There Can Be No Freedom of Speech When Casteism Colours How Others Listen

The celebrated Tamil writer looks at the manner in which caste hierarchies operate at the level of the everyday.

When a person from a dominant caste speaks to a person from an oppressed caste, the conversation never sounds like it is happening between two fellow human beings. Credit: Thessaly La Force/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

When a person from a dominant caste speaks to a person from an oppressed caste, the conversation never sounds like it is happening between two fellow human beings. Credit: Thessaly La Force/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

The debate about the right to freedom of expression today needs a multi-dimensional approach. The nexus between the opposition to freedom of expression and a casteist outlook is an important dimension in Tamil Nadu or India. This is an attempt to see the right to freedom of expression through the lens of caste and its influence.

In a caste-dominated society, the concept of us versus them has a strong and already well-established foundation. ‘Us’ mean a person and members of his caste. ‘Them’ mean members of other castes. It is not unusual for a person to consider himself superior and others ‘inferior’. This turn of mind is also the reason why some people accept another section as superior to them. It is common to encounter such segregation in day-to-day life.

If a person begins his conversation with “we are like…” it is evident that he is veering towards his caste. If he says “the habit amongst us…” he is speaking about a practice within his caste. There are people who ask “what are you?” and try to know your caste. It is easy to differentiate oneself and alienate the other with just one word anywhere in this country. This us versus them discrimination is open and nuanced in the debates surrounding freedom of expression and intolerance.

Members of one caste are never tolerant of the characteristics of members of another caste. It is common to ridicule the habits and customs of another caste. During my wedding, there was one question that I was constantly facing from most of my relatives. “Our food habits are different from theirs. How will you adapt?” The words ‘ours’ and ‘theirs’ is important. Based on castes and regions, food habits in Tamil Nadu do differ, but not greatly so. Rice, sambhar and kuzhambu remain the basic food. You can hardly find a Tamil person who has not relished a parotta. There are many food items that have become common today. Yet there still exists an aversion to the food habits of members of another caste. There exists a sense of condescension about the way they eat their food.

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There are different regional dialects in Tamil Nadu. But the difference in dialect that exists among different castes living in the same region is always a subject of ridicule. The general perception is that the dominant castes speak in a standard style while the oppressed use slang. This difference made evident in Sanskrit plays has been subsequently perpetuated in various platforms. In folklore, the difference in the speech style used by the mainstream characters and by other characters like messenger, servants and buffoons is hugely evident.

In early Tamil films, one can find that the heroes typically speak in a formal language while the comedians employ a colloquial style. To this day, in a very subtle way, this discrimination exists in films. The language of the comedians is coarse even today. Even if all the characters use a colloquial style, the words used by comedians are ‘different’, so to say. In a very subtle way this bestows the dominant caste identity on the hero characters and oppressed caste identity on the comedians. In films that speak caste pride, the discrimination is blatantly visible.

So this ‘us versus others’ segregation operates at different levels. It is obvious oneself and others are not equal. How can a casteist bent of mind that doesn’t treat a fellow human being on equal terms be expected to give space for other opinions?

When a person from a dominant caste speaks to a person from an oppressed caste, the conversation never sounds like it is happening between two fellow human beings. It is important to pay attention to body language during such conversations. In many schools, the teachers make their students fold hands and place a finger on their mouths to maintain silence. When entering a noisy classroom, the teacher can be heard instructing the students to do it in an angry voice. The students will obey. This is not a punishment, but a method to enforce discipline in the classroom.

Perumal Murugan. Credit: Facebook/ Files

Perumal Murugan. Credit: Facebook/ Files

But where was this taken from? This was taken from the body language of a person from an oppressed caste when he is in conversation with a person from a dominant caste. The person typically shrinks his body, places a hand on his stomach, covers his mouth with another hand and speaks to a dominant caste person. In practice, if the oppressed person sprays saliva on the dominant person when speaking, it is considered impure. So when the oppressed person covers his mouth, naturally his voice his subdued.

