ANURAG MINUS VERMA PODCAST EPISODE 10
Below is the transcription of Anurag Minus Verma Podcast, Episode 10 with Buffalo Intellectual . This podcast was transcribed by Mudit Vyas. Listen to the podcast on Spotify or apple podcast.
AMV: Welcome to the Anurag Minus Verma Podcast. Today we have with us a guest who stays anonymous online. No one knows their name on social media; their handle though is “Buffalo Intellectual”, and it is quite well known. They are a Bahujan-community (India’s under-represented, caste-apartheid-disadvantaged majority) representative, and speak often on contemporary issues with an Ambedkarite Bahujan perspective.
Their views, more often than not, are quite divergent from the mainstream [and “acceptable”] narrative. Their observations and articulations, which are quite sharp and incisive, are considered influential and are largely appreciated by people. I am one of these “people”.
Thank you Buffalo Intellectual for coming to the podcast.
BI: Thank you Anurag for having me over. I am also a big fan of your work Anurag, especially of your refreshing new perspective and artistic aesthetic. You also have a unique take and observation on the world and things. That admiration that you spoke of is very mutual. I am very happy to be on your podcast.
AMV: Thank you so much.
My first question to you was that your name is quite quirky — Buffalo Intellectual. I had heard of Savarna intellectual and Dalit (largely the Scheduled-Caste people of India) intellectual. What is “Buffalo Intellectual”?
(Savarna is a colloquial term for Indians of oppressor caste backgrounds. “Dwija” or “twice-born” is the more technically accurate scriptural term for them. They make up less than 15% of India’s population as per the last official caste census. It is a term applicable to oppressor caste individuals from across faiths/religions. The caste system might have different machinations in different identity groups and in different regional settings. It, however, transcends these boundaries seamlessly as an apartheid force)
(The Scheduled Castes (SC-s) are a group of communities that were recognised post the 1931 Indian census as facing ex-communication from the larger society. They were treated as “untouchables” for centuries. Though untouchability, as a practice, was eventually outlawed in post-colonial India, the social stigma that persisted in the minds of Savarna oppressors created inescapable yet elusive conditions of harassment and abuse in public institutions for people descending from these communities. People from formerly “criminally” notified (now de-notified or DNT) communities, now called “Vimukta”; people from nomadic and semi-nomadic communities (NT-s and SNT-s); and people from first-nation communities (the Adivasis and indigenous communities of the North East), also face something similar in contemporary India. They are, with exceptions, recognised as socially under-represented in a schedule prepared by the national Scheduled Tribe commission of India and its various states. The Scheduled Tribes (ST-s) and Scheduled Castes (SC-s) of India, making up at least 25% of India’s population together, are constitutionally guaranteed reserved access to 22.5% of all public jobs and public tertiary education seats)
(Indigenous-tribal people from the north-east do not necessarily identify as Bahujans)
BI: It is sort of a complicated question. A frivolous kind of response to it would be that the buffalo is a fantastic, beautiful and lovely animal. Why wouldn’t anyone want to be associated with it? Which is true.
But to unpack it a little more — you presented a binary to me in your question, the binary of a Savarna intellectual and a Dalit intellectual. That binary accurately captures the anxiety of someone like me. Something about me that I should acknowledge up-front; something that is in my bio as well on Twitter etc. — it is that I am not from the Dalit community. I am not a Dalit person. I come from what is a larger Bahujan identity. I have a mixed caste legacy [or ancestry]. My caste identity is quite varied [in its policy recognition]. The OBC (Other Backward Classes) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) classification [that I bear] is basically just a label that changes across a contiguous/adjoining state border. On the side of my home state (not specified), I am an OBC person, on the other side (in an unspecified but possibly northward state), I am an ST person. If there is someone from my community though, who is living in a village on these two states’ border, there is often a confusion that rises around the question of their identity.
(The OBC communities, are communities that were recognised as socially and politically dis-advantaged and under-represented in the 1979 Backward Classes Commission of India and its states. The commission projected their population to be at least 52% of India’s population. The OBC-s are constitutionally guaranteed reserved access to 27% of all public jobs and tertiary education seats in India and its various states)
This is a big dimension [of caste politics in India]. The people who are from “lower” castes within the OBC classification — and this found a mention in the recent Rohini Commission report also which recommends creating tiers within the OBC identity — people who are on the fringes of the caste system, who are nomadic or pastoral, who are recognised as Scheduled Tribes in some states (and aren’t in some), their identity even in the year 2021 is a floating identity. It is thus, a very strange space for someone like me to create an articulation.
The significance of Buffalo obviously comes from the work of Kancha Ilaiah, who is a prominent writer. He himself comes from a pastoral community, and calls himself Kancha Ilaiah “Shepherd”. In his books also, e.g., Buffalo Nationalism… and Why I am not a Hindu…, he is basically writing deep ethnographies which are more or less at these margins. I found a signifier, as you call it in semiotics, in his work. The Buffalo represents the other. The other to the cow. The cow is the holy Brahminical, “upper” caste, Savarna kind of an imagination. Everything associated with the cow is holy. The Buffalo represents the other. And as Kancha Ilaiah writes, the Buffalo is even physically the other. It is a dark creature; it has got a black skin. The cow is usually fair skinned, light skinned or brown skinned — however you want to spin that. The buffalo in that sense of the other becomes a Bahujan animal.
For me, I didn’t think of it in this depth then. Somehow, I naturally gravitated towards this idea, and it is also just a nice funny name. You remember it. It has a good recall.
AMV: You are currently teaching at a university, right?
BI: I am teaching at a university which is one of these hundreds… literally hundreds of private colleges and universities which have sprung up in these last 10–12 years.
AMV: You are not at Ashoka University, right (with sarcastic laughter)?
BI: (with sarcastic laughter) No no, I am not at Ashoka. If they would employ me, I would have definitely gone there. But they don’t — that’s the other part of it. Ashoka and Jindal, these types of colleges, they have some really good people working there also, jokes aside. But it is clearly visible — the bias in their hiring. You won’t find Indian PhDs, under the age of 35, employed in these spaces. You can find two kinds of academics here. Either you will find people with PhDs from abroad, people who have returned to India. Or you will find people who are senior academics, of associate professor rank or higher, people who are in their 40s at least, and who have already acquired some kind of a name and currency. These two kinds of people will find their way into these institutions. If you have done your PhD from an Indian institution though, and your name is not in larger circulation, then it is hard to fit you in such spaces.
There are academics who still get in though. Usually then they are on the margins there. This is a very unspoken rule of Indian academia actually. Whether someone has done their PhD from abroad is also a very big point of consideration. Look at the number of barriers to doing your PhD from abroad. You have to clear the GRE. You have to clear TOEFL. You have to write all of these SOPs and essays. It is an exercise in cultural capital. Every application you make is a seven-thousand-rupee investment. If you apply to 10 colleges in the US, and you write the GRE and TOEFL, that is approximately a one lakh rupee investment. Who has that kind of capital to begin with in this country, where people are lining up in record numbers to take NREGA (the Indian National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) work? A particular category of people is going abroad to study. And these same people, when they are coming back, they are coming with a double stamp of legitimacy.
AMV: And then recruitment is probably also done by the same kind of people then, right?
BI: Correct! This is thus, we are seeing in front of our eyes, a weird form of division of Indian education into tiers. Also, these tiers are not being devised based on academic output. They are being devised purely on [the basis of], what we call in sociology, terms of social stratification. People from a particular caste background, people with [a lot of] cultural capital, they are going abroad. [They are] Finding access, and are coming back. Even the ones in India [with a similar background] — when I said that their name is in circulation I meant — they usually have 2 to 4 publications; they are well networked; they go to academic conferences often. Who is able to do that? Right?
If you look at the Indian system. Say, there is someone topping [an institute] in social sciences. And I speak on matters of social sciences because that is my background, I don’t know much about STEM subjects. Say that you are someone who has done their PhD from JNU (the central govt. run Jawaharlal Nehru University). Your access to certain networks is much higher as opposed to someone who has done their PhD from say a Makhanlal Chaturvedi Vishwavidyalaya (MCNU) or a South Saurashtra University (hypothetical).
