October 31, 2023

The anti-caste discourse needs an overhaul

Christina Dhanaraj and Dhanya Rajendran discuss the future of the anti-caste movement, highlighting the need to centre caste-marginalised voices and how allies can step up.

10 min read

According to the recently released data of Bihar’s caste survey, backward classes (27 percent), extremely backward classes (36 percent) and scheduled castes (19 percent) comprise the majority of the population. However, Savarnas, or those belonging to the upper castes, continue to dominate most professions. Approximately 88 percent of leadership positions in Indian media are held by individuals from the dominant castes, for instance. Dalits and other caste-oppressed communities continue to face discrimination in higher education and employment not only in India but also abroad. Given the status quo, what does anti-caste allyship mean at the institutional and the individual level?

On our podcast On the Contrary by IDR, we spoke with Christina Dhanaraj and Dhanya Rajendran about anti-caste allyship, what needs to shift in the current discourse, and what the future must look like for anti-caste movements.

Christina is a writer and consultant for women- and minority-led initiatives focused on social justice, self-determination, and collaborative models of scholarship. She is currently an adviser for SmashboardDalit Women Fight, and The Blue Club’s Media Fellowship for Dalit women. She is also the co-founder of the Dalit History Month project. Dhanya is the editor-in-chief of The News Minute, which has established itself as one of the most credible sources of news from the five southern states. She is also the chairperson of DigiPub, India’s biggest association of digital media publishers.

Below is an edited transcript that provides an overview of the guests’ perspectives on the show.   

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We must look beyond affirmative action

Dhanya: I think that affirmative action is very important and should be followed in all organisations, whether they are government or private. And institutions have to be careful and thoughtful in implementing it. According to statistics that the Union Government submitted to the Supreme Court, in which they had looked at 19 government departments, SC/ST representation is problematic—most of the people who got jobs [under these categories] were in class II and class III, and very few were class I employees. So, even when we look at affirmative action in government jobs itself, after so many years, why is it that people are limited to jobs in class II or class III in the government?

I remember a debate in which someone said, “It’s not just about [caste-marginalised people] getting jobs, it’s also about whether they rise in the hierarchy.” And that applies to not just government institutions but also the media and other institutions—we do not have chief secretaries and joint secretaries in the bureaucracy; we do not have editors-in-chief in the media.

And there is a lot being said against affirmative action, therefore, we need to change the dialogue itself. There’s so much more to achieve and nobody should be under this misconception that a lot of gains have been made because of affirmative action or reservation for so many years.

Christina: I do believe affirmative action and representation are absolutely important. But thanks to the context that we are all operating in, my fear is that the case for affirmative action and ‘reservation’ is going to get more challenging. The more conversations we have about how people from SC/ST are already in these positions, the stronger the counter against practices of affirmative action will get. So, it’s probably time for us, like Dhanya mentioned, to change the dialogue—and also perhaps the strategies—around it.

To give you an example, within the corporate space, which I have been part of for the last 12 and a half years or so, I can assuredly say that taking the formal route of having more people from caste-affected communities gets us nowhere. Even conversations as rudimentary as ‘we need to have caste-based diversity and inclusion’ being part of the larger conversation around diversity and inclusion…instigates people into going into ‘fight mode’. Even having people in analyst positions—regular, not-so-middle management positions—is difficult at the moment. And to even envision that they would be CEOs and be part of the C-suite is just completely unimaginable right now.

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Certain kinds of formal routes also give way to tokenism—[Dalit people are hired] to satisfy a certain standard, parameter, or metric. But the atmosphere conducive enough for them to grow in that system does not exist, which can cause them to leave the organisation. I’ve had to leave the corporate space because I was invisibilised and made to feel worthless, despite showing up consistently. So, while formal routes are absolutely important, we should start thinking about some informal ways—be it job advertisements, word of mouth, or very proactively looking [to hire] people from caste-marginalised backgrounds. Finally, it’s not just about getting people in, but also about creating a culture and an environment where they are able to thrive.

I’m speaking with a corporate space in mind, so this will have to take shape depending on the context you’re working with. It would look different in a university space or in a public sector space.

