“We are Born in Conflict, We Live in Conflict, and We Die in Conflict”: A Report on the Virtual Public Lecture, “The Dalit Citizen: In Search of a Homeland.”

Preeshita Biswas reports on MCRG’s webinar “The Dalit Citizen in Search of a Homeland”, held on 18.09.2020. Prof. Paula Banerjee chaired this lecture by Prof. N. Sukumar of Delhi University.

Since its incidence, the COVID-19 pandemic has known no rules and no bounds. Owing to its indiscriminate claiming of lives of its victims across nations, religions, race, castes, class and gender, it has been often heralded by many as the great leveller of the twenty-first century; an ‘act of God’ that is preordained to pervade over, pierce through and dissolve all barriers, boundaries and binaries, on physical, social, political and personal levels. However, what such sweeping statements often neglect to bring to the fore, is that contrary to it being the god-send equalizer of our times, COVID-19 has erected more boundaries than before, and has entrenched deeper those that already existed in our society. Not a single day passes when one is not confronted with news of how the poor are getting poorer, exposed to an indefinite unemployment cycle, an overwhelming economic depression, and the wrath of an uninhibited disease. The social-economic-political fault lines along which the vulnerable communities of our society have always found themselves, are further enlarged in the throes of this ravaging pandemic. Yet, the plethora of scholars, activists, health workers, sociologists, historians and politicians, from across the world, have largely overlooked the plight of the vulnerables in the face of this peerless and unprecedented disease.  

Locating itself in such a nexus of social exclusion, the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group’s virtual public lecture organised in collaboration with Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, entitled, “The Dalit Citizen: In Search of a Homeland” invited the audience to an enlightening, academically vigorous and challenging talk on the manifold layers of vulnerable people, who are continuously being marginalised with their right to livelihood and citizenship reiteratively and categorically corroded out, in the contemporary COVID-stricken Indian society. The talk was delivered by Professor N. Sukumar of the Department of Political Science, at the University of Delhi. Sukumar is a widely acclaimed scholar and activist on issues of social exclusions, and Dalit movements. He is the author of Indian Government and Politics (2012), and has also written profusely on issues of Human Rights, incidents of atrocities and cultural violence against the vulnerable sections of the society, Dalit democratization, and institutional injustices against Dalits, to name a few. His work is noted for its attempt to holistically analyse the crises and struggles of vulnerable communities and exclusionary categories which, in today’s parlance, has resurfaced because of COVID-19. The session was moderated by Professor Paula Banerjee of the Department of South and South-East Asian Studies, at the University of Calcutta, and a member of MCRG.

Sukumar initiated his talk by recollecting the personal and academic motivations that compelled him to pen down on the controversial issue of Dalit lives and their Right to Citizenship: Foremost is his personal experience as a member of the Dalit community, owing to which he has been forced to combat the multiple and repeated practices of untouchability and discrimination throughout his life. His lived experiences with the socially sanctioned exclusionary machineries have kindled in him a desire to investigate, what he calls, “conflicts in disturbed zones”. Second, his persistent research on issues of social exclusion has led him to locate an invisibility of certain entitlements of the Dalits, in social, legal, educational, public, economic and political spaces, which are otherwise “constitutionally guaranteed to all”. Finally, when he revisited B.R. Ambedkar’s Waiting for Visa (1935) to prepare for this lecture, he came across Ambedkar’s attempt to contextualise notions of citizenship and homelessness from a holistically social vantage point. This recourse to Ambedkar’s text infused in him an academic responsibility to deliberate further on what Ambedkar had said almost nine decades ago, “Gandhiji, I have no homeland”, a sentiment and a lived experience that is regrettably still relevant in the context of Dalits living in contemporary India.

Sukumar delineated that the survival of the vulnerable communities in our society are being threatened by multiple social, economic and political agents that can be broadly divided into three categories: the apathy of the ruling class, an “uncivil society”, and the COVID-19 pandemic. Though the pandemic has been generally regarded as an ‘act of God’, the former two categories are deliberate and discursive acts by the classist, casteist, and capitalist society to deprive the marginalised people of the nominal protection of citizenship. Sukumar argues, “The Dalit Migrant cannot wish away the curse of caste even in times of extreme peril.” 

