Panel 5 - Contentions Of Caste
The second day of Litmus 2019 began with a panel discussion on what is perhaps the most complex yet most inadequately addressed social phenomena in India- the caste system. Unique to the Indian social hierarchy, the issue of caste has been one of the most significant challenges to socio-economic equality in modern India, and the cause for a systemic marginalisation of minorities throughout history.
The panel for this session comprised of two very eminent speakers- Soumyabrata Chaudhury and Charu Gupta- and was moderated by Professor Rachita Mittal from the English Department. The discussion that evolved over the next hour brought to light several interesting perspectives on the issue of caste and dealt with notions that are typically neglected in political or legal discourses on the caste system.
Mr. Chaudhury began by talking about the intrinsic conflict that lies embedded in the very notion of caste. But before delving into the crux of his speech, he took care to remind us that the Dalit community, unlike what majoritarian discourse had typified it to be, was not a homogenised body of the oppressed. Drawing from B. R. Ambedkar, Mr. Chaudhury reminded his audience of the multiplicity of castes and the need to distinguish between them in order to truly understand the different kinds of conflict that lie within this one homogenised concept.
Focussing on the many layers within the term ‘Dalit’, Mr. Chaudhury referred to the Dalit Panthers of the 1970s and the duality of meaning the term had since acquired. While the word ‘Dalit’ implied a negation as suggested by its original meaning of oppression, it simultaneously was an assertion as it presented the aesthetic possibility of a “new emotion”. Within the very word itself, Mr. Chaudhury, therefore, saw the possibility of emancipation, not just for the oppressed, but for all society to move into a new relationship with one another.
Delving further into the intricacies of a term which he believed held a “surplus of meaning”, Mr. Chaudhury spoke about how the very term itself invoked great anxiety even today, particularly because it was a term that could not be found in the Indian Constitution, thereby rendering it little legal or political weightage. By drawing a parallel between the confusion around the concept of madness in the 18th century and the notion of the Dalit in India, Mr. Chaudhury expounded on the ways in which mainstream narratives sought to sideline those subjects that they could not understand or define. In his opinion, the Dalit was as much a blind spot of the upper caste in India as Madness was in the age of Reason that was the 18th century. Additionally, in speaking about the politics of reservation, Mr. Chaudhury poignantly pointed out that the system of reservation that many upper castes so vehemently oppose, stands today as the result of a systemic marginalisation that the upper castes themselves were historically responsible for and one that they needed to consciously take ownership of.
In her opening speech, Ms. Charu Gupta drew on the intersectionality of caste and gender, both of which signify complex forms of inequality in which the issues of gender within caste is often negated in mainstream discourse. Drawing from her book, The Gender of Caste, Ms. Gupta spoke of how movements for reformation typically focused on women who had the privilege of caste and class, and of how the idea of the Dalit had come to present itself as predominantly masculine in the minds of people.
Ms. Gupta focused on the ways in which the violence of gender and caste manifest itself in the ordinary and the every day, especially in print and visual cultures. Drawing from Foucault, Ms. Gupta remarked that it is through tight policing of women’s bodies that caste differences are maintained therefore causing the representation of women within caste to be done to such a grossly unequal measure.
Drawing on traditional figures of the Dalit woman such as the midwife and the ‘Shabari’ or the reformist woman, Ms. Gupta expounded on the ways in which narratives reduced such women either to metaphors of evil or depicted them as the subservient woman who is moral because she knows her place in society. The exclusionary terminology that is built into the very formation of such narratives, she believed, simply could not be ignored.
At the same time, however, Ms.Gupta also focused on literature and cultures that promoted the figure of the Dalit woman in small but nevertheless significant ways. Following the First War of Independence in 1857, pamphlets were distributed which transformed the image of the Dalit woman from that of a victim to a victor, for many of them actively fought in a war where women’s contribution is largely remembered in history only in the figure of Rani Lakshmibai. Images in literature also began to depict Dalit women, who despite still performing inferior roles, were increasingly depicted in the attire of the upper class, thereby highlighting a gradual reduction in the wide gulf of inequality. These moves, although tokenistic, stood to make a difference in the politics of gender within caste, and Ms. Gupta observed that ordinary everyday life witnessed an interesting amalgamation of both caste discipline and a constant agitation against it.
The panel discussion drew on a variety of conflicts, ranging from that which was inherent in the very term ‘Dalit’ to the lived experiences of Dalit women, thereby providing the audience with an interesting lens to locate caste politics through. The panel drew on a multiplicity of perspectives and addressed deeply significant yet often marginalised issues of caste in a session that put aside majoritarian politics to discuss and deliberate upon those facets of caste that society so often turns a blind eye to.
