Anurag Kashyap, Caste Politics and Imperfect Allies

The liberal left is dying a slow death in electoral politics and can ill-afford to turn away potential allies by intellectualising the streets too.

The latest political developments in India have led to a precarious state of affairs. There is a fear that enumeration processes unleashed by the BJP-led government via the National Population Register and National Register of Citizens may eventually disenfranchise a seventh of the country’s population on religious grounds. Communities feel marginalised, cornered, and scared. The streets are boiling with demonstrations and the police are only too happy to act as contracted goons of the government.

In this moment of despair, India looks up to its popular cultural icons to make their disapproval of the government’s actions public. Some indeed have. But the superstar cricketers and prominent Bollywood alpha-males have predictably maintained a careful and tactical silence.

For Anurag Kashyap, though, things have gone too far and remaining silent is no longer an option. The filmmaker announced his return to Twitter a day after the release of horrifying visuals of students from Jamia Millia Islamia facing state-sanctioned brutalities at the hands of the Delhi police. Breaking from a self-imposed exile, Kashyap minced no words in calling the government fascist.

Ever since, Kashyap has been relentlessly criticising police excess, amplifying voices of protest, and has himself participated in one of the largest public demonstrations against the CAA, in Mumbai. More heartening however, has been Kashyap’s clarity of thought in calling out the Narendra Modi government without adding any safety caveats.

A number of Bollywood celebrities have, even while expressing their solidarity, chosen to remain fairly vague and careful to not end up upsetting the government. Some have even resorted to false equivalence,  putting an equal onus on the protestors to maintain public order.

Also read: The CAA Will Un-Make India By Poisoning Relationships of Trust, Affinity Across Religions

But Kashyap is having none of it.

His straightforward and unsparing attack on the two most powerful men in the country is truly remarkable for someone belonging to an industry that rewards fence-sitting. But in an attempt to clarify that his fight for justice is party agnostic, Kashyap highlighted his previous associations with political protests during the much frenzied Anna Hazare movement of 2011 and the widespread agitation against the Mandal Commission recommendations in 1990. Kashyap’s reference to his participation in the anti-Mandal protests has obviously not played too well with Ambedkarites and anti-caste activists whose politics have been shaped around fighting the Brahminical social order.

In 1989, prime minister V.P. Singh’s government decided to implement the recommendations laid out in a report prepared by a commission led by B.P. Mandal, which proposed extending reservations to communities identified as Other Backward Classes (OBC).

This led to large-scale student protests. Those opposed to the government’s move were principally upper castes who felt the space for their privilege was shrinking.

Demonstrator display placards and shout slogans during a protest against a new citizenship law, in New Delhi, December 19, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Anushree Fadnavis

For Kashyap to invoke his participation in these protests as a badge of honour was odd, considering how much the discourse around caste has evolved since. But that does not necessarily make him a casteist.

More importantly, to question his place as an ally, in the larger fight against institutional alienation of minorities, is both unfair and counterproductive.

In his defence, Kashyap has already acknowledged the criticism and clarified that he only meant to establish that his politics is party neutral. He also says his views on caste-based reservations today are the opposite of what they were then.

Whether one finds this explanation believable is a matter of opinion. But assuming Kashyap does not have the most sophisticated understanding of caste politics even today, it does not in any way undermine or invalidate his extremely important voice in the fight against an issue that poses a civilisational threat to India.

Also read: You Cannot Hate Whom You Know: The Importance of Meeting Anti-CAA Protesters

The fundamental idea that separates politics from academic activism is recognising the urgency of issues and prioritising the fights one picks. Politics also entails forging imperfect alliances and making minor ideological compromises in service of the bigger picture. Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav, two of the tallest Mandalite leaders, have consistently built useful alliances with forces they do not have everything in common with.

Mayawati, the icon of Dalit politics was once part of a coalition led by BJP, of all parties. The recent alliance of ideological foes in Maharashtra is another example of being able to separate the big from the small.

What the secular, liberal forces are fighting today is the first step towards lending legitimacy to a theocratic state. Everyone joining the fight is an ally right now. The urgency of the cause far trumps someone’s lack of the most nuanced understanding of caste. Kashyap claims to have evolved in his politics but there may be others who are not the most well versed in Ambedkarite discourse. There may even be those identifying as ‘apolitical’ owing to their privileged social background.

What is happening today has shaken the conscience of even those who have largely chosen to remain oblivious to everyday politics. They may not have the sharpest opinion on Brahminical patriarchy and may not even know who Periyar was. But they can clearly see the need for resistance and that alone has brought them on the streets. Their voices do not deserve to be treated with academic smugness.

The liberal left is dying a slow death in electoral politics. It can therefore ill-afford to turn away potential allies by intellectualising the streets too. Asim Ali, a Delhi based political researcher argued in a well articulated piece that borrowing the idea of a perfect ally from US campus politics is never going to be a sustainable exercise in India where conservatives are in an overwhelming majority even within the social left. The focus, therefore, must remain on maximising the footprint of a protest of this scale rather than filtering people out for their imperfections.

Also read: Why the CAA Is More Lethal Than a Projected NRC

This is a long and tiring fight. The state, with its infinite resources, can play the waiting game and counts on the protests to eventually fizzle out.

And fizzle out they will. But while they are still gathering more steam, it is important for us to not actively sabotage them by creating absolutely avoidable factions.

Parth Pandya is an Ahmedabad-based freelance sports writer.