Indian elites must question their caste privileges and stand with Dalits to stop injustice against them
Living in America, as Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests have swept the country, it is difficult not to think of when we will have such a moment in India. Indian elites were quick to imitate the West, posting #blackouttuesday pictures, Dave Chapelle’s ‘8:46’, and calls of solidarity with victims of police brutality and BLM protestors on social media. None of these are malevolent actions, and it is a wonderful thing to stand against injustice globally. But while raising our voice against global injustices, we have forgotten our own. For too long now, we seem to have turned a blind eye to caste injustices in our own homes and backyards.
In their virtue-signalling, Indian elites have missed the significance of the BLM movement. For the first time in American history, these protests have transcended race, age, gender, sexual orientation, class and political affiliation. This is an important moment in America because police brutality against African American men is not just an African American problem. And the demand for change is not coming from a single homogenous group or race. The sheer diversity of protestors changes the nature of the protests, makes it difficult to ignore, and hard to target or subdue.
The true lesson Indian elites need to learn from the BLM movement is to question their caste privilege and walk with Dalits against caste injustices at home. Movements like Dalit Rights Matter and Adivasi Rights Matter exist in India, but they remain “Dalit" or “Adivasi" issues, not spoken about and supported widely as an Indian cause.
Indian elites missed the lesson from BLM because they engage in imitation and virtue-signalling that have become a part of their toolkit. In a paper titled Premature Imitation and India’s Flailing State, my co-author professor Alex Tabarrok and I observed that the policy discourse is dominated by Indian elites who are mostly English-speaking, upper caste and well-educated. Thanks to the internet, Indian elites are more likely to live in a bubble, consuming news, entertainment, fiction, and policy discourse taking place in the US or Europe. We argued that when the elite mimic western policies, which have little relevance to Indian context, their domination distorts policy and overloads state capacity in India.
Today, I believe, the same is true of the discourse on privilege. Indian elites relate more to minorities and persons of colour abroad, but rarely seem to acknowledge that we have occupied a space closer to white privilege in India. We are mostly blind to our own position and also to the brutality against Dalits and Adivasis in our society. At home, our outrage was consumed by Nirbhaya, with a little left for the Kathua victim, and none for the nameless Dalit women sexually assaulted every day—four on average, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
This is not because there is no police brutality against Dalits and Adivasis, but that it appears so normalized that we barely notice it anymore. Dalits simultaneously get too much and too little police attention. They are on the receiving end of police brutality, custodial violence and deaths, and spend years in custody waiting for a trial. There are frightening tales of upper castes and the police framing Dalits for crimes they didn’t commit, or having Adivasis arrested or declared dead to expropriate their land. These hinterland truths are rarely reported.
There are instances of Dalits being brutalized by upper castes and the police for actions that are not crimes in the books but are crimes against caste structures—like mounting a horse, or using the village well, or marrying someone outside their caste. These crimes against Dalits are not hidden. In fact, they are sometimes recorded just like George Floyd’s police killing was caught on video. Except, for Dalits, the video is made and publicized by the perpetrators to serve as a “lesson." When Dalits report these crimes, even a First Information Report is hard to lodge. One rarely hears of convictions for crimes against Dalits or for honour killings of inter-caste couples.
So, the injustice exists, and has existed for centuries. But the examination of our place in society’s injustices, and a reckoning with our upper caste privilege has not yet come. I use the first person here only because I too exhibit these elite characteristics, and it is very likely I have committed many sins of omission. If you are reading this column, you are likely upper caste, English speaking, well educated, and male—and part of the Indian elite. And an examination of our actions is long due.
It is difficult for the Dalit rights movement to become a pan-India battle cry like BLM without broader support. Dalits will not be spared by the police or caste mobs if they come out in small numbers calling out caste injustices. And unlike the BLM movement, Indian elites have rarely walked in large numbers with their Dalit countrymen. Like Americans acknowledging and correcting their white privilege, there is almost no parallel movement of Brahmins shunning “Brahminism", or fighting caste endogamy—an idea that is still too radical. Only rare elites, like the late PS Krishnan, have fought “Brahminism" and worked tirelessly for Dalit and Adivasi rights.
Indian elites could learn a lot from privileged white Americans who are part of the Black Lives Matter resistance. This is the action we need to mimic—walking the hard path of acknowledging and challenging our own privilege to fight for a more equal and just society.
Shruti Rajagopalan is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, US
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