I have no means to validate my history and how it shaped my emotional state and nurtured my intelligence, which often fills me with more angst than I can explain. Why is it so? History made me an ‘untouchable’ and forced me to bear its grotesque shadow. So, my existence was systematically erased wherever I go in caste society. As one conscious of and honest about my roots, I know my stories were conveniently distorted to make me ashamed of my existence. Only with the arrival of Dr BR Ambedkar did I discover that the value of a human being is self-evident, and nothing else is necessary to prove I am invaluable.
However, caste society still does not think like that. Here, caste location measures the value of human beings in society: the higher the caste, the higher the value and the lower the caste, the lower the value. The dejecting reality is that the oppressor caste can value their pets more than the lower caste humans. The murder or rape of a member of an oppressor caste gets national attention, and the caste nation stands to oppose it, while the murder or rape of an oppressed caste human is so normalised that society skips mentioning it, like a newspaper page that does not interest them.
However, you are next to invisible if you are not a part of the national imagination. My ancestors lived like this, invisible for generations. Only recently, they arrived with their poetry, stories and songs. Their Self, like mine, has therefore travelled centuries with the experiences of our ancestors. Deep within my subconscious, I feel uncomfortable and insecure in a society which protects caste values and their violence in everyday life. I am neither immune from this violence nor from an existence which overshadows my dream to live a casteless life.
‘He is a Dalit writer.’ Only this tiny sentence uttered by literary pundits of the oppressor castes is enough to make me relive the pangs of my persecution from the past. Caste affected me, so I carried an invented characteristic that forced me to abide by one of this society’s lethal values: self-deprecation.
Therefore, the primary condition for the liberation of an oppressed person is to overcome self-deprecation. How would this be possible for one who was forced to manifest the vision of their oppressor? Today, the oppressor does not even need to act or speak to manifest this vision. After being in a state of self-deprecation for centuries, how can I break free?
He, who has witnessed too much mental and physical violence, takes it as the strongest memory of his history. His pain occupies most of his mind, rather than happiness. Nevertheless, he needs abundant empathy and love for himself (and others) to achieve liberation. In Pedagogy of the Oppressed (2017, Penguin Classics), Paulo Freire writes, “The oppressed who have been shaped by the death-affirming climate of oppression must find through their struggle the way to life-affirming humanisation, which does not lie simply in having more to eat (although it does involve having more to eat and cannot fail to include this aspect). The oppressed have been destroyed precisely because their situation has reduced them to things. In order to regain their humanity, they must cease to be things and fight as men and women. This is a radical requirement. They cannot enter the struggle as objects in order later to become human beings.”
Those whose Self has been objectified often fail in their revolutionary quest or struggles despite gathering enough experiences and knowledge of the society that oppresses them. A cursory glance over the condition of anti-caste movements after Dr Ambedkar shows it has failed in the leadership domain, especially in finding answers to resolve their searing anxieties. Because of this, the masses are often struck by political confusion, which in no time makes them more emotive than rational or reasonable.
The failure of the leadership of anti-caste movements created space for spiritualist cults to exploit the frustrations of the Dalit community. For instance, in the name of Buddhism (where vegetarianism and meditation are strictly propagated), some slyly spread metaphysical ideas that depoliticise their followers. The problem of caste and the material issues of the Dalit community have no place in their agendas.
I, too, have been affected by such adverse developments in my Dalit community over the years. My community’s history, and my personal history as a man, made me what I am. Further, caste and its evil phenomena pushed me into a double life, which is how I must live to protect myself from the vulnerabilities and violence caste society has planned for me. This duality is not mine alone—oppressed persons worldwide share this. Frantz Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks (Grove Press, 2008), “The black man possesses two dimensions: one with his fellow Blacks, the other with the Whites. A black man behaves differently with a white man than he does with another black man.” So true!
However, in caste society, realities are based on caste locations. Naturally, I would never know where my instincts would take me in every encounter with every caste. However, the duality would come to light only when I live in my community and meet someone from an oppressor caste. For example, it was constantly at play on the academic campus—all Dalits who have walked into such spaces would relate to this experience. This duality was a construction of my external circumstances and political structures created to put me in a particular place but never allow me to imagine my life beyond it. This duality shaped my Self, but how do I deconstruct it? Doing so would deconstruct caste within me—and its death would allow me, eventually, to imagine life with a de-caste imagination.
Often, in moments of angst and extreme emotional upsurges, I have acted as caste has made me. I want to communicate without judging and understand and love people. But I am shaped to do exactly what I have wished to avoid ever since I realised my perpetual deprecation—either of myself or the other. This usually translates into the oppressed person abusing his body with intoxicating substances. I am sure that during serious reflections about our behaviour, everybody in caste society has felt this in their bones.
Reaching the position of being able to feel the assault of caste on our minds and bodies is a significant achievement. But it is a terrible feeling, too, because then we see that caste has snatched our beauty as human beings: the beauty of empathising and loving and never losing sight of this, even in our excruciating moments of suffering.
The moment we are born, we get sucked into the black hole of the caste—our caste—in which we are born. Everything pushes us into that black hole at every moment: parents, family, school, institutions, and places we visit. We unknowingly grow up as a “suffering child” when ideally, we should be getting love, care and empathy as normally as food. Instead, we receive love rarely, like it were an award. As a result, the child in us is always wounded and never heals, making us a danger as adults for ourselves and possibly others.
In All About Love (William Marrow, 2001), Bell Hooks writes, “Practically every adult who experienced unnecessary suffering in childhood has a story to tell about someone whose kindness, tenderness, and concern restored their sense of hope.” Unfortunately, where caste exists, the scope of such kindness is snatched away. It limits tenderness and concern within caste networks and communities.
A person from an oppressor caste showing kindness towards an oppressed caste person is mainly motivated by guilt. An oppressed caste person conscious of his history could never feel kindness towards one from the oppressor caste, obviously. This inability arises from the pain of facing caste discrimination, which is incomparable with any other suffering. In the path of kindness, tenderness, and concern lies the guilt of the oppressor—if he has any—and the pain of the oppressed, which is ever-present.
In caste society, we are made to think for our caste and community, and our ideas of kindness, tenderness and concern rarely go beyond our community. Foreigners would find it challenging to comprehend the complexity of this statement as they do not possess empirical experiences of living in such a society. However, those who are part of it can feel what I am saying in their nerves. I want to destroy this—the construction of caste within me. The death of this caste Self would be the death of caste.