Caste-oppressed people, and not Savarnas, must be the ones shaping the narrative

Christina: We’ve had thousands of years of an oppressive system in place, and we’ve barely understood how caste has expressed itself in society, even in interpersonal relationships. So the level of overhaul required of people and systems is huge.

In the last few years, the way anti-caste discourse has shaped up [is to emphasise] making better allies out of caste-powered people. That very thought needs to change. For me, as a Dalit woman, I feel Dalit communities must be at the centre of these anti-caste discourses and progress. [It is important] not to think that Savarnas, as people who are holding the stage, should pass the mic, open up spaces, or include people. Such discourses assume that it’s Savarnas who will continue to hold power and be at the centre, and that they are just including people from the outside.

[For example,] we tend to think that the people who hold [sway in] publishing companies will have to give opportunities to Dalit authors. But most often even that does not happen. What we [need] to do is flip that and think about what a publishing company with Dalit people on the editorial board—as chief editors or as commissioning editors—would look like, and what kind of authors, books, and stories they would be commissioning. So I think it’s important for us to flip that imagination and think of it as caste-oppressed and caste-marginalised people holding power and being the ones originating these very discourses.

Dhanya: One trend I have noticed among ‘atoning Savarnas’, as I call them, is that they simply want to listen sometimes and keep passing the mic. They don’t think that they have anything to do other than pass the mic, which I think is problematic too—they don’t want to get involved at all as they think someone else will do the job. So, I think the most difficult conversations have to occur among Savarnas themselves. For example, people in my friend group would say, “But we never spoke about caste in school,” or “But we were never casteist in school.” Once I had to point out to my school friends that we are the greatest example of a gang where everybody is a Savarna. So, I told them that look, we may not have been casteist, but the point is that from the time we are born, it’s sort of inbuilt in us, because our parents have told us [to stick with people from similar caste backgrounds] in various different ways. And, okay, maybe I was not [explicitly] casteist, but I was [implicitly] casteist in many ways, because I did know that these are the friends I should have, or these are the people I should hang out with. These are very intrinsic in us, and I think we have to have those conversations among ourselves. And when someone criticises us or calls us out, I think to immediately feel victimised [and wonder], “Ninety-nine percent of the time, I have been an ally; the one time I did something wrong, why am I being called out?” is also something that I’ve been noticing lately. So I tell myself that I’m not being punished for the sins of my ancestors. But I have to be educated and aware of what happened. Therefore, I am a continuation of that process.

Traditional media houses must be more inclusive

Dhanya: I represent news media, in which most editors are either Savarna men or women. This has not changed over the years. Because of this a lot of people are dejected, and I see this parallel movement of websites that are run by people from Dalit and other communities because they believe that they are not represented in other media houses.

We always speak about having more women in the newsroom. Why? Because we need people with lived experiences to speak about [these issues]…for example, there’s a huge difference in the kind of stories that are chosen and in the way stories are written by a woman editor and a male editor in a newsroom. The same applies if you have a Muslim [member on the team], or someone from the LGBTQ community, or from any caste-marginalised community—everybody comes with their own lived experiences.

I did think around five years ago that just representation, as far as journalists are concerned, will help. But I’ve realised that lived experiences should not be translated into just that one journalist writing about that one subject. It has to impact the entire newsroom. For example, I’m a Savarna. As an editor, I make it a point for everyone to refer to certain people in the newsroom who come with a lived experience, and they can be the ones who advise the others, no matter their seniority. Newsrooms, I think, are changing that way. Unfortunately, changes take place when more calling out happens from within the organisation itself.

Oxfam and Newslaundry conducted research on the composition in newsrooms. I believe that’s also [a form of] calling out. They asked organisations questions like, “Is your editor a Savarna?” or “How many people from marginalised communities do you have?” When that report was published, there was also a call for action for the media houses to do something about it. However, most news organisations did not even respond to them.

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Dalits and other caste-oppressed communities continue to face discrimination in higher education and employment not only in India but also abroad. | Picture courtesy: Brian Herzog / CC BY

Social media is useful, though calling people out on it may not be

Christina: Social media can be extremely helpful in many ways. For example, several Dalit women activists who are working on the ground may not have access to media outlets that would readily pick up their stories. The kind of atrocities that become big news or that have in some way gained momentum in that particular place get reported, but there are many atrocities that we never get to hear about. And this news doesn’t ever get covered, even in local newspapers. In that sense, if they do have access to social media—in the language that they are comfortable in—they can always have an outlet not just for reporting, but also for analysis. They may be able to find very powerful allies who might take notice of what’s happening and help them in some way. Partnerships and collaborations can happen. In my work with Dalit Women Fight, this is something that we have talked about time and time again, where they feel extremely glad that they have social media, particularly Twitter, where they can put up stuff.

