Mitali Saran: Until the cows come home

Indian society has an absurdly high tolerance for suffering—one’s own suffering, as much as that of others—and our tolerance for casteism is Exhibit A. It must require a mind-bending fatalism to accept imposed deprivation, hardship, and humiliation as your lot, for thousands of years. It also requires dehumanising emotional callouses to violently maintain the pecking order so that the lowly never get too big for their boots. This stuff we do very well.

Some people say that caste is a sophisticated social mechanism, too subtle for the rootless heathen to understand. It’s certainly too subtle for me. All I see is a grotesque rationalisation of cruelties that would curdle your eyeballs; socially approved torture and murder; and a billion pollution certificates. All that tends to kill my interest in the subtleties.

Dalits can still be murdered over Rs 15, as a couple were in Mainpuri. They are still raped and destroyed for sport. They are still locked into the most unpleasant and most necessary jobs, freeing up higher caste Hindus to pour scorn on them for doing those jobs. Just recently, an institute in Ahmadabad conducted a social experiment. It advertised jobs for sanitation workers, and said it would give preference to high-caste Hindus. The invitation alone, the very idea being floated, was met with so much rage, threat, and physical violence, that the director had to go into hiding.

That there hasn’t yet been a caste revolution in this country is inexplicable. But it’s something to hope for. It would restore my faith in natural justice if the tireless promoters of exclusivist Hindu nationalism were to cause the complete cave-in of exclusivist Hindu culture.

I like to think that that process has begun, and that the Sangh Parivar’s naked, unelected, anti-constitutional push to saffronise India has started it.
The July 11 atrocity, in which four Dalit men were beaten and paraded half-naked in Una for skinning a cow, wasn’t particularly special. Another day, another violent humiliation. The fact that the assailants themselves posted video of the assault on social media tells you everything you need to know about how such an event makes normal, social sense to both oppressor and oppressed. It’s the ancient message that the top of the caste pyramid constantly sends down the line: This is how it’s always been, and this is how it will always be: we can mess you up anytime we feel like it, so behave. It’s the message that the Sangh Parivar is thrilled to finally be openly drilling into India with government backing: Don’t allow the promise of ‘economic development’ to confuse you about the who you are. You are the repulsive dregs of society, and we will never forget your filth or let you forget it.

From the time the BJP government took office a the centre, its representatives have either silently allowed, or openly encouraged, cultural and religious vigilantism—the Gujarat Animal Husbandry department has actually called for volunteers to ‘be the eyes of the government’ in monitoring the beef ban, and it has gotten a healthy response. There is great support for ‘ancient Hindu values’ from people who have a voice, and money, and power, and a very personal interest in maintaining the status quo.

But this time, the viral video from Una aroused something that Hindu chauvinists and cow-botherers never take into account: Numbers. Upper caste Hindus are a tiny minority in this country and are vastly outnumbered by Dalits. This time, Dalits staged huge protests: they refused to work, dumping cattle carcasses in front of government buildings instead. ‘The cow is your mother,’ they said. ‘You conduct her funeral rites.’ Peaceful and witty, neither of which can be said about the oppressions they face. The fact that media reported these protests somewhat anaemically only tells you what castes tend to dominate the media, and what they fear.

Could it be that in its zeal to reinforce the tenets of its most beloved fantasy—a Hindu nation bristling with temples and a ridiculous obsession with pollution and cows, and textbooks designed to dumb kids down—the Sangh Parivar and its affiliates, including the central government, could provoke a cultural revolution from the inside? Can you imagine what would happen if Dalits all over the country refused to work at their traditional jobs, or refused to accept scorn and revulsion on account of their jobs? What if the hundreds of millions at the bottom of the caste pyramid rejected caste en masse? 

We should all be rooting for it—rooting for the day, some day, when the large majority of suffering Indians will decide that they are, literally, done taking shit. That would make a hell of a viral video. />
Mitali Saran is a Delhi-based writer mitali.saran@gmail.com

Twitter: @mitalisaran