Is there anything discreet about the Savarnas?
Is there anything discreet about the Savarnas (Upper Caste)?
As far as we know, nothing about them is hidden. In fact, everything about them is a celebration. They are always scaling new heights and making India proud. Except maybe when there is a crime against Dalits that grabs the media attention.
But how do you and I know what they are always doing? Or who are they?
If you are born and raised in India, you automatically know the upper caste surnames of your region. And when you get out of your region, you don’t have to do much work to learn the Upper Caste surnames across India. When it gets tricky (it seldom does) they are quick to let you know. But they are quick to add a suffix — “it doesn’t matter”. Their Upper Caste names don’t matter to them. But they are just doing us a favour by letting us know.
And sometimes you don’t even need to know their surnames to understand -- it is like you have a Spidey sense tingling inside you when they are around. A mere ‘Hello’ would suffice.
The ‘Sharmas’ and the ‘Iyers’ are always radiating a certain charm that has for centuries been aspirational for the rest of the communities. Like watching a supermodel and immediately thinking that it is the body one should have. You just inherently know you want to be like them. They are made to believe that they are born with that charm, but that requires a fair bit of training and socialization.
For some Savarnas, this training and socialization go hand in hand. For instance, the village Upper Castes are trained to behave a certain way by their parents and kin. They are told not to eat and drink at all the places. Not to hang out with all the people. They also know where to keep Zen-like calm, and where they must form a militia. It is a well-oiled process that ensures a Savarna remains one.
When the Savarnas move to big cities, they work with everybody but will only socialize with other Upper Castes. They help people of their ilk come to the cities and try to monopolize different spheres with the same kind of faces and surnames.
You’d think modernity and capitalism might have given it a pushback. But it has only succeeded at restraining people from talking about caste. As if not talking about caste would make it magically disappear. If you talk to IT and management professionals, media people, and other high-end city dwellers, it would seem as if they are all trained not to speak of caste and have made a pact that if nobody speaks of the evil, it will just vanish. A village Upper Caste person takes pride in his identity and makes it a point to flaunt it. But these so-called modern Upper Castes have learned that civility is in not naming it.
But in Harry Potter terms Voldemort still lives on, right? The same people will denounce rapes or crimes against Dalits but are also quick to affirm that had nothing to do with caste. “Rape is a rape, and crime is a crime. What sort of deranged person makes it about caste,” they outrage on social media posts that call out their kind. Strangely it is the post that has irked them. Not the crime.
Apart from the above two types of Upper Castes, there is another kind, which is found in seemingly progressive spaces of activism, think tanks, and academia (of specific universities). They train themselves not to sound casteist. And they achieve this by careful dissociation. Their mantra seems to be — If you call out Savarnas, then you somehow stop being one.
And they achieve this by wielding the word ‘privilege’ against the village Upper Castes and the so-called modern Upper Castes. “These Savarnas don’t recognize their privilege,” the third kind says, while ironically occupying a big percentage of the academia or activism circles.
They are here to save the world from other Upper Castes. They no longer want to engage with the Savarna engineers or managers, because “those idiots are behind the leader who is ruining the country”.
They are also trained to show empathy. They will provide platforms to people who work at the grassroots level and offer superficial support that takes training to understand. But it becomes visible when the non-Savarna speakers resort to a different language or a message from theirs — Upper Caste academics are quick to appreciate their contribution towards society but will completely disregard the knowledge. To put it mildly, they will encourage you to work but will never allow you to be a peer. Like asking a Dalit student to understand Gayatri Spivak’s “Can the subaltern speak” to understand more about his/her struggles. They will continue to control these spaces and will only allow room for narratives that suit them. Going with the Spivak theme, the actual question should be — “will you let the subalterns speak?”
They call themselves the allies of the marginalized communities but will hog the mic -- by virtue of speaking a more refined language and having foreign degrees to back them -- at panel discussions on issues that are supposed to address issues of marginalization. They may be unaware of the fact that when they praise Dr BR Ambedkar and other Dalit icons, it adds to their CV because there is nothing left to add in Dr Ambedkar’s CV.
To be honest, these Upper Castes are doing something useful as they act as a buffer against the overwhelming force of ‘caste-blind’ people electing Hindu supremacist leaders. But what undermines their good deeds is their socialization, which makes them support their kind and help them acquire the skills and degrees to create another generation of allies of the marginalized.
What else can they do? They surely cannot change their profession, become caste-blind Upper Castes, and support an unpleasant party and their leader. Or, can they? Maybe a minor change in the socialization patterns is all it takes?
One will never know. And that is the discreet factor of the Savarnas.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dinesh Mahapatra is a PhD Scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He strives to make academics more accessible and less "serious".