Discussing Caste and Culture Against the Backdrop of a Tragic Death

Writers at the event at the Ambedkar University

Writers at the event at the Ambedkar University

“Babasaheb Ambedkar’s worst fears are coming true”, said the Malayalam poet and translator K Satchinandan, while chairing a discussion on Caste, Religion and Living Culture held by the Indian Writers Forum at the Ambedkar University on Wednesday.

The discussion was organised by the Forum as part of the celebratons of the 125th birth anniversary of the architect of the Indian Constitution. The Forum took not of the the shocking news of the tragic suicide of the Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula suicide in a hostel room in the University of Hyderabad. Rohith was among five stuents who had been expelled by the University authorities and were agitating by sleeping on the campus. The suicide came after a chain of events that began with an altercation between the Ambedkar Students Association (ASA), of which Rohith was a member, and the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and the close monitoring of this by the Union Ministry for Human Resrouces Development.

In her opening remarks, author and managing trustee of the Indian Writers Forum, Githa Hariharan, dedicated the event to the memory of Rohith, and also to struggling students across the country.

A recurring question since Rohith’s death, which K. Satchitanandan called an “institutional murder”, was, ‘What is a university?’ Calling for individual and institutional introspection, Githa Hariharan asked whether a university was a place to perpetuate the existent Brahmanical and patriarchal status quo, or a place to learn, to think and to imagine.

The Tamil poet Bama lamented the state of current educational institutions, saying they were working to produce “machines, not humans”. The romantic notion of education liberating the marginalised does not exist in this system he said; instead it further enslaves those who perhaps need it the most. “If education liberated us, Rohith would not have died”, she said. 

Subtle casteism

Bama also highlighted how casteism in educational institutions is often very subtle. In most cases there are no direct slurs, only constant reinforcements of people’s belief in the incapacity of dalits to make good scholars. She pointed out that even earning a good income and advanced education did not help in removing the stigma attached to her as a dalit woman. Her postman, for instance, on realising she was a dalit, cut off the daily niceties and now simply flings her letters to her house from afar.

Prof Gopal Guru of JNU took this argument further, mentioning the existence of various kinds of asymmetries in any classroom – gender, caste, class, etc. According to him, bridging this gap is only possible by discussing different experiences, not by ignoring the gap completely.

Shyam Menon, vice-chancellor of Ambedkar University, rallied the audience not to lose hope in these trying times: “If universities lose hope, society has nothing to look forward to”.

Lived experiences

Hechangi Prasad, in perhaps the most hard-hitting of all the presentations, gave a detailed account of his experience of growing up as a dalit in a village in Davengere district, Karnataka. Author of a book of poetry that speaks out against Hinduism, untouchability and the devadasi system, Prasad was kidnapped, beaten and threatened with the cutting-off of his fingers by Hindutva forces for apparently maligning the religion. He only managed to escape, he says, because the men who kidnapped him were drunk.

Having grown up in a village where the devadasi system is still prevalent, he recounted several stories of what he and his family had been through. Like other dalit families in the area, most male members worked on the farms of upper-caste landlords for extremely small amounts of money, while women had no choice but to become devadasis and adhere to the sexual needs of upper-caste men. Prasad himself is the son of a devadasi, and does not know who his father is. Just in the last month or so, a young dalit man was beaten and left to die for speaking to an upper-caste girl. A cousin came back from school bleeding from the ears and mouth for questioning some upper-caste students who were abusing Ambedkar, Prasad said. Bama and Prasad have used their writing to write about discrimination.

K. Satchidanandan, who is also the editor of the Forum’s e-journal, spoke about how dalit literature not only shows the state of casteism in the country, but also brings out a different language, earlier unheard in mainstream literature. Dalit values (such as the importance of nature), slang and perspectives were also being used to redraw the map of literature, reflecting marginalised voices.

Featured image credit: Meena Kadri/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.