Academically-transmitted caste innocence

Upper caste projections of our apparent castelessness are endlessly innovative.[1] I can’t remember exactly when I started to become more aware of the ways in which I uphold caste supremacy, but it was not that long ago, and it has been almost entirely thanks to the performance practices, critical writing and political thought of Dalit Bahujan and Adivasi theorists, activists, and artists. People raised in relatively liberal homes like mine in particular are socialized to evade their caste identity. My Bengali Brahmin socialization is no exception to this rule of liberal casteism. Our relentlessly projected castelessness is a central modality through which we engage in the everyday terror of caste supremacy.

This article focuses on practices among us—that is, among seemingly liberal, educated Savarnas who seem to decry casteism in theory, in principle, and even in practice (i.e. academically-transmitted critiques bolstering our claims to caste innocence). But, we are simultaneously deeply invested in unseeing, denying, deflecting or defending our casteist practices in everyday and institutional life. My goal is to highlight these practices of denial and deflection as acts of caste terror and I want to suggest that everyday caste terror and everyday claims to caste innocence are two sides of the same coin, both of which help liberal savarnas project upper caste castelessness. Thus, caste ‘terror’ is not just violence by the uncouth other. My use of the term in this article focuses rather on the kind of violence that has a polished decorum to it, the caste terror which upper caste liberals inflict upon interlocutors when we are asked to be accountable to our casteist practices. Often, in the face of the unsettling recognition of our role in perpetuating casteism we tend to engage in a latent and manifest competition among ourselves to perform our radical analysis of and attention to caste as a way to mark our caste innocence. If our analysis is intersectional, taking into account class, gender, (settler) colonialism, anti-Indigeneity, anti-Blackness, sexuality, dis/ability and more—all the more rad. In what follows, I focus on a particular subset of my people: upper caste Hindu academics. And I want to ask if those of us who are desperately seeking a re-education in our caste histories via Dalit Bahujan Adivasi knowledge production are ourselves simultaneously engaging in the perpetuation of academically-transmitted caste innocence that ultimately serves to reproduce caste supremacy. Are we transmitting this disease of projecting our castelessness at the very same moment that we are apparently seeking a re-education in caste?

Learning, Teaching, and Reproducing Casteism

Before I address this question, I want to outline a few premises about caste supremacy that I take to be foundational truths based on the work of Dalit Bahujan, Adivasi, Muslim feminists and anti-caste writers and activists from India and the South Asian diaspora: people like Jotirao Phule, Savitribai Phule, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, Urmila Pawar, Meenakshi Moon, Cynthia Stephen, Susie Tharu, Lata P.M., Thenmozhi Soundararajan, Sinthujan Varatharajah, Maari Zwick-Maitreyi, Shaista Patel, Sanober Umar, Huma Dar, Heba Ahmed, M.S.S. Pandian, Sujatha Gidla, Chinnaiah Jangam, Gopal Guru, Shailaja Paik, Kuffir Nalgundwar, Dakxin Bajrange, Ather Zia and so many others. I first learned about caste by reading scholars such as M.N. Srinivas and G.S. Ghurye in University. Much of my early learning about caste was from upper caste and white scholarship and most of it was not as explicitly driven by an anti-caste praxis as the scholarship I am naming here.

