Closing Address for Anti-Caste Thought Conference

Full text of Meena Dhanda’s closing address for the “Anti-Caste Thought” conference, on 30 October 2021.

Meena Dhanda

In naming ‘Anti-Caste Thought’ as the subject of this conference we took something important for granted: that anti-caste thought was a distinct body of knowledge worth examining intellectually. For too long we have been held back by recurrent discussions about the meaning of the ‘term’ caste, and its usefulness in capturing group identifications that are evidently at work on many levels in the lives of South Asians. Here in the UK, we have faced trenchant opposition to including caste within the scope of race as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act 2010. In public debates on this topic, we are accused of colonial consciousness, of self-hatred, and worse, of instigating hatred against Hindus, just because we raise the caste question. The language of anti-colonialism is weaponised to shield the interests of a misplaced nativism. We experienced a renewed assault a few weeks ago in the widely discussed conference in the USA – let’s call it the September conference – where we discussed caste and Hindutva in a panel. An unsuccessful attempt was made to shut down that conference and the dust from that storm has not yet settled.

In this conference – let’s call it the October conference – by foregrounding anti-caste thought we wanted to step back from a futile and exhausting battle with the enemies of thought. We wanted to offer a secure platform for discussion amongst those who are willing to engage in a serious reflection about the limits and possibilities of anti-caste thought. We wanted critical readings of the great and the good – our friends, our own heroes and heroines, our idols – because we know that to offer such readings we need to read diligently and with attachment. Over the last year, since I started supervising our Marie Curie Research Fellow, Dr Karthick Ram Manoharan in the EU Horizon 2020 project Freedom from Caste: The Political Thought of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy in a Global Context, I have become increasingly aware of the gaps in my knowledge of Tamil Nadu and its politics. Equally, I have realised that Karthick knows so little about Punjab. As two people from two distant parts of a vast country, we must rely on each other if we want to achieve our common intellectual goal of formulating a credible understanding of the idea of ‘freedom from caste’.

At this time last year, I had imagined I might pick up Tamil a little bit, and Karthick some Punjabi. Sadly, I have not picked any Tamil, even though I now see Tamil films on Netflix to get a feel for the language. For academic work, I depend solely on translations of Periyar’s writings. There’s nothing unusual about that as I rely on translations of Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Hegel, Sartre, or Fanon. What is unusual in the Tamil/Punjabi case is that the ‘culture of caste’ seems deceptively familiar even without understanding the language of the inhabitants of the specific caste worlds of Tamils and Punjabis. I think an active defamiliarization would deepen our mutual understanding: getting details of lived experience from reliable ‘others’ opens new worlds. Punjab is different from Tamil Nadu in some ways, but also similar in other caste-inflected ways.

When we announced this conference, we received a few disturbing emails from people who claimed that Periyar had made very many ‘anti-Brahmin’ pronouncements. There was evidence provided of fiery speeches and links to writings that can arguably be seen as inflammatory. But we also know, from what we have heard in some presentations in this conference that Periyar has said many things to challenge a ‘Brahmanism’ that shores up the caste matrix. For instance, in the Ambedkar book panel yesterday, we heard that in Periyar’s case we must distinguish between being anti-Brahmin and encouraging non-Brahmin positioning.

So, what should our attitude be towards such iconic figures from the perspective of critical thinking? Should we not read a thinker because they have said things which when seen in isolation may indeed be objectionable? I think that in such cases where voluminous writings and speeches exist, a comprehensive study becomes even more important to locate and effectively criticise their stray objectionable pronouncements. Within my subject of philosophy, in the 70s and 80s feminist philosophers depicted the misogyny of male philosophers through re-readings of their texts and a few years later the racism of white western philosophers also came under scrutiny. After these revelations, one could no longer teach Aristotle or Kant, without being troubled by the thought: why do we give these male philosophers so much importance? Were they not totally blind to their own prejudices, whilst espousing justice, friendship, or universal equality?

Similar worries can occur with regards to any thinker, including us, seeking the annihilation of caste. There will, very likely, be biases, prejudices and blind spots which escape critical scrutiny. And there is no guarantee that we are in a better position in the present to make fair assessments of inherited knowledge. However, to give truth and critical thinking a chance to succeed, it is crucial to foster academic freedom. The new generation of anti-caste thinkers need the protection of this space of freedom more than ever.

In this conference, we were especially interested in creating space for new theorisations of anti-casteism by encouraging younger scholars to share their work. In this we have exceeded our own expectations. It has been delightful to listen to 17 papers, with nuanced discussions of historical, sociological, political, and philosophical readings of the presence of caste in our lives. Let me recount briefly what we covered in these two days.

