Trigger Warning: Use of caste identities as abuses
We are dealing as well as reeling from a health pandemic and yet stuck knee-deep in another never-ending pandemic of casteism. In a recent Youtube video, ‘Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashma’ actor Munmun Dutta used a casteist slur most casually and absurdly, and once criticised for the same, claimed that she didn’t know the meaning of the word. It was just a ‘language barrier’, she justified.
Only if we could acknowledge the true barrier—the barrier between caste privilege and caste-based oppression. She is, meanwhile, being given brownie points for her prompt performative apology on the Internet. In the real world, in our lived realities, apologies are often far-fetched dreams, instead, we receive arguments against our feelings, attempts to hush us up with ‘I knew a different meaning of the word’ or ask us not to be a killjoy everywhere.
Do we really reflect on why using oppressed caste identities to demean/shame/insult someone or something is offensive?
Trivialising The Feelings of Oppressed Caste People
In the YouTube video, the savarna actress Munmun Dutta said that she wanted to look pretty and not like a ‘Bhangi’.
Bhangi is a term that could refer to a member of the Bhangi caste, that has been historically oppressed and traditionally restricted to cleaning latrines, manual scavenging, and sweeping. Also known as ‘Chuhra’ or ‘Balmiki’, they have found themselves on the margins throughout, even being banned from entry into religious places.
In response to Mummun’s Youtube video, author of ‘Coming Out As Dalit’, Yashika Dutt wrote on her Twitter, “As someone who spent decades tormented by this word, a Savarna actress casually describing being ‘ugly’/‘unclean’/‘unpresentable’ by calling it Bhangi is not surprising.” She further adds, “It’s a reflection of the deep tentacles of the caste system that so endemically normalises a caste being seen as lower than it is turned into a synonym for dirty. It shows the complete acceptance of the idea that Bhangis, one of the lowest-paid people, are inherently unclean.”
Oppressed caste identities are not random words that people can throw around without considering the historical and sociological baggage these words carry. Every time somebody uses it whimsically as a derogatory term or to demean something, it’s a constant reminder of our social positioning, where we come from, how we are perceived, what is expected from us. It is not about the intention of the person who uses the word casually. It is much more about the impact of the word on people, who have historically been oppressed for their caste location. Using valid identities as slurs perpetuates hate towards the people who live a life precarity and establishes tolerance to casteism.
Language is political and so is how we choose to use it
In the past week itself, in two instances, my ‘friends’ used words like ‘Chamar’, ‘Chandal’ to casually shame/insult someone. And while I corrected them, it was followed by arguments. One ‘friend’ defended the use of the word ‘Chamar’, as according to them the meaning of the word is different from what it is. They explained it as, “Chamar is a behaviour where a person doesn’t even care about the situation but only thinks of spending the least possible.” Not only is this self-imagined definition ignorant, but roots in the notion that identities of oppressed caste people can be appropriated without any valid knowledge or insights. Incidentally in both situations, it was dominant caste men who took it on themselves to describe what oppressed caste identities mean.
The major fallacy of their narratives is how they put a blind eye on their caste ignorance, and attempts to shift blame from themselves onto those they offend by claiming that the word they might have used had been “misinterpreted”.
In 2017, the Supreme Court of India declared that calling people ‘dhobi’ or ‘harijan’ was offensive. The Wire informs that the court held, “It is basically used nowadays not to denote a caste but to intentionally insult and humiliate someone. We, as a citizen of this country, should always keep one thing in our mind and heart that no people or community should be today insulted or looked down upon, and nobody’s feelings should be hurt.” In 2008, the Supreme Court had said that addressing a person from one of the Scheduled Castes as ‘Chamar’ or ‘Chambhar’ traditionally, the community whose primary occupation was tanning and leather craft, may amount to an offense punishable under the provision of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The bench noted that when used today, the word does not normally denote a caste but is hurled to intentionally insult and humiliate someone.
Language is political and so is how we choose to use it. It reflects our personal politics, our values, it shows if we are the perpetrator or the annihilator of caste. Babasaheb Ambedkar wrote in the “Annihilation of Caste” that the labels are complicated and unless the label changes, it is difficult to fight the caste system. The Buddha asked us to be mindful of the language we speak and the spoken words.
As caste is deeply embedded in our language, using it mindfully also contributes to the annihilation of caste. It is not only about uttering casteist slurs but also saying things like “You dress so well, you don’t look like Dalit”, “You are so lucky, you don’t even have to study, you have reservations”, “I never go to a Dalit doctor, lol”, “Your English is so strong, I could never imagine you are Dalit” etc. All these are examples of everyday casual casteism.
It is not that one has to be mindful of their language only in spaces with the presence of Dalit individuals. Caste isn’t only about Dalit people or something that you see among Dalit communities, but it is so much about what you hide at your home, in your personal interactions in like-minded circles. Even using casteist slurs in the absence of Dalit people, is the perpetuation of casteism. Yes, language is about communicating people, but it is also about the larger politics of the annihilation of caste.
Casteism in language is about power and not only lack of knowledge
Systems sustain because there are people who see value in those systems and hence perpetuate them. Caste-system has existed for decades, if nobody would have benefitted from it, it would have never existed. The existence of the system is a reminder that there is a power imbalance. Historically dominant caste people have always asserted power over oppressed caste people. The atrocities on Dalit people by the dominant caste are often violent, physical, emotional, structural and of course verbal.
Words can be dangerous in creating structures that can further enslave us. The languages are embodied and therefore the discrimination. If we look at recent incidents such as Munmun Dutta’s Youtube video, video of an IIT Kharagpur professor, Seema Singh abusing her students with casteist slurs, and also many many incidents from our personal lives, who are the people who use these words as slurs? If we grow up in the same society, if our upbringing isn’t casteist, then how is there an intangible distance between the vocabularies of dominant caste and oppressed caste people?
My parents have always taught me to hide my caste location. I was uncomfortable with it for the longest time and tried my best to fit in the mainstream. The more I learned about issues of caste, I could untangle complexities of caste and reclaim my identity. While growing up I was not taught the meaning of all these words either, but the intuitive solidarity and empathy have always stopped me from using such words. Demeaning identities is not about only knowledge, it is also so much about power–the power that comes from caste privilege. This power leads to the belief that it is okay to say offensive things with the assurance that there is not going to be any consequence. Power as such is intergenerational, in turn normalising the lack of knowledge and ignorance.
Most of the powerful positions in India, be it politics, corporate, academics, and ironically the development sector, are filled by people belonging to the dominant castes. One of the reasons why they do not let go of these linguistic and sociological structures is because these structures continue to serve and benefit them, putting them ahead of the historically disadvantaged in every league.
Until and unless we disintegrate the casteist language, which automatically assures more power to one than the other, annihilation of caste isn’t possible. Language shapes who we are, what we believe in, and what is our culture. Radicalisation of a language that assures solidarity, liberation, social justice, empathy, is the only way to achieve dignity for all. The onus to put labour and efforts to ideate, educate, radicalise the language is with the people who perpetuate casteism and not the people who are at the receiving end of it.
Featured image source: Sabrang India