Published: 05th August 2019
The Suraj Yengde interview: People are eager to learn about Nazis, but not about caste oppression in India
Suraj Yengde is a Harvard scholar, he was also the first Dalit to get a PhD from an African University. He is in India to promote his book 'Caste Matters'
As we walked through Chellamal Women's College, the students amusingly stole glances at Suraj Yengde, I was under the assumption that Suraj had not noticed, till he, quite amused himself, said, "They're laughing at me." It was Suraj's hair that the students were giggling about, he is even questioned about it after his session, "I have my mother's hair. Growing up, I was always ashamed of it, the Shah Rukh Khans and Aamir Khans didn't sell this sort of hair or colour or look. But then when I went to Africa, I realised that I was handsome and that my hair was cool, so I decided to grow it," he tells them while taking off his hairband and flaunting his hair in all its glory.
It was during his time in the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg that Suraj said he began to embrace his looks and his identity more. Suraj is the first Dalit to get his PhD from an Africa University, "I chose to go there because Nelson Madela studied there," he said. But his decision to go there wasn't very appreciated by his family and not for no reason," My mother could not understand why I would go from a university in London to go to Africa, but I did. And I was thrilled by my decision," he tells the students as he narrates his journey. He also tells them about how he suffered from caste discrimination from a young age, he also details the experience in the first chapter of his book — from being asked to stand up in class for not paying his fees to losing out on a the second rank in his college because his Brahmin teacher allegedly discriminated against him to even narrowly missing the President's medal. "In the final round, I didn't even have the interview, I was disqualified and the medal was given to someone else," he tells the students.
Having overcome all this, Suraj is now a Shorenstein Centre inaugural post-doctoral fellow at the Initiative for Institutional Anti-Racism and Accountability at the Harvard Kennedy School. He has travelled and worked across the world and written in leading publications. He is now in India to promote his book Caste Matters which documents his experiences of growing up in a Dalit basti, the caste discrimination that he continues to face, sheds light on the 'immovable glass ceiling' that exists for Dalits in politics, bureaucracy and judiciary, the Dalit identity and his call for Dalits and Brahmins to join hands to effect real transformation.
Looking Back: Suraj Yengde, who hails from Maharashtra had a tough childhood and remembers being hounded and embarrassed in front of his classmates for not paying his fees
In this interview we speak to him about how caste thrives, how Dalits feature in the mainstream and if it is frustrating to see caste discussion limited to the topic of reservation. Excerpts:
Can you tell us a little bit about your book?
Caste Matters is a testament to growing up as a Dalit in a casteist society, it also looks at various forms and formulations of the way society operates on a social, cultural, political as well as economic level. It looks at the prospect of rising against this casteism. It also offers a critique of capitalism that has married Brahminsim, a mirror that I tried to show society in as an unsparing and honest way as I can.
Can caste survive outside India?
It has, empirical evidence suggests, people who have migrated have upheld casteist teaching and values that their parents and society indoctrinate into them. With them, we can see a prominent, casteist attitude that has been practiced. Caste has not just survived, it has continued to thrive, across countries, wherever Indians have gone and settled with a sensibility to their religion.
Have campuses abroad recognised caste as a problem?
Yes, and it is because of the outcome of the recent activism done by Dalit students, activists, academics and scholars. For example, in America, there is an effort across the universities to let the administration know that the problem of caste persists among students. Caste operates in various ways, it isn't always the sort that happens in villages or in fringe areas of urban localities. Caste is like the amoeba, wherever it goes it adapts, it retains the system. In Massachusetts, they have started a process of formulating policies on caste. Even Amol Ragde raised this issue and an expert committee was constituted, great strides are being made with regard to formulating policies in caste discrimination on campus. This could set a precedent for other institutions of higher learning.
In Celebration: Director Pa Ranjith, Prof Ramu Manivannan, V Geeta and AB Rajasekaran presided over the release of the book in Chennai
You mentioned in an earlier interview about how you were forced to realise your caste sometime when you were in high school. Would you mind talking about it?
If you are Dalit, you grow up with the tentacles of caste. It's not just one thing, they are multiple things. That's why it (caste) is a cultural institution because it exists at various levels. Culture has language, gaze, food, dress, all kinds of habits, through these facets it continues to hold caste like an octopus. We Dalits who grew up with an Ambedkarite background were already sensitive, we were taught how to engage with it. As I was growing up there were various occasions on which I was reminded of my caste. There would be exclusions, I would not be invited to certain group meetings. One day, many many years later when I thought about it, I realised that all the friends who came to my house or whose homes I was invited to, were all Dalits. Non-Dalits were never in my ecosystem. They never came home, they never invited me anywhere, never treated me as an equal to them, as someone who could be part of their clique. It's just inherent, something they just practised, it is part of our nomenclature. Yes, there were feelings of anguish, a sense of worthlessness and we didn't know how to engage with them. But as I became more mature, I was able to process and grasp my own reality, I became attuned and sensitive to what casteism is and what actions are casteist. And how much these actions are influenced by the fact that a Dalit like me is sitting with them, talking like them, eating with them and having access to the same educational and cultural avenues that they (upper castes) had. Caste is violent, brutal and breaks away from the dictums of society. It became those moments, where I sort of started to hold this reality close to my heart.