(MCNU is a regional journalism and communications university in the state capital of Madhya Pradesh, the city of Bhopal. The official name of the University is Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism and Communication)
If you have done your PhD from these universities, you are in an academic fringe. It becomes very difficult for you then to find your way into [and within] these conferences. I have attended a lot of these conferences to know how they work out. Academic mediocrity is spectacular. Nobody comes with credible work to these conferences (“exceptions notwithstanding” implicitly applied tonally). Nobody even comes prepared to properly present what they have worked on. People mostly just pfaff. Everybody realises — they have to speak just for 15 minutes, and then there is a 15-minute Q & A; nobody is caring [about quality]. As teachers or academics, you can [easily] talk for 15 minutes. The whole conference is just a scam because at the end of it, after the conference, an open meet is held. This is the space where people have tea/coffee, or have dinner. If it is an expensive event, alcohol and kebabs are also served (sarcastic tone). That is where the real conference transpires. That is where you clearly see who the movers and shakers are. And you will always see these South Saurashtra University students there cutting a sorry figure in the sidelines. Walking up [to the influential people] and requesting — “ma’am/sir, I would like to work on this”. They are always on the margins, hesitating, having doubts.
AMV: Especially because of their [scruples about their] language, right?
BI: Language is always a concern. [Sometimes] The [requisite] sophistication is not there. [They] Can’t talk about Foucault/Derrida [from top-of-mind].
AMV: They have reservations about how they are dressed too, right?
BI: Yes, the right clothes are also [probably] not there. And that’s where you see the naked brazen truth of academia. If I have to reduce it to a stereotype — think of a [PhD] who is an “upper” caste, US educated professor. He, in his PhD days, would have done “mixers” with his white faculty. They would have a certain sophistication. [Imagine them] holding a drink, having a conversation, whatever.
And then you have this other faculty [cohort], who is coming from an institution which doesn’t have [or doesn’t affords them] a lot of social, cultural or academic capital. Somehow, they have hustled their way into this conference. Probably from some source they find out about the conference. They send in an abstract and then they follow-up. [That is how] they have made their way up till here. But now at this social-cultural meeting space (like a post conference meet-up), they get exposed. Because here, the conversations are not academic. The litmus test here is your smoothness — unexplainable and intangible smoothness. And that is where, book deals get decided, grants get decided, collaborations get decided, all manners of things get decided.
I am not saying this lightly; and these are not ramblings and complaints of a bitter academic. I have been in the system long enough to kind of have observed it. Any Savarna academic who denies it is deeply complicit in this. In fact, I know so many Savarna academics who will privately admit that this is how it plays out. That underneath this thin layer once removed, of posh vocabulary and post-modern aesthetic, is a clearly discernible order [of things] quite crude, feudal and brazen. That is the truth of Indian academia.
AMV: Even in these conferences, they speak about the same things, right? Like, “speaking truth to power” or “dismantling the structure” (question asked with a slightly scornful short laugh).
BI: Correct. Correct. And that’s the hypocrisy Anurag. Actually, if you see the content I put up on my social media, I never go after Modi or the RSS (the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) so much. Not because I am a fan of the right wing. They morally repulse me, of course. But there is this strange intellectual honesty about the RSS or a Sanghi (an official, or a casual affiliate of the RSS’s ideology). If you go to a Shakha (an official gathering of RSS volunteers or affiliates), or if you go to a Sanghi’s house, you will [most likely] see a photo of Hitler there. It will likely be accompanied by a picture of Savarkar. There is no ideological conflict there [in a Sanghi mind]. Sanghi-s, in fact, openly say that they like Godse, they like Hitler. There is an open-ness to that.
(V. D. Savarkar was tried as a co-conspirator in Gandhi’s murder, alongside the primary accused Nathuram Godse. He was later acquitted of the charge. He was a president of the Hindu Mahasabha, a pre-independence Indian political party that advocated for “militarized hindu-dom”. He vocally opposed the “Quit India Movement” being driven by the Indian National Congress against the British in the 1930s; and wrote an ideological treatise called “Hindutva: Who is a Hindu?”, championing the monolithic umbrella-identity of “Hinduism” — a homogenising religious identity forcefully applied by a largely Savarna conscience to the communally and religiously multi-cultural and multi-ethnic Indian subcontinent)
The liberal, “upper” caste aesthetic though is an art of another kind altogether. That is the more difficult one to catch. They will go to — whether it be a conference; whether it be a [grassroots] protest site; whether it be a public-domain editorial, writing signature opinion pieces; whether it be cinema/culture/theatre — whatever performative public-facing aspect of public discourse you can pick up; and they will say all the right-sounding radical things. They are going to talk about… Actually, you portray this very well [in your art], they sing songs like “hum dekhenge”; they use folk percussion instruments like a dafli; and they talk about Gramsci, Marx and the bourgeoisie. Bourgeoisie is a very compelling term [in such discussions], and you know it. This vocabulary comes easy [to the people being discussed].
Do you remember that short-film The Discrete Charm of Savarnas? One of the characters in that film, at one point, asks a taxi driver if he has read a [famous European progressive] writer. That is the mentality [I am speaking of]. They have appropriated this vocabulary [for their purpose]. The same people who will talk about the radicalism of Foucault; the people who will wear t-shirts of Che Guevara; the people who will go to classrooms and talk about Edward Said, orientalism and sub-altern, and all that; when we examine their personal and inner-professional lives, we see a huge gap between what they are saying and what they are doing. That gap is so huge that it cannot be accidental. It cannot be attributed to ignorance. That is when your mind starts connecting the dots that this is not ignorance. If one has studied Althusser or Foucault so deeply; if one can say such significant things about [structural] power, then how is that in their 15-year academic career they haven’t worked with any Dalit, Bahujan or Pasmanda (India’s depressed-caste Muslim communities) academic? How is that all the people they are mentoring are Brahmins or “upper” caste.
(Most Dravidian and North-Eastern Indian Muslim communities do not necessarily always identify as “Pasmanda”. They are however, officially recognised as socially depressed in OBC lists of state backward class commissions, like Kerala and Tamil Nadu for example. They are attributed this recognition primarily owing to their under-representation in bureaucracy and elected offices)
(“Brahmins”, in contemporary India, are largely the descendants of erstwhile Indian priest classes that were primarily responsible for engendering the Indian caste-apartheid with scriptural sanction. Brahmin and other Dwija/Savarna castes are extremely disproportionately over-represented in the Indian, judiciary, legislature, and bureaucracy, both federal and state)
How is it that one’s entire research work is completely devoid of [the variable of] Caste? If you open one such [hypothetical] person’s academia.edu profile and search the word “caste” in it, how is that most of these profiles are completely without the “caste” keyword? What does [all of] it say? And, on social media, similar such people [appropriate and] espouse pathbreaking theories around gender and queer identity. But how is it that they [keep] missing the most obvious thing [in their social and material reality].
I teach in one of these mushrooming private institutes. Now they are pretty much everywhere [in India]. These colleges don’t have any constitutional reservation for Bahujans.
AMV: Ya, that was one of my [other] points [of discussion] — that because these places don’t have a reservation policy in place, they end up admitting only a particular category of people (the host implies that he is speaking of the Savarna/Dwija category of people). They are the only ones then actively involved in public discussions in these spaces. Consequently, their worldview also then develops without a consideration for Bahujan people. A (satirical) character I have developed for my social feed — Ashoka University Ronnie — has been developed on a very similar outline.
Honestly, I have never been to Ashoka University. I don’t even know where it is, if it is in somewhere in Delhi or someplace else. I studied in JNU, in Delhi. I met filmmakers and activists who were cast in this mould. My understanding of such people [and their exclusive spaces] comes from such encounters. Their point of view around the socio-politics of the Indian society is so ignorant. Ronnie, somewhere, is a distillation of the characters and personalities of all of these people and their nuances that I caught on to. Now that you have spoken here on this matter though, I am now realising that these people are pretty much everywhere; that this is how [private] universities in India operate; that there are plenty of such people in the university you teach at as well. I find it very interesting.
BI: That is the best part about this Anurag (sarcastic tone). This is the crux of the point [under discussion] actually. You don’t even have to go to Ashoka University [to get these insights]. It is not even about Ashoka University. This aesthetic is so homogenous and mono-dimensional that the character or the archetype of Ronnie that you have created, [seamlessly] fits thousands of people across hundreds of [private] universities across India very beautifully. Ronnie is not a product of one college or university — though Ashoka is kind of a nice name to attach to it. If you replace Ashoka with any other name though [of a private institute] — say a Vivekanand College (hypothetical) — even then, nothing changes in that joke. The joke still lands.
