Sublimation of the subalternChasing the chimaera of emancipation through political ideologies is exhausting and meaningless.
On May 18, Sundar Harijan was found dead in Rolpa jail under suspicious circumstances. Prison authorities claimed he had committed suicide. An absence of CCTV footage, unjustifiable jail transfer, inexcusable instance of identity swapping and the flippant way the government has investigated the case so far is enough to make one believe that the "death" of Sundar will be buried under the pile of unresolved issues in the corridors of Singha Durbar forever.
The National Human Rights Commission has investigated the case on its own. The Dalit Commission doesn't have the funds to conduct an independent examination. The Madhesi Commission probably has different priorities. A significant section of the media has bought the official version of the "suicide" story. The ethnocentric convictions of a garrulous civil society in Kathmandu prevent it from speaking up when the interests of the dominant community aren't directly involved.
Sundar was a quintessential subaltern and suffered from quadruple jeopardy. Economically, he was poor; ethnically, he was a Madhesi; socially, he was a Dalit; politically, he apparently didn't belong to any influential group. Had he been of Khas Arya ethnicity and a card-carrying member of any of the various Marxist, Leninist, Stalinist or Maoist parties in the country, his comrades would have rallied behind his case to force a review, ask for the prosecution of the guilty, insist on an apology from the concerned authorities and demand restitution for the family of the deceased.
It may sound politically sacrilegious, but the fact remains that even the progressive ideologies emanating from the four convictions of the French Revolution—liberté, égalité, fraternité, laïcité—have little or no place for the sufferings of the subaltern in South Asia.
The Chatham House Rule allows participants to be free and open without being dragged into unnecessary controversies for offhand remarks made in a closed setting. At an invitation-only conversation about Integrating Caste and Class Together with a visiting scholar from a prestigious university of the United States in Kathmandu, several Nepali interlocutors exposed contradictions in their political beliefs that prevented them from developing a deeper understanding of the Dalit question.
Many conservatives like to claim that they no longer believe in the caste system. The enlightened among them often boast about their Dalit friends from Budhanilkantha School, medical colleges in Bangladesh, engineering institutes of China, law and management colleges of India or Ivy League universities of the US that are gainfully employed in the development industry. What they prefer to leave out of the conversation is that most of them would oppose establishing the relationship of bread and bride with the families of their Dalit friends.
The continued externalisation of about 14 percent of the national population says more about the Dalit condition than the success stories of a chief district officer, a few judges and a clutch of activists. Conservatives celebrate the lore of Bise Nagarchi, who is said to have helped the Gorkhali conqueror Prithvi Narayan stitch a nation together, but ignore that the descendants of the purported royal advisor were thrown out of official history forever.
Many self-proclaimed liberals are actually libertarians who advocate for minimal state intervention in their lives. Even the theory and practice of classical liberalism that espouses dissent champions individual rights, and promotes fundamental freedoms is inadequate to ensure the "liberty" of a Dalit.
The concept of fraternity comes from the conviviality, friendship and mutual support that evolved between hunters and gatherers while homemakers developed their sororities to share their joys and sorrows. Primal communities were based on the idea of selfhood rather than the otherness.
The fraternity of the Jacobins was that of excluding the other, and the fascistic notion of nationhood is intrinsically inimical to the idea of diversity. In the majoritarian democracies of ethnonationals—be it as that of the Sinhala-speakers professing Buddhism in Sri Lanka, the Hindutva supremacists in India, the adherents of the Wahabi Islam in Pakistan or the dominant Bamars in Burma—historically disadvantaged groups are extremely unlikely to be accepted in the fraternity of the fatherland. Albert Einstein must have gone through a lot to write that nationalism was an infantile disease and the measles of mankind.
During any deliberation upon caste and class in Hindu society, the difference of opinion begins with the question of prioritisation. After the implementation of the Mandal Commission report, caste was established as the central issue of governance in India. However, Marxists continue to recite the mantra of the Communist Manifesto that the history of all hitherto existing societies was the history of class struggle.
The zealots of caste politics ignore the reality that outcastes remain externalised from the Hindu hierarchy. Marxists are unwilling to accept that the underclass is different from the Marxist framework of the bourgeoisie-proletariat dualism and lacks the wherewithal—acceptance and employability in the formal sector—to belong anywhere. Some Dalit activists endure the trauma of being outcastes and underclass, but continue to believe in the fiction of remaining at the bottom of the caste hierarchy or belonging to the working class.
While patronisingly accommodative postures of conservatives and liberals are bad enough, nothing can be as annoying as the egalitarian claims of Marxist, Leninist and Maoist intellectuals. There is a context to the finality of Marx's conclusion that communism was the riddle of history solved, and it knew itself to be this solution. Had he lived long enough to see Lenin's purge, experience Stalin's Gulag, endure Mao's Cultural Revolution and survive Pol Pot's Year Zero, he would have committed suicide out of repentant grief.
Doctrinaire Marxists may find it a heretical contention, but Marx had little understanding of the political sociology of race, gender, ethnicity, language and culture in Europe. His familiarity with the Sharia of the Umma, the five constant virtues of Confucius or the tribal bonds of African societies must have been very sketchy. It's implausible that he had any idea about the indignity of being too impure to cast a shadow on an itinerant Brahmin.
The Marxist formulation of class consciousness is a vague concept. It fails to fathom the depth of the working class's social, cultural and ethnic divisions. Contra-Marx, the connection between the base of economic relations and the superstructure of cultural production aren't fixed forever. Gramsci identified the combination of coercion and consensus that maintains the dominant hegemony over the dominated section of the population.
The elite produces norms, values and rules of success. The subaltern strives to meet those parameters for acceptance into the mainstream. The status quo gets re-strengthened in the process. Chasing the chimaera of emancipation through political ideologies of capitalism, socialism or liberalism is exhausting and meaningless. The subaltern must realise the limits of intellectualism.
Sublimation of personal suffering for the collective salvation or hoping that one's individual achievements will somehow suffuse into the population is equally deceptive. There are no formulaic prescriptions for the multiple inequalities of a traditionalist society. The struggle sometimes looks like wrestling with an invisible enemy in the dark, but the fight must go on with the optimism of the will.