A meme recently appeared on my Facebook timeline: a child plays as her mother asks, “Are your dolls having a tea party?” The little girl answers, “No mom, they’re protesting against patriarchy.”
The clever cartoon is accompanied by a proclamation: “omg, Priya this is so you”.
There are several likes and cheeky comments. Priya responds with faux-embarrassment – “LOL stop it!” – though everyone knows there’s pride in being outed as a feminist.
Variations of this exchange light up my timeline. I watch, smirk, and judge till I get tagged myself. And then I respond like Priya, secretly thrilled to have been validated as progressive.
This is the grammar of the metropolitan, well-off, English-speaking, millennial internet. We curate online identities, knowing that social justice knowhow is their hippest ingredient.
We’re young folks of privilege, negotiating professional and urban struggles one weekend at a time. We live in India, but haven’t given up on “Bharat”.
We’re interested in the vagaries of our national discourses on gender, nationalism, social conservatism, and more. We perceive injustices around us and raise hell about them. We outrage quickly and happily.
(For evidence, see the popularity of millennial-darling comedians and YouTube stars All India Bakchod, whose popularity is owed significantly to their satirising of issues as varied as homophobia, victim-blaming in rape culture, and policy debate around net neutrality.)
In some ways, this is an ideal scenario – caring about a better world has become coveted cultural currency among people of privilege.
But, while we tweet ourselves hoarse about feminism and colourism and veganism and ally-ism, there’s an omnipresent injustice which doesn’t enjoy the halo of our Facebook moralising.
The big, confusing C-word.
Nagraj Manjule, fresh on the success of “Sairat”, was asked in an interview why he makes films only on caste. He responded that it required a special talent to avoid the topic, and that he wasn’t a particularly talented person. Witty, and also extraordinarily true.
At the Jaipur Literature Festival, that famed annual gathering of progressives, Kajol declared that people had become over-sensitive these days and that there was no intolerance in Bollywood, no dividing lines of caste or creed.
It takes “special talent” to stomach her mann ki baat considering that only a week earlier, a young man in Hyderabad hung from a fan because his value as a person was reduced to his caste.
Kajol’s statement is not in isolation. A study by The Hindu in 2015 showed that only 6 out of 300 Bollywood films made in the previous two years had featured lower caste protagonists.
Too often, “poor” is the blanket identity of characters who would most likely hail from lower caste backgrounds (think Arjun and Ranveer’s irascible Bikram and Bala from Gundey, or Nawazuddin’s delightful Shaikh from The Lunchbox). Too often, Bollywood cinema has invisibilized caste under the more simplified construct of class.
The word “jaat” has today almost disappeared from Bollywood vocabulary, surfacing only occasional references to criminal tropes.
And television is no different. A quick glance at the top TRP-rated shows on air currently reveals that none of them features a dalit protagonist.
Luckily, online entertainers have an opportunity to reject some regressive conventions ingrained in Bollywood and TV. But nonetheless, when it comes to caste, there’s a strange diffidence, a disquieting silence, even from model millennial progressives All India Bakchod.
On their Hot Star news-comedy show On Air with AIB, the group raised bold issues week after week, still managing to never touch the C-word. They even did an entire segment on police brutality without mentioning caste.
Dalit activists have been arguing for years that there’s a casteist bias in India’s judicial and law-enforcement apparatus, as evidenced by the NCRB report which found that almost 33% of inmates in Indian prisons are SC/STs.
It must have taken special talent to avoid that.
Things are no different on the cricket field. Until very recently, cricket was the preserve of upper-caste city elites. Today, even the most die-hard Indian cricket fans will only be able to name one dalit cricketer – Vinod Kambli.
Few know of Palwankar Baloo, the pre-independence left-arm spinner who was made to use separate dining and lodging facilities on tours, and denied captaincy owing to his caste.
The most commonly peddled dismissal of the cricket-and-caste conversation is that sport is about technical excellence and that the best team should be selected, irrespective of caste or religion. But sport is not beyond social justice.
South Africa has experimented with affirmative action to change the composition of its teams and dismantle deep-rooted and invisible racist structures of discrimination. Is their system working well? No. But at the very least, there is acknowledgement of the problem, and experimentation with the intent of solving it.
