Reservation is the most important state policy we have and we can’t give up on thatTsering D Gurung and Chandan Kumar Mandal recently sat down with Suraj Yengde—a scholar and Dalit rights activist who has studied casteism, racism, institutionalised discrimination, diversity and inclusion—to talk about the need for affirmative action and why caste still matters.
The recent controversy over the Public Service Commission’s decision to disregard inclusionary policies in the Civil Service Act has, once again, brought the debate over affirmative action policies at the forefront. On one hand, there are people who believe such reservations are unfair and do not encourage competition based on merit. On the other hand, there are supporters of the policy who believe these are important corrective measures required to uplift the historically marginalised. Tsering D Gurung and Chandan Kumar Mandal recently sat down with Suraj Yengde—a scholar and Dalit rights activist who has studied casteism, racism, institutionalised discrimination, diversity and inclusion—to talk about the need for affirmative action and why caste still matters.Yengde, a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School, is the author of the forthcoming book Caste Matters.
When was the first time you realised caste matters?
There was no one moment. I grew up in a slum area in a city called Nanded in Maharashtra. The area that I grew up in was a Dalit settlement. So in essence caste was always around us. The walls in our neighborhood were animated with portraits of the pantheons of the Dalit movement; we didn’t have drawings of Hindu gods or goddesses decorating our walls. More specifically, I’d say I began to get an inkling of caste issues during my childhood. I went to an English medium school. We had classes from eight to two. But I don’t remember ever hanging out with my friends after school, nor do I recall them ever inviting me. It was only much later that I found out that they used to meet after school among themselves, but they just didn’t want me in their group. Because I was innocent, I would proudly declare my caste. But as you grow up, when you hear your friends’ parents tell them not to hang out with you—in front of you—and they make epithets about Dalits, the experiences do affect your confidence to embrace yourself. And I guess it just kept on building from there. So there was no singular epiphany.
For those who will not be able to pick up the book until later this month, can you summarise some of your main arguments? Why does caste still matter?
The left, the centre and the right have one thing in common when it comes to caste. They all deny its existence. They have been married to the concept that caste is a thing of the past. The right will say we are one, why do we need to create divisions? But at the same time they will continue to hold onto the resources they have. And what does the centre do? They will not engage with the question at the forefront; they will make the issue second or third. They will say, yes, caste is an issue and we are addressing it. They will not say we have failed; they will not say we are struggling to meet ends. But how much they have achieved, how much they want to do—they don’t have any answer for that. And the left, you know how much they f**ked up this country. They have not given adequate leadership to the marginalised. And this has happened across the world. The left will take in some people as tokens and that’s all.
That’s why caste matters... because it has remained submerged across the discourses, because it goes into all these spectrums and challenges liberals, conservatives, Dalit elites, Brahmins. It challenges all people who are touched by caste. And as I argue in this book, more than 1.35 billion people are affected by caste. It’s not only Dalits, it’s not only Janajatis, everybody is affected by caste.
People who talk about caste struggle are often accused of engaging in identity politics and trying to sow discord between different groups. How do you respond to such an accusation?
How can we say it’s identity politics when the identity in question is not your creation? It has been created by someone else. And that someone else is now crying out identity politics when you are challenging them and demanding your rights. How oxymoronic is this? People who are fighting against caste, they are not doing identity politics; they are engaging in revolutionary politics. The people who are holding onto caste politics are the people who are doing identity politics. That’s why these Brahmin Marxists and Brahmin leftists go on dismissing caste politics, and they say this has to be about class politics. They only talk about class politics when they are benefitting from it. So this has been an effective strategy. That’s why I say, left or right, they have always tried to maintain their status quo in a way that will not harm their own location in society. I am not talking about wealth, I am not talking about resources, I am not talking about position. I am talking about the location because their location in society ensures that their forthcoming generation will be secure. Any revolutionary thought that comes from the marginalised is always tainted as inferior. And the people who call caste struggle as identity politics are the people who want to delay, derail, stigmatise the autonomous, independent revolutionary struggle of Dalits who are living on the altar of annihilation. For example, if you put my head inside the water, and the only option for me is to fight back, and when I do that, you then accuse me of playing politics. It’s basically like saying this person has no right to come out of the cauldron. You have not experienced the brutality of caste and now you want to declare what caste politics is.
Many countries including Nepal have adopted affirmative action policies to level the playing field. But critics say such policies only benefit the already privileged within the underprivileged group. For instance, within the Dalit community too, these policies seem to be mainly benefitting the high and the middle class. Are affirmative action policies ineffective?
Since when did the oppressive class start having so much love for the Dalits that they started caring for poor Dalits? Since it started affecting them. If you are really thinking about poor Dalits, why don’t you think about the policies that are affecting them. Affirmative action is always going to help people who are educated. That’s how faulty the policy is and we have to deal with it. Now you want the poor Dalits to be a part of it, but they will not be able to because the economic programme is not there. So we need to revamp the policy. Affirmative action is not going to provide total emancipation but it is important. It is the most important state policy that we have, and we can’t give up on that. Using that policy if we create, let’s say, a thousand Ivy League Dalit graduates, then those graduates will think about what to create next. We don’t have that resource. We haven’t developed that capacity yet.
