In what seems to be an annual 'ritual', each year during Ganesh Chaturthi in the Telugu states, there are scores of reports which highlight caste discrimination against Dalits, ranging from verbal insults to downright physical attacks amidst 'celebrations'. As if on cue, earlier this week, Dr Vundavalli Sridevi, ruling YSRCP MLA from Tadikonda Assembly constituency alleged that she was subjected to casteist abuses when she visited a Ganesh pandal in Andhra Pradesh.
Dr Sridevi belongs to Madiga caste, one of the mariginalised groups within the Scheduled Castes in the Telugu speaking states.
As per the FIR, a man belonging to the Kamma caste, a dominant one in the districts of coastal Andhra, took offence on seeing the MLA offering pooja to the deity and said, “Who allowed this Madiga to participate in the pooja, this place will get polluted."
The issue later got 'politicised', with the MLA coming out and accusing TDP and its chief Chandrababu Naidu of promulgating casteism and violence against Dalits.
The MLA's response itself was problematic, as she seemed amused that she was insulted "despite being married to a Kapu (dominant caste)." But what did she expect? That marrying a dominant caste person and 'scaling the caste ladder' would redeem her 'Dalit' status? That is perhaps a topic for another opinion piece.
While there is no denial that certain political parties work extensively towards perpetuation of the punitive social structure, it's crucial to note that the parties are not the sole breeding grounds of the same. It's problematic to attribute casteism or caste arrogance to a single political party without acknowledging the source that accommodates such brutality.
Caste transcends mere politics. Last year, the cadre of the very same TDP had hurled similar insults at their own MLA and former Minister Ravela Kishore Babu, when he visited a Ganesh pandal in a village in his constituency. In fact, the accused in both cases gave 'equal treatment' to the Dalit MLAs – without considering their political affiliation – while exercising what they saw as their right and authority granted by Hindu religion's theory and practice.
Let us examine the insult itself. The very idea of 'purity' and 'pollution' stems from religious sanctions that are given to certain castes, which were considered 'higher' by birth, within the Hindu hierarchical order.
A flip through of Dr BR Ambedkar's works clearly state that the Hindu caste system doesn't have the space for equality. He says in his Philosophy of Hindusim, "How Hinduism is a denial of equality has already been made clear. It upholds privilege and inequality. Thus in Hinduism, the very first condition for liberty (of social equality) is conspicuous by its absence."
Now, my limited argument is that Dalits must be picky in their choice of spaces that they want to embrace.
It's not that we must not seek to be included into spaces where we have been historically relegated to the margins. For example, seeking inclusion into institutions such as Education and Legislation will bring about social and material changes in our lives.
However, seeking inclusion in religious festivities where we have been excluded for generations will only force us to relive the vicious experiences of the past again. There is nothing wrong in getting ready to stand up for our rights in institutions that could eventually liberate us, but attempts to embrace spaces which serve no purpose for our emancipation are futile.
I must acknowledge that there are Dalits who find it important to associate with religion and spirituality. If such an inclination is strong, I would recommend a thorough reading of Ambedkar's 'Annihilation of Caste' and draw their attention towards the overwhelming incidents of violence that occur every day against the same community.
One might wonder, how to make this distinction and the decision while choosing the space. The onus lies on the individual Dalit person, who has grown up with the burden of caste, and is well aware of the spaces he/she will face discrimination, without any progressive yield.
There are certain arguments, that seek 'legal rights' for those marginalized people, who want to venture into this so-called 'excluded space'; take for example, the issue of temple entry. However, this proposition itself is tantamount to accepting submission to the very Hindu code, which has no space for religious equality.
All this being said, in a lighter vein, it should make news when a Dalit isn't abused or humiliated while participating in such 'ceremonies', instead of the contrary.
Views expressed are the author's own.