In panel one [Caste and Culture], Chaired by Selvaraj Velayutham, Sunidhi Pacharne’s paper on ‘The Gendered Politics of Caste in Indian Cinema: Interrogating the Sexual Impurity of Dalit Women’ pointed out that there is no presentation of the ‘political Dalit’ in mainstream cinema.  Portrayals of Dalit women even in films with Dalit protagonists are governed by what she calls a ‘Brahmanic unconscious’. Drishadwadi Bargi’s paper was a philosophical meditation on sacrifice, the dissolution of the ego in love, and the desire for revolutionary self-transformation in Malika Amar Sheikh’s memoir – I want to Destroy Myself. This memoir of a daughter of communist parents and life-partner of a Dalit Panther, leads Bargi to reflect upon the conditions that create moments of identification with heterogenous others. Swarnavel Eswaran’s paper on three recent films, Pariyerum Perumal (Horse-mounting Deity, Mari Selvaraj, 2018), Maadathy (Leena Manimekalai, 2019), Seththumann/Pig (Thamizh, 2020) discussed the social construction of space where the politics of denial of civil rights is played out on a quotidian basis, and cinematic space where the blurring of rigid casteist boundaries by lovers is depicted.

In panel two [Caste, Nation and Spaciality]: Shrinidhi Narasimhan in ‘Place-making from the Margins: Asia in the Tamil Buddhist Imagination’ argued that the Sakhya Buddhist imagination of ancient India as a Dalit Buddhist land not only produced an emancipatory genealogy for Tamil Dalits but also an alternative, emancipatory geography within which to locate themselves. Her paper reflected on how Iyothee Thass and the movement he led not only reinterpreted the past but also reimagined place, and thus she brings critical geography into conversation with historical analysis to rethink the spatial and temporal contours of late nineteenth and early twentieth century anticaste movements. Ganeshwar’s paper ‘Periyar’s Spatial Thought: Region as Non-Brahmin Discursive Space’ argued that Periyar’s spatial thought stems from his anti-caste thought and is key to understanding his sharp critique of Indian nationalism. The region, for Periyar, was the counter discursive space that would enable the ascendency of non-brahmin politics. The Self-respect movement contributed to the popularisation of the region as a counter-hegemonic force incorporating a distinctive set of non-brahmin values to the Tamil region. Anish KK’s paper on ‘Conceptions of Community, Nation and Politics: The Ezhavas of South Malabar and their Quest of Equality*’ showed how the Ezhavas laying claim to the Buddhist tradition from Sri Lanka, proposed a critique of the prevailing social structure and reinterpreted their own origins as a means to suspend Hindu religious injunctions, their lowly position in caste hierarchy, and their traditional caste occupations. The Chair, Malini Ranganathan wonderfully knitted together the themes of the papers in her comments – suggesting that they were like a draft chapters of one book. She suggested thinking about scaler strategies of space, re-scaling to resist the scale of Brahmanical nationalism.

Panel three [Caste and Institutions], began with Shakhti’s paper on the ‘The Many Faces of Caste in Chennai’s Information Technology Industry’ providing findings from her qualitative interviews and ethnographic research carried out within the IT industry in 2015-16 in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. Despite specific ameliorative measures in Tamil Nadu, there is a continuing primacy attached to ‘merit’ even in the face of calls for caste-based reservation in private-sector employment. The paper demonstrated how caste is shaped by both situated social relations and global networks of capital. Jentle Vargese spoke on ‘Militancy, Radical Democracy and Constitutionalism: Ayyankali and the Dalit Assertion in Colonial Travancore’ presenting a reinterpretation of the Dalit Leader, Ayyankali, from the perspective of a Dalit historiography. He provided the political significance of his activities, his position on religion, his negotiation with the Hindu state and his emergence as the unquestionable leader of Dalits in Kerala. The Chair, Gaurav Pathania gave detailed constructive comments on how the papers might be strengthened for submission as journal articles. To Shakthi he suggested focussing on intersectionality of caste, class, and gender, and to Jentle on examples of Ayyankali’s negotiation of caste oppression in education, public space, and social interaction.

In the last session yesterday, I had the pleasure of hosting a book discussion on B.R. Ambedkar: The Quest for Justice (5 Vols., OUP, 2021) with the editor Aakash Singh Rathore, Kancha Ilaiah, Kanchana Mahadevan and Mathew Baxter, where each of them talked about their contribution to the volumes. In response to my question, they reflected on why it was important in the present times to study anti-caste thought in the writings of Ambedkar, Periyar and others.

Today began with the authoritative keynote by AR Venkatachalapathy [Denying and Defying Power: Periyar’s Approach to Politics] which you will forgive me for not summarising. We heard about the provocative writer, who built several social reform campaigns, from outside electoral politics.

In panel 4 [Caste and Religions], chaired by Gajendra Ayyathurai, Dhiviya Shivaramane’s paper was an attempt to examine the social influences of the Dravidian discourse on caste through Periyar’s views on religion and god.  She argued that Periyar sought to direct the focus from the ritual/cognitive realm to the social/experiential realm – where one finds the most pervasive and vicious operation of caste. Next, Nithin Donald, spoke on ‘Ambedkar as a Sociologist of Indian Christianity’, explaining how Ambedkar recovers Christians as political actors at a time when nationalists devalued them for being an ‘insignificant minority.’ He also explained how Gandhism played a key role in ‘denationalizing’ Christians and permanently marking them as objects of suspicion for a long time to come. Nithin uses two key primary sources from Babasaheb Ambedkar: ‘Christianizing India’ and ‘The Condition of the Convert’. The final paper in the panel by Suhasini Roy’s on ‘Barishaler Jogen Mondal: Construal of the undisputed dalit leader of undivided Bengal through a twenty-first century Bengali novel’ explained how Mondal’s politico-ideological agenda of establishing separate/distinct political identity for the Dalits and in Bengal’s context finding solidarity with their Muslim counterparts in agrarian population was lost in the post-War years and abandoned by the new nations since 1947. The Chair, gave extensive comments to the three speakers, reitering the importance of vernacular terms in capturing experience. We must imagine community, he suggested, beyond biological kinship.

