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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  The image as the iconoclast

The image as the iconoclast

In the movement to end caste apartheid in the country, has there ever been a more sublime and serendipitous tipping point?

Illustration: Jayachandran/MintPremium
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Bengaluru: Posters are powerful. They are the original viral memes that have, for centuries, galvanized people into action, created shifts in perspective and shaped public discourse. The world of internet-connected humanity is hyper-visual, with a constant stream of memes, videos, GIFs, selfies, animated selfies, and 3D photographs, and we have probably attained saturation. However, this stream of images is part of the same continuum as images etched into cave walls by our ancestors as a form of self-expression and communication. Humans react to imagery.

Posters are powerful, because they are easy to create, they allow us to distil our ideas into a seemingly simple confluence of image and text, and they are often anonymous, letting the idea dominate over the individual. The history of protest posters probably goes back to the European Protestant Reformation in the 16th century when Martin Luther used printed posters to voice his opposition to the Catholic Church, and comes all the way to the 20th and 21st centuries—from the famous US Army recruitment poster depicting a belligerent ‘Uncle Sam’ to the Obama ‘Hope’ image that galvanized a society. The feminist movement understands the power of the poster. It has always relied on the simple, easy to disseminate image to make us look at things differently—the famous Rosie the Riveter poster showing a woman in a red polka dot bandanna flexing her muscles and the words ‘We can do it!’, which was originally used during World War II to encourage women’s participation in the workplace (to fill a gap because the men were away fighting and then quietly go back to the kitchen), was appropriated by the feminist movement in the 1980s to show that women, literally, could do anything.

Posters are so powerful that a few weeks ago a poster in a photograph took a century-old conversation about Brahminical patriarchy to every corner of the globe—a conversation that goes back to the ideas of Jyotirao Phule, Savitribai Phule, Periyar Ramasamy and Bhimrao Ambedkar, and to the very origins of the Dalit and Dalit feminist movements in India. “Just the fact that a simple poster could shut down Twitter is the ultimate testimony to the power of socially engaged art," says Dalit feminist activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan, who designed it.

It took an innocuous act—presenting a poster showing a brown, curly-haired young woman holding up a placard with the words ‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’ to a famous white man—to create worldwide recognition of the angst it represents.

Thank you, white man. Why did you apologize for this?


“We have been using these posters that our friends and colleagues designed for our messaging around ‘End Caste Apartheid’, ‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’ and ‘Trans Rights Now’ for many years. In the past, we had gifted these posters to our allies and friends in the social justice movement. When I was invited for the meeting with the CEO (chief executive officer) of Twitter, I didn’t have much expectation that the team would know more about caste than other top corporates, especially as I noticed that there was no proper mechanism to report caste-based abuse on the platform," says Sanghapali Aruna, a Dalit feminist activist and the executive director of Project Mukti, who presented the poster to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey during his meeting with female journalists and activists in Delhi on 13 November. It turned out to be a remarkably fortuitous decision.

“During the meeting I focused mainly on how casteist trolls are abusive and harmful, often in a manner that pushes us to leave the platform for our own safety," she says. Aruna recalls how, after using the platform for five years to create and build global campaigns around gender and caste like #DalitWomenFight and #DalitHistoryMonth, she had to quit social media after a video she had shot during the #JusticeForRohith protests outside RSS Bhavan in Delhi in 2016 showing police brutality went viral. “I was doxed and stalked by online trolls who tried to threaten me, after which I had to delete all my social media accounts permanently.

These are just a few instances of marginalized voices being silenced through power and threat.

So, after the meeting where I suggested some possible solutions to address the violence on their platform, I gifted the posters ‘End Caste Apartheid’ and ‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’ to Jack Dorsey with an intention to continue the conversation around caste- and gender-based violence on their platform," she says.

#SmashBrahminicalPatriarchy is a hashtag founded by Sanghapali Aruna, Maari Zwick-Maitreyi, and Thenmozhi Soundararajan of Project Mukti and Equality Labs, two organizations that work hand-in-hand to end caste apartheid and fight social injustice. Soundararajan, who designed the now-famous poster, believes it led to one of the defining moments of 2018.

“In many ways, it was a powerful reminder that Indian society is in a battle for its very soul and its very understanding of itself. Does India want to continue to be defined by caste apartheid and patriarchy, or will it let go of these structures of oppression to embrace a future of caste and gender equity? At a time when the world is having more and more candid conversations about patriarchy and structures of oppression, it is significant that the world stood with Dalit Bahujan feminists to say enough is enough," says Soundararajan.

One of the most heartening aspects of the movement has been alliances formed between Dalit feminists from India or of Indian origin and African-American feminists and civil rights activists like Tarana Burke, who brought the phrase “MeToo" into common usage to talk about women’s experiences with sexual violence and discrimination.