The first of these premises is that caste supremacy is alive and well in the Indian present as well as in the diaspora, enforced through discrimination and slurs, extreme violence and brutality, and also enforced through endogamy and untouchability, in everyday and institutional contexts. Second, caste supremacy is not only apparent in the so-called backward, non-modern, traditional spheres of rural India that is seen to have failed to catch up to Indian democracy and modernity. Caste supremacy is foundational to, lives in and is fed by so-called Indian modernity. This is why, as Dalit feminist scholar of education, Shailaja Paik notes, “instead of focusing on merely ‘modernising’ education and gender relations, Phule and Ambedkar sought to democratise them” (2014, 5). It is not surprising perhaps that in a deeply casteist society, my own education expresses many manifestations of a caste apartheid including the lack of default exposure to the writings of Phule and Ambedkar, even as I was regularly exposed to Gandhi’s thought on Untouchability, despite his deep investment in maintaining casteism. Third, we cannot understand caste supremacy except in intersectional terms. As documented extensively in books such as Dalit Women’s Education in Modern India by Shailaja Paik, Dalit Women Speak Out by Aloysius Irudayam, Jayshree P. Mangubhai, and Joel G. Lee, caste supremacy is reliant upon and reproduces class, gender, and sexual violence. Further, caste supremacy is apparent in spectacular instances of caste atrocity (from burning of fields and homes to rape, beatings, and killings) which is inextricably related to the everyday manifestations of verbal abuse, criminalization, spatially segregated villages and cities, caste apartheid in land and labour, in television studios, in real estate markets, in marriage and dating and falling in love, in educational institutions, in progressive art circles, and within feminist politics. Fourth, caste supremacy has always been challenged by Dalit people vociferously against the dominant terms of progressive politics itself. Following Dalit Bahujan feminist scholar Lata P.M., savarna scholars such as myself need to do better by understanding Dalit feminism as mainstream rather than marginal. We need to refuse the structural privilege of savarna feminism as being the default normative centre of feminism.[2]

In the context of these premises, how do savarna academics project their caste innocence? It is important to specify that savarna academics almost exclusively dominate positions in higher education in India and the diaspora. This shapes the content of what we tend to teach and learn—typically Gandhi over Ambedkar, for example. This is not to deny the racism that South Asians and women of colour experience in the North American academy. This is to foreground the fact that those of us with secure positions in the academy are primarily Brahmins, or at least savarna. I wonder if we can collectively name more than five Dalit or Adivasi professors in tenured or tenure track positions in North America for instance. How has an apparently casteless diaspora reproduced such caste apartheid among supposedly educated, progressive, and merit-valuing people? As savarna scholars, have we grappled with the ways in which we reproduce this caste apartheid in everyday and institutional ways regardless of how much scholarship we might produce on caste? Have we publicly done much to name the university in North America a casteist institution?

We are a mixed bunch in terms of how we approach caste and caste supremacy in our classrooms and research. So I’ll speak for myself. For the longest time, I paid little attention to caste supremacy in my learning or teaching, championing instead critiques of colonialism via postcolonial theory and subaltern histories. These theories fed my interest in justice and transformation in a way that the writings on caste by upper caste and white scholarship apparently did not. These theories enriched a single-minded Marxian critique of colonialism that attended more to capitalism than to colonialism. But, postcolonial theory also entails a profound homogenization of both colonialism and nationalism, particularly in caste terms. Despite my training in and familiarity with Marxian, feminist, critical race, postcolonial, poststructural theory, and despite my professed feminism, I didn’t think through the far-reaching implications of the fact that colonization was not experienced in the same way across castes, among the colonized. For instance, I didn’t ask: What does this fact about a differentially experienced colonialism mean for the upper caste state that we inherited in independent India? Thinking about neocolonialism, internal colonialism, even ongoing colonialism came easily to me, but I didn’t ask how caste mediates each of these concepts. I didn’t ask whether the upper caste Indian state can be a decolonized one, or whether the Canadian or US state are casteist ones.

Gail Omvedt’s work, which I was exposed to later, was explicitly anti-casteist. Furthermore, for the longest time, and I suspect I am not alone in this, I continued to be drawn to the (no doubt important) writings of upper caste scholars such as Anupama Rao and Ajantha Subramanian who fed my growing hunger for contemporary critiques of caste histories and politics in India. Apart from the institutional exclusion of Dalit and anti-caste scholarship through most of my education resulting in my lack of exposure, in retrospect, I suspect that liberal Bengali Brahminism has coded into me a conscious and subconscious draw toward and investment in reputable authors with their legibly upper caste scholar names and thus an affective preference for reading their writing—one of the many manifestations of my casteism.

