South Asians take caste wherever they go, and practice it even in foreign lands

Caste on Display An exhibition of a history of resistance soaked in blood tears and sweat
news Dalit History Month Tuesday, April 19, 2016 - 17:10

(Editor's Note: This is part of the Dalit History Month series)

While Indian universities hotly debate the question of caste and the treatment of its students, a university in a distant land is engaging with it in a different manner.

The Centre for South Asian Studies at the University of Edinburgh recently organized a two-day exhibition of around 100 photographs and other archival material on caste, the practice of discrimination, and Dalit icons.

Among the rare materials on display on April 15-16 was an invitation to a slipper-wearing ceremony sent out by Dalits in a Tamil Nadu village in 1990.

Other material on display included items from the 1920s-30s such as copies of handbills on Pandit Iyothee Thass’s lectures, a note on the Poona Pact by Rettamalai Srinivasan who was a signatory, letters exchanged between the Afro-American intellectual and historian WEB Du Bois and BR Ambedkar, posters and flyers from the early Dalit Panthers of India, Tamil Nadu unit.

Close to 90 percent of the material used in the exhibition comes from PhD scholar at the university D Karthikeyan, who is researching caste and commemoration in Tamil Nadu. Excerpts from an interview:

How did you come to acquire this collection of photographs? How long have you been collecting them? 

I have been collecting these handbills and flyers for the last 10 years. Most of the meetings organised by radical social movements and Dalit parties in Tamil Nadu have a practice of distributing printed handbills carrying details of the problems they are addressing. Whenever I attended those meetings I collected and archived them. I also approached my friends who are part of these movements and sought their help to share their collection. Two of my friends – one from Madurai and another from Coimbatore – shared a large chunk of their personal collections with me.

A DPI handbill (date unknown) from the period when the Panthers abstained from electoral politics stating: ‘No one among you is worth enough, so our votes are not for anyone’. 

What made you collect them in the first place? Is it only restricted to you research subject for your PhD or does it go beyond that? 

Since the 1990s Tamil Nadu’s political landscape saw major changes with the emergence of parties like Puthiya Tamilagam and Dalit Panthers of India. Though there were movements earlier, these were movements of mass mobilization layered on the idea of confrontational politics. This was a new wave as opposed to the sterile routines (of the past) and their politics was inscribed in the public space. There was a politicization of aesthetics with intense signifiers as a counter narrative to the existing dominant codes. It was quite radical and as a youngster I was quite influenced by their politics and started following them. I have collected a lot of material on Dravidian politics, which is not related to my PhD. 

An invitation flyer of Dalit Panthers of India (DPI), Madurai, asking the cadres to participate in a rally and public meeting to commemorate Dr BR Ambedkar's 94th birth anniversary in central Madurai.

At international fora, the Indian government projects casteism it as an internal matter, or finds technical loopholes to avoid any discussion on the subject. Could you elaborate on the “invisibility” of caste discrimination viz a vis apartheid? 

Yes the main idea behind the project of celebrating Dalit History Month here, is to sensitise people on caste and make things visible. I also strongly believe that caste should be discussed at international forums. How apartheid is a grave crime against humanity, caste-based discrimination is even worse and it needs to be addressed globally. The migrant population of South Asians in UK and North America is burgeoning, they take caste wherever they go and reproduce those forms of discrimination and that needs to challenged. So a strong anti-caste movement at a global level like anti-apartheid movement is the need of the hour and it is going to happen soon. The Indian government should lend its ears to this rather than brushing it under the carpet.

Oscar Kerketta, Consul General of India, Edinburgh, at the exhibition

Photographs are snapshots of caste discrimination and untouchability, visible to the eye. Could you give examples of newer forms of discrimination, and whether it is possible to document them through photographs? 

I think those forms of caste discrimination still continue. They might have lost their sting or are not practiced widely (anymore) because of the emergence of dissent or counter attacks, but they do exist. Tangible forms of discrimination like segregation, restricting spatial mobility to public spaces; lack of equal treatment at temples were recorded. The subtler forms of discrimination that happen in urban spaces like discrimination at workplaces, psychological humiliation are hard to capture visibly. Preferential treatment at workplaces, educational institutions, failure to fill up vacancies, not following reservation etc can be documented (in reports) and made available to public.

Could you talk about how the exhibition came to be organized, and whether it will be shown elsewhere?

The basic idea was to internationalize the caste question. Marginalised castes carry a strong history of resistance soaked in blood, tears and sweat. The losses they had incurred because of the monster called caste are countless and all those radical struggles have been neglected in the annals of history. It is not only nationalist historiography but alternatives like Marxist, Subaltern Studies too evaded the caste question. Even the Dravidian discourse did not provide space for Dalits so it is pertinent to use all forms of resources available to build an alternative history, an alternative archive, and this is one such small effort. We will be holding such exhibitions at more common venues and are soon planning to build an open archive.  

(All photographs courtesy: D Karthikeyan)

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