Research says India leads among nations of people who are not ‘tolerant to having neighbours from different cultural backgrounds’. In India, the reason behind this intolerance and hatred is caste.

Why our acceptance of words like Paraiah is problematic
Voices Caste Saturday, December 07, 2019 - 12:36

Industrialist Rahul Bajaj recently spoke about the atmosphere of fear due to the suppression of criticisms regarding the Indian government’s actions. Though corporates and Indian government today are like a kangaroo and its kid, issues like economy and freedom of expression have hit new lows even for them. Under such circumstances, Rahul Bajaj’s remarks attracted a lot of attention. Industrialist Kiran Mazumdar Shaw tweeted: “Hope the govt reaches out to India inc for working out solutions to revive consumption n growth. So far we are all pariahs n govt does not want to hear any criticism of our economy.” (sic)

The intention of this tweet criticising the rulers could well be appreciated – but look at where she calls themselves ‘Pariahs n government does not want to hear them’. You might understand why this (now deleted) tweet needs to be contested. It says the opinions of Paraiahs – a slur used for a Dalit caste in Tamil Nadu – does not matter. The tweet had been widely shared, overlooking this glaring casteist tone, before it was finally deleted by Kiran Shaw. 

When I pointed to this, her supporters pounced on me for speaking about something ‘inappropriate’, and claimed that there are more pressing issues to address. Ironically, they claimed that I was aiding “the saffron agenda.” Some wondered what was wrong in drawing parallels with Paraiahs, or Paraiyars – and that I should not get hung up on words. If only they realised that my hanging on to words was more about the mental frame behind its choice, they probably would have reconsidered their positions. Instead, with their arguments, they reiterated the Manuwadi mindset that dictates that the words of Paraiahs are not important, that they don’t need to be heeded to, that Paraiahs never speak anything that matters. 

Everyone here reflects the general mindset of Hindus that seeks to accept casteist notions like pure and impure. 

It is the same mindset reflected in the act of Sivasubramaniam, who built the wall of discrimination in Mettupalayam’s Nadur village ignoring the voices of the Arundhathiyar community protesting such a construction. It is the same mindset reflected in the behaviour of local administration in neglecting the protests of Dalits leading to the killings of 17 of them.

Casteism of space

Research says India leads among nations which have people not ‘tolerant to having neighbours from different cultural backgrounds’. If this intolerance and hatred has different reasons in other countries, in India caste is the only reason – something that works nonstop, as formless as a soul and as defined as a body. What we call as culture is a euphemism for a model code of conduct for each caste. Around 47 lakh castes and their sects in India have created an equal number of fragments in the society. These castes believe that their supremacy and uniqueness lies in either discriminating, or being discriminated against.  

Like Gopal Guru says in his seminal essay Archaeology of Untouchability, the institution of caste divides the five elements of nature and society on the basis of discrimination and inequality. The sixth element – contemporary space – has not escaped this indiscrimination either. 

The notions of ‘purity’ determine the living space of each caste in the forms of oor and cheri, with an intention to keep Dalits so far away that even the air that they breath will not ‘contaminate’ the space occupied by other castes. For non-Dalits, oor is a space sans cheri. For Dalits, oor is anything but cheri. We will realise that the wall of Nadur in Mettupalayam is built on discrimination only when we understand the institution of caste as something that discriminates everything from living spaces, waters, pathways, temples and cremation grounds.

The market value of an urban cheri 

The discrimination that rolls itself out seamlessly in small towns and villages, expresses itself in a complicated way in urban spaces. Cheri on the outskirts of the oor becomes an important space when the oors transform to cities. Impure all along, cheris are now sought after in terms of geography and market value. Assisted by local administration, those who occupy the oors remove those living in cheris and seek to transform cheris, which are now under their control as part of their cities.

They are worried about losing their market value when living near a cheri. The caste hegemony makes them wonder why Dalits need such a valuable space. They are averse to having Dalits live by their side. These factors come together to chase Dalits away from their living spaces. Where they can’t be chased away, non-Dalits express their disappointment as ‘aversion’. 

This aversion plays a role in evaluating some spaces in all cities as ‘ignoble.’ If they are indeed destined to live side by side, they raise walls longer than prisons – like Sivasubramaniam did – in a bid to proclaim their caste purity. There are people who raise such walls fearing they would be made impure by the air breathed by Dalits or by having to face them. Such weak people however call themselves as upper/pure/warrior/ruling castes.

Since the work on building this wall began, the Arundhathiyars protested it rightly understanding its malicious intention and impending danger. The wall was protected by arrogance of authority and arrogance of caste. It is now made visible to the world after killing 17 people. If only the government took firm action against these walls following protests against the Uthapuram wall, 17 lives could have been saved. But by unleashing its police force on those who protested the wall deaths, and by selectively arresting the Arundhadhiyars (barring one or two) and foisting false cases on them, the government has only tacitly lent its support to those who wish to erect such walls of discrimination.

Police action was not about law and order

The police assault on leaders who had protested along with the victims on this discrimination in Mettupalayam is inhuman. The assault has certainly not been carried out with a view to maintaining the law and order. Instead, the police has carried out an attack with gestures and language similar to those who erected the wall – vicious and motivated by caste hegemony. 

There is certainly no good intention in cremating the 17 bodies without giving enough time to offer a dignified farewell to the deceased. Besides humiliating the beliefs and cultural rights of Arundhadhiyars who bury their deceased, the police has also been allegedly involved in distorting the evidence. Unlike when Thamirabarani and Paramakudi happened, the perpetrators were well aware that such an assault will be broadcast live – yet that has not deterred them. They were confident that neither the government nor the judiciary or the media could do anything to them. They should be arrested under appropriate sections of Protection of Civil Rights (PCR) Act.

One can understand how deep is this anti-Dalit symptom in Coimbatore (and Erode) which still has no room for the statue of our tallest intellectual Ambedkar. The arrest of Sivasubramaniam under ordinary sections as against PCR act should be seen as a continuation of this symptom.

The judiciary, which often takes suo motu cognisance of many issues, probably does not see this assault on the victims as an issue worthy enough of its attention. We have not been able to know what the lawyers – who often boycott courts for frivolous issues – think of this attack on their fellow lawyers and the foisting of false cases on them. I have no idea how Tamil society is going to react to the state’s attitude of punishing the victims and framing them guilty. Is it futile to criticise the Dalit MLAs and MPs who remain cold like corpses when their brethren are killed and punished?

Seeing and listening to stories of 111 caste crimes every day, my mind has turned numb. It stops right now and here, wondering which conscience it could shake and what justice it could get by writing anything more.

Views expressed are the author’s own.

Aadhavan Deetchanya is a cultural activist and the secretary of Tamil Nadu Progressive Writers and Artists Association.

Translated from Tamil by Kavitha Muralidharan

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