In order to show how the modern notion of citizenship was premised on practices of social exclusion since its inception, Sukumar further delved into the origin of the notion of citizenship in the Indian context. The first historically documented idea of social division was constructed on notions of “purity” and “pollution”, in accordance with the Hindu scriptures. The ‘Indian’ society was divided into Aryavarta, “the land of the pure”, the home of the pure-blooded Aryans, and “Mleccha-Varta”, the “land of the impure”, inhabited by excommunicated people, untouchables, and non-Aryans. However, Sukumar contends that the birth of the modern notion of citizenship was not developed from this ancient practice of social exclusion, but rather during the colonial era: “The modern politics of India began not as an exercise of citizenship, since no one could be a citizen in a [pre-independent] colony, but as an attempt to negotiate [political power] with the colonial authorities.” The colonial period was the golden era during which Brahmanical ideals and practices were reinvigorated and infused with nationalization and rationalization of Hinduism both in the public and the private spheres. The dominant nationalist ideology therefore legitimized the ‘sanatan dharma’, when collaborations of upper caste Hindu zamindars captured all institutions of power. Despite his vehement efforts that led to the famous Poona Pact of 1930, Ambedkar had to settle for positive reservations for the Dalits instead of separate electorates. Sukumar refers to Ambedkar’s What Congress and Gandhi have done to the Untouchables? (1945) to elucidate how various political groups which were predominantly formed on the basis of religious, communal, casteist and classist sentiments further aggravated the issue of social segregation in the Indian society both during the colonial period, and after Independence. Owing to this colonial-modern rhetoric of ‘Citizenship’, the term therefore, eventually came to denote the interactive relation of people with the Nation State and its ordained social, political, legal, and economic machineries. 

Conceived much later, the universal notion of citizenship, on the other hand, entails equal rights, duties and privileges to all citizens with social rank and status of an individual playing no role in determining one’s status as a citizen of the Nation-State. However, Sukumar argues that the contemporary Indian social scenario in reality occupies the far end of this idealistic spectrum of an egalitarian notion of citizenship. Indian society is intensively hierarchical and exclusionary where one’s caste, class, race, religion, gender, kinship, and social rank determines one’s position in this pyramidal social structure, and informs the abstract norms of public life. Sukumar asserts that contemporary Indian society compels the Dalits to perform “their culturally sanctioned duties in the gutters”. He cites T.H. Marshall’s essay, “Citizenship and Social Class” (1950) to elaborate on his claim. According to Marshall, civil, social and political rights are foundational to defining “modern citizenship”. However, Sukumar contends that Indian society sanctions certain social, economic, political, and legal privileges to the ruling classes whereas condemns the vulnerable communities to dwell on its periphery. As a result of which, Dalits on account of their marginalised social status are denied access to those privileges and rights, and control over cultural capital that the dominant social groups are entitled to enjoy.

The construction of the notion of citizenship in the contemporary Indian context thus entails manifold and multi-layered restrictions and exclusions of certain people, such as the Dalits, untouchables, women, tribals, religious minorities and other vulnerable groups from the purview of citizenship of the modern Indian Nation-State. Despite the constitutional and legal provisions made to “include” the rights of such marginalized groups into the fold of mainstream society, the ruling classes refuse to concur on such inclusionary endeavours. Sukumar cites Ambedkar to emphasize how the negative prerogative of the ruling classes has, throughout history, categorically opposed the uplift and inclusion of the Dalits. The reason for which, Sukumar notes, is that since the age of antiquity, Indian society has perpetuated the law of ‘karma’ (duty) making it the principal objective of an individual’s earthly existence.  As such, “this concept of rule of law and rights resting in the individual was an anathema to the society which believed in Karma-Dharma. (duty-law)” Sukumar cites an example from the recent constitutional history of India: in order to propagate the exclusionary culture of the ‘dharma-bhumi’ (duty-land), the cultural ministry of India denounced the Dalits as having been any claim on the one thousand year old Indian culture. Such government sanctioned cultural conspiracies aimed to reconstruct the national past to ensure a re-creation of an exclusionary national present–one that is ‘unsullied’ by  the ‘stain’ of the untouchables. 

