Have you ever seen Ambedkar's photo in a shop?
A conversation with a scholar about caste, liberty migration, recommendations to de-caste yourself and more.
“We all have to move out eventually. Sadly, this is just how social mobility works.”, I had told a friend a few years ago while trying to console him, because he was upset that I would soon leave Mumbai indefinitely for a job opportunity. My incorrect use of sociological terminologies notwithstanding, the idea of migration had been introduced to me as something that one went through, to further improve their existing life.
After coming to the UK, I saw that most people had come to university for similar reasons as mine. A higher paying job, a better quality of life and the social currency of being ‘foreign educated’. But, I noticed people who I thought had migrated for reasons slightly different than mine. And when I say people, I mean women, Indian muslims, people of alternate gender and sexual orientations and those from marginalised castes.
To understand if this actually does happen, I decided to speak to a PhD scholar from SOAS who is working on caste and development. The question I asked him was simple. Is there actually such a thing as liberty migration ? Do people leave their country to escape exploitation ? This post is a निचोड़ (extract) of an hour long meandering conversation that followed. I spoke to Abhishek Bhosale about caste in general, whether liberty migration is a real thing, and if it is, what does it mean for a dalit student to undertake this journey ? And finally, I asked him for recommendations to help people like myself actively become anti-casteist in their daily lives.
The privilege to not care.
To not care is a privilege, and to care is a choice for young savarna Indians like myself. To not have a say on anything social or political because you are immune to the state’s decisions, is a privilege that people from marginalised communities don’t have. I asked Abhishek if it is possible for a dalit student today to be politically passive and just chase their financial goals. He says it is, at least for what Anand Teltumbde calls the ‘new middle class’ , the financially affluent amongst the oppressed castes. But then the question is, how easy is it for them to be passive ?
Abhishek himself was a student of science when he started out. Talking about having similar aspirations of a regular life, he says, “Main bhi vaisa hi tha re. I was like merko nahi karna ye activism. But when I was studying science, I realised severe caste discrimination in my class. Vo merko kheench ke leke aaya vaapis.” This last line says a lot about how, even if you try to get out of this vicious circle of discrimination, the deeply entrenched systems pull you back, making it hard, or even impossible for you to not care.
Abhishek recollects his first subconscious encounter with this exploitative structure. He says, “I remember I must be in my second or third grade when my teacher asked me my caste. It is only when I started reading about caste later in life that I realised what had happened. I was the only one in my whole class that she asked this question to.”
He then tells me about a friend who faced the same thing at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He narrates how she was repeatedly asked to explain specific caste related topics in class, since she was “aware of the caste literature.” In the guise of giving someone a platform, what was essentially being done was segregation. A class full of people was being made aware of a someone’s caste identity. Abhishek’s friend decided never to pursue anti-caste work in her academics ever again.
The fate of this student who gave up on her struggle to structurally work against discrimination, is the fate of most people who attempt to change the system from within. Structural attempts are made to ensure that dalits do not enter the system in the first place. If you look for dalit professors in IITs, says Abhishek, it will be a tough search. Despite 13% reservation for professors from marginalised communities, hirings for these posts are never opened because as Bhosale puts it, “Vo log aayenge toh rights aur justice ki baat karenge na.”
If you are still somehow lucky enough to get into the system, you are identified, segregated and discriminated against, till you decide to give up, like the student from JNU did, or worse, like Rohit Vemula did.
Even though caste has travelled with upper caste Indians wherever they have gone (more on this later), it is still relatively easier for dalit students and professionals to come to global universities and at least have the freedom to do the work they wish to do, and raise the questions they want to ask. The idea, as Abishek puts it, is to build a global solidarity of anti caste professionals.
“Aap activism kitna din karoge?”, asks Abhishek. “Mere grandfather bhi caste discrimination ki baat karte the, mere papa bhi kar rahe hai, main bhi kar raha hu. Main kyu isse bahar nahi padta ?”, he continues. Coming to a good university and getting a good education, as Ambedkar had prescribed, is Abhishek’s way of breaking out of the vicious cycle of activism. When you attain high quality scholarship and go back to India with it, burning questions about the fundamentals of caste structure get more credibility and visibility.