For most of my academic life I have conducted research on agricultural workers in contemporary West Bengal, denotified tribals in Ahmedabad, and middle-class activists in Delhi, drawing attention to their resistance to state violence and capitalist development. I sought marginalized voices (agricultural workers and denotified tribals) because I believed that subalterns did speak all the time and that it was incumbent on those privileged like myself to hear them and unlearn and learn how to bring their politics into the academy in ways that might amount to something other than what Gayatri Spivak called epistemic violence. For almost two decades I have been that savarna academic who transcribed and sometimes translated words and voices, enabled visits across continents and edited volumes of their writings and I felt good about it all. I am not retrospectively rejecting my methodological and political approach because much of what I did was also in response to what community leaders asked of me, and what I believed to be research grounded in solidarity with their struggles. I balked at those who failed to articulate their precious theories with people’s struggles. I prided myself in negotiating language barriers, time zones, egos, and researcher-community inequalities.

What’s wrong with that, you may well ask, if you are engaged in similar forms of research? We might race to the defence that savarna Hindus writing about the plight of those we oppress, exploit, segregate, colonize, silence and kill—from Kashmir to Badaun, from Budhan Sabar to Hadiya and Irom Sharmila—merely amounts to using our power to amplify the voice and struggles of those who are rarely heard. But, maybe we should also consider whether our translations are necessary and for whom? We have seen this savarna need to retell, amplify, recode, ‘translate’ Dalit words before, in the high-profile instance of Navayana publishing an edition of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste with an introduction by upper caste and best-selling author, Arundhati Roy. One of the Ambedkar Age Collective writers for the powerful volume Hatred in the Belly, Bojja Tharakam notes that “there is no need to introduce the book, Annihilation of Caste, either by Arundhati Roy or anyone else” (Tharakam 2015, 10). Another, U. Sambashiva Rao writes poignantly of how the same issues raised by a savarna writer gains them popularity, whereas such words get the Dalit or Tribal killed (Rao 2015, 35). Moreover, do we really need more evidence of upper caste Hindu violence? Is it our collective casteism which makes the ample available evidence of caste terror and Dalit protest against it not count as evidence of caste violence, to borrow Sara Ahmed’s words?

Relatedly, is our impulse to mentor, construct networks, and build friendships and relationships of solidarity with Dalit Bahujan Adivasi (DBA) peoples innocent? Through these networks and relationships with DBA, we often author a savarna research approval process that ‘translates’ a casteist state’s violence for legibility within academia. As we congratulate ourselves for our solidarity research, perhaps we might also clarify how such research promotes a competition among savarnas for DBA mentees, friendships, networks, relationships—accumulated in part to forge our own claims to caste innocence even as they inevitably reproduce caste supremacy. Is this not part of our casteist capital? What, for example, does bringing more evidence of caste violence to light within academia and the public sphere do to annihilate the caste apartheid in academia? Precious little. In fact, it makes it seem as though the absence of Dalit professors matters little to knowledge production about caste, since we do the good work of hearing their words, reading and sharing their writing, and ‘including’ or even foregrounding their voices in our own analyses. As such, can we at least acknowledge and debate the ways in which caste structures turn this kind of academic mentoring and solidarity work into caste innocence? Can we ask what might turn our habits of solidarity research toward an annihilation of caste rather than a reproduction of our supremacy within the academy?