Because there is a rich, “upper” caste, teen culture which has originated because of this really mono-dimensional and exclusionary education system. If we look at this historically to make sense of it, we see that in the 1990s when the Mandal Commission gets implemented (for quotas for OBC-s in public jobs and public tertiary education), “upper” castes resist it quite vociferously. Eventually though, the implementation stays [in effect]. In the early 2000s, we see the last big [anti-reservation] mass-movement by the “upper” castes to resist Mandal [Commission’s implementation]. Which is the “Youth for Equality” movement, which happened in the early 2000s. After this though, you see a subtle response. You see that at around this time, the anti-Mandal agitation disappears from the mass domain. And if you plot a time-line from here on, you see the beginning of the first wave of IB schools being set up in approximately the year 2005–06. By 2007–08, the first [new wave of] private institutions and universities start getting set up. What Savarnas have [gradually] done is, they cleverly have created a parallel education system. Today, from Patna to Pathankot, from Bombay to Bhagalpur, wherever you may choose to go, you will find IB-syllabus private schools all over. And their [tuition] fees are anywhere between 30,000 rupees [a month] to 8,00,000 rupees a year. There are schools which are even charging 30,00,000 lakh rupees a year.
I grew up in a ghetto of Calcutta. Where my parents sometimes couldn’t even afford to pay my 1,200 rupees-a-month fee. So, people like me are definitely not going to these [expensive] schools. If someone is going to a 30,000 rupees-a-month school and they have studied there, we need to look at this school. What is the composition of this typical IB school? This school is where Ronnie gets made — the character, the aesthetic, all of it. If you have seen the [Bollywood] film Mohabbatein, the school in that film — Gurukul — these IB schools are Gurukuls on steroids.
AMV: Somewhat like in the [Bollywood] film Student of the Year.
BI: Student of the year! Yes. Correct. The correct answer to “what is Gurukul on steroids?” is Student of the Year.
And I think these schools have been created out of some bizarre wish fulfilment [desire] of the [Savarna] generation of the 90s. These people, when they were in school in the 1990s, they would have had [ostentatious] aspirations of learning kick-boxing, guitar-playing, or French in their schools. Now these desires of theirs have been [belatedly] crammed into these IB school-syllabi [for their children].
AMV: Kind of like an extension of the Doon School model?
(From wiki: “The Doon School is an all-boys highly selective boarding school in Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India, which was established in 1935. It was envisioned by Satish Ranjan Das, a Kolkata lawyer, who prevised a school modelled on the British ’public’ school”)
BI: Correct! That’s what they are charging these 30,000 rupees to 50,000 rupees a month for. So, when a kid passes out of such a school, his or her indoctrination [into elitism] is of another level altogether. And I have gone to enough of these schools to give talks etc., because of the nature of my job. So, I know. This is not an isolated observation. This is a pattern. In these schools, there is an incredible amount of emphasis on social skills. Which is what we colloquially call finishing school. One’s English will be paid extra emphasis; public speaking skills will be paid extra emphasis. Every student will be taught all varieties of co-curricular skills, tools and techniques. Every student! So, if it is a school of 100 students, everyone [graduating] from there will be proficient at playing a musical instrument, speaking a foreign language, and/or playing a professional sport. They would have been a part of 4 or 5 mock UNs. Everyone coming of these schools already has a one-page long [extra] curricular CV. The emphasis is on that, not on critical education. Because these schools are catering to a particular demand of the market. The market does not want well-educated, critical thinking people. It wants people who have cultural capital and sophistication.
The fees in itself are so high that these schools become inaccessible to Bahujan people. Even if some dominant-group, new-wealth or agrarian-wealth OBC-people do land up in these schools, they get atrociously bullied. These kids are made to feel that their native and provincial culture is inferior. They get bullied to such an extent that they start imbibing Brahminical culture. I remember, I had a student from a small town called Somnath, in Gujarat. His [spoken] English was poor and his dressing sense was not keeping up with the rest of the cool kids in the college I teach at. I was in my first or second year of teaching then. I had thought to myself then that he will probably understand eventually what he is being put through. Then, one day he opened up to me, and he told me that ‘sir, I will tell you one thing. If any of these people ever come to Somnath, then they will understand what I am. That whole town runs on my name. My [family] name carries significance there. Over here though, people treat me like I am dirt. How do I become like them? You tell me’.
And that was a very strange request because this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a progressive person. He is from a dominant OBC community. He has horrific views about Dalits and other scheduled communities. But even he couldn’t keep up with the cultural sophistication that the Brahminism of these spaces has. And that really is the crux [of it all]. When you graduate out of such a school or college system, you are so tremendously disconnected from your material reality that your cultural outlook gets aligned in a comically out-of-sync way. You become this mono-dimensional, alienated, almost delusional person. And all of these students look identical to each other. All the boys, especially the ones who are a little sensitive-type, cultivate a cinema aesthetic. Almost all consume beer and marijuana copiously, and talk of Manchester United and cars often. You can list these things from a list of character traits. Some will do a little poetry also. Girls will probably get inducted into a vegan sub-culture. Will pick up the Ukulele as an instrument.
AMV: Yes. It is quite evident as soon as you open the Reels section on your Instagram.
BI: Ya! Exactly
AMV: Insta Reels are basically a display of this only. If you want to see a display of privilege, just go to Insta Reels. The aesthetic of the Reels section comes from precisely there.
BI: Absolutely. Someone is stanning a K-Pop band. Someone else is following some lunar cycles. And, you know, that is so out-of-sync with the material reality. This is actually the next step of what I wanted to talk to you about further. We are now witnessing a post-BLM, urban, “upper” caste, [Indian] teen, trying to show solidarity to [the anti-] caste [movement]. I am sure you also get these messages a lot. I definitely do. Every Ambedkarite, Dalit-Bahujan [social media] account is getting these messages — asking ‘what can we do as “upper” castes’?
AMV: Yes yes. I get them too.
BI: Most of these people say the same thing — ‘I want to be a good ally’. This is coming [organically] from them and they are all trying to position themselves as someone who is here for solidarity. The true test of their solidarity though is not in abusing the RSS and BJP (India’s federal ruling-party; the Bhartiya Janta Party; the political wing of the RSS). If they are playing a Ukulele for fun, and are following Manchester United as a hobby, then abusing the BJP is very easy for them [from inside their bubble of privilege].
AMV: It is, in fact, quite beneficial [for their image] to do so.
BI: Ya ya, it is beneficial for their cultural image. The true test of your solidarity is how well you take a caste-oriented critique of your youth culture. If I critique your K-Pop, your Ukulele, your ManU, your lunar cycles, how well will you take that [critique]. I know I will lose a lot of followers because I am saying this. But I am not saying this lightly here. At every instance when I have critiqued these K-Pop or vegan sub-cultures on my Instagram [from a Bahujan standpoint], oh my god, my inbox has exploded. This is exactly how and when their true nature gets exposed. As Babasaheb put it when he said — ‘they expose their bare fangs’. And I am ok with being called a Boomer, a reductionist, an id-pol-er (identity politiker). Which is also an assumption though that I am a cis-het male. You can call me whatever you want. I know I am older.
Regardless of all of that though — that’s your true test. If you are 20–21-year-old boy, and your idols are these pop-culture icons like Christopher Nolan, Jordan Peterson, Joe Rogan, or the Fight Club; if you are a girl your idols are Fleabag, and K-Pop bands. Beyond these 4 to 6 things, outside of them, do you have a connection to your material reality? I often ask students in my class that they do environmentalism often — which is basically a new favourite “interest” of this generation — what is their relationship with their trash? You eat a packet of chips and throw away the wrapper in the bin, your relationship with the garbage is over, no? Who is taking away that garbage? Who is segregating it? How is that work-force being organised? Are they not interested in that? Who is coming and literally cleaning the shit in your house?
This is something Anurag that eats me away on the inside. Every time I see [reels with] smooth, soft and diffused lighting — and you will know, you employ lighting techniques often in your art — being used to frame someone playing a say a Ukulele. My first reaction to these really crafted but insincere images is always the same question — who cleans the shit in your house? The ones who are especially portraying themselves as smooth, they should know that their shit smells. That when they go shit in a commode, and leave a streak of shit on the side walls of their commode, do they clean it themselves? Or do they wait for a personal sanitation worker to come and do it the next morning? This argument has now become a little crude but that’s where the conversation should be. I feel I am rambling a little now.
AMV: No no. I have been dwelling on this point myself. Which is why I have now restricted my Instagram usage to watching only Puneet Superstar’s (an Instagram creator’s) videos. He really paints a real image in his content, for me.
BI: He is such a breath of fresh air on Instagram. I was quite certain that you were going to open this podcast episode with Puneet’s signature opening line in his videos.
AMV: Aaaaa, kaise ho mere podcast ke chahne waalo (Hindustani for ‘how are you people who love my podcast so much’). I have been watching Puneet’s content quite a lot, and I have been sharing it. A lot of people have consequently started telling me off for giving him “clout”. So, I should clarify that that is not something I am capable off. Puneet has way more followers than I do. But people still admonish me for sharing his content. I see so much authenticity in him saying out-loud, basically anything that is coming to his mind. This unabashed expression of the sub-conscious is such an authentic counter-balance to the constructed image that we see in the mainstream reels culture. With all of its lighting, filters, etc. Isn’t that cringe? For me the constructed image is utterly cringe-worthy. I think I had posted about this also at some point on my social media — the scariest image of 2021 is a boy playing a Ukulele (paraphrasing himself). A lot of people were triggered by that post. It’s fine by me though. I enjoy poking people from time to time.