So the people who are parading against affirmative actions, your argument that these policies are not affecting the poor Dalits is correct. One should also note that poor Dalits who are not education empowered are not that way because of elite Dalits. It’s because the state has not reached them. The fault is the state’s. It’s not the Dalit’s fault. So don’t make it a Dalit rich, poor issue. It never has been. Of course, class issue is important here and it has to be handled through other policies in addition to affirmative action. That’s why I am saying affirmative action needs to be supported by other radical measures that will also make sure society comes through.
What kind of radical measures do you propose?
Affirmative action policies has its limitations because we have a monster in our society which is predatory capitalist and casteist. Thus, in addition to affirmative action, we should focus on carrying out a massive land redistribution programme, an economic ownership programme, and ensure that a common education is given to every Nepali child regardless of where they live. We can’t have a segment of society that speaks English so well, with accents that are more Americanised than the Americans themselves, and another segment that cannot even read the basic alphabets, and then expect fair competition. So the education system has to be fundamentally revamped. Affirmative action has to go hand in hand with education and economic policies designed to help people from marginalised groups.
In India, about 70 percent of Dalit labourers are landless. If they are given land, he/she will take care of the land well and yield more. And I think for me that has to happen with nationalising land. Once that happens we will create a society which is at least trying to slightly come off an equal. Affirmative action is just one policy, there will be more aggressive policies that we will need to democratise our institutions.
Some people might say that India has had affirmative action policies since the 1950s and that hasn’t necessarily transformed Indian society towards being more equal. So why should we continue with these policies?
The Nepali Brahmins look at their dumbo cousins in India and I think that’s sad because they themselves are intellectually challenged. Affirmative action is going to create a sense of animosity among the classes because we don’t have a cohesive, respectable environment. We have an antagonistic space. And when you bring a policy that favours a certain group, the other group is going to feel dejected, and they are going to clamour. But the person who is benefitting and the person who is supposedly not benefitting need to be educated on the reason behind the policy being there in place. There has to be a massive education programme, a massive advertising campaign on national TV and newspaper telling how affirmative action makes a lesser Nepali an equal Nepali.
How long it is going to last is a contentious topic. We cannot have a year mark. Of course, we can evaluate the progress. Let’s put an honest affirmative action in action, and let’s see in 10 years what we have done and then look at the policies. Don’t blame the Dalits or the Janajatis or the people who are benefitting out of these by saying that it’s your failure. Affirmative action is a state policy, if it fails, the state fails. It’s not the community that fails.
But what about merit. We heard you declare at a recent talk programme “merit is a myth.” Is there really no such thing as merit?
Merit is an outcome. If you put merit at the front then you are missing the point. It’s like putting the cart before the horse. Every society has cultural and social capital. Your ideas, your ideologies, your talent, your thinking, everything is shaped by social stratification or social management of a certain society that you come from. Merit as a base is a good idea because everybody needs to be meritorious. But right now merit is so vulgarised that it has become a toxic term for the traditionally exploiting class to continue its exploitation without being challenged.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who debunked the theory of merit, talked about how cultural and social capital helps the traditionally privileged to retain its power. Now, say for example, I design a puzzle, and I teach a group how to cheat, code and solve the puzzle. Then with another group, I teach them how to understand the puzzle. I ask them both to solve the puzzle. Who do you think will succeed in this? Likewise, in the merit concept, the same happens. An equal access to education and the educational system again debunks the idea of merit. Secondly, people from different geographies have their own kind of indigenous, own native provincial knowledge, and when they have to compete in an examination on a level that has little segment of their culture and more of something else, that person is going to face difficulties. And the third is you have mentally put a person into chains. You have constantly made them feel inferior. And I think women can understand this better because they have constantly been told that they are not deserving. You are told your life is yours for 18 years and then you’re gone, meaning you get married and then your life is no more your life. Then women are yet asked to compete on an equal level. The people who are defending the idea of merit are the people who are defending it through a localised context.
In a previous interview, you talked about the idea of creating a fourth world. What does that mean exactly and how is it going to materialise?
It’s an intersectional phenomenon. Every society has its oppressed which is hungry, which lives on less than Rs 100 per day, which does not have a home, which is begging on the streets. We have produced a certain section in our society that has never been written about in our history books. We have a section of society about whom we know nothing but they are still among us. These are the people who have been neglected. And this has happened everywhere in the world. Fourth World is where I want to unite people from all these sections of societies across the world. And it’s not an NGO project, it’s a social movement to empower each section of such people. Fourth World is about creating that sensitivity where you dare, beat, challenge or oppress the localised population who were feeling alone. I don’t want them to feel alone, I don’t want them to feel that they are neglected, I want them to feel empowered. Whatever happens here in the Tarai region or in Kathmandu, it is going to affect the oppressed people in America, the oppressed people in South Africa, and the oppressed people in India. And they are going to make a common call, they are going to tell their governments that this is wrong. Our aim is to go deep down, go to the more subalterns among the subalterns and tell society that everyone deserves equal rights, not in a charitable, NGO, Christian missionary sense, but in a sense of everyone becoming rulers of their society, not subjects, not secondary citizens.