During my growing years, there was little I knew about India’s rigid, oppressive caste system, because how would I? I was told by my elders to focus more on Math and Science, rather than Social Science. I'd read newspapers documenting violence against Dalits and feel empathetic for a short while. I did not recognise how deeply rooted these injustices were until I had started working for a community radio station three years ago. That's when I learned the importance of intersectional activism. Intersectionality illustrates how people’s experiences, and access to aid and rights, differ due to their difference in positionality (of privilege), within a larger spectrum. It was one of the reasons why I applied for the en-root fellowship as I wanted to dive deeper and gain practical understanding about the issues rather than learning about them from textbooks.
When I started working on a fellowship with Nathi Nonsense, I discovered how in a conservative, patriarchal, casteist, unequal modern Indian society, the unjustified advantage of being a Hindu from an upper-caste and elite class plays an important role in defining a person's social status. It gives them the voice, the dominant position, the decision-making authority and the power to exercise control over others. To legitimise their superior and authoritative status, those socially sanctioned prerogatives bestowed on an individual, work together based on which they can seek to oppress others, including the poor, minorities and those from the lower-caste or deprived classes. These systemic organised unearned privileges of being a Hindu, from an upper caste and an elite class function unjustifiably, invisibly and visibly, consciously or unknowingly in the present Indian society, where the privileged are not taught either to consider the plight of others or the prerogatives bestowed on them.
Such privilege matrices are interrelated, intersect, and work together in a way that reiterates and reinforces the mechanisms of oppression. Thus, patriarchy, religious supremacy, casteism and inequality of wealth all work together to perpetuate the culture of superiority in an implicit and unseen way, through the ideals of equality, fundamental equality and social justice based on the Constitution of India as well as the legal framework.
Privileges, therefore, demand a much deeper meaning than the individual act of cruelty, selfishness, atrocity or an episode of violence against the marginal communities. It is a wider concept that goes beyond the scope of prejudice and includes insults, embarrassment, invalidation of individuality. This is because privileges are invisible and grant those groups unseen authority only because they are members of certain societies. Thus in a country like India, where privileges work in a pervasive but indistinguishable manner, despite the presence of a constitutional provision of equality that seems to have abolished discrimination based on sex, caste, class, religion or other circumstances, a segment of society is still in a position to reap unseen unequal benefits.
It was Purshottambhai Vaghela, a community leader and Dalit activist who brought it to my notice how in India, a geographical territory that is dominated by the Hindus and those who have been professing this religion have been trying to maintain their dominance using different tools to assert their superiority over those practicing other faiths and beliefs. Therefore, being born as a male in a Hindu upper-caste family, a person may enjoy privilege like easier access to temples and shrines which a Hindu upper-caste female or a Dalit male may not get as evident in the recent incidents. Vaghela says, “Dalits have suffered from the stigma of untouchability for a long time and have submissively embraced the conditions of social exclusion, housing segregation, economic inequality, political disparity and cultural degradation. It is with the upper class and middle class caste Hindus middle-class can be said to clash when they claim a concession for entry into temples, which has historically been refused to them, and which is denied even now, despite the presence of a law abolishing such discrimination. The lower class caste Hindus are generally not opposed to any economic-political development of the Dalits. Therefore they normally do not have any conflict with the Dalits, except in exceptional situations wherein their higher ritual status is threatened.”
He also mentioned how physical violence is often perpetrated against them by the upper caste Hindus. Of which, a majority of the Dalit respondents report that they were beaten ranging from very frequently to rarely. There were also cases of raids on the Harijan hamlets or houses. Violence has been perpetrated in the form of kidnapping, hurling insults, rapes, physical torture and threats or attempts at murder.
Based on caste, religious dominance is woven to establish division, placing Brahmin on the higher pedestal and Shudra at the lowest rung of the ladder. In addition to being forced to face injustice and prejudice, people from the lower caste are thus mistreated, humiliated and subjected to abuse. Banning entry into places of worship to denial of taking water from the village pond, beating furiously over interacting with upper-caste girls to denial of admission into educational institutions and other opportunities are all examples of discriminative ideologies. The choice of course of religion further discriminates against men and women from a religion other than that in a majority in a given territorial realm.
The concept of purity and pollution is utilized ingeniously to deprive Dalits access to public places. Thus, those in power deployed clever strategies to deny and negate the existence of those who are not part of it. Frequently, these prerogatives are imbibed within the society through institutions like family, schools, workplaces, media, movies etc. through emphasizing pride and supremacy in being rich, hailing from upper caste or being a member of the religious majority while considering others as inferior and therefore may be a target of humiliation or abuse. Hence, the elite dominant Indian class never seeks to resolve profoundly rooted socio-economic disparities, such as poverty, hunger, malnutrition, the suicide of farmers.
This intertwined structure of privilege based on class, caste, sex, religion, family or social background has its repercussions which may adversely damage the social fabric, yet, when these factors run in parallel, in the institutionalized form these are seen as a danger to the integrity of the society. I asked Purshottambhai who is also the Director of Manav Garima Lok Sangathan if there’s a way to end this systemic dominance, to which he replied, “Individual acts can alleviate, but cannot end these problems. To redesign social systems we need to first acknowledge their immense unseen dimensions. The primary political weapon here is the silences and denials surrounding privilege. They keep the thinking of inequality and injustice, maintaining unearned advantages and get conferred with superiority by making these taboo topics.” Further, the unchecked power or privileges granted to a few, are not helping those who possess these. As there are rich people who are not happy or contended or men to be masculine and patriarchal need to behave aggressively and violently to prove and defend their masculinity. Similarly, the power granted to religion has not helped to achieve the goal of peace, or the concept of purity or pollution as propagated by the casteist society has not helped humanity in any manner. The need, therefore, is to recognize these systemic structural privileges organized ideologically around religion, caste, class, sex and social status. The resistance struggle needs to be accompanied by the recognition of privileges by those who are benefited by it.
Written by: Trusha Mishra
Art by: Siddhesh Gautam