Solidarity research can also take a different route to obscuring caste identity and projecting castelessness when savarnas in the US and Canada engage in solidarity research with Black and Indigenous peoples’ struggles. Often in this research, we fail to highlight the relationship of histories of caste violence to our histories of anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity. And we rarely offer our solidarity in anti-caste struggles. At a recent conference, I heard a savarna scholar whose research commits to Indigenous sovereignty say nothing about their own caste history and its inextricable relation to settlement on and desire for Indigenous lands. How far can her solidarity with indigenous sovereignty go without attention to the caste histories that consolidate colonization? At another, I watched an upper caste feminist nurture friendships with Black and Indigenous feminists and their graduate students (necessary and significant in their own right) with scarcely a moment to spare for up and coming Dalit students. Is it that Dalit students are not yet in vogue? They will be and then upper castes might listen, befriend, converse with, learn from, mentor, to add to their radical capital. For those savarna scholars for whom Dalit scholars are already on the radar, and for those who will wake up to it, in the face of such instrumental relationships, following Dalit writers Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Sinthujan Vartharajah, we need to ask ourselves why solidarity with Indigenous sovereignty or with Black feminists feels easier than solidarity with the annihilation of caste in the diaspora and at home. While every single subsequent book launch appearance for scholars writing on Indigenous sovereignty might accrue more accolades from celebrity academics in North America, the paucity of Dalit feminist scholars in academic spaces ensures that such solidarity research amounts to entrenching caste and settler innocence because upper castes are doing little to challenge the caste innocence structured into such analysis. Does it matter that our glowing academic reputations might, in so many of these cases, contrast immensely with our actual relationships among the very communities that helped launch our academic careers?

The List

Let me go from this general discussion of academically-transmitted caste innocence to a more specific example. Consider the outraged response of upper caste South Asian scholars to a recently compiled list of South Asian male academics who have been accused of sexual harassment. I want to argue that the response to the list of sexual harassers in academia was a form of everyday caste terror. I also want to suggest that the more upper caste feminists like myself externalize caste supremacy as something other, non-modern, undemocratic people other than ourselves do elsewhere, the more we contribute to the normalized violence and everyday terror of caste supremacy at work, in our homes, in our workplaces, right here, right now. The more savarna academics try to differentiate ourselves as the good savarnas who read, cite, quote, like, share, retweet Dalit Bahujan Adivasi scholars compared with the bad savarnas who don’t think or write (well) about caste, the more we are producing innovative techniques of competing, projecting and accumulating academically-transmitted caste innocence. It convinces me of my need to learn to recognize how my/our seemingly anti-caste practices are caught up in the structures of reproducing caste innocence.

To summarize quickly a fraction of what transpired with the list: The list was initially compiled by, then 24-year old Dalit Bahujan lawyer Raya Sarkar and allies who were inspired by Tarana Burke’s #MeToo campaign and Christine Fair’s Huffington Post article (later published by Buzzfeed), which had named renowned South Asian postcolonial theorist Dipesh Chakrabarty as one of the men who harassed Fair when the latter was a graduate student. The list was compiled to make others aware of who they should be wary of. Sarkar added names given by survivors and close friends of survivors based on their testimonials of actions that constitute sexual harassment according to the law. At last count, the list had over 70 people on it.

Within twelve hours of the list coming out, 14 prominent, mostly upper caste Hindu feminists signed a statement for the online blog Kafila that appealed for the list to be withdrawn because it sidestepped ‘due process’ and initiated an unruly politics where anyone could ‘name and shame’ anyone anonymously and without accountability. The collateral damage to potentially innocent men was their apparent concern, which is why rather than question any of the upper caste men on the list, they attacked the method and politics of the list Recognizing that due process is stilted against those who complain, the feminists cited the history of their own work to establish accountability and sexual harassment cells within educational institutions.

The reaction to the appeal published on Kafila was equally vociferous. The statement was mocked and seen as yet another instance of casteist vision that tells caste oppressed feminists what good, respectable feminism looks like, and that it doesn’t look like vigilante justice, mob justice, naming and shaming.[3] List makers like Raya Sarkar and those endorsing it such as Thenmozhi Soundararajan and others highlighted the ways in which Kafila feminists were effectively calling for disbelieving survivors, asking survivors to name themselves, rather than contributing to making others aware of the largely unimpeachable male academics. Significantly, they pointed out that the upper caste feminists were reacting this way because this time the accused were mostly prominent upper caste men, men of their homes and neighbourhoods. As the astute Dalit theorist of Roundtable India forum, Kuffir Nalgundwar stated when he read the verbose and relentless critiques of the list by upper caste feminists, “you don’t need to write such long treatises, … we understand family sentiment.”

