is twofold (just like Baldwin again). One, to be the light, the beacon of hope for Dalit youth, wherein they see him and are able to believe in the possibility of his existence, and thus in their own existence in his place. Existential possibilities are opened by our belief that we can imitate a mode of existence. This was one of the primary reasons given by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar for why reservations were important. To make Dalits believe that they are capable of occupying those positions which had been shut to them for millennia, but which they now see their people occupy. This is also why reservations have been stigmatized so strongly with the mark of incapability. The myth of merit was built only for this purpose, to make Dalits think they are unworthy of their own dreams, and Samos is out to break that myth.
The second purpose of Samos’ writing is to expose the hypocrisies of upper caste ‘allies’ so that they are forced to choose a side. Either be openly against Dalits and stop playing this game of lip service through which you exploit and manipulate Dalits, or open your eyes to yourself and change your life to become an actual friend. He is exasperated with the left-liberal, and devotes a lot of time and energy in analysing the liberal Hindu, who is a radical revolutionary till he chooses to be upper caste, sometimes with such felicity that one won’t even notice them changing registers back and forth, espousing radical-revolutionary sounding ideas while simultaneously acting their caste in subtle ways. The excavation of this character, who has moralized the scene to an obscene degree and who uses a convoluted version of purity-morality to thwart the anti-caste movement, has a long tradition, possibly the most famous modern rendition of which was Ambedkar’s ‘What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables’ (1945).
Samos has skin in the game, and one of his biggest problems with ‘allies’ is that they don’t. Upper castes come, do their thing, and go, while the Dalits and Adivasis suffer. This happened in Koraput with “the arrival of higher caste Maoist leaders from coastal Odisha”. This also happened as liberals at Jawaharlal Nehru University hijacked the movement created after the institutional murder of Vemula, and all but ate it up to promote the likes of current Indian National Congress political activist Kanhaiya Kumar. It is telling that both Kumar (a so-called ‘urban Naxal’) and the rural upper caste Naxals began their careers as revolutionaries demanding support from Dalits and Adivasis, and ended up fighting elections from big political parties which are against the interests of Dalits and Adivasis.
One already knows what to expect from the traditional Hindu; it is the sweet talk of the liberal Hindu that breaks a young man’s morale, when behind it one witnesses the same actions of the traditional Hindu. While talking of Dalit and Adivasi cadres at the forefront of the struggles against feudal landlords, Samos mentions that the violent backlash of the State was one thing they expected but a lot of them also perished from the “double-dealing, opportunism, misadventures and hypocrisy from a certain section of upper caste leaderships and intermediaries. Such tendencies were not just misleading but also pushed so many lives into further risk, which even included taking their lives.”
One’s guard must not be down when interacting with a liberal just because they have learnt to talk ‘politically correct’; one should see how they act and only then lower one’s guard bit by tested bit, he writes. As he raps about the liberal, “What you speak and write never validates your fight, but your everyday life is your witness live whether you believe or you lied, that’s the only source to be relied.”
The central thrust of Samos’ writing is to make people do something. For Dalits to believe they can do anything they put their minds to, and then do those things. And for the upper castes to make changes to their lives, which are responsible for the existence of caste. In that, the writing is very action-oriented. It opens out into the world instead of opening to other writing. You read (or listen to Samos) and do, instead of staying confined to reading. In fact, that is one of the things he emphasizes: people who read and don’t change have read for nothing.
In the first single he released, Ladai Seekh Le (Learn to Resist), he channels Italian Marxist philosopher, journalist, linguist, writer, and politician A.F. Gramsci to criticize the ‘anti-caste’ intellectuals who have learned posturing from books, but have neither been able nor willing to actually change their lives in any manner. “Padhe ho jo kitaabon mein hum har roz usko jeete, asaliyat mein gyan kya hai humse ye seekh le (What you are reading in books, we live that every day. What is actual knowledge, learn it from us.)”
It is Samos’ ability to mix intellectual discourse with everyday life and everyday language that sets him apart from so many others. While the upper castes have aggregated to themselves the right to intellectual discourse, they write in an extremely abstract manner such that it is unintelligible to all but themselves (sometimes even the Whites are more intelligible, Samos says). And whereas the task of emotional outpouring, the sketching of everyday life, is allowed for the Dalits who write autobiographies, they do not get space in intellectual discourse and are looked down upon even for their autobiographies. “I am quite aware that the market economy of consumption wants a painful rendition of marginalized identities while a certain intellectual class derides autobiographical narration by Dalits, terming them as too individualistic. Moving away from this dichotomy, my writing has attempted to combine history and social anthropology, participant observation and an element of autobiography.”
Samos goes back and forth with ease between thinkers like French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu on the one hand, and his life experiences in Koraput and Delhi on the other. The theories inform his life, which informs the theory, and the two come together in a synthesis that illuminates caste for us from every angle and exposes not only the structure of the system but its everyday manifestations. “There is a pattern to the way I write my poems: first, is to write about my experiences, second, about the institutions that led to those experiences and finally, a way out of those problems.”
