Last week at the Kennedy Center, Vir Das, an Indian stand-up comedian spoke to the pain that many of us carry within, not knowing how to soothe. He spoke for the silence we bear for we believed their lie that we don’t have enough worthy words in us anyway. He spoke from the anger we buried, out of fear, shame, guilt and helplessness. What Vir Das did was commendable yet from his words, we didn’t learn anything we hadn’t already known but from his sense of duty, we learn the extraordinary power of speech in collective healing, the urgency of solidarity for transformational justice. The power of his monologue is in the conversations we are having, the discomfort we are facing with grit because his words moved us, into feeling or at least to open our eyes to what we have been feeling all along.
He inspired us into a disruption we desperately needed yet if our disruption continues to invisibilize the lives of the ones whose marginalization we benefit from, we need to check ourselves. On my first listen, I could afford to not notice that there was no mention of the marginalisation of Dalit communities when the forms of oppression that impact my lived reality was all listed out on the monologue. I thought I felt seen and heard, on the satisfactory degree as I could when a cis-het man speaks as an ally.
Being a non-Savarna who is not a Dalit but belonging to OBC, I could afford to get used to Savarna privilege being left unaddressed and unacknowledged. This is what privilege does, it blinds us beyond our consciousness.
‘Which Indian are you?’
The danger in the discourse that evolved at the wake of Vir Das’ monologue is in the simplistic binary thinking of ‘which Indian are you?’ or ‘which Indian am I?’. This binary is one of the many belief systems that we co-opted from our colonizers. White supremacist patriarchy indoctrinated us with this lie of binary thinking with colonial education and orientalist media. It taught us that a person is either a saint or a sinner, it’s either light or darkness, right or wrong. They made this the ‘truth’ because they wanted to affirm their position at the top of the power structure by other-ing us— not black but white, not diverse gender but binary, not fluid sexuality but heterosexual.. One of the most malicious forms in which we internalised coloniality is in redeeming ourselves with altruism for this easy get out of jail free card from the discomfort of self-reflection.
The Facism of Savarna Feminism and White Feminism
“I come from an India where we worship women during the day and gang-rape them during the night”, Vir Das said. Between a Goddess worshiper and a rapist is an atheist ‘breadwinner’ husband who is kind to everyone but emotionally abuses his wife in the privacy of their intimate space while also recycling and donating to charity. Each one of us lives in many contradictions and so does Vir Das.
For a Savarna to bleed about the wrath of India’s Hindutva nationalism and misogyny without mentioning caste would be as Brahmanical as a White British or White American self-identified Leftist slamming on the evils of classism and sexism with no mention of their White privilege and neocolonialism is White supremacist. A form of feminism that forgets to mention how sexual violence in India disproportionately targets Dalit women is as casteist as White Feminism is racist. There is no truth to the claim of innocence in a ‘Savarna Hindu who is not a Hindutva supporter’ in India when a Hindu’s inherent privilege benefits from Hidutva’s violence against the Muslims and the Dalits.
“I come from an India where we take pride in being vegetarian, and yet run over the farmers who grow our vegetables”. As important as it is to draw the world’s attention to the brutality of a minister’s car that drove over protesting farmers, killing eight of them, Das assumes Indian’s vegetarianism like most Savarna Hindus. Where does this claim of India’s pride in vegetarianism stand outside of the Brahmanical ‘purity’? The most important aspect of activism is the willingness to be a student, to be committed to learning and unlearning because that is precisely what we urge the society to do, to shift towards liberation.
What does your privilege conveniently enable you to overlook?
One is either the oppressor or the oppressed- another gem from Eurocentrism and Brahmanism. We are too comfortable believing that if I’m a Savarna woman who’s suffering under patriarchy, even if my feminism excludes the reality of Dalit women whose suffering I benifit from, I cannot be casteist or if I’m a Muslim cis-woman suffering under patriarchy and Islamophobia, I cannot be a transphobe. Each one of us can be the oppressor and the oppressed at the same time because the enemy isn’t an individual, the enemy is the Eurocentric Brahmanical way of thinking. Committing to be an ally is bravery as much as it is duty because we are deemed to make mistakes and the reason for hope lies in the compassion that we can offer ourselves as we take accountability for our mistakes and model willingness to learn from them. False pride has no room in the sacred space of social justice because that is the death to change, growth and liberation.
As Anurag Minus Verma wrote for The Print, by not reflecting on his caste privilege, Vir Das romanticises the Savarna fantasy of “Gandhi’s India. Nehru’s India. An India which was as calm as the flowing water of Ganges near Rishikesh’s luxury spa resort, but not as turbulent as the one that floods the country’s villages every year.”
Can I applaud Vir Das whilst still holding him accountable for being blind to his caste privilege? I’m not seeking your permission here. If your answer was no, I ask you — What is it that you find unsettling about seeing beyond the binary, being two things at once, being good and evil at once, applauding and critiquing at once? Is it your loyalty to Vir Das or do you not believe you couldn’t be a kind human who inspires many whilst subconsciously dehumanising many others whose lived realities you can afford to forget because your privilege enables you to?
This is a reminder that the kindest thing we can do for this world is to have the willingness to view a mistake as an inescapable part of growth, an opportunity to learn because the contradiction of the ‘two Indias’ could be in you too, as chaotically and ambiguously as they could both be in me.
If this is not making you uncomfortable, it simply means you haven’t even begun to reflect on your privileges. Here are some questions to stir that reflection:
- Does the monologue reproduce the savarna hegemony of Indian storytelling or does Vir Das reflect on his caste privilege and extend allyship?
- What would this monologue have sounded like if it was coming from a Dalit woman speaking about the casteist-racialised neoliberal patriarchy of India and how many Dalit women have you heard speaking at the Kennedy Center?
- How is this different from the regular tale of victimhood and heroism of a Savarna protagonist who has historically dominated the media and textbooks?