“Bioscopic frames of noncity-scapes. Asphyxiation induced anxiety tunnelling an end to our aspiration. Funnelling 12 sweaty bodies through a 180sqft hole, our mothers overlooking hope in MHADA’s redevelopment plan. Such are our dead eyes. Such are our brightest dreams. The pitiful sigh of a middle-class Jai Bhim!
I’ve recently switched from Charcoal to Black Brush Pens to keep my hands clean and be able to work wearing whites. I’m keeping my workspace and work cleaner and censoring my words. I’m keeping a company of clean friends. I’m reminding myself every day how I left behind the non-city years ago. Trying my best to be cleaner than those we left behind, dazzled in the bling of those who shine in the very gold they stole from our house, the city dwellers, my new friends!” (- author)
Caste, as proclaimed by Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (also known as Babasaheb), an Indian politician, jurist, and leader of the Navayana Buddhism movement, is a notion, a state of mind. Although annihilation of a race is the genocidal utopia of fascism, the annihilation of caste in India is the bedrock of an egalitarian society, the foundations of which have already been dug by the greatest of social revolutionaries from Buddha to Jotiba and from Kabir to Babasaheb. The hierarchy of caste goes further back in history than the colonial production of racial subjugation that made skin whiteness the basis of superiority. Caste, unfortunately, has mutated above, below, and on top of this layer of skin. Caste is a new layer of an enforced skin woven and stitched into mythology, language, philosophy, polity, commerce, and, above all, the value system of humanity.
Right above the layer of our skin has been wrapped another skin of caste, which is as material as it is ethereal. This second skin is not an identity. Identities are what people embrace and assert. This second skin is a polythene bag that doesn’t disintegrate for centuries, stuffed under which are millions of us for millions of aeons — a gag that tortures but keeps us alive for amusement. This second skin is not a production of the Nazis or any radical Islamist group. The second skin is wrapped on us by Sharmaji’s son who went to Harvard, by Khatri uncle who just bought a new Pajero, by devout Mishra Ji, whose home is a permanent exhibition of idols of all 33 crores (330 million) gods. But not just them, even liberal Rahul and leftist Mukherjee, whose Azadi slogans echo in the campuses of Jawaharlal Nehru University, get a vile pleasure from keeping us forever trapped in this second skin. People from the far radical right to Brahmanical left have been hoisting this second skin around the windy perimeters of this subcontinent, stretching it all over this mass of dehumanised bodies.
When an upper-caste person claims to ‘not see’ caste, they imply that they do not see us choking in the second skin they themselves wrapped. The biggest illusion that caste creates is that it doesn’t exist. Dalit people take all kinds of measures to cover up this second skin that has bruises from their grandfather’s whipped back and their grandmother’s wounded head, which was smashed on the Savkaar’s well. We cover it up with urban fashion, fluent English, excellence in academics, and everything else in order to camouflage our second skin in the company of single skinners. What upper-caste people see on our bodies as markers of progress are, in reality, desperate measures to cover up the constant state of vulnerability to which the second skin exposes us. Dalit body politics is not only about the individual body. It is also about the mass of all of our 300 million selves trapped together in this single enormous layer of untouchable skin. The stinking, dark, ugly, bringer of misfortune — this skin is all of it and more.
In Black Skin White Masks, Franz Fanon, while referring to the ‘educated blacks’, writes, “Society refuses to consider them genuine Negroes. The Negro is a savage, whereas the student is civilised. “You’re us,” and if anyone thinks you are a Negro he is mistaken because you merely look like one.” This type of question makes the Savarnas, the upper castes, restless: What does a Dalit look like? What is an educated Dalit?
The ability of a Dalit or Adivasi person to make alliances with an upper-caste person is evaluated through grade reports from the various Brahmanical institutions, these grade reports which they’re supposed to wear on their bodies in the form of fashion, language, and other material possessions to prove their ability to be non-threatening brahmanised bots. Only Dalits whose tiffin boxes smell of ghee and whose homes are decorated with Hindu idols and incense smoke are legitimate enough to be allowed access into the homes and workspaces of the Savarnas.
This question of what a Dalit looks like torments the anxious thoughts of Savarnas also due to social exclusion. The systemic exclusion of the Untouchables from the village quarters was first exercised through the laws laid down in Manusmriti, first written around 185 BC by Manu (The era which also marked the decline of Buddhism in the Indian subcontinent and the rise of Sanatan Dharma, with the regicide of last Mauryan king Brihadratha Maurya by Pushyamitra Sungha). The Manusmriti enforced caste and laid down the rules every caste has to perform. The Manusmriti vehemently constructed a new social order based on segregation. Consquently, the culture, the lullabies, revolts, stories of exploitation and laughter of the Antyaja (people beyond the periphery of the village) remained beyond the village’s periphery. The Adivasi and the Untouchables remained shrouded in the Mystery of the forests through which they appeared after the village slept and to which they retreated before dawn.
