Opinion

On academic activism through a conversation on caste

On 14 September, a woman was found naked on a farm, with a crushed spine and a split tongue, in Hathras, India. The nineteen-year-old, Manisha Valmiki, was out to collect fodder when she was allegedly dragged into the fields by four men, gang-raped and then strangled so hard that she bit her tongue and cut it. The gory assault made headlines only fourteen days later after she succumbed to her severe injuries. Not before, however – with much difficulty – filing a complaint with the police, giving a statement to the local magistrate, and naming her assaulters. 

It took two weeks, a gang-rape and a murder for Manisha Valmiki to matter. Yet not enough, since within hours her body was burnt by the state police without her family’s presence or consent, not-so-discreetly at three in the morning. Since then, India has witnessed a turbulent week of nation-wide protests; police detentions of student activists; arresting of the opposition leader; charging of the reporting journalist under sedition; an enforceable ban on large gatherings, nonetheless, excluding rallies in support of the rapists, threatening the victim’s family, victim-shaming as well as denying the occurrence of rape on national media. All this while surpassing five million coronavirus infections, making India the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world. What can I say? A fascist bureaucracy never rests.  

I tracked these events on the internet, indulging in endless scrolling during my quarantine here in the UK. On those frequent video-calls with my parents, my father would tell me to be careful – cautious of where I go, what I say, and to whom. Growing up in the ‘rape capital of India’ makes one accustomed these words of advice, justifying their parents’ persistent paranoia by reminding themselves, ’It could easily have been me. That girl on that night in that place could have been me.’ Who? Where? When? Why? All details are redundant.

Except, not really. Manisha Valmiki on that day in that field could have never been me. For I did not have to work in farms as a teen; or fear going out by myself; or tolerate harassment by upper caste men in my village, promised impunity at birth. Unlike Manisha, I was not born a Valmiki – a lower caste, a Dalit. Unlike Manisha, I was raised oblivious to the ghastly repercussions of a mere difference in surnames.

What’s in a name? In South Asia – everything, starting from where you live, what you do, who you love and how you die. Our names underline our caste; a social stratification, inherited, internalised and invisibilised through generations of traditions and institutions. This system comprises four main categories in the following order: Brahmins (priests and teachers); Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers); Vaishyas (farmers, traders and merchants); Shudras (labourers); and lastly, Dalits, the outcastes (street sweepers and manual scavengers). Today, this complex pyramid has mutated across the Indian subcontinent into innumerable, intricate sub-groups, each reinforcing intersectional power hierarchies. The worst of which is embodied by the Dalit woman; oppressed by the “triple burden” of caste, class and gender. 

As per the latest official figures, at least ten Dalit women were raped every day last year in India. This should not be shocking in a country where a study of 500 Dalit women conducted in 2006 revealed that 54% of them had been physically assaulted; 46% sexually harassed; 43% had faced domestic violence; 62% verbally abused; 23% raped. The grotesque gang-rape and murder of Manisha Valmiki, therefore, is nothing exceptional; rather, it is the norm. 

To assume that the tyranny of caste starts and ends in South Asia is a gross misconception. With transnational communities come translocal conventions, thus rendering caste a global phenomenon; a perpetual pandemic. Let us take the UK for example. The population of lower castes in Britain is barely insignificant, ranging anywhere between 50,000 and 200,000. A 2010 study, moreover, identified substantial evidence suggesting “caste discrimination and harassment” within the UK, with respect to employment (bullying, failure to recruit, promotion, task allocation); services (refusing personal care or access to a day centre); education (student on student bullying); voluntary work (dismissal); worship and religion; and public behaviour (harassment in public places).

The fissures of caste go deep in our society – at home and abroad. Nonetheless, most of us – myself included – grow up either unaware, unbothered or worse, both. Caste then becomes an abstract concept we read, talk or write about – that is, if we stumble upon it at all – without ever assuming that it has something and everything to do with our very access to opportunities that enable the same reading, talking and writing. What then preserves this profound illusion of castelessness is our privilege to remain ignorant and/or indifferent, despite comprising the very small percentage of the global population that can actually afford to understand, unlearn and undo.

As university students, our silence – and thus, complicity – is particularly poignant. It is imperative to ask ourselves: what exactly are we here for? What is the point of our intellectual pursuits if they do not encourage engagement beyond lunch hall debates and periodic essays? Or further our commitment to unravelling the delicately woven garb of normalcy? Or prepare us to undermine the deep entrenchment of systemic injustices? 

The strange thing is, however, that our classrooms indeed simultaneously inspire yet restrict all of the above. While our readings may radicalise us, our course schedule immobilises us. We are provoked to think in terms of actions rather than abstractions but with time enough to only write one odd blog post or sign a few online petitions. Soon that too stops because we have a deadline tomorrow, a presentation next week, applications the following month, a thesis next term and prolonged fatigue thereafter. The elusive configurations of academic labour, thus, conveniently conceals institutional impediments as individual incompetence. 

If we are yet to recognise the need for activism, it is probably because the all-encompassing political, social and economic establishments work in our favour. Still, say, if we were to organise and agitate, the same neoliberal structures – including our beloved university – would do everything its power to undermine any autonomous, disruptive and transformation action. The consequent replacement of confrontational, justice-based, student activism with its sellable “second hand”, “watered down”, “toothless” rendition is, hence, rarely surprising. In the words of anthropologist David Graeber, “…the university, [is] perhaps the only Western institution other than the Catholic Church and British monarchy that has survived in much the same form from the Middle Ages, doing intellectual battle at conferences in expensive hotels, and trying to pretend all this somehow furthers revolution.”

Nevertheless, not all students are “social justice tourists”, dabbling into not-so deadly dissent just for some adrenaline. There are still many who pause to rethink, reconsider, and reinvent informal – perhaps even incidental – paths beyond the traditional, ritualised performances of protest. One such example is the statement signed by over a hundred students, faculty members, staff and alumni of the University of Oxford in solidarity with Dalit scholars, activists, and organisations in India at the outset of protests against the rape of Manisha Valmiki. Following the rule of six, students also collected at the Radcliffe Camera earlier this month, to publicly condemn the “yet another heinous manifestation of systemic sexual violence and caste-based atrocities in India” as well as the “absolute apathy and repression” showed by the government in dealing with the same. Mobilising our social capital as upper-caste, upper-class members of an elite institution, students further pledged allyship towards the annihilation of these privileges. 

Perhaps then the revolutionary potential lies more in the very act of organising than the organisation itself; in rethinking, reconsidering, and reinventing novel ways to subvert the status quo – courageously, continuously, and consistently. For only now have I come to realise that what truly preserves our privilege, caste-based or not, is the end of our imagination.