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Bearing Witness: Race and Caste Supremacy in Democratic Heartlands

Dr. Maitrayee Mukhopadhyay
Indian Feminist and Social Researcher
October 19, 2020
The question before us is not whether the practice of caste has divine origins or what it was before colonialism but what it became in the present.

‘I can’t breathe’ was the audio. As I watched this video on television of George Floyd in his last moments overpowered by the police, guns at the ready and a knee on his throat, my confused state of mind interpreted the signals as one more of these atrocities that have been routinely taking place in which African American people (young men and boys in particular) have been targeted and hunted down by just about anybody but especially by policemen. And then I looked at the unbearable sight, or rather I could not but look because the television news presenter and the camera focused on the policeman with his knee on George’s neck. And then you saw….wait hold on, did he have his hand in his pocket? And was he looking at what I was tempted to believe was for the cameras? Black and white photos of nineteenth century hunters posing with the latest trophy they had shot, a tiger perhaps, flashed across my consciousness (by now a jumble of outrage, anger and sorrow). The standard question ‘why’ sprang automatically to mind just had it had when I first read about Aubrey being shot as he was jogging earlier this year with the video surfacing two months later. Because they were black was the answer no matter which way you looked at it.

American demonstrations protesting the killing of George Floyd.

I began writing this blog a month after George’s murder, in July to be precise, and now it’s the last day of September. Several incidents of police harming and killing black men (and women) in this time have received international attention mainly because of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. Just as one thought that this flagrant abuse of power by the police forces in the US was under check as a result of the massive public demonstrations and condemnation yet another incident, that of Jason Blake shot point blank six or seven times in the back, burst on to our television screens in August. Jason will never walk again because the bullets shattered his spinal cord. This can’t be happening I thought as I watched the television news: the policeman just shot him in the back without any provocation as Jason opened the door as he would have done on any other day to get into his car.

But it did happen. Massive protest and demonstrations erupted in the wake of this shooting. Two extraordinary incidents associated with Kenosha will forever remain ingrained, one being that of a young white guy with an assault rifle opening fire on peaceful demonstrators and the police vans cruising past him. His white skin was his immunity, his passport to freedom; Jason, George and many others have not been so lucky. The second was the ugly face of the Trump presidency where the ‘orange man’ himself (my friend Ina’s name for you know who) descended on Kenosha, stoked the fires of division by praising the forces of law and order and almost excusing the vigilante act of the white guy who took it upon himself to kill people for daring to speak up against white supremacy.

A mural bearing the name of George Floyd in America.

So although in the months since George’s murder by the police in broad daylight there have been extensive coverage and lots of analysis, I am writing this not to inform but to pay homage and to bear witness. In what follows is a very personal and historical account of what I have learned about racism and supremacist practices today in the US, and elsewhere and most importantly in the country of my birth, India. My reading is that racism and the assertion of supremacy that it stands for has received an enormous boost in the era of today’s radical right wing, ethnonationalist ideologies and regimes.

I am not very well acquainted with everyday life in the US, not having lived there and having visited only four times, twice on work for the UN and twice on brief holidays, in my entire life. But I have lived and breathed US politics and culture since I was a teenager like many of us growing up in the 1960s and 70s in India. One was never unaware of what US American power meant. Of course, if the Irish nuns in the convent boarding school in Darjeeling which I attended could have helped it, I would have been a Kennedy loving, Vietnam hating neo-imperialist. Instead all around my 17-year-old self as I left school and joined the real world in the university was citizen uprisings in India and internationally. We were radicalised by what was happening at home but also in the US – the heydays of the anti-Vietnam war movement, the civil rights movement, the era of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Somewhere in my eclectic reading along with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and the Bengali greats was also James Baldwin.

Black lives today: the heritage of the slave trade

Commentators in the US and elsewhere have said that what is happening now with increasing frequency, black people murdered for being black and because they are always perceived to be a risk; and the impunity enjoyed by members of law enforcement bodies, is not unique in the history of the country. As Nikole Hannah-Jones says in her hard-hitting article in the New York Times, ‘It has been 150 years since white Americans could enforce slave laws that said white people acting in the interest of the planter class would not be punished for killing a black person, even for the most minor alleged offense. Those laws morphed into the black codes, passed by white Southern politicians at the end of the Civil War to criminalize behaviours like not having a job. Those black codes were struck down, then altered and over the course of decades eventually transmuted into stop-and-frisk, broken windows and, of course, qualified immunity’ (June 2020). The means of social control may have changed but not the unwritten code that white patrollers have the legal right to kill black people deemed to have committed minor infractions or to have breached the social order.