The impact of such usurpation of power in the hands of the one supreme caste, the Brahmin, is very well reflected even today. The Policy Makers and Urban Planners, holding positions of power, determine who lives where, populating the city with mostly upper-caste. Following the footsteps of their ancestors, these modern-day Manu’s, through their city development plans, ensure that any communal osmosis of the humanised and the dehumanised is curbed. Of all the 33,000 Sanitation workers that Mumbai employs today, each and every one is a Dalit. The living quarters provided by the state for these workers are conditional on at least one of the family members continuing their caste defined occupation of sanitation work. These quarters often exist as caste ghettos crunched between tall skyscrapers or on the edges of the city.
The Dalit sanitation worker of today is subjected to the same exclusion of having to clean the city of the savarnas and retreat back to their ghetto before the city wakes up. Not much has changed since the Manusmriti.
Dr Ambedkar, in Chapter 4 of ‘What it is to be an Untouchable’ describes some of the laws enforced by the Manusmriti:
“What are the terms of associated life on which the Touchables and Untouchables live in an Indian village? In every village, the Touchables have a code which the Untouchables are required to follow. This code lays down the acts of omissions and commissions which the Touchables treat as offences. The following is the list of such offences:
- The Untouchables must live in separate quarters away from the habitation of the Hindus. It is an offence for the Untouchables to break or evade the rule of segregation.
- The quarters of the Untouchables must be located towards the South since the South is the most inauspicious of the four directions. A breach of this rule shall be deemed to be an offence.
- It’s an offence for a member of the Untouchable community to acquire wealth, such as land or cattle.
- It is an offence for a member of the Untouchable community to build a house with a tiled roof.
- It is an offence for a member of an Untouchable community to put on a clean dress, wear shoes, put on a watch or gold ornaments.
Dandaniti (law of punishment) was used to ensure that the living conditions of the untouchables remained worse than animals. The occupations enforced upon the untouchables included: dragging away dead stray pigs, dogs, and the cows that were left to roam around in the village once their udders stopped producing ghee for the Brahmin; hunting down wild animals; carrying messages of someone’s death to distant villages; and guarding the periphery. These occupations and conditions aided the Brahmanical production of the idea that the Dalit body should be kept invisible.
Using the same laws of Manu, the Brahmin hegemonised all means of knowledge production and utilised this new open field to demonise the untouchable as an Asura through his million mythologies, much like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Almost every Hindu festival is a vile celebration of the genocide of those who resisted Aryan invasions. Dusshera is the celebration of Durga killing Mahishasura, often depicted in violent religious artwork showing a fair-skinned woman riding a tiger and piercing a ‘Trishul’ through a dark-skinned man with fangs, red eyes, and sharp nails. While Ram moved along with Laxman from Chitrakoot to Lanka to ‘rescue’ his allegedly kidnapped wife by the Rakshasa (demon) Ravana, he encounters multiple Demons in the forests he travels through. These Demons are depicted as either rogue shape-shifting animals, mountains, dark clouds which turn into giant flying lizards, or sea monsters, all of whom Ram kills with the powers bestowed upon him by his Kshatriya Dharma. His associate Hanuman depicted as a non-human-half-monkey character who is also a humble servant of the Maryada Purushottam (the ultimate man) Ram, burns down an entire city in Lanka, and this brutal arson is legitimated by dehumanising Lanka’s commoners into Rakshasas. But the character from Global Gaon, Rum Jhum Asura, says “When our ancestors decided to protect the forests, they were called Rakshasas. When they protested cutting and burning forests for cultivation, they were called Daityas (Monsters).” Dr. Ambedkar asserts:
“The Asuras again are not monsters. They, too, are Jan-Vishesh human beings. According to Satpatha Bramhana, the Asuras are the descendants of Prajapati, the Lord of the creation. How they became evil spirits is not known. But the fact is recorded that they fought against the Devas for the possession of the earth and that they were overcome by the Devas and finally succumbed. The point is clear that the Asuras were members of the human family and not monsters.” (B.R. Ambedkar, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India.)
In addition to mythology, Hindu religious art is also used to segregate and terrorise those who decide to rise against Brahmanical hegmony. Anand Teltumbde, in his book Persistence of Caste (pg 42), writes, “Contrary to the image of India as a non-violent society, violence has always been intrinsic to the Hindu Societal structure, It is not for nothing that Hindu gods are depicted in temple structures and in popular calendar art bearing deadly weapons and engaged in macabre acts of destruction. Hinduism’s adherents would argue that this violence is against evil and is reassuring to those who are virtuous. However, the definition of what constitutes ‘virtue’ and’ vice’ rests on caste ideology. Those who abide by caste are virtuous and those who defy it, evil.” Even today, in Ganesh pandals during the 11 days of Ganeshotsav in Maharashtra, Hindu gods and goddesses built out of plaster, with their mechanically controlled limbs holding weapons, are portrayed killing these Asuras the revolutionaries against caste. It’s a publically celebrated open threat to Dalit people today whose bodies are represented by the ones being killed. This art also enforces the Brahmanical idea of the meat-eater as evil and of the vegetarian as pure. The imagery portrays the Rakshasas and Asuras with long canines, blood-smeared mouths, and skin covered in blood, suggesting that they are meat-eaters. This contrasts with the newly produced imagery of the gods and goddesses as vegetarian and with clean and glowing fair skin.
