Social media has been awash with debates and conversations on Kanhaiya Kumar ever since he was declared the Communist Party of India’s Lok Sabha candidate for Begusarai constituency in Bihar. One end of this debate has been linked to social justice. But I will not touch upon Kanhaiya Kumar’s stand on social justice, or about the times when he sided with decisions that were against social justice in his capacity as the president of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, or the number of times when he entered into a compromise with the administration while raising the issue of reservation. Instead, my article will focus on the social justice-related logic and sophistry raised by Delhi University’s Professor Apoorvanand in a video for The Wire publication.
Apoorvanand’s support for Kanhaiya Kumar is presented in an articulate way and the extremely respectful and polite language draws your attention straightaway. We should respect every emerging voice with such respect and humility. However, the issue here is the video’s content. Professor Apoorvanand has made several comments about social justice with respect to Kanhaiya Kumar’s leadership.
Kanhaiya’s caste a matter of discussion
The first point goes something like this: ‘Questions are being raised that since Kanhaiya Kumar hails from an upper caste (Bhumihar), he cannot lead the issues of Dalits and other backward communities.’ Apoorvanand responds to the argument with this: ‘Caste is not a biological truth. It’s a societal recognition. In India, caste is a social thing but with time it has become a biological fact. We recognise that we are Bhumihars, Brahmins, and Kshatriyas. Caste isn’t an ultimate quality that people can tell by just taking one look at someone. But your identity is reduced in your caste. This is what’s being done with Kanhaiya Kumar as well.’
Is it not true that the Bahujan community and the identity of its people been confined to their caste for centuries? Aren’t the Bahujans being sociologically and culturally excluded and their inherent abilities being ignored because of the caste they belong to? From discriminating people in interviews at educational institutions to dragging grooms off the horses and beating them up, is the identity of a Bahujan person not immediately recognised? Here, caste is not voluntarily disclosed, instead it is vigorously asked.
Savarnas have full freedom to oppose casteism
Apoorvanand further argues: “If our identity gets confined to caste, then we will never will be able to break this barrier and form new relationships. If you are, by chance, born into an upper caste, then you will not be able to empathise with the Dalits, the backwards, never be able to participate in their struggle for equality.”
The real question, however, is that when Dalits, backwards, tribals, minorities, etc have been waging socio-cultural movements to break the barriers of caste and to end the caste system, then who crushed these voices? Does Apoorvanand not know that a large number of progressive Savarna intellectuals have been writing, speaking and fighting against caste system? Were they ever stopped from doing so? Nobody ever told them that since they belong to the upper caste, they weren’t entitled to. Many Savarnas wrote and fought against caste prejudices.
Apoorvanand’s real concern
Does Apoorvanand not know all these facts? No, I won’t question his intellect. He knows all these; he just doesn’t want to acknowledge them, because Apoorvanand’s real concern is about the leadership. He wants that like all other movements, the anti-caste movement should also be led by Savarnas, because they are meritorious by birth, leaders by divine. To put it differently, Apoorvanand wonders how a Savarna can follow a Bahujan’s leadership.
Will Apoorvanand apply this same logic to his pet subject “communalism” to say that only a Hindu should champion the cause of minorities? Why this insistence on leadership? There are several other ways to participate: distribute the pamphlets, roll out the carpets, mobilise the crowd, arrange for the stage, and then sacrifice the leadership role for a Dalit, backward, tribal, Pasmanda. Every time you usurp the microphones. Why should only the upper castes be in the leadership role? As far as the question of empathy and sympathy is concerned, the Dalit Literature Movement has already answered it long ago. Apoorvanand has probably forgotten that.
Apoorvanand then says, “Globally, every struggle of the oppressed classes has witnessed outside participation, and that is how their movements have achieved success. If we exclude the participation on the basis of caste and religion, then the defeat is certain.”
Here I fully agree with Apoorvanand. Like elsewhere, India, too, has witnessed this. Several forward caste leaders have fought alongside the oppressed. However, why was Apoorvanand unable to point out that in India, it’s the Manuvadis, brahminical and patriarchal forces that always managed to break this association?
Only deprived class bear the burden to fight
Why only a Birsa, Phule, Ambedkar, or Periyar always launches a movement against caste? Why only Savitri Bai Phule and Fatima Sheikh had to fight for girls’ right for education? Why was Kanshi Ram forced to hit the streets for the rights of Dalits? Has any Savarna leader in India ever been martyred because reservation wasn’t implemented? This is the problem of India’s Savarna mentality, which has always crushed every voice raised against it. Why do we not have a Savarna James Reeb (1927-1965), a white man who was murdered by the white supremacists because he supported the cause of the blacks?
The whites fought for the rights of blacks, and now see where the USA is today. Indian upper castes never came forward to lead a movement for abolition of caste. Some progressive Savarna leaders did manage to raise their voice, but ultimately they were also silenced by Manuvadi Savarnas. This is high time that a Savarna leader comes forward to lead an anti-caste movement, which is more radical that Birsa-Phule-Ambedkar’s. The first step towards this will be to fight for caste-based census. This will facilitate equal rights for all and then all will come together to end casteism. Can Apoorvanand dare to dream like this?
Sweet-talk in anti-caste movements
In the end, Apoorvanand says, “Why do we need youth leaders like Kanhaiya Kumar? Because they can talk about the benefit of all classes. Because they can forge new relationships by coming out of their own limits. Because he can speak a language which is not derogatory towards anybody. He does not want to defame any one. He does not use foul language. He does not endorse bitterness. Instead there is hope, appeal for new friendship. If new bonds are not forged, democracy cannot move forward.”
I do not know what kind of bitterness is Apoorvanand terming as “abusive language”? Is Apoorvanand confusing radical Bahujan voices as “abusive”? To think so will be a great insult of his impeccable talent. Then what he is signaling act? But where is he pointing towards? And if it is so, then how will Apoorvanand describe the anger and resentment of Kabir, Raidas, Birsa, Phule and Periyar? Where will he categorise leaders like Kanshi Ram and Ambedkar? Are we to label gender-related questions as ‘abusive’ to the male society?
If any section of the Indian society needs an appeal to break the caste bracket and think about welfare for all, then it is none other than the Manuvadi, feudalistic, urban, elite and male Savarna. These are the real sick ones and yet it’s these people who are powerful too. If they mend their ways, our democracy will improve automatically.
I hope that the space for democratic dialogue will remain available after this.
The author teaches Hindi literature in Delhi University’s Zakir Husain Delhi College.
This article has been translated from Hindi. Read the Hindi version here.