Guest Lecture - Tongue-Tied: Politics Of Language
India has forever ridden on the crest of the ‘unity in diversity’ phenomenon. With 22 scheduled languages and 420 dialects, the language variations across the nation are more than those of several other nation states combined. Let us stop right here and think about the figures that we have read over and over again, across the bullet points of our political science and civics textbooks in school and on sites that claim to polish our general knowledge. The generalizing of this data across all forums has caused us to lay a blind eye towards ever questioning it, and our political forefathers have gone ahead and pedestalized the Indian diversity cause with exactly this.
The figures provided by the census is the single most important source of conducting any further qualitative analysis on other aspects of a social phenomenon. Sadly, the census has failed miserably when it comes to truly recording the thrust and variation of languages across India.
One crucial term on the basis of which data was collected and collated was the ‘mother-tongue’, a term that has been copiously defined by legal terminologies. However, already a flaw is over-evident in this metric. The underlying assumption is that an individual can only have one mother tongue—the language of his/her mother, which of course, is effectively the language of her husband. Most people in India are at least bilingual, if not equipped with easily speaking more than four languages. Thus, this basic unit of collecting information itself is not just problematic, but also factually far from being capable of achieving any authentic results.
Even the data that was ultimately published had very odd bases of classification, besides being highly factually improbable altogether. For instance, the most basic form of data, raw returns, accounted for the number of different language responses people gave, irrespective of whether it at all existed as a language, or if it was actually a kind of dialect under another language. The 2011 census data reveals that 19,569 responses were recorded in the form of raw returns. In contrast, the ultimate data that was curated and derived out of this to give more ‘manageable figures’ was that of identifiable mother tongues—languages that were spoken by more than 10,000 people. This brought down the figure to a staggering 270-- 123 for the 22 scheduled languages, and 147 for the 99 unscheduled ones.
Clearly, the metric of only considering the language that is spoken by more than 10,000 people as ‘identifiable’ is deeply problematic in the first place. In a nation that has several tribal populations spread across the mainland, whose individual populations may not even exceed 500, setting the bar at 10,000 is unreasonable, if not entirely unacceptable because of its tendency to actually diminish the necessary language distinctions that need to be acknowledged. Sadly enough, the identifiable mother tongue phenomenon does not stop at 270, it is further collapsed into the concise 22 scheduled and 99 unscheduled languages category, further subjecting several hundreds of languages to the very real risk of extinction.
Language is a form of social capital, perhaps one of the most important forms of social capital, considering that it is what we literally use to voice out our identities and the difficulties that we face therein. To reduce such a complex form of social capital, that is the marker of the diversity of a nation into figures that only club and classify diversity into compartments constructed by dominant narratives, goes against the basic entitlement guaranteed by the Indian Constitution of preserving one’s own language. Every individual from a culture, irrespective of whether he/she is a part of a community that exceeds the 10,000 ‘cut-off’, should have the right to preserve his/her language.
For years, we have looked at the coloured maps of India that charted the culture, language and lifestyle of a person from the most prominent regions. As long as we can do that, see a concise map floating in front of our eyes with a number of differently dressed people drawn on it that we can count off the fingers in our hands, we should know we have a long, long way to go as a country that claims to revel in its diversity.
Penning for the Promp- Student Writing Contest
On Saturday, 2nd March 2019, the Department of English at Lady Shri Ram College for Women (LSR) organised a student-writing competition during the course of its annual literary conference- Litmus 2019. The event was held at G2, where the students had to write a microfiction piece of around 150 words within an hour.
The prompts were given to the students on the spot through chits, with a choice provided to each participant. The choice was between an idiom of the English language and an imaginary situation derived from a historical context. For instance, a contestant was given the idiom- "An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind." She had to choose between the given idiom and a prompt according to which Napoleon had been brought to the present and had begun interfering in her day-to-day world. The prompts provided a unique way for students to analyse an established narrative differently, in accordance with the theme of the conference- Conflict.
There were four participants in the event- Aaheli (LSR), Shilpi (LSR), Nisha (LSR), and Maitreyi (Ambedkar University). Aaheli titled her piece "I am..." and dealt with the conflict of self-identity.
Adjudicated by Mahesh Sir and Himanshi Ma’am from the LSR English Department, the competition was won by Maitreyi, who wrote a piece exploring the uncomfortable question of reconfiguring history and its consequences, titled "Would you kill Baby Hitler/ Do you believe it would lead to prevention of Nazism?" Maitreyi was awarded a certificate for her piece.
According to Monishka, a member of the Ideation, and Web and Publicity teams of the Department, about forty-seven students had registered for the event but only four eventually contested. However, the superior quality of each piece was compensation enough for the lower turnout and gave a purposeful culmination to the event.
Anushree Joshi, 1-B