Trigger Warning: Mentions of caste-based violence
Aligarh. Hathras. Unnao. So many incidents before and so many more to come. As case upon case of violence against Dalit girls and women hits us in the news, Savarna privilege and why Savarnas rape is being increasingly questioned. But what is incredibly bewildering is how Savarnas return to the humdrum of everyday life, mostly unfazed, only to be touched again by yet another media outrage over violence against some Dalit girl, somewhere, usually in the north of India. What happens to Savarna consciousness in that liminal space between two realities: the local, everyday and lived and the distant specter of violence that shakes some of us to our core and yet changes very little?
Uma Chakravarti in 1993 wrote about the inextricability of caste, gender and violence against women in Indian society. Dalit women, however, had long before and have ever since been trying to demonstrate- through life histories, testimonios, political commentaries, and several other mediums– how caste and gender oppression form the basis of dominant Hinduism. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar himself, the great Dalit activist, scholar and architect of the Constitution of India, fully aware of dominant caste inability to give away privilege, designed our progressive constitution precisely to off-set the intrinsic violence of the Brahmanical, casteist Hindu society.
Therefore, I am intrigued by the total lack of Savarna introspection, by their inability to see their lives connected to their Dalit peers and violence against Dalit women as a direct consequence of the same social structures that benefit them. As a Savarna woman myself who has benefitted from the labors and the bodies of Dalit women while also facing violence from my Brahmin family, I am interested in exploring the contours of Savarna silence and detachment from the horrific violence that plagues all women in Hindu India, but especially our Dalit, Muslim and non-Hindu-non-caste-privileged sisters. If silence is complicity, then all Savarnas are complicit in the rapes of Dalit women that occur at a staggering rate of ten reported rapes a day. But what are the mechanisms of this complicity and how do Savarnas keep on being ever faithful to Brahmanical Hinduism that thrives on violence against non-Savarna folks?
The answer lays precisely in the heart of the puzzle itself: the religious sanction and all forms of practices in our everyday lives that have normalised violence. Let’s start with Hindu religious texts. The sexual portrayal and punishment of Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi women such as Surpanakha in the Ramayana for instance. Or the ultimate treachery by the Brahmin guru Dronacharya who demanded the thumb of his Adivasi archer student Eklavya in the name of teacherly devotion in order to maintain Arjun’s supremacy. Do we ever stop to ask who these characters were (and there were many), repeatedly violated in the narrative of victory of ‘good’ over ‘evil’, ‘piety’ over ‘lasciviousness’? What we learned through these stories instead, told to us repeatedly as children before bedtime, on primetime broadcasts, in political commentaries, in schools, were some essential lessons that married our core values with violence. We learned that our society is naturally hierarchical to begin with, with some lives, some bodies being disposable for the progress of others. We learned that violence against these bodies is not only permissible but necessary to promote some bogus ‘good’, where who defined the ‘good’ (and continues to define it) was left unquestioned. These stories, the core of Brahmanical Hindu texts, normalised and naturalised violence in the lessons they gave us via every outlet that shapes our view of knowledge and the world as children.
And once the foundations for that primal deceit were laid, it became the core of our beliefs that continues to translate into our everyday lives and actions in the form of violence against others that then further sustain the way we practice piety and continue to export the image of peace loving Hindu India to the rest of the world.
Let me illustrate this by some examples from the mundane life of Mr. X. Mr. X is a pious Brahmin man who believes in the vedas, opposes caste reservation, and at least rhetorically touts equality for all “Indians”. While Mr. X sits in his living room, writing a passionate Facebook post about how caste was just a system of division of labor in ancient India that has no bearing in most of India’s problems today, he fails to notice his Dalit maid mopping the floor of his house or the caste-oppressed cook in the kitchen who makes him food everyday that sustains his body. He doesn’t notice his Muslim driver who couldn’t go to college for lack of resources despite being brilliant, who continues to live precariously in a part of town just because he is Muslim. The same anti-Muslim-Dalit rhetoric that feeds his Hindu sensibilities and daily puja rituals of purity is sustained by the labor of his maid who cleans the house, the cook who prepares prasadam, the driver who rushes to the shop to get flowers to decorate the deities. Oh and Mr. X, the proud modern man that he is, is able to “allow” his wife to work because her gendered household labor can so easily be purchased through the bodies of caste and class oppressed women.
None of these actions and practices are deemed violent by Savarna, middle-class India because we have been raised with a religious ideology entrenched in caste that says we are on the top and that it is our right to violate other bodies ‘below’ us to survive and thrive. Therefore, the labor of those bodies for us is not only not a form of violence, it is necessary for us to live our lives. It is normal and required of us to demean our essential workers, turn a blind eye to the violence our maids face, ignore the poor living conditions our Muslim drivers occupy, because somehow that has become our way of life-our life. The only way we have learned to survive, as Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundarajan repeatedly highlights, is by throwing our caste and religion oppressed peers under the bus for our personal gains. Savarnas therefore continue to maintain dominance, continue to get the best education and jobs, continue to travel to the US and Europe–India continues to “shine” globally- but at the expense and violation of whose bodies? Hinduism remains the peaceful, yoga-loving religion at home and abroad and the cycle of deceit continues.
So where does all the violence go then? If ours is a religion of peace, then surely violence cannot reside with us. It has to be out there. We externalise violence. Child Sexual Abuse, for instance, doesn’t happen in good, Hindu, middle class families (false!)- it is conveniently believed to only happen in caste-oppressed and Muslim ghettos. Pakistan and other Islamic nations become inherently violent, not our Hindu nation state. It is the women in the ‘West’ who are oppressed because of the way they dress and their lifestyles that make them overtly sexual, prone to rape, and lose their morals around family. Our women are the best and safe. But then how does one explain Hathras, Unnao, and the innumerable examples of violence against women, against Dalit women in Hindu India? Those just become random incidents, larger than life spectacles of lust and loathing, fueled by misguided politics and sure, some dominant caste men, a few rotten apples. These incidents can never be seen as crimes committed by a rotten system that historically and in everyday life continues to thrive on the violation of women and caste non-dominant bodies. The cycle of violence is invisibilised, normalised and sealed. Onto the next incident…
Akanksha Misra is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies at the State University of New York (SUNY), Plattsburgh. Her research explores the creation of gendered and sexual citizenship through bodies of teachers and children in schools in India and Turkey. She collaborates with several communities invested in fighting sexual and racial violence. She loves long walks, popular fiction, yoga, her kids and traveling to Istanbul! You can check out more details about her academic research and public activism by visiting www.akankshamisraphd.com. She can be found on Twitter.
Featured image source: New Statesman