This inequality is obvious not just in body language, but in conversational tone too. Often dominant caste members use disrespectful terms like ‘da‘ to address oppressed caste members, even if the latter is an older person. This practice is prevalent even today. The oppressed members are expected to use respectful terms like ‘sami‘ (god) or ‘aiya‘ (master) to address dominant caste members. In a conversation between two persons on different levels of hierarchy, the language used by the person on a higher level is inevitably authoritative.

To be particular, the tone will be authoritative, condescending or enquiring – authoritative when sending them on an errand, condescending when teaching them how to do something or behave and enquiring when asking for the status of the errand. Often such tones are used when the person interferes in the day-to-day or private lives of the oppressed persons.

In stark contrast, the oppressed caste member would employ a language of acceptance, resignation, submission or acquiescence. A language that never protests and says only ‘yes’. Yes-men. In Tamil, the term ‘aamam saami poduthal‘ (saying ‘yes’ in approval) is often used to taunt and ridicule such people. This term has its origins from conversations between two members from different caste hierarchies. ‘Aamam sami’ is the acceptance of every word said by members of the dominant caste, even if they sound absurd. To immediately submit to the wishes expressed by the dominant caste is another kind. ‘Senjirlanga sami’ (will do it lord) is one such expression.

When such discrimination exists, the conversation does not have a shred of parity. One person plays the role of saying and the other of listening. If at any point the listener expresses even the slightest disagreement, it is blown out of proportion. It is called talking back. “He dares to talk back to ME” is a common expression here. The ‘me’ here denotes: “I from the dominant caste”.

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To voice a different opinion is considered talking back. A person who talks back is often physically assaulted. How can a balance of opinions emerge when expression of opinion becomes talking back? Even chai shop conversations carry such inequalities and imbalances. One just has to listen. An ordinary conversation would turn heated at one point. That is because someone would have expressed a different opinion. It is immediately seen as talking back and would lead to questions about the roots of the person who had a different view.

There is another common term – listening to one’s words. A primary accusation of a parent towards her/his child is that the child does not listen to their words. It remains the primary accusation of teachers in schools too. “These kids never listen to me,” they would say. This again has a caste-related undertone. Listening to one’s words mean accepting and acting as per the instructions of the person on a higher hierarchical plane without any objection. A slightest objection becomes a complaint.

The person is not entitled to an opinion of his/her own. Even if he/she does have an opinion, it should be kept a secret. They should learn to accept every word from the person ‘above’ and act accordingly. This is the practice of a caste-based society. All the hierarchical structures in our society at all levels are reflective of this practice.

Under such circumstances, freedom of speech and freedom of expression are modern constructs in a society like ours. They are not strengthened enough to penetrate a casteist bent of mind and influence it. I could only think of two reasons for this.

The lack of education is one. We consider anyone who can sign their name as literate. The dropout percentage is certainly higher than what we imagine, especially in primary and middle school education. Even today, a majority of people do not consider education as essential.

The standard of education is the second reason. Literacy is often considered as education. Even if a person is educated, if he dares to defy the caste hierarchy, he is accused of being arrogant because of his education.

Our education system has not been able to create an understanding about caste and its role at any point. A student can complete his/her higher education without being taught in anyway about the caste system and its role. He or she could assume higher positions and discharge the duties under the influence of casteist thinking. Doctors, engineers and bureaucrats can do their work without the smallest attempt to defy their caste. If needed, they can hide their caste affinity. They can choose not to express it. But even if they do, there isn’t going to be a problem.

Not all those who are educated are learned. Our education system has clear demarcations about education and learning. Education in this context only means studying. So however highly educated a person is, wherever he/she goes to work, they do not give up on their caste identity or affinity. Neither is there a necessity to do so. Unless this casteist mind is broken into, how can one expect any kind of understanding about the modern concept called freedom of expression? How can its nuances even be debated?

This is the text of a speech delivered by Perumal Murugan at a Lekhana event in Bengaluru on April 28, 2017. It has been translated from its Tamil original by Kavitha Muralidharan.

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