The demonisation of the Dalit and Adivasi through this imagery was also essential to retain Brahmanical patriarchy. Since women, irrespective of caste, had the same status as the low caste Shudra in the written laws of Manu, and since any mutual contact between the women, who were kept under most surveillance, and the untouchable was made impossible, their entire image of the lives of those beyond the village was through these myths and evil imagery created and preached by Brahmin men. The same men who built this entire debauchery of caste on the foundation of an endogamous marriage system stigmatised and effectively prevented any contact between upper-caste women and the untouchables. By creating superstitions and threatening women with ill-omens associated with the bodies of the untouchable, Brahmin men made sure that their caste purity was maintained. While these men controlled the sexuality and freedom of women from their own community by stigmatising the untouchable body, they sexually exploited the bodies of Dalit women without impunity. While the offspring of an untouchable man and an upper-caste woman was mythically created into a Chandala, the Dalit women who were forced into sex work were romanticised as ‘Apsaras’. The latter, according to mythology, were voluntary Dasis of the gods, like the ones depicted by mainstream upper-caste artists dancing around Krishna in Raasleela and around Ram, entertaining him in the Zenana.
Durga has, however, been long tamed by being shoehorned into the mainstream Hindu pantheon as one of Shiva’s many turbulent wives. When Brahmin men, worshippers of Shiva (also originally an aboriginal god, representing fertility), moved from central India to Bengal many centuries ago, they were forced to accept their native wives’ worship of goddesses such as Durga. Marrying these turbulent, angry females off to Shiva became their device to retain a measure of patriarchal control. (Mahishasura, A people’s hero, Prem Ranjan Mani). These mythologies form the core value system that is indoctrinated in kids from Hindu families. Those assigned as boys at birth are to take inspiration from Hanuman and Ram, and those assigned girls are to grow up to become the ideal wife like Sita. The Asura, however, is at birth a devil spawn. The upper-caste Hindu man, a representative of Ram, considers it his Dharma to kill the evil Asura. In this sense, the social life and morality of Savarnas and their treatment of the Avarnas is a continuous re-enactment of mythologies. Assuming the roles of these mythic characters, they acquire religious and Vedic legitimacy for contemporary atrocities.
The revolutionary assertions of Dalit bodies have forever been met with counter-revolutionary ‘productions’ of Dalit bodies. The vicious war between the histories of the oppressor and the oppressed has today produced a schizophrenic state of being for the broken. Because of this continuous and frenetic Brahmanical theft of culture, language, agency, humanity and history, a Dalit person finds themselves oscillating between the identity and dignity of the self and the imposed and internalised idea of the inferior self. Additionally, with the enactment of laws against untouchability, the physical markers of slavery began to invisibilise. This has rather assisted in rigidifying mental slavery. Even today, only when an atrocity is gruesome enough for the Savarna gaze to fetishise does it qualify to become national news or be noticed by social media activists, as if, in the absence of these graphic incidents, Dalit bodies are not being exploited through a continuous state of mental slavery. Franz Fanon writes about this inferior self in The Wretched of the Earth, “The oppressed will always believe the worst about themselves. . .Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.” Fanon’s words are beautifully in sync with Dr Ambedkar’s words: “The cultivation of mind must be the ultimate goal of human existence”.
As one investigates this second skin of caste, one finds it a dense lump of mythology and manipulation materialised through physical realities of living conditions, malnourishment, and a lack of healthcare, education, and capital. Surgical removal of this second skin shall only be possible with the reassertion of the self by countering the Brahmanical institutions that produce and popularise their idea of the enslaved Dalit body. Babasaheb Ambedkar appealed to his people to stop dressing in rags like they are told to, stop eating what’s been left behind, start wearing footwear and gold ornaments and seek education. Babasaheb was, in reality, recreating the very idea of the Dalit body. A new wave of Dalit artists, writers, and leaders are today continuing this work of creating incisions within this second skin, creating space for this beaten-up body to flourish, heal, reclaim, and reunite with the self. The self is connected to every other self whose bodies are etched with generational trauma of untouchability. To eventually transform these connections, individuals share with the rest of their community from those of commonalities in oppression than to those of happiness. These connections established through commonalities in historic oppression are pertinent and necessary. However, the task is to transform the predicate of these connections to commonalities in culture, language, literature by clearing off the mythical debris of Brahmanism.
Ajinkya Dekhane is an Architect from Mumbai, India. His current practice involves exploring caste in the Urban Space through Poetry, Prose, and Visual Art.
Image credit: Ajinkya Dekhane