These systems of oppression are omnipresent in every sphere of life that guides us as humans. Just like academia where students like Abhishek and his friends were discriminated, caste governs language, popular culture, technology, law and more. Despite thinking that I am quite aware about this omnipresence, I was brought face to face with my ignorance when Abhishek asked me a question. “Have you ever seen Ambedkar’s photo in a shop?”, he asked. I thought for a while and responded in the negative. This, he explains, is because openly flaunting your allegiance to Babasaheb’s ideas has an economic impact. It could potentially drive away customers and affect the shopkeeper’s life.
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Does migration guarantee absolute liberty ?
Contrary to popular belief, caste Indians carry, along with theplas and aachars, their exploitative caste tendencies too. Despite a change in their clothing, living standards and accent, one thing they tend to stick to, is their caste beliefs.
When people from marginalised communities ran a movement to get caste included in the Equality Act here in the UK, which basically gives the citizens protection against racial, gender and disability based discrimination, guess who protested ? Our very own ‘foreign educated’, suited-booted savarnas.
For years, thousands of students and working professionals from India must have migrated in search of their own version of freedom. Running away from hateful politics, regressive laws and oppressive social systems that marginalised them. While everybody needs to de-caste at their own level, but if you are a Hindu, upper caste, upper class, straight male with access to basic education like myself, we owe it to the world around us to question and change everything that has been taught to us. It can be a daunting process, but if you have the intent, Abhishek has some basic know-how for you to start with.
How to be an anti-casteist :
I asked Abhishek how can someone be anti caste despite being from a privileged caste, and here are some suggestions he had. This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but a good starting point.
Ghar walo ke khilaaf jaana padega - Change begins at home. So question and call out old practices that have been normalised in your house on the basis of “aisa hi hota aaya hai”.
Start a dialogue - With yourself first, then with your family and then with the world around you. If you or someone around you is using caste names like chapri, dhedh, vaaghri to derogate someone, stop right there and explain the context to them and urge them (or yourself) never to do it again. It may not change them immediately, but it will at least sow the seed in their mind.
Support the marginalised around you - As and when you get a chance, help people from marginalised communities financially, socially and most importantly with your skills. No matter what your vocation is, if you can help someone learn that skill, do it. Both me and Abhishek have taught journalism to students from the community at some point because that is what we knew. If you can code, solve math problems, sing or handle books of accounts, take the opportunity to transfer these skills to those who have been deprived of learning.
Accept your privilege - And ask yourself if you really want to change it. If you do, try to identify your privileges and use them for the good.
Engage with the community - Engage with those who have less or no privilege. Talk to rickshaw drivers, peons, watchmen, house helps, vegetable vendors about their lives to understand how they live and what concerns them the most. More often than not, you will find caste at the roots of why they are living the life they are.
Ask yourself if you have ever tried tracing people’s caste through their surnames ? - You may say that you have done this even with the upper castes , but just the practice of tracing someone’s lineage has a sub-conscious impact on your mind. I have most definitely done it and still sometimes do. Ask if you have ever done that and consciously try to change it.
If you are more curious to know how to be an anti-casteist, here is a FABULOUS short podcast that talks in-depth about the same. Highly recommended !
Recommendations of the week.
Short reads (3-4 mins) -
Book recommendations (Free links)-
Annihilation Of Caste by B.R Ambedkar - Read here.
Babasaheb Ambedkar : Life and Mission by Dhananjay Keer - Read here.
Shetkara Tsa Asud by Jyotiba Phule (translated by Gail Omvedt and Bharat Patankar) - Read here.
Seeking Begumpura by Gail Omvedt - Read here.
Poetry Recommendation : Namdev Dhasal is one of the most influential poets from Maharashtra who extensively wrote about caste. His entire political and literary life is worth knowing more about, but for starters you can listen to this audio (with english translation) of a poem called ‘Man Should Explode’. If you like it, go read up more about Dhasal and his work.
And lastly, when you start your day tomorrow, keep and eye out for Ambedkar’s photo in the world around you. The day you start seeing him in shops, homes, classrooms and restaurants, know that we’re moving in the right direction.
Thank you, if you have reached this far. If you have any feedback, do reach out to me at email@example.com and share it with your friends and family. See you next time !