Soundararajan and Aruna believe their black feminist sisters such as Burke and Kimberle Crenshaw trailblazed the conversation about the intersectionality between gender and historically marginalized groups—be it blacks in the West or Dalits in India. This solidarity, fostered by the internet and globalization, between feminists from different geographies helps each group learn from, amplify, and support each other.

Journalist Sudipto Mondal, who is working on a book on the Dalit resurgence triggered by the death of Rohith Vemula, calls this moment “the latest in a series of spectacular things that Dalit women have done", naming it as an important landmark of the third wave of Dalit uprising in India, the first two waves being the Ambedkerite movement and the rise to power of Dalit-Bahujan political parties such as the Bahujan Samaj Party.

“Over the past few years, incidents such as Rohith Vemula’s death and Dalit feminist Raya Sarkar’s list of sexual offenders, a predecessor to the current #MeToo movement, have both triggered and consolidated us," says Mondal. As a Dalit man, he is excited about having a strong female leadership to follow and look up to.


The connections between caste and gender are well understood by anybody familiar with the writings of Phule, Ambedkar and Periyar, or indeed anybody with common sense, just as it is clear to rational human beings that ‘Smash Brahminical Patriarchy’ is not a call to go around with a hammer beating up upper-caste Hindu men, as has been disingenuously claimed by some on Twitter. It is a call to understand the deep and intrinsic connections between Brahminical Hinduism and systemic misogyny. In the Manusmriti, women are placed at par with the Shudras, both forever outside the system, forever the other, as Ambedkar noted in his books such as Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Ancient India and The Rise and Fall of Hindu Women. He pointed out that Manu denied women, as well as those outside the varna system, the predecessor of caste, the right to read the Vedas. They, thus, could have no knowledge of religion and, as it was considered necessary to chant Vedic mantras to eliminate sin, women were impure. QED.

Jyotirao Phule, the great 19th century social reformer, also extensively analysed the connections and the intersectionality between the two biggest victim groups of the Brahminical obsession with purity: Dalits and women. “(Phule) realized that since women were the biological reproducers of caste-patriarchy, the regulation and control of their sexuality was crucial to retain and preserve the ‘pure’ roots of caste and lineage," writes Dalit academician Sachin Garud in an article Mahatma Phule’s Thoughts on Caste-Patriarchy: A Critical Evaluation in Round Table India, a digital platform for modern Dalit writing and discussion.

The term “Brahminical Patriarchy" has been extensively used by academics as well. Of course, all religions are patriarchal, creating social systems in which women’s autonomy and choice are constantly at threat, but notions of caste purity and male inheritance have added extra layers of misogyny to Indian society, the structures of which are derived so strongly from the ancient brahminical systems that they continue to play out in our multi-ethnic, globalized times. It is socially-sanctioned discrimination that cannot be called out because of its connection with a mythical “pure" and glorious past.

In a 1993 paper titled Conceptualising Brahmanical Patriarchy in Early India, historian and feminist Uma Chakravarti wrote: “The purity of women has a centrality in brahminical patriarchy because the purity of caste is contingent upon it."

Brahminical patriarchy, as a concept and an ideology, has shaped Indian society as we know it, creating complex hierarchies of power, privilege and oppression, and claiming everyday casual victims for centuries—the abhorrence shown towards menstruating women, as witnessed this year during the Sabarimala protests; the brutal murders of Swati and Nandhish just a few weeks ago, only two of the countless young people killed in India for marrying outside their caste; the very institution of arranged marriage, which is structured inexorably around caste.

Dalit writers have said it is an idea so powerful that it can kill the child in the mother’s womb—and we see this egregiously and literally demonstrated in our society in the form of female foeticide.

Independent journalist, activist and social policy researcher Cynthia Stephen, one of the leading Dalit feminist voices in India, calls this moment “the most important thing that has ever happened in public discourse in this country". “There’s nothing more powerful than an idea, and ideas often reside in people’s minds and acquire a material dimension in practice only when large numbers of people pick it up and run with it," says Stephen. The fact that the phrase came into the public discourse in a completely serendipitous manner—those who have been talking and writing about it and being misunderstood finally finding some resonance and validation of their assertions—made it the most important thing to happen this year or in several years, believes Stephen.

There is no going back. “The future is most decidedly Dalit Bahujan and Adivasi and we intend to fight for it with love, imagination, and technology… We believe, if successful, we change not only the lives of Dalits but the entire social fabric of India," says Soundararajan.

Tomorrow: The Company

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Shrabonti Bagchi
Shrabonti writes primarily for Mint Lounge on food, culture, business and society. She has been a feature writer/editor for over 20 years and is interested in the intersections between technology and society/culture.
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Published: 26 Dec 2018, 12:18 PM IST
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