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The urgent impatience of Suraj Yengde

The Harvard Fellow says he talks about Dalit oppression because it exists, not to offend people

Suraj Yengde, a Harvard scholar on African and Dalit issues, at a college in Mumbai.
Suraj Yengde, a Harvard scholar on African and Dalit issues, at a college in Mumbai. (Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint)

"When we talk about impatience within the Dalit community, we have to understand where it comes from," Suraj Yengde said at the launch of his new book Caste Matters at the India Habitat Centre, Delhi, “Why does Bezwada Wilson, who fights for the rights and basic dignity of manual scavengers, seem impatient? Because the system that exploits you is the same system that asks you to slow down your voice. To write an application and wait for your turn to be heard. But we want justice now. Nobody is oppressing us tomorrow, the oppression is happening right now. The impatience is just the lived reality of a Dalit."

As I listened to Yengde, who is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, I found myself taking furious notes. When someone who has known oppression and injustice articulates his experience of being marginalized, it resonates deeply. Everyone has his or her own experience of being marginalized or diminished and hearing someone else articulate that experience resonates with one’s own.

I met Yengde a few days later to discuss his extraordinary journey from a childhood marked by poverty and caste discrimination in Nanded, Maharashtra, to an adulthood that includes studying in four continents and his current position at Harvard University. Caste Matters, published by Penguin India, is his second book. Edited excerpts from an interview:

I found the book incredibly moving, besides being insightful and analytical. The relationships and experiences you share are so recognizable for me because while I have lived a life of urban privilege, I am part of that society that has invisibilized the oppression and inequality that is glaringly evident all around us. I have known compassionate, loving women like the grandmother you describe, who fortified you with her love even when your life together was riddled with unmet needs and segregation.

Remember that every oppressor is also the oppressed. We have to break this cycle. Embrace a global humanism that makes place for, and honours, people from every community.

When one protests and revolts and one is told to calm down, it feels like someone is laughing at you and spitting on your face. There will be discomfort with the way I express myself. I am talking about oppression because it exists. I don’t do it to offend people.

You speak about how the violence against the Dalit community has been so normalized that we are unable to see that it is akin to genocide.

In our casteist mindset, we don’t acknowledge the dignity, self-worth, or even the value of Dalit lives. According to NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) data, in the past 10 years about 422,000 crimes were committed against Dalits. Every week, 21 Dalit women are reported to be raped—the actual number must be higher. There are occupational hazards that kill Dalits. These are actually crimes not only against a community but also against humanity. It is a genocide we have not acknowledged. How can we continue to live happily as a society when Dalit bodies and minds experience violence every day?

What is your experience of collaborations across the caste divide? Do you find yourself walking on eggshells so as not to be seen as combative?

I constantly make this comparison. When the feminist movement says men are the primary perpetrators of violence, do they mean all men? If you are one of the men who perpetrate violence, it is referring to you. But if you are not, it is not about you.

We need to make place for a carnival of ideas, where we can work towards a common cause. The central aspect is this—you have to love your people. Unless you have deep love and empathy for them, you will not be able to derive from the power of radical love. Loving your people is not charitable business. We need to be liberal in our radical imagination.

As I read ‘Caste Matters’, I wanted to share with you that choosing to place the chapter on Dalit Love right in the beginning felt like a subversive choice in itself. When one talks about wanting to bring about a social revolution, there is so much logistics, semantics, and structural hierarchy to analyse that “love" doesn’t seem like an instrument of much use.

Thank you, I wish more people would read it this way. Now that news of the book is spreading among those who I am connected to, unfortunately so many people are commenting and criticizing the choices I have made even without reading the book once. It is making people uncomfortable and they are looking for escape routes by misreading me.

Unfortunately, criticism is often insecurity in disguise and tends to be louder and more amplified. I welcome all criticism that comes from the purity of one’s heart and determination to fight for equality. But people are personalizing things, when I am critical in a Socratic tradition of, say, the middle class. I want to repeat that if you are not making the mistakes I describe, then this is not about you.

Those higher in the social order are like, how dare you write about me, as if we are still operating in a feudal system.

Caste Matters: By Suraj Yengde.
Caste Matters: By Suraj Yengde.

You have also been quite candid in your criticism of what is harming the struggle of Dalits. Did you worry about how this will be perceived by those who have been part of this movement for decades longer than you?

This movement of the Dalits has always been self-critical. We have always wanted to break the existing model and develop a new one so we can eject ourselves out of the morass. We cannot be trapped in binaries, where one wants to protect and the other wants to assault. We need a new pathway to get to a new place. Right now we are stuck, it’s a social movement that is frozen. We don’t have a pan-Indian agitational movement that works, there is no connection between various student movements across the country. Everyone is isolated and struggling. We have to acknowledge this to find a solution.

Of the 84 MPs who are from Scheduled Castes, 46 are from the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). How do you justify that? These are the people who are watching the manipulation of the Constitution in front of their eyes. The dilution of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act happened in the presence of these MPs.

And who are the people we are talking about? We are taking about people who are going into manholes to work and coming out as a corpse. Does it not demand a serious reimagination? If you feel this assault is coming for you in your comfort zone, you have to discipline yourself.

Besides reducing the issue of caste oppression to just a debate on reservations, what are the other arguments that you find yourself battling when you speak out against the tenaciousness of the caste system?

One of the arguments that is constantly paraded is that the caste system has many benefits. Everywhere I speak, someone brings it up. I won’t argue with it when Dalits are also rich like other castes. I want them to own big industries and command big salaries too.

But when capitalism and neo-liberalism are creating contractors who further oppress the manual scavengers and employees in the Grade 1, 2, 3, and 4 jobs, then you have to acknowledge caste. All the ones who are benefiting are non-Dalits and the ones being oppressed are Dalit. Do we not talk about these issues? We have to, because these are marginalized people. We have to address this injustice.

What is the importance of Suraj Yengde in this moment, in the creation of this dialogue?

Suraj Yengde is trying to be an honest interlocutor of the current moment. He is committed to the lives of precious people of the most neglected strata of society. He is concerned with the beggars on the street and people living in very drastic conditions, people who belong to the community that he represents. They need to be supported and empowered psychologically because the system discredits them in their childhood, telling them they are not worthy.

We live in a time of reactionary politics and, unfortunately, rational, sane voices are sidelined today. In this context, I talk about caste through multiple perspectives, an appropriate reading of our history, politics and the socioeconomic realities of our society. I am just a representative, part of a community which has such a glorious history that has been suppressed and repressed by the dominant community. I am proud of, and cherish, my identity. We will fight back and produce a generation that talks about a global humanism premised on Dalit humanism of all and not just any one community.

Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker and the author of the books My Daughters’ Mum and Immortal For A Moment

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