[did this post for Insight, liked the book in parts and enjoyed framing the questions, the chapters on caste-gender were interesting, I usually am unable to read the shallow way this topic is dealt with in few other books, but still it remains an under-explored area]
This email Interview with Anupama Rao is largely about her new book, The Caste Question: Dalits and The Politics of Modern India. Anupama Rao is an Associate Professor of South Asian History at Barnard College, New York.
Anu: Anupama, looking at the body of your work it would be easy to refer to you as a caste historian. Can you please give a background to why you chose to pursue this area of research?
AR: Certainly. Let me answer this question by connecting my personal background to a brief intellectual autobiography.
I was introduced to African-American life and literature, and to pan-Africanism, and remember going to visit what is now the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago to read the literary and political works of the Harlem Renaissance.
I saw that powerful words were born from painful experiences, and that though the experience of social exclusion was painful, it also gave rise to powerful and potent forms of resistant thought and action. This influenced my decision some years later to study Maharashtra, a place of distant (if ancestral) belonging, but also a region of the sub-continent associated with upper-caste progressivism, and radical anti-caste protest.
By then, I had been exposed to postcolonial theory and colonial critique at the University of Chicago and later, at the University of Michigan, where a profound rethinking of the historical anthropology of South Asia was underway. My participation in a feminist reading group together with exposure to the aggressively masculine cultures of debate and discussion at Chicago, had alerted me to the necessity of gender analysis.
Finally, it was the heyday of Subaltern Studies, and I was very interested in rethinking subalternity through categories of caste and gender, and in comparing and contrasting two distinctive forms of stigmatized existence, each the locus of suffering and survival, yet distinctive in the manner in which they had been politicized across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
If feminists in India had focused on issues of violence and intimacy, and only recently begun to address questions of community identity and of political subjectivity, the opposite appeared to be the case with Dalit activists in Maharashtra. The politicization of community was distinctive, and allowed Dalits to redefine intimate aspects of stigmatized existence as practices of historic discrimination that required redress.
Dalit suffering was politically consequential but it was also emotionally powerful: a new literary idiom had emerged to give voice to the Dalit self, even if that self was masculine and often implicated in gender subordination, as Dalit feminists were beginning to argue.
I should clarify here that the problem for me in understanding Dalit life and politics did not arise from any lack of scholarly attention to caste as a social category and form of life. Rather, it was the scholarly attention to caste as a form of Indian ‘difference,’ that produced problems for exploring the significance of anti-caste thought. That is, the excessive particularization, indeed the provincialization of caste has allowed European theory and South Asian anthropology/history to ignore the presence of caste radicalism as a powerful form of subaltern political thought.
I think my work has challenged existing scholarship on caste by focusing on anti-caste thought as the critique of colonial and nationalist frames, and by suggesting that radical anti-casteism displayed a democratic imagination that must be located within a global history of political thought. I have here in mind the very significant connection that someone like Jotirao Phule makes, of caste and Atlantic World slavery in Gulamgiri(1873).
Or, the ways in which a modern focus on history-writing produced a deep investment in rewriting caste as the history of the defeat and degradation of the shudra-atishudra communities, whether by Phule and Periyar, or by Ambedkar. From here, I explored the manner in which Ambedkar, especially, sought to convert the negated identity of the Dalit into positive political value by making creative use of the organs and institutions of political liberalism, a process I call the vernacularization of political universals.
I should note here that unlike bhakthi critiques of the caste order, the forms of anticaste thought I consider were enabled by modern institutions and ideas, themselves the byproduct of colonization. As well, scholarship on race and gender, have provided important comparative models for my work. More important yet are the significant (private) collections of Dalit and Satyashodak writing, Maharashtra’s vibrant intellectual culture, and the deep generosity of scholars and friends in India. Without them, I could have neither embarked on this project, nor completed the book.
Anu: In your new book, The Caste Question: Dalits and The Politics of Modern India you make a statement “Dalit history is the history of India’s political modernity” can you please elaborate on this?
AR: The dominant method for writing Dalit history has been based on the model of movement-centric and community-based studies of regionally distinct Dalit communities—Chamars, Satnamis, and so forth. Instead, I have explored how B. R. Ambedkar’s theorization of the Dalit as a minority subject positions him as a political thinker, with a stature equivalent to figures such as Nehru and Gandhi.
Ambedkar’s understanding of the relationship between caste and democracy; his role in nationalizing the Dalit question; and in predicating the idea of political equality on the redress of Dalit hurt and suffering produced something like an Indian theory of ‘the political.’ His was a lifelong effort to convert the structural negativity of the Dalit into political value. This effort to address caste as social totality renders Ambedkar’s thinkingtheoretical.
My claim, that “Dalit history is the history of India’s political modernity” is thus a provocation, which asks what history, culture, and politics would look like if we made the stigmatized subject—and her struggle for rights and social recognition—the center of academic inquiry.
Anu: This book tracks the arrival of the Dalit as a political subject. Does the Dalit political subject encompass the Dalit as a social and cultural subject too? Since their presence in the social and culturalmilieu is still marked by exclusion, would you consider India’s political modernity to be in its neonatal state?
AR: My book is methodologically divided between the historical and the ethnographic, between social and intellectual history in Part 1, and legal case studies and analysis of violence in the second half of The Caste Question.
The diverse materials I draw upon in each part of the book also reflects an effort to point to intellectual spaces where a Dalit problematic has emerged; where issues that link Dalits to society, culture, and politics can be said to coagulate and attain a sort of dense or thick materiality. Most significantly, however, my book opens up a productive space between an account of Dalit emancipation, and its paradoxical afterlife (and elusive consequences) in the present.