BI: That is the thing though. See, we don’t personally know Puneet at all. One fine day, he might just come out supporting the BJP in a picture with BJP workers or supporters. I will be saddened if that happens but I will not be surprised. The thing about him though, is that you juxtaposition him against all of these dancing teenagers on Reels; and you are compelled to compare him to all these boys curating a soft-boy image. That is where the divide is, in how materially disconnected these boys are from their reality.
AMV: In fact, I will extend this analogy to the political sphere. As an experiment sometimes, I ask my “upper” caste liberal friends who do they consider revolutionary. Their response usually is a list of mostly “upper” caste content creators that includes Dhruv Rathee (a centrist, self-proclaimed, political commentator), Akash Banerjee, Kunal Kamra (a stand-up comedian, recently called out for his calculated use of anti-reservation “jokes” to appeal to Savarna audiences). There has to be a reason why the list is usually entirely made up of upper-caste people. We need to ask them, why do they only look up to “upper” caste people? Why isn’t an anti-caste Ambedkarite activist revolutionary to them?
(Answering his own question) — This is so because these Ambedkarite figures have a certain demeanour, a way of talking, a way of dressing that does not appeal to the Savarna sensibilities. I know so many [Ambedkarite] people [in the public sphere] who have revolutionary insights, and are fantastic critical theorists. But nobody platforms them or talks about them as often as these basic Savarna celebrities. And most of these Savarna content creators, I have named only a few but there are numerous more, have no intellectual depth. They basically just keep re-iterating the same arguments — ‘Modi bad, BJP bad’. In the context of the discussion we have just had, we can say that such arguments have no societal relevance. These people become revolutionary just by tweeting stuff that is hardly even an inconvenience for the. No harm is ever going to come to them considering how much privilege they possess.
These choices, in themselves, reveal so much about your biases, and your classist and casteist nature. The fact that only the afore-mentioned kind of people appeal to you as “revolutionary”, is so damning. Also, for so many people to have such mediocre pop-culture celebrities as benchmarks of what is revolutionary, is quite disappointing.
BI: We have to keep one thing in mind though, that you and I have been able to garner a significant number of followers precisely because we can speak in their language.
AMV: Absolutely. I totally agree. Because I have a certain kind of education, I am able to play around with my knowledge of aesthetics, to be able to appeal to a Savarna crowd. But I also know there are scores of people who are way more intelligent than I am.
BI: Absolutely. There are people out there that are significantly more intelligent than I am. Nothing that I say is original. Especially, there are great Dalit scholars, there are great Bahujan scholars, people who have worked in the grassroots. And it is a little embarrassing sometimes when I have to explicitly ask people to go and read these thinkers’ work.
It is however as simple as saying that I know how to spell “aesthetic” and you know how to spell “aesthetic”. And, in fact, I have been critiqued by some people for pandering to a Savarna audience; and I feel it is a valid critique. Instagram is a Savarna medium, unlike Facebook. Which is probably far [relatively] more democratic. But regarding this matter of Kunal Kamra or Dhruv Rathee, I think we have to think on it a little more deeply, because we have to see where India is right now. There is primarily a civil war going on [in India] between two branches of Brahminism right now. That’s effectively what is afoot. There is one branch of Brahminism which is this group that is sophisticated, with a lot of cultural capital. The other branch is this crude, in-your-face, religious nationalism. And both these branches of Brahminism are aware of one existential reality — that they are a minority. For them to be in power, for them to be in hegemony, to control the larger masses in some kind of binding servitude, they need [effective] strategies. Their strategies are different though to each of their purposes. The sophisticated Brahminism has always employed this strategy of cultivating a sophisticated aloofness. It builds their capital. It is a deeply ingrained, feudal mindset. It reflects in the proclamations that are made when they show up somewhere — e.g., the proclamation in politics that plays out when someone like, say Priyanka Gandhi shows up for election campaigning — ‘look! It is Priyanka Gandhi Ji. She came despite the intensely hot weather’. The aloofness of their character becomes their USP. It becomes notice-able that they came and asked after our well-being. Do you remember that image where after the Hathras rape, Priyanka Gandhi went and hugged a member of the family of the victim? The fact that Priyanka Gandhi hugged them becomes a matter of prestige for Priyanka Gandhi.
Who is Priyanka Gandhi? Why is she who she is? All of these posh South Delhi Savarna editors of newspapers and news channels, their heart came out when they saw Priyanka Gandhi do that. It was that aloofness at play. That these are pre-eminent people. And people of such eminence went into a slum to express their sorrow. That’s the old school approach [of the sophisticated Brahmins]:
‘We are professors in JNU but we are writing on Dalits.’
‘I am a professor in Harvard but I am researching caste.’
It is this sophisticated form of aloofness that is derivative of Gandhi that works for them. Like how wearing just a loincloth and nothing else became a symbol of “simplicity” for Gandhi. We don’t have a vocabulary for to call this out. All we can do is make fun of it. The vocabularies [to call it out] haven’t been developed yet.
The other branch of Brahminism is the one Modi has really pioneered, in which he has found a way to bind the masses in this very simplistic subscription of the idea of “India” — India is for Hindus, who are right now, under threat. That’s pretty much it. If you are the lowest common denominator, you don’t have to expend too much effort on self-refection. Just believe Modi that you are under siege; and that anyone that critiques you [and your way of life] is your enemy. That is Modi’s product. And it is in a war with the sophisticated Brahminism. If we go into a Savarna (self-proclaimed) liberal circle, we basically are in the sophisticated offshoot of Brahminism. So, obviously their heroes will be Dhruv Rathee and these people. They can never look up to Babasaheb [Ambedkar]. They can never own [Jotiba] Phule. They keep screaming ‘Jai Phule-Jai Phule’ at their protests, but have they ever read Phule’s Gulamgiri? The radicalness of this literature is quite in-your-face. It will be un-digestible for the sophisticated Brahmins.
This is a structural issue. Who owns the material relations? For a lot of people like us who have somehow, through limited access to education and industry, have accumulated some cultural vocabulary and capital, this privilege is like a temporary visa. And when we roam the world of the Savarnas on this temporary visa, for us this becomes a really absurd truth. The truth of how can Dhruv Rathee’s [centrist and outdated] position on things be so impressive to Savarnas? How is this an impressive position for anyone? How are Savarnas so impressed by Kanhaiya Kumar? How are Savarnas so impressed by Swara Bhaskar? Kanhaiya Kumar’s maximum engagement with Caste is his realisation that when he is screaming “Azaadi” [in a gathering], he should also say “Jai Bhim” and “Jai Phule” [to maximise traction]:
‘Phule waali Azaadi’; ‘Ambedkar waali Azaadi’ — these are his two key phrases, he has realised. That’s it.
AMV: Kanhaiya, somewhere had even denied his Bhumihaar (which is Kanhaiya’s Savarna caste identity and lineage; the community’s name literally translates to “land-owner”) privilege.
BI: Of course! Of course! I don’t find this shocking at all anymore when I meet “upper” caste liberals, and find that their idea of a revolutionary is these liberals like Swara Bhaskar and Kanhaiya Kumar. If you are in a civil war with the cruder side of Brahminism and you are on the sophisticated side of Brahminism, obviously your revolutionaries will be Kanhaiya and Swara. Who else could it even be? This is the limit [of their imagination]. Their icon [in this war] will be Gandhi. They will create binaries; saying that we are lovers of non-violence. That’s how Savarnas play this binary of Gandhi vs Godse. But as per the population metrics of India, where Bahujans are 85%+ of India’s population, Gandhi and Godse (both Brahmins) are irrelevant by the sheer weight of numbers. Because it is the 15% who are fighting for whose version of Brahminism should we follow to hegemonize the rest of India. If something so basic is so apparent to an academic as mediocre as I am, then how does Sitaram Yechury not know this? How does CPI (M) not know this? How do all of these people not know it? How do all these people, who are often reading literature on critical education, not know this.
Of course, they know it. We can satirise this hypocrisy of theirs and make fun of it. But for me, more than the 20-year-old who is a little clueless and has this particular kind of aesthetic, their teacher is someone more in the need for some scrutiny. Especially the ones who teach policy and education. Take Teach for India as an example for that matter. It is bizarre actually. That a corporate-led movement, backed by an Ambani-type, is afoot. And these educators are retrofitting themselves in it to go into slums as outsiders, clicking pictures with under-privileged kids. That has become a personality curation space for them; and there is no [critical self-] reflection over this.