I watched the documentary showcasing Michelle Obama’s tour for her book Becoming. I read the book last year but seeing excerpts from the book on screen today in the light of Black Lives Matter movement brought home the enormous difficulties faced by a family of black people in the US to first of all aspire to and occupy the highest office and then to inhabit what euphemistically is called the White House. The irony was not lost on Michelle. I am a descendant of slaves; my grandfather’s great grandmother was in bondage, she said. She also spoke about the fallacy of imagining that because one black family, the Obamas, had reached the White House the entire society was now expunged of its original sin, slavery and racism. America was not living in a post-race society. The murder of black people, especially young people, was at its height during the tail end of the Obama years (Cas Mudde June 2020). It was almost as if it was payback time and white patrollers were reasserting control.

The term slavery is often used by human rights groups and by those working in international development to refer to groups of people deprived of their freedom and made to do the will of their masters. Well-meaning governance feminists use the term frequently to refer to the international migration of women who work in the sex industry in richer parts of the world. They are all said to have been ‘trafficked’ which is considered a modern form of slavery. The frequent and undefined use of the term actually robs it of the enormous and unique historical significance that 400 years of the transatlantic trade in human beings from Africa to Europe and to the European colonies in the Americas and Caribbean entailed; the reverberations are felt to this day. This trade fuelled the growth of capitalism; enriched the European countries and became the basis for their domination of the world, so much of which continues to this day in the form of the cultural construction of the ‘other’. It doesn’t matter that the Chinese have overtaken the Europeans in terms of the size of their GDP which is second only to the US. The construction of the Chinese in subtle (US American and European press reports) and not so subtle ways (Trump, the boulevard press) in the aftermath of the Corona virus outbreak served primarily to reassert the norm of European/US superiority; the Chinese were the shifty race and secretive communists who were totally untrustworthy.

By remembering and reminding people of the significance and unimaginable cruelty of the transatlantic trade in human beings we bear witness to generations of human beings lost and generations of men, women and children whose lives were fractured, distorted and ruined, and we pay homage. This is our collective responsibility as human beings in a globalized world.

Caste as supremacist practice: immutable tradition or historical practice

While the direct legacy of the history of the transatlantic trade in human beings is felt in the racism and institutional impunity in the US, the assertion of so-called racial supremacy has its manifestations and avatars in other corners of the world too. In India it’s called casteism which is enjoying a whole new life of its own in this era of right-wing Hindu nationalists (and supremacists). Indians are also the most colour conscious people that it has been my misfortune to know. And the association between high caste and light skin permeates our collective consciousness. My friends in the west often ask me what caste is, and, where it comes from. Is it true that the idea of caste has divine origins? I find these questions tiring and teleological in that they construct a historical narrative in the light of the present. It begs more questions than it answers; it is tiring because there are no answers. Caste hierarchies in India claim divine origin but since Hinduism is not a religion of the book (like Judaism, Christianity and Islam), which means that we have no central book like the Bible, the Torah or the Koran, it is not possible to trace a linear connection between the so-called word of god prescribing a fix set of rules regarding how society is to be organized to the way caste is practiced today in the 21st century. There is practically no connection between the religions of the book and the present societies and societal divisions in which they live; why should India be otherwise?

The idea that societal practices, like caste, have divine origin in India/ the east unlike societal divisions in the west like class or race for that matter, is a well-worn orientalist trope that was produced during the centuries long interactions between the European nations and the societies they colonized in the modern period. The European Empire is said to have held sway over more than 85 per cent of the globe by the time of the First World War, after having consolidated its control over centuries (Mukhopadhyay 2007). This interaction had profound consequences for the way social relations between the peoples and communities got reorganized and came to be understood. The colonial enterprise was to dominate and subjugate subject peoples, not always through force although force was an ever-present reality. British and French colonialism in Africa and Asia perfected a form of colonial statecraft which involved building a centralized authority (the colonial state) by replacing the heterogeneous and fluid social and political arrangements through which relationships within and between diverse communities had hitherto been managed. They did this by codifying the practices of the diverse communities and in effect setting up separate ‘bounded’ communities based on ascribed relations (e.g. caste in India, religious community in the MENA and in India, ethnicity primarily in Africa) each governed by its own customs and traditions. This codification in itself based on a colonial understanding of the sociology of the subject peoples and what animated their social practices. For the Indian sub-continent and for the MENA it was the ‘discovery’ of religion as the basis for customary obligations and morality, which then was turned into law. In Africa, a dual legal system – a European system governing relations among the colonisers, and a subordinated and regulated version of indigenous law for the colonized – was instituted (Kabeer 2002:12 ; Mamdani 1996; Mukhopadhyay 1998).