Highlighting caste as family sentiment is crucial in the context of caste endogamy. And, it also names the anxiety (i.e. family sentiment) that prompts upper caste feminists to deflect attention away from ourselves when we turn an issue into a debate about due process vs naming and shaming. Here, naming caste supremacy by saying that something or someone is upper caste or savarna is treated as a slur, rather than a structural reality. This is “casteism without caste supremacists” akin to what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva calls “racism without racists.” Naming casteism within progressive feminist spaces is compulsively resisted—because it hurts too much to be called savarna and doesn’t get at the complexity of caste identities—and through this deflection we reproduce caste terror by externalizing it to illiberal spaces, to academically shoddy scholarship, and/or to unreflexive others. We seem to prefer critiquing the limits of positionality and identity politics to grappling with the structural and everyday violence of our complex positionalities and identities.

Meanwhile, the accused men on the list terrorized in their own ways. Renowned scholar Partha Chatterjee cited his five decades long career within the academy and ‘demanded’ that the nature of the allegation against him be clarified or else his name be removed from the list. Note the ways in which upper caste men who dominate knowledge production are able to cite their scholarly reputation, as a means to secure the dominant understanding (or rather evasion) of the intersections of knowledge production, caste and sexual violence. Another accused Abhijit Gupta noted that he understood that the list exists ‘because institutions had failed the victims’. He even accepted what he called the “collateral damage” to potentially innocent men. His post on FB (which was subsequently taken down) was followed by an endless stream of unmitigated adulation for him being more feminist than the feminists, whilst commenters called the survivors cowards for not identifying themselves. This mode of humility is also a quiet form of terror I suggest. He said, “I am unable to own or rebut any charge since none has been made.” Ultimately this incites disbelieving the woman who named him. He refuses to refuse culpability. He is basically saying, I am not saying I did it, I am not saying I didn’t. Had he clearly refused culpability he may have to defend his statement later. But he did not do that. Like Chatterjee, Gupta evades accountability. He takes the chance that survivors don’t have the resources or capacity or institutional support to risk an actual complaint. Thus, relying on their status, the men preserve their own. Again.

Meanwhile, Nivedita Menon wrote of Raya Sarkar’s caste identity: “Raya Sarkar has now deleted posts claiming Dalit identity, and has come out with posts saying they is Buddhist, Ambedkarite and a follower of Savitribhai Phule. All of these are chosen/political positions, not derived from the caste into which one is born, and available to all savarnas if they are available to Raya. Simply put, they was lying about being Dalit.” It is crucial for me to acknowledge that I participated in this thinking. When Raya Sarkar took down posts about their Dalit identity, I quietly wondered what was going on. Are they or aren’t they Dalit? Somehow we (savarnas) think we are entitled to knowledge about someone’s true caste identity and through it, we can claim to shed light on the complexity of caste before we name caste violence and our complicity in it. Mocking Raya Sarkar’s caste identity, misrecognizing their need to protect their caste identity, and acting as if their caste identity legitimizes or delegitimizes list politics secures the upper caste’s upper hand—a white knuckle grip over knowledge production about caste and sexual violence.

When I presented some of these thoughts at a National Women’s Studies conference in November 2017, a savarna scholar raised her hand and began a question with (I paraphrase but pretty accurately), ‘I want to put aside the caste question for a moment and think as a feminist.’ Caste is a hat for savarnas because we can set it aside for a moment. Of course, this view of caste and feminism goes against decades of woman of colour and Black feminist thought on intersectionality which this audience member is no doubt familiar with. More poignantly it goes against over a century of Savitribai Phule’s thinking on gender and caste as co-constituted structures of oppression. But our relentless control over the terms of our castelessness allows us to set aside our grasp of intersectionality and our caste, for a moment. This is our ongoing accumulation of innocence, every day in all of these moments. Every time we enact these claims to innocence we engage in an everyday form of caste terror and reproduce caste supremacy.

