Trigger warning: rape, assault
In light of the events that led to a 19-year-old Dalit woman succumbing to a brutal rape at the hands of 4 upper-caste men, the hashtag #DalitLivesMatter has been trending to bring the issue to the forefront of mainstream discussion.
It is clear that the Indian caste system is not a thing of the past or something that only exists in remote and rural India.
Even in this day and age, Dalit communities across the nation continue to be the target of various forms of atrocities and persecution.
Anyone who identifies as Indian knows that the caste system is a system of oppression. Despite being abolished by the Constitution of India in 1950, the system still exists because it is still perpetuated.
Why does casteism still endure?
Dr Mridula Nath Chakraborty, a Senior Lecturer at Monash University and an expert in literatures of the Indian subcontinent, says, “Historically, caste-based violence as a whole in India, exists because of a Hindu dominant majority and its psychology of control. This fundamental ideology exists in politics and the public sphere with impunity”.
“What is now called Hinduism was once a set of philosophies and practices full of multiplicity and now it has become a variant of something that still cannot be seen as a unitary religion,” she adds.
“Atrocities committed in the name of Hindu fundamentalism are as dangerous as other forms of religious fundamentalism,” warns Dr Chakraborty
In 2012, a horrific rape of a woman in Delhi shook the entire country, compelling people to take to the streets in protest and rage online zealously.
In the same vein, the lack of data depicts the turning of a blind eye towards Dalit suffering in the countless migrant labourers and daily-wage workers who died during the abrupt COVID lockdown in India.
The migrants, many of whom identified as Dalits even said they would die of hunger before the virus could kill them.
Wilful ignorance sanctioned by many dominant political, cultural and social parties is the primary proof of this undisguised perpetuation of the caste system.
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University Professor at Columbia University, and recipient of the Padma Bhushan, the third highest civilian award given by the Republic of India, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, who is a philosopher, literary theorist, and feminist critic at Columbia University, says it best.
Highlighting the reasoning behind “sanctioned ignorance” in her book titled ‘A Critique of Postcolonial Reason’, she describes it as “an institutionalised way of thinking” where the aim is to exclude certain opinions and scrutinies from entering the public debate, in this case – the exclusion of Dalit discourse.
Role of the diaspora
There is much to say about people in the Indian diaspora who complain about white hegemony but perpetuate similar power structures in their own communities.
Below, 22-year-old artist and Dalit activist Priyanka Paul calls out non-resident Indians and upper-caste Hindus who have been hush-hush over the caste-based sexual violence carried out in Hathras.
If we do not question our families or people in our community when they exhibit casteist attitudes or oppressive ideology, we are complicit. Our silence speaks volumes of what issues we don’t consider worthy of addressing. Our silence is violence.
“Indians must critique the idea of ‘only one kind of Hindu’,” Dr Chakraborty explained. “In Australia, the idea that all Hindus are lovely or spiritual or vegetarian has to go.”
It is time Hindus, whether in India or in Australia, acknowledge this oppression in order to stop practising it.
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How can you help?
There are parallels in the relationship between non-Indigenous Australians and First Nations people, and that between Dalits and non-Dalits.
“What can we do?” is something that is repeatedly asked by non-Indigenous Australians as well as non-Dalits who wish to participate in the obliteration of the prolonged oppression.
It’s not as much ‘what’ as about how. Take that first step, look at the repression of Dalit knowledge systems square in the eye and test your privilege.
- Read and promote writings by Dalits
- Check your language for casteist slurs against Dalits
- Have that uncomfortable conversation about privilege
- Understand the history and reality of caste-based reservations
- Mind casteism around you – in your houses, schools, universities and workplaces
One of India’s great founding fathers Dr B R Ambedkar once said: educate, agitate, organise.
We must bring Dalit philosophies and perspectives to the front of our minds to be able to fight oppressive ideologies like the caste system.
It’s time to become active and vocal allies to eradicate our own privilege.
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