While the direct legacy of the history of the transatlantic trade in human beings is felt in the racism and institutional impunity in the US, the assertion of so-called racial supremacy has its manifestations and avatars in other corners of the world too.

In the formation of caste as we came to know it, the debates between colonial officers and the indigenous Indian elite over what the correct tradition was regarding caste boundaries and rules became the authoritative version. It became the ‘correct’ form of caste, a modernization of tradition, which eventually dictated the practice. Mani has called this mode of understanding Indian society that emerged alongside colonial rule a colonial discourse which then over time was shared by officials, missionaries and the indigenous elite (Mani 1989:90). Donegal shows that given the extraordinary regulation and standardization of everything governing public life, it was no wonder that religious belief too was an area of regulation by the colonial state. But the colonial assumptions about the role of religion in the lives of the subject peoples rested on doubtful retrospective hindsight from Hindu practices many centuries later (Donegal 2009; 80).

The question before us is not whether the practice of caste has divine origins or what it was before colonialism but what it became in the present. The practice of caste as we learned to know it in the 20th century is as bounded communities each governed by its own customs and traditions with hard boundaries policed through purity and pollution rituals; and hierarchies of high and low and outcast decided by birth as the basis of one’s position. And just as slavery in the United States was abolished by bringing in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution in 1865, the Indian Constitution adopted on the 26 January 1950 was a secular constitution that prohibited discrimination on the basis of caste. In addition, specific schedules in the constitution sought to compensate low caste groups for the historical wrongs that they had faced by providing quotas for admission in government educational institutions and jobs. Because specific castes (among the low caste) were mentioned in these schedules, low caste people came to be known in independent India as Scheduled Castes or (SC); and the tribal groups who purportedly are not part of the caste system as scheduled tribes (ST). These abbreviations have somehow replaced the pejorative words used to denote low caste people in everyday usage. Low caste groups have coined their own name to represent themselves and to denote their struggle: Dalit or the oppressed. The term Dalit has in many instances replaced others although the terms SC and ST, the governmental terms, endure and in time taken on its own derogatory meaning.

Fast forward to the present: the afterlife of race and caste  

Just as the slave laws in the US morphed into black codes, were struck down but then in the course of decades eventually transmuted into stop-and-frisk, broken windows and, of course, qualified immunity’, the practice of caste has undergone many changes in the decades since the 1950s. Common to both the heritage of slavery and to the practice of caste today is that discrimination and inequality has been institutionalized. ‘In the US today black Americans remain the most segregated group of people in America and are five times as likely to live in high-poverty neighborhoods as white Americans. Not even high earnings inoculate black people against racialized disadvantage’ (Nikole Hannah-Jones 2020). In India the practice of ‘untouchability’ i.e. a low caste person forbidden to touch a high caste person or anything that they are likely to use or consume, for example, have been mitigated somewhat by laws and actual social practice but the idea of segregation lives on in the way housing is organized, in access to education, jobs, loans, ownership of property and in every other aspect of everyday life.

Caste permeates the everyday lives of Indians, our consciousness and daily practices. And because it is embedded in the practices of everyday life caste hierarchies even among the liberal educated urban middle and upper class is invisible in that it is normalized. A friend and colleague here in Europe once asked us, the two Indians present at a gathering, how we make out who is low and upper caste. My Indian compatriot said immediately, ‘we don’t have to, they know it’ (meaning that our positions, that of the so-called caste Hindus, was the norm and low caste people knew their position and acted accordingly). But we know it too and the slightest challenge to our world of privilege has provoked and continues to provoke public and private anger. In 2018 at a get together at my house in Kolkata (India) the centre of attention was a niece, my cousin’s bright young twenty-year-old. Her claim to fame was that she applied for and got admission to a degree course in hotel management in one of the three top government colleges in the country. She had endeared herself to me because of a number of iconoclastic moves she made in choosing this course of study – in a family full of PhDs and in recognized scholar-type professions she chose to apply for a little recognized (in her social strata) and looked down upon professional course. And not because her high school marks were wanting; a fact that she was quick to point out quite aware of her class-caste privilege. She was one of the toppers in the list for admission; I would have been in first except for those SC types (low castes) who were there only because they had reserved seats. With this throw away remark, effortless and blinded by privilege, she took herself off my favourites list.