You said that having an Ambedkarite background help you cope with casteism while you were growing up. In what ways?
If you are an Ambedkarite, it is a bonus especially if you are Dalit. It is because you are conscious and trained not to accept humiliation as a given fact, you are also taught to fight back, asked to sit on an equal platform with the very person who is trying to degrade and humiliate you. Ambedkarism is also an educational space — pedagogy, creative education, education beyond textbooks. It is learning and developing an attitude of respect and to establish yourself as an equal. I know many Dalits who did not have an Ambedkarite background but they came to college and learnt about it and then had that epiphany! Today, Dalits are more assertive, they claim their identity. Social media has encouraged these voices. But Ambedkar discourse is still not very well known, we are a wounded society. Every day we attack each other with stereotypes and prejudices, be it a Dalit or a woman or a lesbian or any member of the marginalised communities. We come as a wounded soldier and when you are healing, Ambedkarism helps to compassionately heal and come back again the next day.
On an everyday basis, Dalits are having to explain to those around them the same basic questions — to convince the dominant castes that caste is a living reality. It is almost like being forced to relive trauma. Where does the responsibility of spreading awareness about caste lie?
The upper castes expect us to dance to their music, people say they want to be educated and yeah, I understand that. But when I say caste matters, I don't mean just to Dalits or Adivasis. Caste matters to everybody, we breathe caste, we exhale oppression and when we are doing this we are limiting the opportunities for Dalit people to live up to their full potential. When will we allow them to grow? Dalits especially have an added disadvantage, that of untouchability, we are yet to recover from this regime. Now we have to sing songs and express how it was to be a genocidal victim. This is, of course, a taxing experience. See, people read about Nazis, the Auschwitz campus, Mussolini, Hitler, we invest time and study what happened there. If you're so genuinely interested, why are they not interested in studying what is happening here? The dominant castes need to realise that this is a common project for all and it should be centered in liberating themselves first. They are so interested in liberating us like it is a charitable deed but we busy liberating ourselves. This is where education comes in, the dominant castes should feel ashamed to be sitting on the resources they have and feel bad about not distributing it democratically. They should know they are part of the oppressive clan. They cannot expect a response that is emasculating and comforting. When we have to keep repeating our problems that's when it shows that even liberal people or people with good-intentions are casteists.
Book Cover: In the book, Suraj writes about growing up in a Dalit basti and finding his way to Nelson Mandela's alma mater in Johannesberg and finally now, Harvard.
People today are talking about discrimination and increasing atrocities against minorities. Is survival under a right-wing government worse for Dalits?
The extent of oppression upon you is always comparative. But well, let me give you an example, imagine you're living in this 20 storey building but it's right in the middle of a slum. So you look down on those people and feel better about where you are. Then suddenly you don't get water one day and the people living in the slum have never had water. So what do you do?
You form an alliance with them and fight it together. These problems have always been there, now that it suddenly applies to you, what do you do? You stand behind these people who have never had access and support them, have a dialogue. Dalit students have been doing this since forever, they have no other option. They're constantly finding new ways to fight their oppression and you have to support them in the fight.
What do you have to say about the ten percent reservation for the economically weaker sections? People seem to continuously confuse social justice with poverty alleviation, where do you think it will lead us?
It is a great idea! if you want it, take it! But I ask one question, when Mandal (Commission recommendations) was implemented, SC, ST people were on the streets supporting the reservation for OBC. And who was against them? The dominant castes, there were nation-wide protests. In fact, Advani had to go to Babri. Communal riots were used to dilute the issue. I didn't see the same protests from the general categories this time. Where were they on the streets protesting meritocracy? This just shows that people can be inherently casteist.
Is it frustrating to have a seat at the table only when the conversation is about caste?
Hell, yeah! Anyway, as if everything we say is going to be taken seriously. Even if I'm giving an opinion, it'll be destroyed or distracted, they won't even let my opinion penetrate their frozen minds. It just goes to show that we are still an immature society. It is frustrating to that Dalits are only invited to talk when the conversation is about caste but it is our responsibility. Hopefully, this is not the only conversation we will have.
