From Protesting the CAA to Embracing the Dalit-Bahujan Position on Citizenship

In the Indian context, revolution has only one sense, the end of the caste system, and 'Citizen' has only one sense, the people of the state who have shed caste and racism.

We are protesting. But we are not here to avenge the ashes and the cadavers of the various ancients. It is not our concern whether the Scythians, Parthians, Aryans and Mughals were invaders or not. It matters little who invaded first. Instead, what must matter in this moment is that those of us who are here – alive and concerned for the freedom, equality, and the meaningful future of all in this land – must be able to reason. We do not need to play the roles of the ghosts of the past to gain the approbation (or disdain) of our ‘elders’.

In these protests, tens of people have already been killed, many more maimed, and hundreds arrested by the police. This volatile situation might soon lead to riots and worse; one can see more than the auguries in the social media hate campaigns. It can also lead to civil ‘conflicts’ as several ministers, state functionaries, and Hindutva leaders have been urging the ‘public’ to crush the protestors. We do know that when a state instigates mobs against its own people such an event is not called ‘riot’ but genocide.

But we the protestors are not able, yet, to define a horizon for ourselves other than the minimal duty of “protecting the constitution”. After rehearsing the familiar, we have to let the real horizon of India’s politics come towards us such that we ourselves become the chrysalis of the new.

The confidence that many people of India had in their formal status as citizens has been destroyed by three government measures in 2019 – the initiation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), and the construction of massive detention camps.

The NRC is the procedure to verify documents – the particularities of which have been kept mysterious by the government – in order to parse through the people to identify ‘legal citizens’. The CAA defines which “refugees” can be given citizenship. The CAA excludes Muslim refugees from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and also the Tamils who have been living in India after fleeing the genocide in Sri Lanka.

The misdiagnosis of the protests

Since December 15, thousands of students, activists and ordinary people are out on the streets every day in every city. They have been brutally crushed by the police of states ruled by the BJP. The BJP and Sangh parivar through their public statements and internal propaganda are projecting the CAA as a Muslim minority problem. Unfortunately, many media reports and some liberal critics of the government also see the official agenda as especially problematic for Muslims, and that the “Hindu majority” is safe.

In fact, there is no such thing as a ‘Hindu majority’. The “Hindu majority” was invented in the early 20th century to suppress the fact that the ‘upper’ castes are not more than 10% of the population while the ‘lower’ castes are 90% and are the real majority of India. The former has been oppressing the latter for millennia, and this system is the worst and most enduring form of oppression known in history. The false majority, “Hindu”, was then given an enemy, the Muslims, which resulted in the partition of India and in pogroms against the Muslims since then. The transfer of power from the British colonial rulers to Indian ‘upper’ caste rulers was facilitated by this notion of the ‘Hindu majority’.

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There are ‘lower’ castes among Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs as well. Therefore, the CAA and NRC will bring acute suffering to the real majority population of India – the ‘lower’ caste people and Dalits (the oppressed) in all religions. This real majority has less access to the legal system, state welfare policies, and participation in shaping the commitments of the state, and they are therefore merely ‘formal citizens’, citizens only in name, citizens living already in camp like conditions in the slums and ghettoes; and, forced to die in the sewer lines cleaning the shit of society.

Hence, the unfolding events are witness to something which we must begin to recognise before the subcontinent is once again seized by a genocidal paroxysm. This “something” is the limit expression of the implicit logic that has animated Indian society through the past 2000 years right up to today: it is the conservation of the caste order, which now can no longer conserve itself. In these unprecedented and vulgar excesses of the repressive use of all the institutions of the state against the protestors we should recognise the panic in Hindutva organisations that they are aware that these are the final days of the ancient social order. It means that we should also be concerned that the worst is yet to come.