But caste supremacy is not just privately expressed; it is also publicly asserted. With ascendance of right-wing Hindu nationalists to government in India the public manifestation and public assertion of caste supremacy (which would in an earlier era been considered shameful) has become the new normal leading to deadly outcomes. None of us should ever forget Rohith Vemula, a young PhD student at the University of Hyderabad (in southern India), who died by suicide in January 2016. He was a bright young student on a government scholarship (available to students from the Schedule castes) who was agitating with other students about being deprived of their residence in the university accommodation. He was severely harassed by the students wing of the now ruling party, falsely accused of assaulting one of their members, his scholarship withheld by omission or by commission by the university authorities and then finally suspended. Deprived of a future and constantly attacked the sensitive young man ended his life in protest calling in his suicide note for attention to the maltreatment of students of low caste by the university authorities. His death was never investigated despite India-wide agitations by university students.

It’s not that Rohith’s case was the first or will be the last instance of ill-treatment of Dalit students in India’s institutions of learning. But in an earlier era, there would have been a commission of enquiry and some heads would have rolled. Rohith’s death heralded in an era in which Hindu upper caste supremacy was legitimised as a form of politics. Lynching, assault and rape directed at Dalit men and women and the poorer classes/castes among the minorities became the signature feature of a growing culture of upper caste hegemony normalised by an ever expanding predatory and criminal social media. The mainstream media lost its liberal centre; some parts of the media normalised the gross violations taking place whereas others were openly hostile to anything that sounded even weakly liberal. The right-wing ethnonationalism of Modi and the BJP has helped recreate a form of toxic masculinity by feeding the resentment of upper caste young men who are mainly (but not only), those without an education, unemployed and with uncertain futures who can now direct all their grievances against government favours being ‘handed out’ to Dalits and minorities. At the heart of this politics is the delegitimization of India’s secular constitution.

The heyday of right-wing supremacist ethno-nationalisms in the US and in India may have parallels but do not get the same share of world attention. The US is at the centre of world politics, ‘the greatest democracy in the world’ by their own reckoning and therefore their transgressions are more noticed. Every liberal newspaper in Europe and the US has on a daily basis what Trump has declared the new normal. Nowadays it is all about Trump and how he plans to steal the US elections. India on the other hand may be the largest democracy in the world (because of the size of its voting population) but is at the margins of world attention; its transgressions are ‘unseen’ as transgressions of liberal democracy; they are the politics of the ‘other’.

Back to the future: the politics of radical equality 

But history will not be made by the likes of Trump and Modi although it may seem like it in the short and medium term. Is this assertion merely empty rhetoric, mere romantic idealism, too radical? I don’t think that radical ideas can be dismissed merely because they do not sound plausible in the current framework of politics; a framework driven as it is by self-interest, violence and polarisation. They will not endure because they are in this for the short run. But their brand of violent politics will leave traces unless it is disrupted by a radical politics of equality.

This is what the Black Lives Matter movement is teaching us; a movement founded in 2013 but that has now come into its own in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. It has galvanized people especially young people in the US in all their diversity; it can no longer be segregated off as an African American movement. It is now the largest protests that the United States has seen in half a century and is continuing. It has crossed international borders and is a vibrant presence in Europe; has led to introspection in a Europe that falsely prided itself that their police forces were ‘not like the ones in US’. Senegal’s Goree Island, which for centuries served as a way station in the Transatlantic slave trade, has changed the name of its Europe Square in response to the death of George Floyd in the United States and the global movement it inspired. It will now be known as Freedom and Human Dignity Square, the municipal council decided (The Daily Star, July 9, 2020).

But what is it telling us? Yes, the protests are ostensibly about institutional racism in the justice system. More importantly the protesters – Black, white, Asian, Latino – are citizens demanding a new country. A country in which white supremacy has no place; where there is interdependency instead of the individualism of the liberal subject imaged as being unencumbered by the markings of social relations of class, race and gender, defending itself and competing against others for a greater and greater slice of the wealth pie; and where there is more public investment in social services and community projects and less on the police and their military grade weapons. What this nonviolent movement and many of the other nonviolent movements across the globe, from India to Iraq, Beirut to Chile, that I have cited in my earlier blogs are telling us is that it is the end of the road for ‘politics as usual’; the violent, parochial and cynical politics. We need a new politics ‘that compel us to rethink who we are as social creatures in the world, what our relationships are to one another, and what our relationship to the earth is in all that sustains and supports us’ (Judith Butler 2020).