Fighting Caste: Suraj said he faced caste discrimination all through his education, even encountering it in Africa, hundreds of miles away from the place of its birth
At a media conclave, you were asked why your child would need a reservation because you are a Harvard graduate. There is always that one person who says they know 'that one rich Dalit guy' who misuses reservation. Is it annoying to hear these questions?
It is a sad reality, a state of despair that we still have to explain to people why we need these rights that were given to us after a huge constitutional and political fight. We should do a national debate on this. But we don't even want reservation, it is limiting us anyway. Many Dalits choose to apply through the general category because we want to give the seat to someone else. But why do we not discuss Brahmin reservation. Why are we not discussing that fact that almost all the HODs and VCs in Universities are Brahmins, why a population of just 3-4 percent has more than 50 percent share of all resources? And why do we only talk about Dalits being given reservation? There are so many different policies, scholarships given to people who are from an economically weaker section, it is not just the SC, ST, OBC members who are given benefits.
I'm all for abolishing reservations, BUT only after we redistribute sources equally and we ensure equal education for atleast four generations so that they can be on par with the privileged. We also don't want to fight over limited seats. However, the empirical data suggests that very few people who even occupy these seats and often the government is unable to fill up these seats. And I don't really believe it when people say they care for poor Dalits. How many Dalits get any benefits at all? Research by EPW has shown that 92 percent of all corporate board members are Brahmin or Bania. Caste is in the economic programme of this country. What we need is a massive education programme to educate people on why we need reservations. Institutes abroad are actually doing that.
Do you think Dalits should fight the everyday casteism and come into the mainstream or is it a better option to create their own spaces?
We need to acquire all positions of power that people have been using all this while to inflict violence and to use these positions to democratise and humanise it. How do we deal with it? That's what being a warrior is, that's why I say Dalits are like wounded soldiers. The educated Dalits should come forward to defend the community. I don't call it the mainstream, I call it the Brahmainstream. It was never made for us, but we have to go to those spaces, acquire them and teach them because they have failed us. But we also have to create our own spaces, find new ways to create independent spaces and multiple alternative spaces. Social media has helped us do this.
What do you have to say about the debate over whether we need English or regional languages more?
English is a liberating language. Vernacular languages have potential but they are Brahmanised. I think caste operates regionally but it is globally placed. Big politicians even in Maharashtra spoke about Marathi vociferously but sent their own children to convent schools. It is time, we also went to an elite private English medium school. All the Indian graduates I meet at Harvard are also convent educated dominant caste people, I never meet Dalits who went to convents. Our mother tongue is a part of us but we should not be confined to one language, I travel so much and speak to Presidents of different countries only because of our common language in English. So I think we have to learn English.
You were the first Dalit to get a PhD from an African University, what was the experience of studying there like?
When I decided to go to Africa, people thought I was crazy. My mother too. I was living in London, getting good money and suddenly I wanted to move to Africa. I see Africa as our common motherland, humanity lies there. I saw my grandfather and grandmother's faces in all the people I saw there. Now when I think back, I recall a very rosy picture. They were good and bad memories though. And I realised that no matter where you go, you are always a Dalit. Even there I was humiliated and my scholarship was cancelled halfway by a casteist professor. Also, it provided me with a lot of confidence. Africa was liberating. I felt I could live up to my full potential. From their beautiful black bodies to food, culture, stories of struggle and our common experience of fighting against exploitation. I hope to continue my engagement with Africa in the future too.
Looking Ahead: In his advice to young people fighting caste, Suraj says they should take inspiration from those who came before them and fought. But he also urges the upper castes to look within and find the problem
Recently, a Ghana University brought down the statue of Gandhi. What did you learn about their understanding of Gandhi there?
The more educated they get, the more they have stopped appreciating Gandhi. He traded their issues and never wanted to fight for them. He wanted to retain their power structure.
As a success story, what do you have to say to Dalit students trying to survive in casteist campuses?
I stand on the hard work and triumphs of Dalit activists working on the ground. These activists educate the students with an understanding of Ambedkar and Buddha, these are the people I derive energy from. These people are working at the grassroots levels and have become global ambassadors. All these tiny success stories that they help happen become like bricks in the building of a pyramid.
What I want to say to students, scholars and academics, members of the queer community is that — don't get lost in the way society makes you feel. Spend time with people who are living anti-caste lives, try to draw inspiration from our village folks. It is because of their sacrifices, policies, movements that we are where we are. Don't lose hope, this world is not for you, you have to create one for yourself and in this new world, we will welcome people from everywhere. People who will adhere by the rules of respect, justice and dignity. We will welcome people who live and breathe equality without any prejudices. The students should realise that they are pioneers because they are creating a pathway for Dalits. Dalits live to love and they trust love. We have already achieved a lot of our goals and when we are done with these goals, we will achieve new ones