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Yes, I am a Chamar

As a teacher, it is very painful for me to think of an education that does not allow a person to break free from the identity imposed on him by a biological accident. Only the speeding juggernaut of Dalit scholarship and of their claiming their due will crush this casteist prejudice

 01-Casteism in IndiaCaste has only been assuming new forms in Indian society. No process for becoming a caste-less society is visible anywhere. One can be modern or post-modern but not caste-less! This is a tragedy of momentous proportions. What can be the project for freedom from caste? How should a writer or a social activist figt against caste? This is the focus of a FORWARD Press series titled Project for Deliverance from the Stigma of Caste. Read the second article in the series by Ish Mishra. –Editor

   The year was 1972. I was around 18 and was studying for my BSc in Allahabad University. I cannot say with certainty if I had transformed from a Brahmin into a human being but yes, I had freed myself from the fear of god and spirits and was a certified atheist. I had come to believe that caste was a man-made sham. It was probably the study of mathematics and science that shaped my thoughts. I also believed it was because of a lack of education that the caste system was maintaining its stranglehold on the rural society and that the universities would be free from this scourge. But I could not have been more wrong. When I witnessed the pitched battles between the caste-based gangs (Brahmin lobby and Kayastha lobby) in the university, it came as a culture shock to me and my formulation that wisdom was a function of education came crashing to the ground. Why education doesn’t make one wise and why the wise may not always be educated is the subject matter of a separate article. But I wish to share with you a very old curiousity of mine, which is why, even after acquiring the highest degrees, people do not realize that the fundamental fact that personality traits have nothing to do with biology but are born out of one’s socialization in specific societal circumstances and under a specific set-up of social relations. Why are even PhD holders unable to rise above the identities imposed on them by a biological coincidence (or accident)? Why can’t they discard their Hindu-Muslim or Brahmin-Bhumihar identities and become human beings driven by logic and reason?

In the real and virtual world, when left with no ammunition to counter my factual and logical arguments, the casteists (Brahmanvadis) ask me why I use my surname Mishra. Some neo-brahmanical foot soldiers of social justice also ask the same question but only after all their arguments fail the test of logic. Assessing a person’s personality not on the basis of his thoughts and work but on the basis of his birth is the basic mantra of casteism/Brahmanism. Whosoever does it strengthens Brahmanism and, by implication, is a Brahmanvadi. No one can decide which family he will be born into – neither does he have a role to play in it nor is it his crime. Hence, there is nothing to feel proud or ashamed of it. But while one has no control over where and when one is born, what is within their power is to choose how to see history and where they want to stand in the social dynamics irrespective of wherever he might be born. If a person cannot see the ugliness of this Brahmanism that is based on the theories of Manu, and if he does not stand up against this inhuman system, his educational credentials are doubtful. My journey from being a child born into a conservative, deeply religious and ritualistic Brahmin family to becoming a staunch atheist was not an easy one, marked as it was by deep internal conflicts. But then, a rebel enjoys fighting when the odds are stacked against them. This gave them the inspiration and the strength to join social struggles. The struggle for elimination of caste is not the struggle of Dalits alone. It is the struggle of every rational human being who cares about human values. In a society that is not free, personal freedom can only be a mirage. The 18th-century revolutionary thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau had rightly remarked that under slavery, anyone who considers himself the master is worse off than the slaves. Like racism, Brahmanism is not based on biological facts or any eternal thought. Brahmanism is not a thought. Like racism, it is an ideology – “false consciousness” in Marxist jargon, which we create and recreate in our daily activities and discourse using myths, prejudices and biases. Since Brahmanism is an ideology, it has to be primarily fought on the ideological plane.

My prime objective behind writing this piece was to share my two personal experiences, separated by 25 years. But the introduction seems to have become a bit too long.

I decided to recall the two incidents after reading an article by A.K. Biswas on the life of West Bengal’s former education minister Kanti Biswas published in Mainstream (25 December 2015). The prejudices and biases of Murli Manohar Joshi, a physicist, or the Bengali Bhadralok against the personality and scholarship of Dalits are not exceptions; they are an integral part of the social consciousness of the savarnas. It is worth recalling that in a conference of education ministers of states in the year 2000, then union minister of human resource development Murli Manohar Joshi had showered praises on the scholarship and insight of Kanti Biswas. But his Manuvadi mind could not believe that someone who was a Chandal by birth could be such a great scholar. He said that Kanti Biswas was a Brahmin and that his caste certificate was forged! Kanti Biswas’ reaction was to say that the acquisition of knowledge was not a monopoly of the Brahmins and that even a Chandal could become a scholar.