Panel 5, on Anti-Caste Thinkers, chaired by Dag Erik Berg, began with Mahitosh Mandal speaking on ‘Dalit Resistance in Times of Bengal Renaissance: Five Untouchable Thinker-Reformers from Colonial Bengal’. He argued that the existence of multiple anti-caste social/political organizations in Bengal for over a century, the proliferation of Bengali Dalit literature in the past few decades, and the occasional documentation of Dalit atrocities in mainstream newspapers, all demonstrate that Bengal as a caste-less land is a myth. The paper theorized the indigenous and complex anti-caste intellectual tradition of Bengal, excluded from the intellectual history of Bengal. It argued that Bengal Renaissance was fundamentally an upper-caste Hindu renaissance that did not (effectively) address the issue of caste subalternity. Ignoring the parallel Dalit renaissance is ‘epistemic violence’. The second paper in this panel by Vignesh Karthick and Vishal Vasanthakumar: ‘Beyond Anti-Caste Activism: A Periyarist Gaze at Social Justice’ examined the hypothesis that while both social empowerment and economic mobility were absolutely non-negotiable goals of the Dravidian Movement, it was the clear-eyed understanding that the latter is not achievable without the former that informed its theory and praxis. It is this worldview that informs the approach of the leaders of the Dravidian movement, which they went on to examine. The final paper by Prem Ram ‘A discourse on communication between Iyothe Thass and Peiryar: Possibilities of transgressing Caste equations’ argued that Dravidian and Dalit discourses can co-exist in their approach to forge a common strategy. It challenged the claim that Dravidian discourse has unconsciously erased the memory of Iyothe Thass, taking a constructive approach to reconcile the two. The Chair, Dag probed the presenters to think about what is an anti-caste thinker and where does caste originate: in social life or in a religious text? He drew attention to regional comparisons and suggested that the archive of the oppressed should be available in translation.

In the final panel, 6 [Anti-Caste Theory], chaired by Scott Stroud, we had three papers. Uday Yerramadasu spoke on ‘A Veritable Chamber of Horrors: The Annihilation of Caste as a Theodicy on Responsibility’. Through the analysis of the killing of Sambuka and the trial of Eichmann, his paper delineated the fiction of Sovereignty and argued, for both Ambedkar and Arendt, the free and responsible individual is historically produced. However, ‘un-naturality,’ rather than making it dispensable, points to the necessity of politics to sustain, cherish and nurture the notions of freedom and responsibility. Thus, he argued that for Ambedkar, responsibility is the essence of religion; religion without responsibility might be a ‘way of life’ but undoubtedly it does not qualify as a religion. The second paper was by Sitharthan Sriharan on ‘Universalism as Foundational to the Critique of Caste: Towards a Comparative Reading of Ambedkar and Hegel’. The paper is work towards a comprehensive comparative reading of Ambedkar and Hegel’s ideas on Freedom, the State, and Religion by ascertaining their commitments to conceptions of universal morality in their respective critiques of the Hindu caste system. The last paper in the conference was by Jadumani Mahanand, commended yesterday in the Ambedkar book panel for his contribution. Jadumani spoke on ‘Ambedkar’s Anti-Caste philosophy as Democratic Theory’. He argued that according to Ambedkar, the philosophy of Brahminism is incompatible, contradictory, and against the idea of democracy. Ambedkar’s writings on democracy theoretically offer a counter revolution to Brahminism. Finally, he argued that Ambedkar goes beyond caste in theorizing an ethical and moral conception of democracy in a universal sense. The Chair, Scott Stroud, pushed the presenters to take their investigations further, for example, by looking closely at the organisation of Ambedkar’s 22 vows.

I hope my summary of the presentations has shown that this conference marks a new beginning, of a flowering, transdisciplinary, contemporary scholarship on anti-caste thought. Many of the papers presented in our conference will be submitted for publication to Caste: a global journal of social exclusion and become a freely available resource, to draw upon in intellectual and political pursuits of social transformation towards a caste-free world.

I end by thanking all the participants from different parts of the world: attendees, speakers, chairs, book panel discussants and our wonderful support team – Elena, Mike, Laura and Dr Lotika Singha, at the University of Wolverhampton. It has been an intense but wholly gratifying period of intellectual interaction with all of you. We are deeply grateful to you for making this conference a success. Please send us your feedback on CasteFree@wlv.ac.uk.

Have a restful weekend!

Meena

https://researchers.wlv.ac.uk/M.Dhanda

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