Here, even in the most educated circles, the moment I attempt to trace casteism into anything beyond the designated cauldrons of caste oppression – honor killings, khap panchayats, dalit rapes – I’m quickly dismissed as a fanatic.
“Jootha is not a caste thing, yaar, it’s scientifically proven to be more hygienic.”
“But do you even know what the SC and ST cut-off for IIM is?”
“I don’t care how much soap he uses. The bathroom guy can’t cook the food. Basic hai.”
There is a suspicion towards reading casteism into the everyday structures that we’re used to, even if they normalize caste-based oppression. In this orbit, caste has almost become a “bad” word, considered the domain of the subaltern, small-town political class who use it for their nefarious mobilisation. Lower caste assertionism in form of political blocs, caste-alliances or even Ambedkarite social politics is often dismissed with a shake of the head.
In other words: for those Indians who truly, genuinely believe that “there’s no such thing as casteism in 2016,” trying to talk about dalit rights feels divisive, not progressive or productive or urgent, as it is.
What’s perplexing is how this coexists in a completely non-ironic way with #BlackLivesMatter, pro-Bernie Sanders memes, and the Tumblr-ised notion of “checking your privilege”.
Perhaps the answer lies in the idiom of oppression. The thinking, sensitive millennial is a product of privilege, a fact that is made amply clear to him or her over and over again.
This upper caste urban sliver is the first Indian middle class to have never known mass-scale unemployment. They’ve been told they’re spoilt, that they have it easy, and that they should be thankful.
But they don’t actually feel thankful. They've learned that great inequalities exist warranting outrage.
In the office, he witnesses gender disparities, so he becomes a spokesperson for workplace feminism. On the streets, she sees men beating a dog with sticks, so she’s now an advocate for animal rights. We see public spaces as our own, so we stand up for the Kiss of Love event. We witness Western victories for LGBTQ rights, and we outrage because things are just as bad (in fact, much worse) for queer Indians.
We know very well how to spot an obvious injustice, point at it, and say “no, in fact, this is not how things should be.”
To question caste however, is to question one’s own feudal privilege, inherited from our own parents, family, teachers, and social peers.
There isn’t any far-removed injustice to point at and detachedly deem problematic.
It’s your own world view, your own accidental advantage, the comfort of your own home.
Casteism is not something “out there”, and hence it falls outside the gaze.
You are the insider. Very often, you are the inadvertent oppressor. And it is these deeply ingrained privileges which preclude us from questioning the gravest injustices.
Why can’t the domestic help use the toilet in the house? Why can’t the cook eat at the same table with you at lunch? They made the food and they will clean the dishes, after all.
Why does he or she sit on the floor to watch TV, while two sofas stay unoccupied?
On a more broad level, whose cuisine is marketed in restaurants and chains in all manners of streets and lanes, and whose food is found illegal? Whose gods and goddesses are being invoked and televised into serials, and whose are ignored?
Whose customs are normalised as axiomatic, and whose social customs are seen as primitive, even uncultured?
Delving into these discussions, an astute mind can quickly observe entire races of enslaved Indians and suppressed cultures around us.
Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie once made a speech about the dangers of a single story, how it blinds us to the possibilities of other alternate narrative imaginations.
In India, we have been peddling the same single story across films, television, advertising, newspapers, cricket fields, restaurants, and living rooms.
In fact, this single story is so powerful and all-pervasive that a lot of urban millennial professionals feel caste is something that no longer exists. It does take a special talent to invisibilize the deaths of sewage workers who die inside drains everyday.
It does take a special talent to tediously raise the “I know this one rich SC guy who got a college seat basis quota” argument at every opportunity, even as campus suicides by dalit students has been widely written about and been the subject of documentary productions.
There are no dalits among the upper management of most corporations, the most powerful editors and journalists, higher judiciary, chiefs of armed services, and even the organisational elites of most political parties.
If every major social institution of nation-building is not representative of the oppressed castes, then is it representative at all? And if “belonging” in a democracy is determined by representation, then do dalits “belong” in India at all?
And then there’s us: the well-read, well-meaning, and “woke”.
If we refuse to engage with and question our most insidious privileges, and our complicity in perpetuating non-inclusive social structures, then are we really the liberals that our memes and hashtags paint us as?