A review of author Suraj Yengde’s Caste Matters published by Penguin in 2019
An extremely complex and highly hierarchical social institution, the caste system has been surviving for ages.
It has religious sanction with codified rules and regulations, which not only makes it unique but remains a defining feature of casteness as the dominant socio-religious institution.
Caste had plagued the not only the Indian subcontinent since its vicious tentacles are spread across the world, wherever Indians have immigrated. South Asian immigrants have carried caste on their back throughout the world.
And, we are yet to control the pandemic stemming from the DNA of casteness even seven long decades after Independence. The struggle for annihilation of caste continues from the days of the Buddha onwards and even now that continues in different planes in varying degree and pace.
There have been numerous attempts and valiant fights against the deeply entrenched system of caste. Saints and thinkers as well as political leaders and scholars such as Ambedkar, Iyyothee Thaas, Periyar EVR and Ayyankkali among others have provided a nuanced understanding of its dynamics and offered alternatives to overthrow the caste system.
Even now, some proponents of identity/ social justice politics juxtapose rhetoric to concrete, constructive and democratic means to transform Casteness to Castelessness while others have appropriated caste to enhance their socio-economic and political positions/mobilisation.
Some others have opted to change their religious (Islam and Christianity and the like) affiliations to escape from the clutches of the pandemic of caste. Like ‘community spreading’ caste too permeated and emasculated the other religious communities.
Ironically, the constitutional provisions like caste-based positive discrimination in employment and education in government/public funded institutions has only ended up legitimising caste but also providing scope for its entrenchment and proliferation. This is evident from the increasing demand for inclusion in the reserved category. These have helped the consolidation of caste rather than its annihilation.
This is the crux that Caste Matters spins around in comparison with Race Matters.
Through the journey of his life experience, Suraj Yengde has made an attempt to narrate the multi-layered conflicts, tensions and contestations. But, it happens to be nothing more than an erratic effort.
He tries to provide a new perspective for many aspects of the ‘Dalit Self” such as Dalit lives, Dalitness, Dalitism, Dalit Patriotism, Dalit Nationalism vs Ambedkar Nationalism, Dalitdom, Dalitwood, Dalit dynasty and many more without explaining what each one means except Dalit Love.
Dalits are subjected to ruthless oppression, physical and mental violence every minute. That being the Dalit existence the following questions arise. What keeps them alive? What keeps them from not losing hope for the next generation? Indeed, the answer lies in the capacity to love even in the face of utter despair along with the audacity to hope with courage.
At another level, there is denigration of Dalits as conservative, self-obsessive, hypocrites, reactive, wall-changing, harmful just to cite a few. For instance, it is said "Token Dalits bid Dalit suffering as something to be sold in the caste market". Sadly, the author fails to apply those yardsticks to himself as well.
Though they are not new, a critique of Dalit politics/movements, and leadership is welcome. However, such criticism should be constructive, conforming to critical standards rather than being a convenient tool to denigrate them.
The author (may be others too) has a problem with the existing reservation policy. But, this is used to magnify and fuel an unfounded apprehension about Constitutionalism as a means of liberation. This shows a failure not only to understand the objective conditions of Dalits, but to appreciate the fact that their only hope is the Constitution.
At another level, he is appalled at the alarming rise of violence and atrocities against the Dalits everyday – both reported and unreported. For, more than 90% of such cases in the courts result in acquittal of the perpetrators. However, his scathing criticism of Dalit movements and politics, instead of aiding the Dalit cause by making it more dynamic could only accentuate the pace of the already fragmented movements losing steam and becoming redundant.
Then he ridicules Dalit capitalists by terming them as lollypop capitalists, an Indian variant!!! Why Dalit capitalism can never take off, and will be detrimental to Dalit interest in the longer run? That casteness has been found not only among Brahmins but also among the vast majority of non-Brahmin dominant castes is an everyday reality.
That is why Babasaheb Ambedkar had called them as the vanguard of Casteism. Another shallow argument is his fervent call for the Brahmin saviour! Does he expect Brahmins to annihilate the caste or negate caste in public (if not in private)? I wonder whether one can be Brahminical and still fight against Caste?
No doubt, we have progressive Brahmins in the past as well as in the present and Yengde gives us some examples. Many of them were ostracised by their community. However, inspite of their “efforts their caste kin continue to benefit from the same system that they are fighting against”.
Moreover, Yengde has made generalised observations from his personal experiences alone. Many of them are just polemics. A book that engages with contemporary socio-cultural and political economy has some glaring omissions, like the state of relationship between Dalits and the intermediary castes, situation of Dalit women and landless agriculture workers. Most of the physical violence inflicted upon Dalits are by the Caste-Hindus. Can they escape by just attributing it to Brahminism? The intermediary castes are no longer required to be guilty of their atrocities; there is no term to highlight the discrimination and violence perpetuated by them.
A young author with certain skills of networking and language capabilities should concentrate on developing critical thinking to make concrete intellectual contribution to society by means of reaching rather than rushing to publish like the TRP centric visual media.
I state this with complete empathy because there is enough and continuing scholarship on India, which is extremely aware of 'Caste Matters' in every sphere Indian life might dismiss this work as ‘Ok what’s the big deal?’ How it concerns contemporary times and lives alone does matter. Does the author offer any clarity on this?
