Caste, race and discriminationSeventy-four years since Ambedkar wrote to Du Bois, both America and South Asia continue to struggle with inherent prejudice.
In 1946, BR Ambedkar, educationally the most accomplished Indian of his time (he received his education at Columbia and the London School of Economics), wrote to WEB Du Bois, the Harvard-educated African American intellectual, telling the latter that, ‘I was very much interested to read that the Negroes of America have filed a petition to the UNO’. He asked for ‘two or three’ copies of the Negro petition to the newly formed world body because, as Ambedkar informs Du Bois, the ‘Untouchables of India are also thinking of following suit’. Ambedkar, at the end of his decades-long differences with Gandhi about caste matters and such groundbreaking books as the Annihilation of Caste (1936), would become the draftsman of the Indian constitution. But, even then, he would lose hope of getting rid of the caste system in Hinduism and convert to Buddhism.
Du Bois, on the other hand, was also at the end of his long struggle against American racism with such groundbreaking books behind him as The Souls of Black Folk (1901) and the first book of researched urban sociology on blacks, The Philadelphia Negro (1899). As caste was the target of Ambedkar’s polemics, racism remained on Du Bois’s crosshair. And Du Bois, too, would eventually take the citizenship of the African country Ghana, become a communist, and live and die there in 1963. However, the problems both raised, caste in Hindu South Asia for Ambedkar and racism for Du Bois, have persisted. ‘The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the colour line’, Du Bois famously said in the opening of his magnum opus, The Souls of Black Folk; Ambedkar in effect said the same thing—that the problem of Hindu India in the 20th century was the caste system.
But, alas, the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and of Dalit youths in the mid-Western hills of Nepal unequivocally show that the problems of race and caste have barged into the 21st century with a diabolical snarl. Floyd died at the hands of four policemen (one of whom pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes) and the Dalit youth Navaraj BK and his friends were murdered by upper-caste villagers in Western Nepali mid-hills for going to the village to elope with his upper-caste sweetheart. The would-be bride had urged Navaraj to come get her; otherwise, her parents were going to marry her off against her wishes to somebody from their own caste.
Steeped in blood
As American soil is drenched in the blood of black men, so is Hindu Asia’s land soaked in the blood of the Dalits—its sky reverberates with their silent and not-so-silent screams. Just a few days before George Floyd’s death, a white woman who worked as the vice president of an investment firm called the cops on a Harvard-educated birder in New York City’s Central Park, telling him in no uncertain terms that she was going to call the cops and tell them that an ‘African American man’ was threatening her life and her dog. She was angry because he asked her to put the dog on a leash in the area of the park where leashing was mandatory.
No matter how educated a black man becomes, no matter how educated a Dalit becomes, in the eyes of the racial or caste majority, their worth is not more than what the deep prejudicial ideology has valued them as.
As an academic, I teach and research both African American literature and the non-Western world and its literature and culture. America and South Asia have been my abiding intellectual interests, and I have spent long periods of my life in both places. When I teach African American literature, I begin with Gospels, Spirituals, slave narratives and end with Barack Obama’s Philadelphia race speech about America’s striving to be a more perfect union. When I teach South Asia, I’m obsessively drawn to texts that deal with caste problems, such as Tagore’s Gora, Arundhati’s Roy’s The God of Small Things, Mulk Raj Anand’s Untouchable, Omprakash Valmiki’s Joothan and other such narratives and poems. I have always asked why has race and caste remain so stubbornly ingrained in society.
In America, the model minority Asians, despite facing barriers, have been assimilated in the corporate as well as the marital worlds with white Americans. But the brunt of the racial othering always falls on the African Americans. In the same way, I have found Hindu Nepal to be more tolerant in terms of inter-caste marriages as long as they are between upper-caste Hindus or upper-caste Hindus and indigenous communities or caste Madhesis. The acceptance stops at the door of the Dalits. Why? Hill Dalits are educated, Nepali-speaking, many even pale-skinned. What is the problem? In the southern plains and most parts of India, the situation is worse.
The hope of a better future
In America, the blacks have over the centuries of oppression created their own aesthetics. Jazz, Blues, Hip hop, Rap are the glories of America. Besides, African Americans can draw from the whole continent of Africa as the source of their pride, civilisation and culture. Besides, Christianity has been an inexhaustible source of inspiration and hope for them throughout their history in the New World. There is no such separate spatial region as a source of inspiration for the Dalits but in the past century and a quarter with Ambedkar and Phule, Dalits have begun to form their own traditions of pride and source of inspiration.
Marx, Buddhism, Ambedkar and, recently, evangelical Christianity have provided alternatives to the South Asian Dalits. Intermarriage obviously could be a source but it has risks as well. In my view, the recent trends of inter-caste solidarity to oppose caste oppression and interracial solidarity to oppose racial oppression as seen in the post-Floyd and post-Navaraj protests is one of the signs of hope for a better future. But Dalits and those who find solidarity with Dalits have to fight on three levels: ideology, structure and practices. This is because caste is deeply ingrained in each of these three forms. Only Dalits cannot eradicate or annihilate caste oppression; only the blacks cannot end racial oppression, even though they have to lead in front with ideas and action. People of conscience of all castes and races have to come together to find ways to end caste and racial oppression and realise each other’s humanity.
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