Third space of conversationIt should be a space for transformation for Dalits and non-Dalits, men and women
The Conference on Citizen Participation in Governance held last November in Kathmandu brought together people from diverse cultural, economic, professional and caste backgrounds. The event promoted open dialogue and conversation concerning caste and gender issues, especially in relation to participation of women and Dalits in policy decisions. The conference, jointly organised by the Central Department of Sociology at Tribhuvan University, Chaitanya Mishra Foundation and Governance Facility, was a learning experience. Question and answer sessions, and discussions during recess revealed certain deep-rooted biases that obstructed real conversation.
Academicians were concerned that activists were not following correct or ‘formal’ methodology in their papers. Activists thought that academicians did not comprehend the real situation at the grassroots level. It was also obvious that the trust factor was missing. Dalits had a hard time trusting non-Dalit scholars. A Dalit activist said, “Learned Bahuns are trying to turn us into objects of their research once again.” A Khas woman said that there was a lot of mansplaining by self-styled experts who barely knew what they were talking about.
From a historical perspective, such prejudices are quite inevitable. After all, multiple histories of exploitation and domination stand between men and women, Dalits and non-Dalits. At the same time, it appeared that connections were being made, and that people from different caste and professional backgrounds were beginning to connect with each other. This points to the need for organising similar platforms with the aim of opening a ‘third space of conversation’ at multiple levels. Jagat Deuja and Mohan Sunar said during their presentation that Dalits and non-Dalits had come together productively during their community-based projects. There is a need to open such spaces of conversation at multiple levels—community, region and nation. Since the wounds created by histories of distrust and division run very deep, only perpetual conversation can heal them.
Also, it is crucial to consider what forms of knowledge are brought into these conversations. Academic knowledge based on established methodologies and backed by statistics is one crucial form of knowledge. But there are also other forms of knowledge based on personal experience. Dalits and women, especially those belonging to the poorer classes, have a hard time breaking through the circles of formality associated with academia. For this reason, other knowledge forms associated with personal experience at the grassroots level, should be made part of the dialogue.
There should be conversations in which participants share personal experiences about their socialisation, or the way in which they experience the fact of being men, women, high caste or Dalit. Non-Dalits and men could talk about the structural dividends they have enjoyed due to the accident of their birth. Such narrations will help men and members of the so-called upper castes to come to terms with their basic humanity, unencumbered by traditional social expectations of performing their identities as men and high caste subjects in a patriarchal, caste-ridden society.
The higher the degree of structural dividend one enjoys, the greater the danger of suffering from structural blindness. I would like to bring in my own personal experiences concerning structural dividends. I used to think that since I have liberal views concerning women and Dalits, I am not implicated in the exploitations based on gender and caste. But further reflections revealed that most of my worldly success was facilitated by the advantages of my birth. In other words, structural blindness relating to my socio-economic and gendered location made my life easy. At the same time, it also diminished me as a human being. It was only after beginning to put tough questions to myself, especially those related to my gendered, caste-based location, that I started taking initial steps towards personal transformation. The work of transformation still continues.
I feel that it is necessary to work around the traditional criteria of academic research in order to allow alternative knowledge forms to emerge, especially when one wishes such knowledge to effect self-transformation. This is not to belittle the value of formal academic or statistical research. Academic research and its formal methodologies are crucial in identifying political and socio-economic, including governmental, problems. But what is necessary is understanding that the formality of academic research and the informality of personal narrations can function in a complementary manner, and both can be used to challenge world views and value systems associated with patriarchy and the caste system.
Space of transformation
The third space of conversation should be a space for transformation for Dalits and non-Dalits, and men and women. It is also necessary to keep such a space, one that accommodates differences of opinion, perpetually open to bring about real social change. Such a space will also put into practice the concept of active listening. It is difficult for non-Dalits, especially those versed in formal methodologies of academic research, to really listen to Dalits as their speech might not fulfil the established criteria concerning formal conversations.
In addition, our listening is often distorted by the noise of received ideologies and world views that we carry within ourselves. As for Dalits, many of them carry the preconceived notion that all non-Dalits are exploiters and cannot be trusted—a consequence of the burden of history that has similar effects when it comes to men and women. Active listening on both sides will reduce mistrust and promote solidarity, which is crucial in making wider and long-term networks, and in fighting patriarchy and the caste system. It might even help forge friendship between Dalits and non-Dalits in a third space beyond the vocabularies of right and wrong.
Uprety tweets at @Sanjeevuprety