Many people confuse the Dalit movement with the anti-caste movement, often seeing them as one and the same thing. They forget that caste is not exclusive to Dalits. Everyone who claims to be a Hindu falls somewhere on the caste hierarchy and therefore is a part of the caste system.
Dalits are at one end of this spectrum – they have experienced extreme oppression, deprivation and humiliation. But at the other end are those born in privileged families, their privilege lying in the fact that they aren’t exploited on the basis of their caste identity. Instead, they often benefit from their privileged caste status.
These are the people who, thus, go on denying the existence of caste, not acknowledging the role their privilege plays in cushioning their lives. As Anupama Rao puts it, being from a privileged caste offers the “luxury” of ignorance of caste.
Nobody who is a Hindu is free of caste. So how can the caste system, which has trapped the entire Hindu society in its divisive structure and rigid identities, be countered by Dalits alone? How can the caste system ever be annihilated without people at all levels of the caste hierarchy fighting hard against it?
To say that the battle to annihilate caste is to be fought by the Dalits alone is to deliberately keep this movement from reaching its full magnitude. It is also to say that the dirty problem (i.e. casteism) of about 80% of the Indian population (the proportion of the Hindu population) should be cleaned by only 17% of them (the proportion of the Scheduled Caste population), thereby re-enacting the caste system when it comes to social reform. It is, therefore, crucial to acknowledge that an anti-caste movement should not be limited to Dalits. Fighting the caste system is definitely an inherent part of the Dalit movement, but the anti-caste movement needs to grow beyond it.
There are other reasons why it is more challenging for the Dalits to fight the caste system alone. Being systematically sidelined and excluded from the cardinal spaces of a Hindu society – from its celebrations, rituals, holy places, markets and settlements, intellectual endeavours and discourses, and positions of power – even strong and rational Dalit voices like Ambedkar’s often get ignored.
The caste system has trained the privileged and dominant caste members to remain deaf to the voices of those they exploit and oppress. Just as a Hindi saying goes, if a horse becomes friends with the grass, what will it eat? The caste system – which is designed to appropriate the benefits of the labour of the toiling communities to a privileged few – ensures that the voices of those exploited remain unheard so as to continue the system of exploitation. To leave the responsibility of dealing with this system of exploitation to those who are most oppressed is to make it more difficult to end the caste system.
It is also important to understand that although Dalits face the worst manifestations of the caste system, it is mostly practiced and perpetuated by the privileged castes. To seek ways of caste annihilation only within the Dalit communities is like trying to treat the symptoms instead of the root cause of a problem.
The root of the caste system is at the top of this hierarchy, from where the attitude of superiority and discrimination initiates. Can any outside force cause a transformation in such highly-guarded and closed communities of privileged castes that do not even welcome others into their homes? How can we make sure that caste-based endogamy stops in privileged castes without having someone from their own families argue against it? How can we make sure that such communities do not practice casteist rituals without having someone who gets to attend these rituals raise questions? How can we stop dominant castes from being abusive and violent to oppressed castes without those leading attacks acknowledging and then dealing with their own hatred? How much can we leave to government policies, their implementation, and surveillance without changing the will of the people?
We do not have strong answers to these questions. If fighting caste would have been possible without the involvement of people from all the levels of the caste structure, India would have been caste-free by now. With a few exceptions, Dalits have been the only community in India persistently fighting caste until now. And the harder they fight, the stronger the opposition they face. The violence they face has also increased with their assertion to challenge the caste-imposed hierarchies. And still, despite all the disabilities and deprivations they experience in this hostile society, they continue to dedicatedly fight the caste system.
It is, therefore, not surprising that the Dalit movement is considered synonymous with the anti-caste movement. Indeed, the Dalit movement has been an anti-caste movement in the true sense. Moreover, it is primarily from the Dalit movement and Dalit literature that we get a critical understanding of caste and its manifestations in the modern times. The Dalit movement has meticulously studied and documented the changing face of casteism with modernisation and globalisation. Without acknowledging these theoretical and practical contributions, any attempt at understanding the caste system remains incomplete.
Caste system and reservation
However, seeing the Dalit movement and the anti-caste movement as one and the same has also cost us dearly. The most flawed and yet the most common argument people use for not fighting the caste system is that the reservation system reinforces the caste system, and, therefore, the caste system cannot be done with until the reservation system exists.
As a result, they instead focus all their efforts and energy on fighting against the reservation system. People forget to see that the reservation system is not a replica of the caste system, but is a response to it. The reservation system cannot even be called a solution to the caste system as it does not counter the caste system entirely and effectively. It is only a temporary safeguard for the people who are most exploited by the caste system. And, therefore, as long as the caste system exists, measures like the reservation system are needed and will exist.
Moreover, privileged caste people who are interested in making the reservation system more efficient in the name of fighting the caste system are also mistaken. Their interference and involvement in ensuring a better functioning reservation system does not help counter the caste system. All it does is shift focus away from the casteism existing in their own communities. Only Dalits and other oppressed communities remain under scrutiny all the time. The argument to stop the top layer among SC, ST and OBC communities from accessing reservation is an example of this uncalled-for interest.
Even if the reservation system is improved and made more efficient, it is only going to benefit the oppressed caste communities and not help the entire Hindu population constituting the caste structure fight it. It thus makes sense to leave the reservation system alone to be worked upon by the communities availing it and to trust their intellectual capabilities to research and improve the existing system. The reservation system is an endeavour for Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi movements.
Distinguishing between these movements and the anti-caste movement, therefore, helps solve this confusion. Similarly, other policy-level and ground-level efforts to safeguard the lives, rights and interests of Dalits should be seen as part of the Dalit movement, and not directly as anti-caste efforts. While these are equally valuable and much-needed endeavours, they do not directly attack at the core of the caste system and, therefore, are not immediately effective in the annihilation of caste. These measures only indirectly challenge the caste system by empowering Dalits to fight it effectively and become formidable forces in the anti-caste movement.
Then what constitutes the anti-caste movement if not an active interest in strengthening or doing away with the reservation system? The anti-caste movement is about actively exposing and fighting all sorts of beliefs and practices rooted in the caste system. It is not about privileged caste communities expressing sympathy and charity for the oppressed castes. It is not about “studying” Dalit communities and their suffering, but about identifying how the caste system gets practiced by the government, privileged communities, media and intelligentsia to marginalise and exclude Dalit communities from important and coveted social spaces.
For non-Dalits, it is about introspection, about initiating the process of the annihilation of caste within their own communities. And most importantly, this movement is about privileged-caste communities acknowledging and respecting the actions and leadership of Dalit activism. It is about listening to their staunch critique of the caste system in Indian society and acting to address those critiques. Such role of non-Dalits in the anti-caste movement is very important and needed for it to progress to its full potential. Any interest of non-Dalits in the anti-caste movement without exposing, questioning and destroying the caste-based beliefs and practices within their own communities and social spaces is a fraud and should be called so. It is mainly to wake non-Dalits from their passivity when it comes to fighting the caste system that it is now important to distinguish between the Dalit movement and the anti-caste movement.
Sheeva Dubey is pursuing her PhD from the School of Communication at the University of Miami.