These people who are working on all of these issues, all of these deeper social policy initiatives. Do they even know about the history of the people [of India]? Have they even made an effort or have they just rejected entire histories? This is a very narrow, corporate, one-dimensional approach to what education should be and what India should be. And if you challenge it even a little bit, aesthetically or otherwise, then they don’t consider that refined.
AMV: Then it becomes a question of how you are articulating an argument right [instead of the argument itself]?
BI: Ya! You could have something really important to say but if you can’t articulate it well, if you can’t use these big words…
AMV: I feel articulation is a tool of the frauds.
BI: Very well put. I think I completely agree with you. And, I don’t know about you but for me to have learned this [Savarna] vocabulary was a very painful struggle. Till about class 5, I went to the school that was right there in the slum I lived in. I never learned any English there. Spoken and written English was taught to us by breaking up big words, like “Stomach” for instance, into smaller incongruous words — like “sto” + “mach”. I pronounced stomach as Sto-match for the longest of time. I still live with these vocabulary issues.
AMV: I also relate to this. I have these vocabulary issues too, aplenty. This is actually an interesting point. I remember, in my home, the public broadcaster DD-National, was pronounced as ‘Natey-Ni-Ol’. This is the kind of background people like me are from — smaller town upbringing; my engineering education was also completed in a very similar environment. This is a subtle terror that a student lives with. Imagine that after such an upbringing, you land up in a big university like the JNU. You are sitting in class there and you aren’t able to discern something that is being taught. In such a scenario, you hesitate so much in asking for a clarification or a re-iteration of a concept from your teacher. You wonder ‘what if my pronunciation of a particular word is not what it should be? Will my accent be apt or not?’ It is this terror that keeps you mum and stops you from speaking out. I have always had this hesitancy — that my accent is a little Rajasthani. A lot of people make fun of it. A lot of people have made fun of my pronunciations as well. This happens often.
I have always tried to not let it affect me in a negative way. I have always tried to stay secure in my own skin. But this still hangs over you, this insecurity. It makes you not talk often. It makes you think you will make a “mistake” if you speak up. This is a minor thing but it does greatly affect the mind of a Bahujan-Dalit student. My ancestry is Dalit, I am from a Dalit background. So, I keenly aware of this virtual power that Savarnas possess — using which they can freely move in and out of any spaces smoothly. Using which they can break down barriers to entry to any space that is gate-kept. They have very few barriers to entry into most circles. To be able to build enough confidence to challenge this disparity took me quite a while. As of now I know I don’t have any reservations about speaking freely online. To be able to open my wings like this though took 26–27 years easily.
BI: You are right. For some people, these inhibitions actually never get resolved. People’s entire lives are sometimes spent in fighting this. I remember, when I was 27–28, I had a bittersweet sort of an epiphany once. I had completely rejected my native culture, my friends and my family (and their culture) in pursuit of this forced Savarna sophistication. By then, I had also developed a feeling of disgust towards the culture that I had been brought up in. I used to think of their outlook as narrow and small. I used to feel that all of these early peers of mine were people with a built-in closed mentality. After class 5, my parents admitted me to a “better” and bigger school. They constantly struggled to pay my fees but they ensured somehow that I got that education. For them it was a stretch by any imagination.
My social circle, thus, got drastically altered. I started participating in events and actually became quite good at them once I picked up the Savarna vocabulary well. And I always felt like an “equal” as long as I was on a stage, debating. As soon as I got off that stage though, I used to get ruthlessly exposed. Kids used to talk about The Beatles; Jim Morrison; and didn’t even know what Jim Morrison was. Was it a food item or an apparels brand? I had no idea. And I started feeling so negatively about my own culture and my upbringing that I became a hostage to my bullies. I constantly craved for their validation. I immersed myself so completely in acquiring that [Savarna] sophistication — that vocabulary, those pronunciations, and that iconography, music and aesthetics — that I spent 5–7 of my [formative] years in this endeavour. By 26–27, I reached a point where I was smooth enough to navigate Savarna spaces [seamlessly]. Nobody could have figured out my caste-disadvantage then by just talking with me. Nobody could have caught that I don’t come from an “upper” caste background. But that’s the point where I soon realised, in a bittersweet fashion, that I have lost so much.
AMV: It takes years sometimes to fight this.
BI: Ya. I completely invisibalised my native culture. The cost that I have paid, in distancing myself from my family, has taken a toll. I wonder why was I made to pay that toll? Why did I have so much trauma inflicted on me? Why was I made to feel inferior? These are the deeper questions which all of these academics never engage with. Do these people, who frequently engage with questions of dominance and oppression, ever see this? You spoke of the hesitancy you felt in answering simple questions in class at JNU. You were a student though; I can still rationalise your self-doubt. But today, I am a teacher. If I am in a class with such students in it. Is it not my obligation to make everybody feel like they are a part of the process?
My point is that the whole process in itself is not inclusive. Why are these hesitant students not reaching out for help? Why isn’t anybody ringing alarm bells around the fact that most dropouts, from various kinds of courses in India, be it engineering or medicine, are Bahujan students. Why are they dropping out?
AMV: Suicides by Bahujan students have become so commonplace now…
BI: Yes. Suicide is also such an extreme step. So, it is quite damning that around 72% of all student suicides are by students of Bahujan background. Why are colleges not having crisis meetings, asking how can we make our campuses more inclusive? In fact, the reality is probably at the other extreme of this observation. The IIT Bombay dean gave a speech recently about survival of the fittest on his campus.
AMV: I think he said that on NDTV (a National broadcaster).
BI: Yes! How can a person like them, go ahead and say something like this? Are they show-running Roadies (an MTV reality show) or what? And that is the while point. Why do we, us students from Dalit-Bahujan backgrounds, have to fight this culture like we are on reality television. Why is it not on them, as a responsibility, to be taking steps to include us better?
AMV: In fact, this whole discussion around inclusive-ness of spaces — it is quite palpable in the field of art as well. I am an artist. I create. In my formative years, my basic instinct was to mould myself in the Savarna aesthetic. To model my art around the Savarna idea of “good” art is. My extended family’s culture, my culture, felt like such an outlier in the Savarna culture I was trying to make a space for myself in. I used to be embarrassed of running into a family member at my place of education. I never used to put my family photographs on my social media. I was always afraid that my Savarna peers will make fun of me looking at my relatives in these pictures. Now though, as I have developed a more evolved understanding around such concerns, especially post the COVID lockdown — I have realised that my fears were so absurd.
For the first time, in my life, now I have started creating content with my family at the centre stage. I feel like I did something courageous. I have started picking up old family photo and video-shoots, especially of functions from my village, and I have started telling these new stories now. To develop this courage though, took so many years. Most Savarna people are quite uninhibited about showcasing their family dynamics on social media. It comes very easily to them. Which is why I feel quite bad about taking so long to start telling stories from my native culture. These subtle and micro-struggles, thus, are very significant. They are hardly ever talked about. Hardly anyone even understands that it is important to talk about these things.
BI: This is a great thing you have pointed out Anurag. Every so often, on mothers’ or fathers’ day especially, we see these ‘person I love the most’ type posts quite commonly on Savarna handles. We can’t make those posts. There is so much fear of judgement [inherent in that feeling].
AMV: A fear of being exposed?
BI: A fear of being exposed, yes! And only very recently, in 2021 i.e., are we seeing a counter-cultural currency being attached to such posts. All those experiences, from the year 2000 to 2015, that I had — 15 years of my life where I was trying to hide things — now those stories [finally] have some cultural capital. Now in 2021, if you put a picture of a wedding from your native village, that picture has a counter-cultural value.
This is the sophistication of Brahminism. This is how so neatly in India Brahminism and Capitalism have so completely collaborated in that sense. I often see how Anurag Kashyap’s — though I don’t rate him as a great filmmaker or anything — Gangs of Wasseypur has had a big impact on [Savarna] visual aesthetic.
AMV: He has made the desi into something cool.
BI: Yaa! Correct. I don’t know what you think of it. I have been a student of film studies, and I feel that Gangs… is quite simply just a poorly edited…
AMV: Ya ya. It is a very badly made film. But it has its charms though. There are some subtle things about it that are quite interesting. But as a film it is a very badly made film.