However, I don’t entirely agree with [the idea that] calling out is the only way forward in terms of change—it requires a lot of emotion and labour. I have participated in [calling out on social media] only to realise that over a period of time, it erodes you as well. As a Dalit woman, if I were to spend my time looking for things on social media that I feel are casteist and that I’m going to be calling out, it’s not helping me in any way—not just individually, even collectively as a community. It is still very Savarna- and upper-caste-centric when I’m trying to tell people, “Hey, this is where you were wrong.” The kind of calling out that is happening seems to take up so much more real estate than the issues that we should be talking about.

What the anti-caste movement needs going forward

1. Alliances with other movements

Christina: We need to come up with strategies that are very specific to our context, which is fairly complicated because of intersectionality. I have a lot of admiration for the queer movement, which has done such great stuff within the Indian corporate space, to the extent that today actual policy changes have happened within organisations, such as medical insurance for same-sex couples. Organisations have made it a point to mention in their code of conduct that you should never say anything that is queerphobic. These are huge milestones that the queer movement in India has achieved as far as the corporate space is concerned.

But we have not been able to make any comparable headway as far as the anti-caste space is concerned. Of course, it is not just due to our strategies; it has much more to do with the fact that the people who are sitting on the other side, who happen to be mostly upper caste, may have queer people—but not caste-marginalised people—in their family and friend circles. So that makes it more difficult for them to even look at this as an issue. But there’s definitely something for us to learn from the way in which [movements for queer rights] have designed campaigns. They have just gone at it with a lot of courage and gumption.

And I think there’s space for not just adopting practices, but also for partnerships and collaboration between the anti-caste and queer movements. Because there are a whole lot of us who are both queer and Dalit. And the same thing goes for the feminist movement as well. None of us are leading single-identity lives—we are all part feminist, part queer.

2. Active anti-caste action alongside learning

Dhanya: I feel that the people who are aware and who say they are anti-caste cannot keep learning forever. They have to start reacting. Every time something goes wrong, people say, “I learned, I unlearned.” I don’t know how frustrating it must be for Christina, but I find it very frustrating. I want to give a small example. I go to a lot of colleges for lectures, and the most problematic thing is when we speak about affirmative action or reservation. Immediately, people will say, “But my merit goes away; I work very hard.” In one famous Bangalore college, in a hall of 700-odd students, many were agitated with this merit point. A professor stood up and he said that he is from a caste-marginalised community, and the entire auditorium was stunned because they never knew this. He had never spoken about it and may have been triggered by the conversation. I felt very good that he spoke up, but then I also wondered, is the onus only on him to speak up? Shouldn’t the other Savarna teachers have made interventions earlier or at that point? One of them had told me, “We are also still learning.” So, at what point are we going to stop learning and start acting? That’s the question we need to ask ourselves.

3. Building awareness among the younger generations

Dhanya: Alongside [building coalitions across social justice movements], we need to speak to our younger generations.

As the mother of a 10-year-old and as someone who visits schools and colleges to speak, I feel that if young people are made aware of their privileges and the lack of privileges of other people, it really makes the journey much easier than trying to convince them when they’re 30 years old and tweeting away. We should have more literature around that—now there are books for children that explain the caste movement and Ambedkar’s vision. So in small, small things, I think we need to introduce those changes.

And I think the language that we use, for example, using the word ‘reservation’ itself…we have to watch our language, especially around the young.

You can listen to the entire podcast here.

Know more:

  • Read this article to learn why fighting against systemic oppression takes a sustained effort.
  • Learn how Dalit women are ignored in corporate spaces in India.
  • Watch this critique of the anti-caste movement in India today.

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India Development Review (IDR) is India’s first independent online media platform for leaders in the development community. Our mission is to advance knowledge on social impact in India. We publish ideas, opinion, analysis, and lessons from real-world practice.