I am thus interested in the disjuncture between politics and culture, and between forms of social life and practices that continue to be marked by injury, prejudice, and humiliation, on the one hand, and the (limited) political and legal avenues that exist for their redress on the other. I have pointed to this gap between politics and culture as enabling new practices of politics, for instance, the manner in which the Dalit Panthers laid claim to remaking language, or challenged Dalits’ exclusion from public institutions such as the university, during thenamantar struggle in the 1970s.
Today, this is evident in various forms of symbolic politics, such as the representation of figures of radical anti-caste thinking at public sites, the erection of statues, and other forms of political commemoration that are essential to Dalit public and popular culture. I call the constant effort to bring public visibility to ignored social practices or life forms a ‘politicization of politics,’ that is, of making public (and political) those aspects of Dalit culture and life that are beneath the radar.
And since you ask the question, there is another issue I would like to mention. This is the history of internal Dalit social reform, which was also effective in castigating performative practices and forms of life which were seen to be backward, or stigmatizing. What this unfortunately produced was the exclusion of a rich and resonant Dalit popular culture that preceded the forms of political activism and thinking that is the focus of my book. The question of how to resurrect some of these practices, without falling prey to the norms of bourgeois respectability that derided them, is another puzzle for the critical historian.
Anu: You see a similarity in the thought processes of Fanon and Ambedkar as far as description of the violence felt and expressed between the colonized and colonizer. Can you elaborate on this, and do you think a combined reading of Ambedkar and Fanon would be useful to perceive the internal landscape of the Dalits?
AR: I find it extremely interesting that both Ambedkar and Fanon were attentive to the psychic life of power, whether the process of racialization for Fanon, or what Ambedkar called the “social nausea” that repulses castes from each other. Something else which brings both thinkers within a similar domain of action and understanding is their engagement with Marxist thought.
This is a little more explicit in Fanon than it is in Ambedkar, who was deeply critical of the social base of Indian Marxism which allowed Indian Marxists to ignore the specificity of caste. What brings Ambedkar and Fanon together in productive conversation is their focus on the relationship between structuring violence (of caste, or the racial order), and the formation of personhood. Each makes the provocative argument that the (political) subject is constituted through violence, and that the social order is not consensual, but agonistic.
Anu: For Indians, the most powerful imagery of public sexual humiliation of the female body, is not of a Dalit woman but a Kshatriya queen –Draupadi. However, studies on the sexual politics of Dalit women: in Sirasgaon, detailed in your book, and at Chilakurti in Kannabhiran’s book, have stressed that it is to insult the Dalit men of their incapability of protecting their women, that such atrocities periodically occur.
If we rework the frames of reference and analyze Draupadi’s sexual humiliation, it also points towards the humiliation being aimed at the suddenly disempowered Pandava men, via her body. What is the role of caste, patriarchy, and dominance of men over men, in ritual-archaic sexual politics, in this frame?
AR: My book underscores the important analyses of the intersection between sexual regulation and the social reproduction of caste that was articulated by people like Phule, Periyar, and Ambedkar. The thought of radical anti-casteism linked the sexual regulation of women, with women’s importance in constituting boundaries between caste communities.
For this reason, the thinkers I mention above focused on Hindu marriage as the hinge between intimate and public political life, and as the site where ideologies of caste purity and of gender respectability came together as a form of caste power. At the same time, however, ideologies of bourgeois respectability and of patriarchal ‘protection’ influenced men across caste by the turn of the century, enabling highly masculinized forms of political action and activism. How to understand the contradictory manner in which caste patriarchy operates?
This is where my analysis of contemporary events of sexual violence—whether Sirasgaon, or Khairlanji—comes in. One has access to multiple perspectives on these events—through legal records, media reportage, and testimonies. These help to show the complex sexual politics at play in these instances of caste violence. As you suggest, we can certainly see that the relationship between men is being worked out through the manner in which upper-caste men claim sexual access to Dalit and lower-caste women as a matter of caste privilege.
However, I think there are other complex issues of power and desire that are being worked out here, which we should consider in equal measure, if we wish to challenge the portrayal of Dalit women as victims. One has to do with the interactions between Dalit and lower-caste men and upper-caste women—understood by the upper-castes as a transgression of the socio-sexual order—which has often provided the occasion for sexual violence against Dalit women.
The other has to do with the manner in which intimate relations are possibly being altered by new forms of social interaction in educational institutions and other public places, especially in urban India today. I say “possibly,” because we must recall that Ambedkar argued that intercaste marriage was ultimate solvent of caste, and that he saw the possibility of social equality through the reordering of intimate relations. Thus, while caste antagonism and sexual violence constitute a challenge to Dalit masculinity (and thus, a potent site of Dalit activism today), we must also see how the social text might carry feminist possibilities. This has been the focus of Dalit feminist critique, both of caste patriarchy, as well as of the blindness of Indian feminism to the issue of caste, after all.
Anu: Please comment on the Internet being a possible space for the Dalit to imagine a pan-Dalit identity and its prospects for the project of the Dalit and therefore India’s emancipation.
AR: I am a relative newcomer to the possibilities of new media, but it is certainly the case that the globalization of information as well as new forms of internet activism are the main arena of action for youth today. The internet petition has now become ubiquitous, and I am not sure what role it performs, other than to signal a sort of attenuated mass politics. However the possibility of connections across national borders and ultimately, of building coalitions that can detour around localized corruption can only be a boon for Dalit activism. I think we saw this in the case of Khairlanji.