BI: It is a snapshot of where Kashyap is from. He is not a South Bombay kid. He didn’t grow up in South Bombay. And the person who wrote the film is embedded in that reality. So somewhere, in there, an undercurrent of that culture has snuck into the narrative. The counter-cultural value of that, when it gets showcased on the big screen, becomes cool. Today when I go into a classroom [as a teacher] to teach South Delhi, South Bombay, and Bangalore kids — 18-year-old edgy boys and girls — for them …Wasseypur… is the coolest thing ever. This is an interesting aspect [of the Savarna aesthetic] right? They will never, in real life, ever interact with characters like Definite or Perpendicular from that film. They will not even sit down with them ever, to even have a 2-minute conversation over tea. But since it is on the big screen, it has a counter-cultural value. Then they will use…
AMV: I think they feel a sense of safety in the fact that they don’t ever have to actually interact with such people in real life. That they can commodify them from a distance. That their engagement with these characters is only through the screen.
BI: This value though, that has been built up starting from Wasseypur; that shows like Mirzapur and Paatal Lok have capitalised on. This “gritty” side of India that these shows and films have portrayed. I still remember Paatal Lok’s trailer — where a character from the show points at a slum and says that this is Paatal Lok, this is where the pests live (translated form Hindustani). What are the show creators trying to say? That Dalit-Bahujan bastis are hell? Do insects and pests live there? That analogy in itself is so offensive. But for a Savarna audience, this is how they see the world. It is an “honest” portrayal for them; because that’s how they see the world.
AMV: Ya. The allusion that Dalit-Bahujans are “criminal elements”. That they have a crude and depressed state of being. That they are always in-fighting.
BI: Yes. It is that type of a mentality that typecasts Dalit-Bahujans as people who were born in this hell and will die in it. Savarna audiences never admit that this is their take away from these content pieces. But if you probe deeper, this kind of perception is what you find.
‘Why aren’t you more like us?’ is a question that is always put in front of us [Dalit-Bahujans]. And if you challenge these people on this implied offensive question, that is when you will see the vicious-ness of their gaze and their outlook towards us. Exactly like what we saw when Richa Chadha (a Savarna) lashed out after being questioned on cos-playing a real-life Dalit female character [of Behenji Mayawati supposedly] that is close to the hearts of millions of Dalit people.
‘Why aren’t you happy with me? I am an actor! Why shouldn’t I play a Dalit character?’ Though she can most likely see that it is offensive for a white person to play a black character; the caste counterpart of exactly the same dynamic is something she refuses to understand.
AMV: She said also, quite stylishly [and threateningly] that if we don’t tell these stories, if you continue to question us like this, then in the future nobody is going to want to engage with this story as a filmmaker. I said to myself then that ‘please don’t then. Why are you making it even now? Who is benefitting from it?’
Did the film (Madam Chief Minister or) Article 15 make any Dalit person’s life any better? Did you manage to propagate any awareness around the caste issue with your film? Did she think she was doing us [Dalit peoples] any favours?
BI: Article 15 is a film I forced myself to sit through. As a professor who deals with these kinds of themes, I forced myself to watch it. And there this one scene in that film, where this character Nishaad…
AMV: Ya ya. He is a blend of Rohit Vemula (a revolutionary student leader who was murdered by the administration of Hyderabad Central University) and Chandrashekhar Azad (a charismatic national political leader).
BI: Ya they have created that mish-mash of Dalit identity. In the film though, that character gets encountered (murdered by the police; made to look like a skirmish). When I was watching that scene play out, I was enraged. I wanted to go and give the director one-tight-slap. Why was this written into the film? Why was it needed, to introduce such a character into the film and then to extra-judicially murder him? And then he is written to have given a speech where he says that if ‘one of us dies, more of us will rise…’. Why? Why is he needed to die? Why aren’t you killing off your ignorant police officer instead? Why is the ignorant policeman then given the agency to evolve into an enlightened protagonist who avenges Nishaad? Why isn’t the already enlightened Nishaad not leading a mass-movement instead? I would have written it like that. It would have been a super-hit film. This will never come across as a possible alternative plot outcome in a Savarna writer’s mind.
AMV: In fact, someone had shared another scene from Article 15 on Facebook recently. I was watching it earlier today. The policeman is shown to be completely unaware of what his caste is. He is asking his subordinate officer his caste. And the subordinate is shown to be re-assuring him that he is Brahmin. It was so comical to me — that he doesn’t know that he is Brahmin. Also, this offensive scene doesn’t end there. The subordinate officer then goes ahead and elaborates on the graded nature of casteism within the Dalit community — how a particular Scheduled caste community supposedly considers themselves superior to another Scheduled caste community. I then remembered the reaction of the largely Savarna audience to this scene in the multiplex I had seen the film in. In the build up to the scene, people had become quite uncomfortable. It was palpable. The guilt was hanging thick in the air. And then the Bahujan subordinate officer’s lines got delivered — about casteism between Dalit communities. That’s when the audience nervously giggled first and then laughed out loud, absolved of their complicity in the apartheid. They all suddenly became very relaxed thinking that — ‘oh, Dalits also are culpable in this. This is not necessarily our fault’. These are subtle nuances in the film that betray its casteism.
BI: My question is, this guy, as an IPS police officer, must have written the UPSC entrance test, right? So, as someone who has written this exam, how does he not know that Dalit-Bahujans are granted constitutional reservation in public jobs and education in India? Who is the director/writer fooling here? Which UPSC aspirant does not know about the caste apartheid?
AMV: I remember the same guy, the director, during the uproar around the Hathras rape case, had said about Behenji Mayawati — that she has a big bungalow in Lucknow. That he has seen with his own eyes how opulent it is. That she stays there in abject comfort and doesn’t actually do anything! What is this problem that Savarna people have with a national Dalit leader owning a bungalow? Who doesn’t live in a house is my question? She was twice the Chief Minister of India’s largest state (by population). That state has 200 million+ constituents in it. It is bigger than most countries in the world. Which CM, of a federal state, in India, would not live in a bungalow? If she is a public representative, a member of a state legislative assembly, she will obviously get a nice house to stay in. No?
BI: Why shouldn’t she stay in a bungalow?
AMV: It prickles Savarna people. That a successful Dalit woman lives a life of comfort. That she has nice handbags apparently. That she has nice jewellery. That she built a memorial to a national leader, the father of the Indian constitution, using public money. This prickling has stayed with these Savarna people.
BI: That is obviously there. Behenji Mayawati has been, in fact, completely maligned by Savarnas using this kind of propaganda. She is still alive in the public conscience though. Right? If you think on this further — what other national Dalit-Bahujan leaders have been able to do what she has managed to do? If you explore these Dhruv Rathee stanning circles — do these people know who Karpoori Thakur was? Do they know who Manyawar Kanshiram was? These former leaders have been completely invisibalised. Savarnas have managed to erase these huge parts of our history.
AMV: Also, with Mayawati, it took a while for Savarna people to realise but since 2014 they have figured out that publicly they can’t malign an honourable leader like her anymore. That they have to be politically correct. I have been observing them since before 2014 though. Especially their Twitter timelines. I remember in 2010, how the same people used to comment on Behenji Mayawati’s appearance; how they made crude jokes about of her complexion; how they implied that she was “unattractive”, cracking absolutely misogynistic “jokes”. I have seen jokes where [edgy] male Savarna comedians have said on Twitter that she should ‘just die…’. Really horrible stuff. Most of these people — I am not going to name them — are nowadays speaking out against fascism. These are the same people. When I see this, I find it really funny. I tell them, in my head, that I know you all since before you turned woke. Who are you fooling?
BI: If you go up to them and even tell them this in their face, they know how to spin it. They have imbibed this skill well, of building a narrative of how they accept their mistake and they are going to unlearn their prejudices; and are going to learn to be more inclusive.
AMV: I call this the learning-unlearning scam.
BI: Ya. That’s pretty apt; because they have decided that they are an objective enough observer on the matter to give themselves a clean-chit. That they are learning and are growing. That kind of space and freedom [to grow] is not available to Dalit-Bahujan people. This is a devised scheme for Savarna people only, exclusively. They have the space to basically say anything, however offensive, and then apology-wash it with the learning-unlearning narrative. So, this is a really bizarre kind of situation, till you realise this [nation-state] is basically just a mutual conflict between the Nehru-vadi/Gandhi-vadis and the Godse-vadis on either side. Both are largely Savarnas, of course. The Dalit-Bahujan people, however, are stuck in between them. Especially Bahujan people like us — who have been granted a temporary passport/visa to inhabit the Savarna world. Since we can talk in their language, we are tourists [in this civil war], strangers in a strange land. That’s it.
Their reality, however, is very different. An especially apt example of this playing out on a national stage is the prime-time news skirmish between anchors such as Ravish Kumar [Pandey] (a Brahmin) and Arnab Goswami (also a Brahmin).