Social and caste kinships form the basis of public life in contemporary India, which shapes access to both public and private resources.  Sukumar cites Sudhir Kakar, when he argues that, “Indians are always in a conflict over honouring their family ties and Jati-bonds vis-a-vis the rational criteria of specific institutional goals. “Though corruption and nepotism might be working at an abstract level, it is one’s communal ties and caste kinship that defines one’s location in this modem Brahmanical society. As a result, Barbara Harriss-White has called caste as the “greatest trades union” in India: it has the power vested in it to unite certain groups of people, and to promote their well-being and interests in the public life, whereas downgrade the rights and existences of the others. Therefore, in a society where kinship takes precedence over public good, Sukumar claims, any attempt at social and institutional democratization is labelled as “anti-social”, and “anti-national”, and the germinating idea is snubbed in the bud.  The Indian society upholding Brahmanical beliefs and ideologies have, throughout ages, deprived the untouchables of access to common public resources, such as educational institutions, water and food resources, and places of worship, on allegation of their ‘contaminated’ presence. Physical contacts of any kinds through touch, sharing of resources, common residential areas and places of worship, and sexual relationships with the untouchables have been seen as derogatory to, and polluting the members of the upper castes. It is owing to their occupying this liminal space in the society, between the ‘abject’ and the ‘normal’, that Partha Chatterjee has remarked that the untouchables in India occupy the “disturbed zones of citizenship”. To cite an example of this interstitial existence of the untouchables in India, Sukumar recalls the incident of June 27th, 2020, when the First Citizen of India, Ram Nath Kovind along with the First Lady was denied entrance to the Pushkar Brahma Temple in Jaipur. When even the President of the nation is not spared the scathing attacks of casteism, what possibility therefore remains for the impoverished and powerless Dalit women and children whose bodies are repeatedly violated by the Brahmanical patriarchs of India?

Title: “Ram Nath Kovind and His Wife Offering Supplication at the Stairs of the Pushkar
Source: The Wire. 28 May 2018.

The talk then propelled towards the Indian Constitutional and Charter Rights about the minority communities. Sukumar contends that while drafting the Constitution, Ambedkar was aware that “a nation is not forged by bringing the communities together in a definite geographical space. The nation is rather forged when people are given guaranteed social citizenship”. Thus, for every individual to have equal access to fundamental rights, discrimination needs to be conquered and caste needs to be annihilated. In the Indian Constitution, especially Article 14 and 15 make provision of social inclusion for the vulnerables. However, such progressive procedures have been perceived by the Brahmanical ruling majority as corroding the law of “varnashrama dharma”. 

The Brahmanized body politic in India has always regarded the precarious existence of the Dalits as the ‘derailment’ of Indian Constitution. Sukumar asserts that the ongoing pandemic has once again underscored this grim reality that to the Brahmanical ruling class, the untouchables are simply non-existent. When the nationwide lockdown was haphazardly enforced on March 25th, 2020, it was a palimpsest re-enactment of the partition scene of the Great Divide of 1947. It is an open secret that as the metropolises and industrialized towns shut their doors on the migrant labourers, these migrant men, women and children workers with their meagre possession embarked on a death march, traversing miles after miles under the scorching sun, in search of their ‘homeland’- an abstract place which is yet to be found.

Friends and relatives of Kushwaha family who work as migrant workers walk along a road to return to their villages, during a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spreading of coronavirus, in New Delhi, India, March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

Sukumar cites examples of how young migrant village girls often laid their lives on this perilous march towards their homeland, or how the mutilated bodies of the dead migrants were huddled together in a truck as they were towed away to clear the roads, wherefore they shall remain forever unheard, unseen, and unidentified. Surprisingly, even after scores of news reports covered these tragic incidents of displacements, the government chose to shirk away from its responsibilities by claiming that it has no possession of data on the number of migrant deaths during the pandemic. Sukumar grieves that, the “bodies of these dead [unidentified] migrants are [therefore] the ‘living’ proof of the absolute devaluation of Dalits’ lives and existences in India. 