I am part of the everyday terror of caste when I present at NWSA conferences talking about these issues and as I choose to write this piece for publication, right here and right now. Despite many misgivings, some voiced and some kept to myself, I chose to be on that panel entitled Dalit Feminisms, organized and dominated by savarna scholars. Rather than stepping down, I was seduced by the thought of being on such a panel. I believed in an oxymoron: the promise of a good conversation in a casteist institution. I tried to request that the panel be renamed Savarna Feminisms, but when that failed, I still remained on the panel. And then I presented much of what I have shared here about our everyday forms of caste terror and list politics, in the hope that I was highlighting the casteism in academia. What did me being on that panel really do to foreground Dalit Feminists though? Nothing. Even in this very piece of writing, I don’t doubt that one way or another, I get to take my caste hat off at the very same moment that I feel like I am engaged in anti-caste thinking on upper caste, caste innocence. This is what I am referring to as our place in and our ongoing seduction into the structure of reproducing caste innocence.

What does it mean for me to draw on Dalit feminist thought, writing, and practice and represent their words to a North American academy as a way to critique other ‘upper caste feminists’ casteism? This is part of my academically-transmitted caste innocence, even as I embarked on much of this reading, learning and writing with a view to re-educate myself against casteist histories. As such, it is imperative and no exaggeration to say that writing these words reproduces casteism in the academy since inevitably, me drawing on Dalit Bahujan critiques of savarna feminism turns their resistance against caste into its opposite by reproducing my position as a good savarna feminist.

As such, in highlighting Chatterjee, Gupta, Menon, Krishnan, savarna organizers of panels, savarna re/tweeters of Dalit feminist words, or the audience member above, my goal is specifically not to present these forms of caste terror as external to myself. It is to highlight how pervasive it is so you and I might recognize ourselves in it. I may laugh at or critique them, but it is crucial for me to not present myself as a good upper caste feminist in comparison with Nivedita Menon and whoever else. So, to the subset of savarna scholars desperately and diligently seeking our re-education in Dalit Bahujan Adivasi writing and thought, please let us consider questions close to home. Let us think about our participation in the family sentiment of protecting our caste innocence, our caste-kin and the family squabbles through which we distinguish ourselves as better than our casteist kin (#notallsavarnas whether we say this explicitly, or are savvy enough to not say it)—both of which are endlessly upholding caste supremacy. My hope is to begin a conversation about the ways in which our attention to caste in our writing and teaching and learning is reproducing caste innocence—and I hope the people named (including myself) and not named here will be willing to confront our responsibilities.


[1] I use the term upper caste even though it problematically implies a lower caste, because the term does not obscure the hierarchical violence and inequality written into caste structures. Sometimes I use ‘upper caste’ interchangeably with the term savarna even though the latter is a more undifferentiated term that refers to the four highly unequal classes (Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra) within the caste system, setting these apart from avarnas (Dalits and adivasis) who are excluded from the system altogether. Despite the value of the generalizations these terms allow me to make, the argument about upper castes and savarnas made here mostly refers to liberal Brahmins.

[2] However, upper caste women continue to dominate leadership within feminist politics. Indeed, as writing for Roundtable India has noted, the upper caste feminists who have read and represented Dalit feminism in the academy (such as Sharmila Rege) continue to represent themselves as the mainstream and center, into which they are bringing in marginal Dalit feminist perspectives. Lata P.M. notes that this “creates an academic illusion that only Brahmin or upper caste women’s movement is ‘mainstream’.” This makes it important to read the politics of the Dalit feminists and Dalit Bahujan allies who led the list making I discuss later, as mainstream, not marginal, and consider what kinds of renaming feminism and reclaiming politics is at play here.

[3] Indeed, one of the upper caste feminists Kavita Krishnan maintained that a list that names and shames asserts entitlement to mob justice. In her words, “The project of creating anonymous lists is, to my mind, akin to blackening faces”, failing to recognize the anti-Blackness of her statement, as Dalit feminist Thenmozhi Soundararajan pointed out.


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Dia Da Costa Written by:

Professor in Educational Policy Studies at the University of Alberta, Canada.

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