(The former is an anchor on the Hindustani-language news channel NDTV-India. The latter is an anchor on the English-language news channel Republic TV)
What is the effective difference between the two though [in context of the material reality under discussion here]?
AMV: Ravish Kumar plays his narrative in the same way Kashyap played his in Gangs of Wasseypur. He has positioned himself as this Hindi (Hindustani) speaking, rooted sort of a guy — who says it like it is. He speaks to a desi [yet Savarna] ideology nevertheless. He even appeals to the elites oftentimes. He performs to appease their elite-guilt of having alienated themselves from their desi Hindi-speaking “roots” and culture. I really don’t have any other problems with Ravish. He often speaks on urgent matters of rural significance that get undermined in the Delhi media.
These elites that he panders to though, for them he is a conduit to the working-classes of India, basically the Bahujan people. He speaks to the disaffected on their behalf. Works as a buffer between them and the rest of India. Through his work, they can performatively partake in their Hindi-speaking culture while still maintaining their distance from it.
BI: Exactly! This example (of Ravish) illustrates the two branches of India’s Brahminism quite aptly. The sophisticated branch is the audience for Ravish. The crude ones though, and this is the other aspect of this analysis, are completely dismissed by the sophisticated ones. They are basically dismissed as a group with a mob mentality. This crude Savarna group then, when it looks at a Ravish or a Swara Bhaskar, it then responds to their elitism from exactly the same place that you [and I] are responding from right now. Which basically is the argument that these sophisticated Savarnas are basically portraying a fake Hindi-heartland culture — and are hypocrites.
And I am not implicating here the right-wing, BJP-IT-Cell hired-trolls as the accusing party. They are basically just people who are part of a work-force. They are doing their jobs and getting paid for it. I am not speaking of them. I am speaking of people who consider themselves “balanced people”. Right? Who consider themselves balanced but also support the BJP. This crude cohort, when it encounters Ravish Kumar or Swara Bhaskar, their reaction almost always conveys just one emotion — which is ‘who are you tell us all of this? You are exactly like us but you are a hypocrite. Where is this moral superiority coming from’? This is their conflict. For people like us, on the other hand, both sides are equally unpalatable.
AMV: I don’t see any [sustainability or] scope in either form of the Savarna ideology.
BI: There is absolutely no scope in either.
AMV: Their skirmish is also absolutely boring to consume, even in its entertainment value. That if for nothing else, I might as well observe this for some entertainment. But even that is not there in it. It is absolutely cringe-worthy.
Ok, so now let’s move on to the last section of this discussion. I actually received a lot of questions for you from the audience. Here is one. You can choose to not answer it.
Q1. Even though we have may Bahujan students in colleges, college societies are almost always led and dominated by UC-s (“upper” castes). Why doesn’t anyone talk about this; and what can we do about this exclusion? What do you say in response to questions like what does your family do; and what school did you pass out from; and where do you live; when these are pretty much the only questions being asked in union and student society interviews? There are absolutely no questions being asked about your skills and achievements.
BI: A simple answer is — just, don’t, join, these, spaces. One of the best things that has happened in the last 5–7 years [on Indian campuses] is the rise of BAPSA and other Ambedkarite student organisations, especially in JNU. [These organisations,] They have demonstrated clearly that the Savarna mentality of ‘there is no other alternative’ is not going to apply to us anymore. If there are student organisations [around you] that you feel lack diversity, especially in leadership positions, [then] you form your own [organisations]. Break away. I have always said this to students — what is stopping you? Form your own organisation. It is still possible that you won’t be made secretary within it. But still start it. Even if there are only 4 of you today. Tomorrow there will be 40 of you; in some time there will be 400; and in a few years there will be 4000. Somebody has to start [these organisations] though. Show that conviction. That conviction will stay with you for the whole life.
Reject these exclusionary organisations with an Epistemological rationale. After being admitted into “upper” caste Savarna spaces, if you expect to be put on top of the pyramid, you will end up being a ceremonial person. Someone who is celebrated solely as a figurehead. ‘Look we made a Dalit our president’, is what they will say. You will be beholden to them; you will have no agency; and you will be constantly trotted out as a ceremonial appointment.
‘Look we are also diverse. We have taken this Dalit-Bahujan or Pasmanda, and made him or her this secretary.’
You don’t want to be reduced to your basic identity. If you feel they will not give you agency, reject them. Create your own space.
AMV: An extension to exactly this is the next question.
Q2. As a Bahujan in academia, how does one deal with harassment in the workplace; and what steps can one take to ensure there is justice? ST/SC cells don’t help at all since they are Savarna controlled. There isn’t a single friend or colleague you can count on, especially in certain spaces like small-town universities. Should one start writing about one’s experience online?
An extension from my side, to this question, is that we do have numerous online communities that are operationalising a certain discourse around this issue. Are these communities making any significant strides especially when it comes to Dalit-Bahujan rights?
BI: To be very honest, as a Bahujan academic, [from my experience] there is no answer yet [to the first part of the question]. There is no such space yet for us that works as a collective exclusively for us; that gives us bargaining rights and a power of assertion as a collective.
Most trends [in this regard] are also all drifting in the wrong direction for us. In the last 10 years, private universities have slowly become 78%+ (verified and amended figure) of all universities and colleges in India. They were only 10% of all higher education institutes not too long ago. Private institutions have grown and mushroomed at a much faster pace than public institutions. And in private universities, there are no reserved quotas in recruitment [of students or faculty]. So, these are basically spaces that are full of Savarna faculty. In such an environment, for compliance reasons, they will have an ST/SC cell. They will also have a Gender internal-complaints committee. But largely, these committees are non-functional. So, if you are working in a private university, honestly, at this point in time, there is no answer. If you are being discriminated against; if you are facing harassment; you only have two options, either you bear it or you quit. Personally, for me, neither of these answers are acceptable. What do we need to do? We need to perhaps organize; we need to perhaps lobby; hopefully through a larger pan-India, cross-institution body of Bahujan academics and teachers. As of now, there is no such body in existence but I am very sure that soon we will have one. Precisely because it is bound to happen. That’s my response to the first part of the question.
The answer to the question which Anurag you asked as an extension to the first one is No. An online discourse around this does not do anything for our rights in the real world. None. Zero. It has zero effect. The only advantage of an operationalised online discourse is that it sometimes gives us an outlet for our collective grief and trauma.
AMV: Do you not think that outside of that it might have some real-world consequences? May be a change in public mood, no?
BI: It has no structural effect. In fact, I consider myself a [complicit] contributor to this discourse. The only thing we are doing is that we are making this [Dalit-Bahujan-Ambedkarite] vocabulary accessible to “upper” castes. They are not becoming more aware by any stretch. They are just finding access to more and more vocabulary that they can further appropriate. There has been no structural change that has come out of our online awakening. In fact, I did a social experiment on my profile itself to gauge this. Last year (2020), after the Hathras incident, I had put out a call on my Instagram — that don’t just keep sharing these handles. Write an open letter [to your local representative] and send it in. Writing an open letter advocating for change, is the lowest form of social activism. It doesn’t have any consequences. It doesn’t [necessarily] have an effect either. All these petitions that we make and sign and share, it has no [real-world] effect. Whether it gets 5,000 signatures, or 50,000 signatures.
AMV: Ya, I have never understood the point of these [online] petitions. I also get them aplenty in my feed.
BI: I don’t have any data-grounded insights on this. I think that it is a derivative of the US system of petition making though. Where if you can get a certain number of signatures [on a petition], the lawmakers are bound to discuss that issue [in the representative congress/assembly]. India does not have a system like that in place. So, this is like a trend. If it is being done there [in the US], we have also started doing it here in India. It has no effect, no consequences. It is a form of bottom-of-the-barrel, least-common-denominator form of social action.
See Anurag, I have a size-able following on social media. So, when I put that call-to-action out for people to write these letters, I don’t know what I was expecting. But do you know how many people actually heeded the call and followed through?
AMV: How many?
BI: Just one person Anurag! Just one person out of my 10,000+ followers took that call-to-action seriously and wrote an open letter. ONE!
This is telling you something really incredible — that whatever this engagement is, it doesn’t necessarily have any introspection in it. It has now been a few years right, in the making, for this aesthetic. I also got into it because of a page on Facebook called Savarna Rehab. Savarna Rehab, when I first saw their memes, gave me a refreshing new energy. I got energised to find and develop my own [Bahujan] articulation. And they said that all Bahujan people [with the means] should start similar pages. I took that call quite seriously to heart. So, I started from there. Savarna Rehab, since then, got taken down once, got resurrected and then went away once again. Since then, numerous similar such meme pages have sprung up on social media. A lot of young [Bahujan] people also have found an expression through these pages; people probably in their early 20s. These young people are actually quite bold. They express themselves quite strongly. Sometimes I fear for them. This un-inhibited, un-hindered, self-expression is may be not for us (laughs).