To counter the gradual takeover by Brahminical culture of the indigenous movements of Dalits and Adivasis in places like southern Odisha, Samos suggests that a local history of caste has to be written by the people who come from anti-caste communities, that is, Dalits and Adivasis. Caste has to be understood regionally because in the subcontinent, there is not just one caste society but a variety of caste societies, and this can only be done by the people who are actually in touch with regional anti-caste traditions and histories, by people who are regionally rooted. This book is an attempt by him to explain the manifestations of caste where he comes from, and thus also provide local solutions to the problem of caste (his contention is that there can only ever be local solutions to the problems of caste).
Understanding present-day casteism, and how to counter it
Reading ‘Affairs of Caste’, we can understand the history of Dalit-converts in southern Odisha. We can learn to see their conversion to Christianity as self-assertion of Dalits for dignity, and stop asking questions which denigrate the conversions; questions like ‘Did your conversion to Christianity reduce casteism?’ The reduction of caste practices is not the sole duty or responsibility of Dalits, nor is it the central point of their conversion. The upper castes are responsible for maintaining caste; the Dalits do what they do to assert their dignity despite this dehumanizing system.
Finally, Samos tries to talk to those upper castes who ask what they can do to counter the evil of caste. His first suggestion is that we understand the difference between caste and casteism. Only when we have done this can we even begin to see the nature of the beast we are dealing with. The problem is not our individual behaviour, but our willing or unwilling participation in the system that excludes and exploits many for the benefit of some. To those of us who conflate caste with casteism, Samos says:
“Casteism is understood as some sort of bad behaviour by castes higher in the hierarchy towards those lower than them and needs a mindset change. It reduces the whole question of caste to merely behavioural aspects on the surface, whereas the problem is far more complicated. Caste determines violence, the amount of land one can hold, social respect, representation, resources, social geography, cultural hegemony, monopoly over the market and so much more. The fight for the majority is about earning a dignified livelihood, housing, farmland, protection from violence, regular income and representation. Can good behaviour on the part of the upper-castes be the sole solution to the needs of the majority who are materially downtrodden? It is a much bigger issue than healing hurt sentiments among communities through Casteism 101.”
Second, it is necessary to understand that caste today, if it ever did, does not exist because people hold certain beliefs. Caste is an inter-generational monopoly on resources. It is a systematized “inheritance of accumulated privileges, appropriations and exclusions.” Brahmin and Bania dominance in intellectual discourse (media, academics, tech companies, and so on) and business, respectively, is a much worse manifestation of caste than the overt casteism of the castes claiming Kshatriya status. Through this dominance, they ensure that Dalits are never able to access and use knowledge or money to improve their station in life, and this denial is the precondition for enabling the violence of those below Brahmins and Banias in the caste hierarchy. Their violence is justified by Brahmin intellectual production and financed by Bania businesses.
To improve the situations of Dalits, the fortresses that need to be breached are knowledge and business. Stop concentrating on the violence and engaging in poverty porn, and become part of initiatives which are helping Dalits become stronger intellectually and financially, Samos suggests.
This ties into the third point, “Let the autonomous struggles of Adivasis, Dalits, and other oppressed sections flow and evolve in accordance with their circumstances, micro-histories, convictions, dilemmas, and not according to the diktats of higher caste/class leaderships.” When joining initiatives, don’t moralize to them; don’t hog the stage, and don’t assume leadership. Don’t do it as a trend because that’s what’s cool right now, build your CV and move on. “Any kind of transformative politics requires sustained and long-term engagement with patience.” Engage with the movement and let it dictate its terms to you, he advises.
Instead of parroting trends and buzzwords to present an activist profile on social media, which is then used to police the expression of Dalits by hyper-focusing on political grammar mistakes and political correctness, engage with a concrete problem, Samos writes. One such problem he points to is a problem he faced himself, and which almost changed the course of his life. “The lack of guidance is common to a majority of Dalits students to different degrees . . . For building cultural capital, it is essential that “supplementary measures” are provided for Dalit students where they would be supplied with information, scholarship, hostels, counselling, and tuition to enable them to compete for reservations.”
Nalanda Academy, run by educator Anoop Kumar, and the welfare schools in Telangana, run by former Indian Police Service officer R.S. Praveen Kumar, are good initiatives to deal with these problems, and the upper castes can learn from them. Other concrete problems to engage with are “land distribution, electoral reforms, institution building, autonomous media, legal support systems, health care in rural areas and protection from violence.”
If it is not possible to engage with something concretely over time, then the upper castes can, at the very least, do the work of exposing their private lives, recommends Samos. “While the private lives of the majority of Dalits are a public affair, the upper caste make a strict demarcation between their private and public lives. Behind the iron walls of the ‘private’ is where caste is sustained and regulated, generation after generation caste networks are shared, capital is transferred, and backdoor engagements are done.” Opening up these ‘private’ spaces can do wonders for the understanding and dismantling of caste.
Lastly, “It is a matter of showing basic decency towards fellow human beings. Think of how ridiculous it sounds that one can read all kinds of literature from all sorts of places while failing to understand how to treat fellow human beings around them.”