In the meantime, as I write, the shocking atrocities and state violence against citizens continues in the heartland of liberal democracies. Breonna Taylor’s murder by the police who broke into her home in Louisville Kentucky while she was sleeping has not led to the three police officers being charged; only of one of them was because his random firing disturbed a neighbour and not because they fatally injured Breonna! The rationale was as in the case of all the shootings and murders that the police officers acted in self-defence because Breonna’s partner fired his licensed gun (thinking that robbers were breaking down the door). The self that the police are talking about defending is that self that is recognized in the eyes of the law to be worthwhile defending; the self-interested individual at the heart of liberalism. Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Jason Blake…and the list goes on, were the anonymous ‘other’, the black population.

Right across the world in New Delhi, India’s capital, injustice and rights violations have gained new proportions and this too behind the scenes of the huge Covid crisis. The police have accused and incarcerated all the people who are active in the anti-CAA movement that united people across caste, class and community, and, have now fabricated and brought to court a completely fictitious account of the violent incidents that occurred in Delhi in March 2020 implicating the victims and exonerating the right-wing goons brought in to murder people. There is growing rot at the heart of liberal democracy.

For this reason, it is not enough to seek remedies only within the liberal definition of politics, although we do have to continue knocking on the doors of justice. We have to sustain movements that redirect rage in such a way ‘that it does not reproduce the violence it opposes’ (Butler 2020). Stepping out of the liberal frame would also mean that instead of fitting our struggles for equality within the limits set by the liberal agenda, we build a politics of radical social equality which recognizes our interdependence and places the worth of every life at its centre.

Just as the slave laws in the US morphed into black codes, were struck down but then in the course of decades eventually transmuted into stop-and-frisk, broken windows and, of course, qualified immunity’…

Some memorable snapshots of what is possible have found a place alongside the institutional violence perpetrated on lives not worthy of being mourned: police officers taking a knee in many of the cities where their own ranks had maimed and killed African Americans in acknowledgement that each life, a Black life too, is ‘grievable’. On January 26th this year, commemorated as republic day in India, the united front of India’s subaltern classes held their own celebrations in the same city hosting the official pageant. The Indian flag was hoisted by the women who led the nonviolent protests along with no other than a Dalit woman, the mother of Rohith Vemula. Rohith, you will not die so long as your mothers keep reminding us all how to stand together for justice and equality and against a system that denied you justice because of your caste.

Stop Press

On 29.9.20 a young Dalit girl, Manisha Valmiki, aged 19, died in hospital due to the horrendous injuries she sustained when she was gang raped by upper caste men while she out working in the fields in a village in the north-eastern state of Uttar Pradesh in Delhi. They broke her spine and partially severed her tongue in case she bore witness to who the perpetrators were. The police siding openly with the politically powerful upper castes whisked her body away from the hospital and took it to her village where her mother and other relatives begged them to let the family have the body. Deaf to their entreaties the police took the body and cremated it without the traditional last rites being performed and in the dead of night despite the fact that it is not permissible to cremate at night. In death as in life she was treated as an unworthy body. A persistent journalist followed the police and repeatedly asked where they were going with the body; she later broadcasted the news. Since then the streets of the main metropolises of India have erupted in anger; defying orders prohibiting gatherings during the pandemic, thousands of Indians of all persuasion were on the streets on 3rd of October seeking justice and bearing witness. Feminist friends are saying that this is our Black Lives Matter moment. Monisha, you will not go unmourned, you are for all of us a ‘grievable’ life.

References

Cas Mudde Why anti-racism protests are achieving more progress under Trump than Obama. The Guardian International Edition 18 June 2020.

Donegal, W. (2009) The Hindus: an alternative history. Oxford University Press. Oxford & New York

Kabeer, N., ‘Citizenship, Affiliation and Exclusion: Perspectives from the South’, IDS Bulletin, 23(2): 12, 2002.

Mamdani, M., (1996) Citizen and Subject, Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Mani, L., (1989) ‘Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India’ in Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid (ed.), Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History. New Delhi, Kali for Women.

Mukhopadhyay, M., (2007) ‘Situating Gender and Citizenship in Development Debates: Towards a Strategy’ in M. Mukhopadhyay and N. Singh (ed.), Gender Justice, Citizenship and Development. New Delhi: Zubaan Books & Ottawa: International Development Research Centre.

Mukhopadhyay, M., (1998) Legally Dispossessed: Gender, Identity and the Process of Law, Calcutta: Stree.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, What is owed: Without Economic Justice there can be no true equality. New York Times, 24 June 2020.

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