Even a casual reading of “Caste Matters” is enough for one to infer the author’s intentions. First, he wants to position himself as a critic of Babasaheb Ambedkar on many aspects and trains his guns on constitutional means of struggle to fight caste and the overemphasis or dependency on the State.
In other words, Yengde has apprehensions on Ambedkar’s State-centric approach. Further, he is angry at the deification of Ambedkar which he calls as Ambedkargodism. Then he launches a tirade against Dalit employees and the Dalit middle class while singling out Dalit political leaders and bureaucrats.
Heaping the choicest abuse on the latter, he denotes them as “Salaried Dalits in the bureaucracy, for example, one of the finest examples of shameless creatures.” Finally, he comes to the issue of Dalit Sub-Castes - the most important internal contradiction among the Dalits. In fact, I assume that all these made possible for him to conceal as a "radical" voice from within when he says, “Dalits are in rush to demonstrate their unity as a group, in spite of inherent caste divisions, forming new organisations without adequately addressing the issues of unity among themselves”. Sadly, he could not place them overtly or covertly.
As noted earlier, Yengde is not the first one who resorted to lethal attacks on the Dalit middle class and politicians. In fact, many scholars, writers and activists have done better with a more balanced critique, in different genres in literature –fiction and auto/biography (Arvind Malagati; Sharankumar Limbale; Omprakash Valmiki; Imayam), theoretical - (Gopal Guru; Anand Teltumbde; Nandhu Ram; MS Gore) Polemical (Kanshiram; Thol.Thirumavalavan) and in popular commercial cinema - Pa. Ranjith just mention a few.
The striking contrast is Yengde’s superficial understanding of the causes for Dalits’ plight. Those who have critiqued Dalits in the past were conscious of the prevailing circumstances. For instance, Omprakash Valmiki’s short story, The Storm, emphatically blames the educated/elite Dalits’ dilemma – they neither embrace the present nor forego the unpleasant past and as such remain in the infernal cycle.
“The glaring visibility… Noted women like Jyothi Raj, Ruth Manorama, Vasanthi Devi, Vimla Thorat… leading names… at the World Conference against Racism at Durban in 1993” - is just a sample for many factual inaccuracies. The Conference was held in 2001 and not in 1993. Further, Vasanthi Devi is neither a Dalit nor did she attend the Conference.
Further, discussing Liberation Vs Emancipation, he exposes his lack of nuanced understanding claiming that the former is radical while the latter is not. And without offering any proof, he claims that among the Dalits in India there are 1200 sub-castes which remain further divided into 4000 sub-sub-caste tribes. Forthcoming generations will keep quoting or referring to this, perpetuating the misinformation.
While the book under review has many limitations, I find the title itself problematic. It is erratic on many counts, starting from the title to classification, methodological to theoretical and conceptual. The title for instance, as the author mentions is derived from "Blacks Lives Matter". If so, it should be have been “Dalit Lives Matter” or “Castelessness Matters” rather than "Caste Matters". In a way this title appropriates 'Shame' (Caste) without 'Shame'.
What is new about upholding Caste? For, affirming Castelessness is a radical position. Indeed, caste matters in two ways – to those who claim it that does not matter, but benefit immensely from it – directly or indirectly. And to others who have been suffering for ages in every spheres and space for whom it should not matter.
Again, there is a problem in terms of categorisation of its genre - whether it is a piece of academic work - theoretical/empirical? Is it an anthropological note? Is it a journalistic report? Is it a travelogue (like Naipaul's “A India Million Mutinies Now” and Roy Maxham's “The Great Hedge of India”)? Or is it an (unfinished) autobiography? Is it fiction? Or is it a story for a screen play/cinema? Then what is it?
Penguin has categorised it as non-fiction and The Hindu has declared it is as the best non-fiction for the year 2019. We are aware of the new trends in Social Science research/academia allowing free flow of cross discipline multi/interdisciplinary engagements, certain basic tenets of disciplinary boundaries are still observed. Readers would find the book inconsistent and self-contradictory.
Many scholars too have rushed to get their reviews published in popular media and organised book release/discussions, including me. I too have done it once, even before reading it and well ahead of it getting into the market and reading it. If not dejected, I felt greatly disappointed and puzzled after reading it. A few others too had a similar experience.
What is more worrisome is the conscious silence of some well-meaning scholars and best critics about the serious limitations of the book while romanticising a few merits, as radical. While appreciating the author efforts, skills abilities, one should not gloss over the lacunae on display in Caste Matters. They include methodology, inconsistency, self-contradictions, factual errors, poor copy editing and proof reading. It is very easy to pose uncomfortable questions at others but difficult at being self-critical and accepting one’s idiocy.
I’m puzzled at popular scholar/activists submitting themselves to the marketing strategy to get a book decorated with blurbs containing high sounding jargon. If one resorts to critique the Dalits, there needs to be certain yardsticks to be of genuine quality. Also, one who attempts at that should apply same scale to herself or himself.
A prestigious publishing house like Penguin should have adhered to certain basic ethics of having peer review by subject experts. One wonders whether in the case of Caste Matters such an exercise, which is the standard procedure, was overlooked in view of expediency.