This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Nissim Mannathukkaren. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

It’s Time To Look At Those Who Perpetuate Caste Oppression By Not Acknowledging Privilege

More from Nissim Mannathukkaren

By Nissim Mannathukkaren:

Clipboard01_2726728g
Source: The Hindu

“So the Swallow flew over the great city, and saw the rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while the beggars were sitting at the gates. He flew into dark lanes, and saw the white faces of starving children looking out listlessly at the black streets.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Happy Prince.

One famous Internet meme among Indians is a cartoon showing an obese man seated on a couch taking in a huge gush of (scarce) drinking water while an emaciated man sits in front, on the floor, waiting for the droplets that fall. The former, according to the cartoon, is “SC/ST” while the latter is “General.” The cartoon then asks us to “share if u (sic) hate this system.” This one image from popular culture is probably enough to tell us why Dalits like Rohith Vemula commit suicide.

This cartoon performs an amazing act of sorcery in which the privileged/dominant/oppressor groups transform into victims. Only sorcery can enable us to understand the parameters of fairness and equity used to astoundingly equate the Hindu upper castes, numbering merely between 15-20 percent of the population, as victims when 50 per cent of government jobs/educational seats are still open to them.

If the dominant caste society is capable of such fantastic feats, is it surprising that the upper caste response to Vemula’s suicide has been a massive disavowal of it as a caste issue, or the ugly attempts now to deny Vemula’s Dalit identity? These range from Union Cabinet Ministers, to prominent agenda-setting television anchors (who after delivering impassioned speeches on Vemula’s behalf go on to make equally dramatic monologues on how this has got nothing to do with caste), to writers who psychologise it as a case of depression, and to the vitriolic responses of lay upper caste readers on the Internet which quickly and predictably degenerate into mocking reservation.

When the government of the day deploys state machinery — thus the Intelligence Bureau prepares a report on Vemula’s caste status — to deny the dignity of life and death of a person, we live in troubled times. The most effective way to deny caste oppression is to bureaucratise Dalit deaths and to entangle them in the rulebook of caste certificates. Vemula’s words in his suicide note now ring louder: “The value of a man was reduced…To a vote. To a number. To a thing.”

Despite the government’s abominable attempts, the greatest disservice to understand the denial of caste is to see it as merely a Hindutva agenda — one which imposes a false unity on a caste-divided Hindu society. Even many progressive upper caste responses see the Vemula suicide as a “Dalit problem” which needs to be resolved through palliative administrative measures undertaken at the university level. There is scarce recognition that the university is merely a subset of the larger society, which is organised ideologically and materially on the basis of caste, irrespective of political and religious affiliations. And without a structural reorganisation of the latter by annihilating caste from every walk of life, any amount of reform on campuses will be futile.

Crucially, there is no recognition the problem is “us” — the minority upper castes, who control virtually the whole society. Thus, it is time to turn the searchlight from the Dalits (reforming “them”), and upon the upper castes (reforming “ourselves”) who perpetuate, knowingly or unknowingly, caste oppression by not acknowledging caste privileges. Concepts like “merit,” alluded to in the above-mentioned cartoon, become mere smokescreens in hiding privilege — social, economic and cultural capital — accumulated over centuries.

Of course, privilege is not restricted to caste, but also applies to class, gender, race, sexuality, etc. W.E.B. Du Bois, the African-American activist and scholar, had theorised about the “psychological wages” of whiteness in America: even an economically poor white person feels superior to blacks in a white-dominated society (like Ambedkar had termed the caste system as not just a division of labour but also a division of labourers).

There is a colossal failure to acknowledge the psychological wages of caste, accruing to upper castes because of their overwhelming domination of every sphere of society, barring, to an extent, politics and government institutions where there is reservation (still 40 to 50 percent of SC/ST teaching positions in central and state universities are unfilled), and the staggering absence of Dalits where there is no reservation, like the powerful private and corporate sector, the English-language media, cricket, Bollywood and commercial culture, for example. This non-acknowledgement is the biggest barrier to the decimation of caste in society, which also leads to the victimisation mentality of the upper castes.

Why is privilege not acknowledged? How does one convince, for example, my friend/interlocutor, who hails from an elite caste and class background, went to the best university in the world, works in a senior government position, and believes that Vemula’s (who worked as a manual labourer once, and was brought up by a Dalit mother who was virtually a child labourer in her own adopted household) suicide had nothing to do with caste oppression? Does privilege make us blind to the social circumstances of others?

Again, the non-acknowledgement of privilege is not specific to caste. Recent research in America by L. Taylor Phillips and Brian Lowery suggests that whites confronted with evidence of white racial privilege, even when not denying it, claimed that they did not benefit from it because of personal barriers. Why does this happen? According to Lowery, “you like to have nice things. But you don’t want to think you got those things as a result of unearned advantages.”

This misguided understanding of merit, along with conscious attempts to maintain caste domination that is at the root of denying caste privilege. Of course, upper-caste privilege does not rule out sections of upper castes who are economically deprived, or some who are well intentioned about destroying caste privilege. But as Peggy McIntosh, anti-race and feminist activist, put it: “I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.”

The crucial recognition that is missing is that caste oppression is systemic (and more insidious than other oppressions because of the religious sanction it enjoys) and that every one of us, the privileged, participates in it through many unearned benefits conferred by birth. Here, individual character is not critical. As McIntosh comes to the stark realisation that one can be nice and be oppressive at the same time. This uncomfortable truth stares at us when we confront caste privilege.

The first step in confronting caste, then, is to acknowledge upper-caste privilege, often reinforced through class privilege. What is urgently needed is an exhaustive account of upper-caste privilege like the path-breaking 1988 essay by McIntosh, “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies,” where she documents more than 50 white privileges. These ones are particularly relevant in the context of Dalit student suicides: “I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms” and “I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.”

If acknowledging caste privilege, the first step, can itself negate the self-image of the “meritorious” upper caste person, the second step is more torturous. Acknowledging privileges is meaningless if it does not entail giving up privileges. This is where the real battle in ending caste lies. The threat to existing material privileges of upper castes leads to even some democratisation, through reservation in education and employment, generating terrible upper caste backlash. That is why caste domination is maintained as much by physical violence as symbolic violence. As Martin Luther King, Jr. noted: “Lamentably, it is a historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.” Hence, the ending of caste oppression will never be through acts of upper caste charity.

It is time for the upper castes to recognise the ethical imperative of democracy. As Maya Angelou, the African-American author, had argued, growing up in a white- and wealth-dominated society is not by going through the motions of honouring credit cards, marrying, and having children. Growing up is “to take responsibility for the time you take up, and the space you occupy, to honour every living person for his or her humanity.”

Let us, similarly, in an upper caste-dominated society, acknowledge the vast, undeserved space we occupy. Let us cede what has to be ceded.

This article was originally published here.

You must be to comment.

More from Nissim Mannathukkaren

Similar Posts

By Karthika S Nair

By Bidisha Bhatacharya

By Debarati Ganguly

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below