Poking my nose into discussions between others is an old habit of mine that invariably ends up in me-versus-all arguments. After the disbanding of the Janata Party in 1980, the RSS brought forth the BJP as the new avatar of Jana Sangh and, in an attempt to cover up its communal designs, donned the mantle of Gandhian socialism. But after the scintillating electoral performance of the Congress in the 1984 general elections, held under the shadow of the anti-Sikh pogrom, it went back to its time-tested formula of aggressive communalism. It took out the Ram Temple issue from the closet. “Shilapujans” were being performed in different parts of the country and religious sentiments were being whipped up through inflammatory speeches. Advani, Joshi, Uma Bharti were criss-crossing the country, working the people into a frenzy.

At that time, my sister was studying at Vansthali (in Rajasthan, about 70 km from Jaipur). I was going to Vansthali either to meet her or take her with me to our home – I don’t remember which. When I reached Jaipur, I came to know that Advani’s rath was scheduled to reach the city the next day. The bus service that connected Jaipur with Vansthali was not available and I had to take a train. Some of my fellow travellers were discussing Advani’s Yatra, temple and the cruelty of Muslim rulers. I could not stop myself from joining them uninvited. Soon, the discussion turned into debate and then into a slanging match. I found myself alone, with everyone else training their guns on me. The climax came with one of them rolling up his sleeves and threateningly moving towards me. “You are talking so much about inequality and casteism,” he said. “Will you let your sister or daughter marry a chamar?” He was sure that the question would floor me. But sometimes, the spur-of-the-moment reaction is better than a deliberated one. Or, maybe, one thinks so fast when caught up in such situations that even a deliberated reaction seems to be spontaneous. Entering into a gender discourse with that fool would have been of no use. I asked him to stop being aggressive and told him, “I myself am a chamar.” A silence descended on the company. The aggression in the voices gave way to reasoned arguments. They started listening to what I was trying to say. Needless to say, in any restrained discussion, logical arguments have a greater impact than wordy duels.

My guess is that three factors were responsible for the humility tempering extreme aggression. The first was cultural shock – the pro-temple crowd suffered a cultural shock similar to that Murli Manohar Joshi experienced on seeing the scholarship and insight of Kanti Biswas. Just as a PhD in Physics could not get rid of Joshi’s Varnashram system-created notion that a person’s talent and personality is a function of his birth and that a Namasudra (Chandal) can never be a great scholar, similarly, my interlocutors couldn’t believe their eyes and ears when they discovered that a person who was capable of such informed articulation and making logical arguments could be a Dalit. Secondly, given their consumerist, male-oriented thoughts on women’s issues, they were apprehensive that I may ask them whether any of them would give their daughter or sister in marriage to me. And the third reason, to my mind, was the fear of the SC, ST Prevention of Atrocities Act.

The second time I had to use the same tactics was 25 years later. I was visiting my ancestral village Azamgarh in eastern Uttar Pradesh. I was on my way to a relative’s place in Jaunpur on a motorcycle. I stopped at a roadside shop at a junction to have tea and smoke a cigarette. The road junctions in Uttar Pradesh are also hubs of discussions on sociopolitical issues that range from the local to the global. The topic of discussion at that moment was mobile telephones. The elderly were describing how earlier they had to travel 30-35km to make a trunk call. Just then a man in his thirties got up agitatedly and declared that it was because of the proliferation of mobile phones that 5-6 girls were eloping from every village. My spontaneous and instant reaction was, “Salutes to these courageous girls.” All of them look at me in disbelief, as if I had set off an explosive. Such “lowly comment” from a man who appears to be educated and sports a graying beard! He is describing the “sinners” as “courageous” girls.


While the debate on the train had turned aggressive gradually, this one was aggressive from the outset. As a professional sloganeer, my lung power is quite formidable and I responded in kind to their aggression. Ultimately, things boiled down to the same old question. “Will you give your daughter in marriage to a chamar?” This was the area of Yadav domination. It is not that the names of Dalit castes are used as expletives only by the savarnas. Others also do the same. At the end, I said the same thing: “I myself am a chamar.” The scene changed dramatically. The aggressiveness evaporated into thin air. Mayawati was ruling Uttar Pradesh then. My sermon was heard in rapt attention. The final verdict was, “What you are saying is absolutely correct but it won’t work here.” Correct but won’t work! I said that if it didn’t work, instead of five, ten girls would elope, adding that whenever you try to bind a person, he will try to break free. The man who was the most aggressive turned the most humble. He did not allow me to pay for my tea and they all saw me off with great respect. As a teacher, it is very painful for me to think of an education that does not allow a person to break free from the identity imposed on him by a biological accident. Only the speeding juggernaut of Dalit scholarship and of their claiming their due will crush this casteist prejudice.

About The Author

Ish Mishra

Ish Mishra is active in social movements and has taught political science in Hindu College, Delhi University.

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