Caste discrimination may be a lived reality for crores of people in this country, but for many, their privilege can blind them to its existence. Only, no longer satisfied with this complacency, many in 21st-century India are standing up in protest against this urban, everyday casteism.
This is exactly what happened when a posh South Delhi club decided to host a band called ‘Bhangijumping’, whose name has deeply casteist roots. The term ‘Bhangi’ is a derogatory word used by people from the upper-caste communities to refer to people from the Scheduled Castes, who have historically been forced to work as manual scavengers (a practice outlawed since 1993 but still existent) or in other cleaning jobs.
Quite oblivious to this fact or ignorant about it, the Piano Man Jazz Club in Safdarjung Enclave, a popular venue for jazz music performances in Delhi, still decided to host the band on its premises and since then has come under fire for this decision.The event now stands cancelled, but the band, the owner of the venue, and others who hurled casteist abuses at those protesting might face legal action if a case is registered against them.
A change.org petition asking for shutting down the venue ‘for its Hate Crimes against Dalits’ has also been drafted and is being circulated on the internet. It demands that the place be shut down and that the offenders be booked ‘under the Prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989’.
The petition will be delivered to the Minister of State for Social Justice and Empowerment Krishan Pal Gurjar, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, activists such as Asha Kotwal and N Paul Divakar, and the Human Rights Law Network.
The petition says that the owner of the venue offered ‘passive aggressive clarification’ to justify the name of the band as ‘a form of artistic expression’ when it was pointed out that it is offensive. “The owner of Piano Man did nothing to intervene, stop the abuses and mockery and in fact ‘liked’ the offensive comments made against Dalits,” it adds.
Attaching screenshots of the comments on Facebook, the petition further says, “Piano Man called themselves ‘vehement supporters of artistic freedom’ completely undermining the social and legal connotations of using casteist slurs, that are used to oppress and humiliate Dalit Bahujans and Adivasis, and also in claiming Dalits are not welcome to the premise”.
“The main problem is ignorance, no one realised the impact of this, and that has been acknowledged. We understand where the angst is coming from,” Arjun Sagar Gupta, the owner of the venue, told The Indian Express. He also called the protests ‘unacceptable’. “We had no intention of shaming or oppressing anybody. However, that sort of name-calling on Facebook was unjustified and unacceptable,” he told The Hindu.
“It was ignorant on my behalf and it hurts me to see what this issue has turned into, all because of a personal choice that I made. I was genuinely unaware and highly ignorant on naming my band what I did. I did not intend to hurt people and did not take into consideration the sensitivity of the matter,” Akshay Kapoor, the musician who formed the band, told The Indian Express.
Although using a caste name is not banned by law, the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 and amendments made to it in 2015 provide for punishment against derogatory usage of caste names. Abusing a member of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe ‘by caste name in any place within public view’, obstructing or preventing a member from entering a place of public entertainment are thus punishable by law.
Cocooned in their caste privilege, however, the upper-caste founder of the band and the owner of the venue seem to have not only ignored the law, but also the long-standing demands of the Dalit community to end the usage of derogatory caste names.
Update: The post has been edited to include and explain the name of the band.