Sukumar further asserts that “contemporary Indian body politic which has embraced the Brahmanical patriarchal ideologies produce a complex nexus of, on the one hand, caste and class, and on the other, class and caste bureaucracy and politics,” thereby penetrating into social, political, economic and legal institutions of the nation. In such a context, our society must play an interventionist role between the state and the people to bring forth a social transformation by eradicating the implicit feudal order of the society, and by providing all citizens with social, political, economic and legal justice. This rigorous intervention on part of every individual is required in order to obliterate such inhuman and classist-casteist discrimination which legitimatised government-funded special flights to bring Indians living abroad back home, but which turned a blind eye to the misery of the migrant labourers stranded in foreign lands and contributing to the nation’s economy.

As such, in a society where power is unequally concentrated in the hands of a few ruling classes, and violence is used to promote the vested interests of the dominant groups, the vulnerable people are trapped inside this vicious loop of power begetting violence and reproduction of kinship and vice-versa. The facade of equality is only somewhat preserved in the political life whereas our social life is mired in atrocious acts of inequalities. Sukumar cites Ambedkar, when he ruminates that “the untouchables are always located at the periphery.” Sukumar asks, “What is the Fundamental right of the Black communities in America, the Jews in Germany and the Dalits in India, as Edmund Burke has said, ‘when there is no method formed for punishing the plenitude’”? In order to break free from this cycle of oppression, Sukumar urges the audience in his concluding remarks to, pay heed to what Amartya Sen has said in The Idea of Justice (2009):

There is no automatic guarantee of success by the mere existence of democratic institutions. The success of democracy is not merely a matter of having the most perfect institutional structure that we can think of. It depends unequivocally on our behavioural patterns and the working of political and social interactions.

Sukumar’s luminous and incisive lecture in turn attracted a rich plethora of questions during the discussion session. Questions pertaining to the lack of Dalit involvement in environmental movements in India, the positionality of Dalit women as citizens vis-a-vis the society and Dalit men, and the growing solidarity between the various Jati groups in the internal Dalit organizations, were raised. Sukumar promptly addressed these noted concerns about how, contrary to its general portrayal, it is the Dalit communities who share the closest proximity with natural resources as most of them are land and agricultural labourers; He refers to Aloysius Irudayam, Jayshree Mangubhai, and Joel G. Lee’s Dalit Women Speak Out: Caste, Class and Gender Violence in India (2011) to reveal how Dalit women are most vulnerable when they have to negotiate their rights and citizenship both with the society and the Dalit men. He refers to the various feminist movements, Dalit feminist and intersectional feminist approaches taken in this regard and points out to the room for growth in social and political spaces when it comes to campaigning for Dalit women’s right to citizenship. He also talks about the consolidation of various internal Jati groups as being important to combat polarization in the political domain, and that such Jati solidarities, despite internal contradictions, is not a hindrance to democratization of vulnerable communities. Finally, he also addressed how the entire world seems enraged at the merciless killing of George Floyd by a white supremacist patriarchal police officer, Derek Chauvin on May 25th, 2020. While scores of caste killings and rapes of Dalit women is a daily occurence in India, one does not find a consolidated Dalit resistance nor public uproar against such atrocities. This raises an alarming concern about how we seem to have already normalized such casteist atrocities in our daily lives. The lecture came to a close with Sukumar reminding us that the custom of social distancing in the wake of COVID-19 is not an emergent practice. Rather, it is an age old tradition which has been enforced against the untouchables in the nation throughout centuries. As such, COVID-19 has further aggravated this issue of social exclusion which lay dormant beneath the veneer of a pretentious political and national unity.  

Cover image: “Popular Representation of Mleccha.” Source: Madras Courier, “The Racism behind the Idea of Mleccha.” 21 December 2018.

Preeshita Biswas has completed her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in English from Presidency University, Kolkata. Her research interests are many and varied ranging from Victorianism and Neo-Victorianism to post-colonialism, narratives of migration and refugee crisis, to popular and transmedia literature and manga studies. She can be reached at biswaspreeshita@gmail.com.

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