Caste Matters is about author Suraj Yengde’s politics, and his political statement is anti-Dalit. Yengde, a Dalit-origin NRI, published Caste Matters as an attempt to sensationalise criticism of Dalits positioning himself as a Harvard post-doctoral student. His previous book The Radical in Ambedkar: Critical Reflections, co-edited with Anand Teltumbde, tried and failed to trace a radical interpretation of Ambedkar’s philosophy. Yengde has neither prior academic engagement with Ambedkarite studies nor with Dalit issues, and yet.
Caste Matters imitates the title of the African-American book Race Matters (1993) by Cornel West. Cornel West propounds theory of “nihilistic threat” to the very existence of Black America, after the Rodney King incident in 1991. He felt the threat is “profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair so widespread in black America”. Based on this proposition, West divided Blacks into two categories. The “liberal structuralists and conservative behaviourists”. Yengde uses Caste Matters impatiently and classifies Dalits as: Token Dalits, Conservative Dalits, Reactive Dalits, Elite Dalits, Salaried Hypocrites, Third-generation Dalits, Self-obsessed Dalits, Harmful Dalits, and Radical Dalits. He also calls Dalits ‘greedy Dalits’ and ‘shameless creatures’. He neither postulates a theoretical basis nor gives us data to support his classification.
Sensationalisation of Caste Matters starts with praise from Partha Chatterjee, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, and Anand Teltumbde, endorsing this immature chatter of a book sans academic rigour. The book should have been titled “Critique of Dalits”. Three-fourth of this book has unreserved criticism of Dalit political positioning, and rest is autobiographical account of Yengde. Yengde’s criticism against Dalit politics is factually blundered and theoretically flawed.
The author touches upon problematising brutality of caste in Indian society, which is not a new projection. Yengde calls India a totalitarian caste society. He substantiates through the data of underrepresentation in bureaucracy, judiciary, and educational institutions, which is nothing new. Yengde takes caste into a global problem but fails to discuss caste and diaspora.
The excess emphasis on himself as first-generation Dalit makes it shallow since many Dalit scholars abroad and in JNU are of same category. He skewedly criticises Dalit scholars abroad for their upper middle-class upbringing, falsely projecting himself as the sole working class-origin scholar. One can question the way he criticises Dalits individually and shies away from Dalit politics, making the book methodologically incompetent.
The author tries to develop several categories of Dalits without evidence. Actually, Dalit is a unifying category, which brings every untouchable caste together for a better political articulation. Dominant liberal and progressive circles are happy to see Ambedkar as a constitutionalist, according to Yengde. Further, Yengde attributes that ‘Ambedkar’s vision was class-based solution for all castes’, which is a complete misreading of Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste.
In order to justify all these claims, Yengde distinguishes liberation from emancipation and says, “Dalit emancipation is as opposed to Dalit liberation… Emancipation appeals to consciousness of governing class. It is a charitable act on account of the dominant who benefit out of the oppressive system.”
Yengde situates Ambedkar and Dalit movement in the framework of emancipation in which state, reservation, constitutionalism, and social justice is core part. He writes, “the constitutional method as a route to Dalit emancipation precludes the call the total liberation of Dalits”. His conceptualisation of liberation is understood in the contours of Revolutionary Dogmatism; very often an Orthodox Marxist would like to carry. Like Teltumbde, Yengde has similar thinking in proposing such dictum and keeps repeating the Ambedkar’s statement on burning Constitution.
The author contradicts his own position and offers pessimism. Undoubtedly, Indian constitution is misused by upper caste and class, but Indian society perpetuates the caste dominance and inequality. Therefore, Constitution is the only space to continue Dalit battle; hence, upholding state becomes inevitable. Dalits always appeal to save country through the Constitution. This is politics of pragmatism. Here, Yengde loses the plot completely and goes haywire.
The categorisation of Dalits proposed by Yengde are misinterpretation and misleading. This categorisation will not help Dalits to be united or express solidarity for liberation; rather, it may create divisions. There is an anxiety and resentment of Yengde towards Dalit middle class, as a critical scholar of first-generation Dalits without constructive criticism. Rather, it is an individual characterisation of the Dalit life. This concept is not social political singularity of Dalit. In that way, Caste Matters as project has questionable credentials.
For Yengde, neither capitalism nor middle class Dalits bring revolution, and, both have failed. The question can be asked – the Constitution is inadequate, the aspiring to become middle class is wrong, so what does the book offer? He invites upper castes to be part of anti-caste movement by showing Brahmins’ participation in Mahatma Phule and Dr Ambedkar’s movement. Further, he entertains sub-castes issue among the Brahmins by indicating caste has a problem within Brahmins. On the contrary, the ontology of Brahmin body is a social capital. The book satisfies the upper caste conscience rather than the realisation of barbarity of caste.
Yengde, who never lived in India in the last decade, commenting on Dalit life is absurd and situates his frustration of Dalit life of his childhood. He lacked awareness of the Dalit and tribal movements in entire India. He is ignorant even of the Punjabi Ravidasia diaspora movement abroad. It is surprising the book, tagged as a radical work on caste, has not even a single critique against Modi or on RSS ideology, not even mentioning manual scavenging. The book has utterly failed to offer anything new and rather, it seems to be a project for negative criticism of Dalits. The role of Penguin in publishing such a book attacking Dalits by a Dalit-origin NRI, reminds us the attack of Arun Shourie of Ambedkar.
(Jadumani is student leader of JNU and has finished his PhD on Ambedkar.)