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Dispelling hesitation from Dalit activism on campus

This piece has been written by Shreya Gajbhiye (Batch of 2022). The illustration is by Pravidhi Rawat (Batch of 2026).

It is not uncommon to see Savarnas deny caste and question its activism. But if we stay silent out of the fear of being shot down, we are letting them define the limits of what reform is acceptable, not us.

In our university, each batch elects one male and female class representative every year. One day, several years ago, an emergency meeting to hold a no confidence vote against the woman CR was called. This came as a complete surprise to the 28 women in my batch of 86 students – not just because we did not feel it was at all necessary, but also because we had absolutely no idea about it until the very meeting. Some of the men had gathered enough people to unilaterally initiate the no confidence motion without even approaching the women. This incident led to the women proposing a weighted voting system to balance the numeric disparity. The opposition to this, to some extent well-reasoned, came exclusively from the men of my batch.

The point of this story was not to go into the merits of the case for a weighted vote but to highlight how proclamations of interests of one group may not be understood instinctively by members of another group. There is value in what a unanimous voice from a minority group is trying to say (even if the other group is not convinced) simply because their life experiences are severely different from each other and therefore do not inform them in the same way.

Every now and then, there is a resurgence in the news and social media on the topics of caste, privilege and oppression. It is shameful that there are deniers who still need to be convinced that caste matters – in every case involving a Dalit. An entire community has cried itself hoarse – engaging, reasoning with the claim but in vain. It has served to now be a constant source of frustration for the community. Dear Savarna caste-denier, please understand that there is value in our collective opinion – because it is informed by our experiences – which you might never understand by virtue of you not being us. It's high time that the role of caste in influencing choice of words, everyday life, and lifestyle is recognised.

But beyond recognising its role, there needs to be a unified, intersectional and consistent fight against caste-obliviousness and supremacy. Many people better-informed than I have written about how caste-obliviousness is detrimental because without acknowledging the caste-structures that privilege unequally, one cannot hope to annihilate it. This is why privileged, articulate and well-educated Savarnas who still deny that caste exists absolutely baffle and frighten me. And, make no mistake, if you start this conversation, you will find plenty. How do you explain to someone something that they think they already know? Even worse, how do you do it with imperfect activism?

By this term I do not mean to disrespect the works and efforts of the countless people and activists who have dedicated their lives to further our cause. I am indebted to them. What I mean to encapsulate is the reaction and defensive arguments that a lay-person has to conjure up when the topic comes for discussion, spontaneously or otherwise.

I don’t blame my fellow Dalits for not having spotless answers to satisfy tests of whether caste matters. The burden shouldn’t be on us in the first place, but unfortunately, that's how it ends up being. They seem to have a sharper eye for the faults in imperfect Dalit activism than they have for countless systemic injustices glaring them in the face. Those forgivable gaps and oversights in logic, articulation or facts are enough to defeat and dismiss our arguments in a conversation of an already stigmatised issue. No wonder anyone thinks twice before raising their voice in response to such opposition. Even though they have had a better track record with accessibility, they tend to expect us to produce fool-proof arguments to ‘grant’ legitimacy to our cause.

I am, like the many others I’ve interacted with in the community, privileged and educated. I am, like the others, afraid to fail this test and discredit the cause – this nil margin of error serves as discouragement enough for any Dalit to raise their voice, even if we’re well within our rights and entitlement to do so. But we are crossing one wake-up-call after another and it is becoming increasingly incumbent upon us to not let injustices slip by. We cannot rely on the benevolence of the oppressive caste or shrug the burden away, hoping someone else will take it up. We, as privileged and educated Dalits, have to take matters into our own hands and recognise that we can safely afford to do so. Having progressed into the first leg of Babasaheb’s clarion call, we need to further implore ourselves to organise, agitate and support our brothers and sisters.

We need to rid ourselves of this burden to prove our legitimacy and only engage with opposition to the extent that it comes out of genuine concerns and not ego or bias. In doing so, we dismiss their faulty arguments for caste irrelevance and move forward to tackle the real issue of caste supremacy. Admittedly, this is hard to put into practice but leaving behind the fear of being scrutinised by Savarnas on what I say or how often I say it, was personally, liberating.

Further, we need to be more forgiving of ‘imperfect’ Dalit activism. Raise your voice, and if you are apprised of an oversight on your part, accept and learn. The oversight on your part may even mean that the state of affairs is actually better than you thought! Remember that these mistakes are not fatal to our cause and they’re really not that big a deal. This approach might encourage more people to participate and further our cause. And hopefully this in turn will lend some constructiveness and consistency to our otherwise short-lived reactionary bursts of outrage.