The majority of Dalit-Bahujans are merely ‘formal citizens’, citizens living already in camp like conditions in the slums and ghettoes; and, forced to die in the sewer lines cleaning the shit of society. Credit: Arpita Singh and Mayank Chawla

Possible politics beyond all communalisms

The most vital aspect of this ancient social logic is that caste is the only category recognised in all strata of life. Each caste group – Brahmin at the top and Dalit at the bottom – are strictly endogamous in matters of sex, marriage, politics, culture, and residential areas. The ‘upper’ castes continue to control all the spheres life – politics, academia, media, economy. It reflects how the condition of the ‘lower’ caste majority has been maintained by the masking principle called “Hindu”. Decolonisation has not brought freedom to them but only to the ‘upper’ castes. Even today the ‘lower’ castes do not have the right to earn a living, equality before the law, and freedom to love, to speak their point of view, and in some cases to appear in public. Persecution of religious minorities, such as the massacre of Christians in Kandhamal, Odisha, are deeply related to caste, since the lowest castes often seek refuge in Christianity, Buddhism or Islam for relief.

The national parties and a section of the media and academic have secured the consensus to terminate all analysis at “Hindu-Muslim” so as to turn the attention away from the surging criticisms of lower caste intellectuals and their political struggles against the oppressive caste social order. The political processes have cultivated tensions and periodic bloody conflagrations between “Hindus” and Muslims. Post-colonialists and subalternists continue to limit our gaze only to the evils of the “West” and “colonialism”, while “recovering the pride” in ‘upper’ caste ways of life. In media discourse. The upper caste establishment wears many cunning masks such as “Hindu spirituality”, “Hindutva”, and “Indic culture”.

The prolonged agony of the religious minorities can be ended in an instant through the rejection of the “Hindu majority” invention and the destruction of the caste order. But the ‘upper’ castes who speak of “Indian secularism” refuse to relent. They fear that this will bring an end to the false problem. For the Hindu nationalist government, Chandra Shekhar Aazad and the Bhim Army’s protests since December 15  in which the majority ‘lower’ castes take the political centre stage in order to protect the religious minorities is anathema.

In recent years, intellectuals (such as Suraj Yengde, J. Reghu, Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd and others) and organisations (Dalit Camera, Round Table, Bhim Army) have made the “common cause” of freedom across religions. They are also gathering a younger generation of ‘upper’ caste students and intellectuals as friends of the “Dalit-Bahujan position” in politics. The Dalit position is furthest from Gandhi’s theologisation of politics. The Dalit-Bahujan position is characterised by “fleshly love” as opposed to “spiritual kinship”, reason as opposed to “religious feelings”, courage as opposed to “surrendering to karma”, invention as opposed to caste traditions, and above all freedom as opposed to the destiny of “caste dharma”. Through the Dalit-Bahujan position, the ‘lower’ castes of all religions have been searching for real citizenship in recent decades.

Also Read: The Fight for India’s Democracy, From the University to the Streets

This moment can take India into chaos and darkness if the false majority (“Hindu”) and the false problem (Hindu vs Muslim) are not rejected by the ‘upper’ caste elites. But this can also be the event in which India will finally find the meaning of citizenship. The little tremors from Bhima Koregaon, the incident of the Ravidas temple in Tughlakabad and the April 2018 anti-caste protests should be sufficient indicators for the wise amongst our “elders” that steadily the end of the upper caste establishment is walking across the subcontinent.

In the Indian context, revolution has only one sense, the end of the caste system, and ‘Citizen’ has only one sense, the people of the state who have shed caste and racism. Aazad has presented the complete picture of this moment: “India’s Muslims are only an excuse. Modi govt also wants to take away Bahujans’ power with CAA & NRC.” For this, he is under arrest and there are concerns for his safety. This unfolding moment must not be squandered for another transfer of power to a ‘Hindu lite’ coalition. Instead we must seize this unfolding and let ourselves be seized by it such that there is finally freedom.

Divya Dwivedi and Shaj Mohan are philosophers based in the subcontinent.