AMV: We are probably Boomers now (laughs).
BI: Ya, we are probably boomers now in the context of this discourse.
These accounts have found followers aplenty in the past few years. They haven’t necessarily found any introspection though. None of these Savarna followers have gone and created their own introspective spaces. I remember you had Sumeet Samos over on your podcast.
AMV: Ya ya. I had him over.
BI: I have heard that podcast. And I really respect Sumeet. He had made a very interesting point in that episode. He had said that there are varied kinds of Dalit-Bahujan organisations in India, representing pretty much all ideologies. He had then asked if we know of any Brahmin [or Savarna] student organisations that have cropped up [out of this online awakening] interrogating their own prejudices.
It has been a while since he came and spoke with you now. Have we seen any organisations come up since then? There must be a sizeable Savarna audience listening to your podcast, right? What are they doing with this engagement — 1 to 1.5 years down the line — this engagement that they have had with a couple of prominent Dalit voices? What is the accountability for a Savarna kid that is following 10–15 of these Dalit-Bahujan handles [and consuming their content]? The accountability is absolutely zero. This behaviour is just a means to an identity curation for Savarnas. They are not going to go start a “Savarnas Against Caste” group. That’s why I firmly believe that all this social media work that we have been doing, it is not going to have any structural effects. The only thing it has done is, it has given a group of sharp journalists, and sharp academics a new form of vocabulary to appropriate.
AMV: Sometimes I feel really circumspect about a lot of these [Savarna] people who [regularly] read Roundtable India, and extract a lot of material from there for their purposes, like articles.
BI: Absolutely. Your apprehensions are not unfounded. But one great thing about the people at Roundtable India is that they know all of this already. They are a little bit no-nonsense about this; because they know this mentality. They know the basic nature of Savarnas. They are a little no-nonsense and ruthless about this. But if you look at the followers that you have and I have — and other people like us who have had their social following multiply in the last six months; like Siddhesh Gautam aka Bakery Prasad — if you look at the kind of audience that is concentrating around people like us; it is a sharp academic and journalistic kind of audience. The effects of this [unfettered access to articulated Bahujan thought] is something you will start seeing soon in their output. It is good thing though that these journalists and academics are noticing our work, and are building on it.
But are they then going back to their [largely private] organisations, and raising a voice for Bahujan inclusion in hiring [and leadership] in these organisations? No. They aren’t. That’s the true test. Writing about “Savarna Gaze” and all that is fine. It is appreciable. I don’t want to diminish its significance. Is it eventually leading to a change in recruitment and hiring policies of their organisations though [in favour of proportionate hiring of Bahujan employees]?
So, I am not talking about a one-off article here and there when I talk about structural change. I am talking about real structural change. If you are a teacher, for instance, are you really incorporating Dalit-Bahujan scholars in your syllabus, or are you just making token gestures like including a one-off essay by brother Suraj Yengde in a largely Savarna-written syllabus?
AMV: I have also seen a few instances of this. Quite a few people engage with me often on social media nowadays; especially since my follower count has grown beyond a certain level. And sometimes, from certain conversations, I can clearly gauge that they are doing it just to be able to show-off in their circles that they are a conversation-level acquaintance with a Dalit artist.
BI: Absolutely. It is sometimes more sinister than that though.
So, we oftentimes make fun of private universities out of frustration. One day a Jindal University student sent me an image of a classroom projector, projecting a few slides by a professor there. The slides had my social content on them. Their professor, introduced my content to the students in their class; to give their students a perspective about how there are ‘other ways…’ and ‘caste’, and you know how it goes [curated ogling at marginalised points of views]. When I saw that I didn’t feel happy about it. I actually got quite angry about this supposed courage/heroism (self-proclaimed or implied) of this faculty. If they want to really do something, why don’t they engage with my work and then go advocate for actual change in their organisation’s hiring policies, to include Bahujans more proportionately [both in the student and in the faculty cohort].
AMV: Yes. Your work, instead, becomes a topic of research for these Savarna faculty then.
BI: Exactly. This reminds me of that Abhay Xaxa poem — I Am Not Your Data. It is a beautiful poem. Precisely because it is relevant. It is well and good that these faculty members are including our content in their classroom presentations, in their readings, and in their articles; but do they actually really want Dalit-Bahujan students in their classroom? Are these [Savarna] faculty members collaborating with Bahujan scholars? Are they giving them space?
I have a similar grievance with Feminism in India. “Feminism in India” — is such an ostentatious, humble name that they have chosen (sarcastic). They do something called Dalit History Month [each year]. So, my question to them is that what are we OBCs supposed to go and do then? Where are the STs going to go and write about their histories? What about the DNTs? What about the MBCs or the Most Backward Classes (scheduled within the OBC classification)? What is this strange binary that you have framed by instituting [only] a Dalit History Month? Undeniably, Dalit history month is very important. But then what are they trying to imply through a Dalit History Month? Are the rest of the eleven months Savarna months then?
Are they [Savarnas] saying that during this one month they will focus on Dalits but then the rest of the months are theirs exclusively? (sarcastic)
AMV: This exclusion is very cleverly propagated by Savarnas. The term Dalit Artist also comes from a similar place.
BI: Absolutely. What are these terms? Dalit Artist; Dalit Intellectual — and now we are coming full circle to where we had started this discussion off from — the term Buffalo Intellectual. What is the equivalent of these terms for a Tribal intellectual? There is none. Or an OBC intellectual for that matter; or a Pasmanda intellectual. None.
This is so because this Dalit and Non-Dalit binary suits the Savarna. It is like black and white; men and women; queer and cis-het; etc. These binaries suit them, because then they can make the other an object of your patronage. The problem comes [when you dive deeper and realise] that caste in India is not binary. Castes in India are a multitude of communities. The larger Dalit community itself has multiple diverse communities within it.
AMV: Absolutely. Each and every Dalit community in India has its own distinct identity and culture [and history of resistance to Savarna oppression].
BI: Also, there are hierarchies within the Dalit community as well.
AMV: Yes. Hierarchies and regional disparities. For instance, a Dalit Jaati (caste) in Rajasthan, has no connection to a Dalit Jaati in Maharashtra. They are completely different from each other. They have no [historical] cultural connection with each other. Their customs are vastly different, their lived realities are distinct.
BI: Of course. [For instance] Chahar (OBC Jaat community from Rajasthan) culture, and Mahar (Scheduled Caste Dalit community from Maharashtra) culture, are absolutely different from each other. Within the OBC classification also there are thousands of castes which have been scheduled as OBC. A Yadav (pastoral OBC) community from the north, is very different from a Jaat (farming OBC) community from UP. And these two communities are the dominant OBC communities, right? So, their cultural privilege, however diminished, is not at the same level as any other smaller OBC community. There is a very apparent variation in [how] caste [operates].
Which is why I have to re-iterate that whatever it is that we are doing on [Bahujan] social media, it is basically just giving a sophisticated vocabulary to Savarnas.
(Implying that it is not necessarily adding nuance to the discourse)
AMV: I feel the same. After a point I had realised that this (social media advocacy) does not have the potential for a larger impact, as far as I could tell. One favourable outcome that we might achieve from this though, is that it might give people who are apprehensive regarding talking about caste, a confidence to express their views about caste after looking at what people like us are saying. As a community initiative it might have that potential but that is pretty much it. There is no potential for larger awareness around caste in this. It is not going to spur other circles (Savarna circles implied) to become more aware.
BI: Yes. That favourable outcome is important. Every time a Dalit-Bahujan-Pasmanda person reaches out to me on social media saying they appreciate my work; it engenders a conversation. These conversations with people from the Bahujan community are what I do this for.
If a Savarna person reaches out to me instead saying ‘I feel scared to talk about caste’, my first reaction to them is always that ‘good, be scared; and shut up about this. There is no need for your opinion in this discussion really.’
What do they really want from me in such an exchange? Do they want me to placate their fears by saying ‘no no, you can talk; your voice is also needed’. Do they want me to say that?
AMV: Savarnas really need to learn to not speak also.
BI: Ya. If they are scared, then it’s good they are scared. They should be. It is a perceived threat to their privilege that is scaring them. They have an insecurity that they will get called out. This is precisely why they are scared. And that fear has an important place here. That’s the basic premise [of Savarna “allyship”].
AMV: So, I had some more audience questions. I think I have to apologise to the listeners here though. I can’t ask any more questions because of length constraints on the audio file. If I push the recording any further, it will become ineligible for upload on Spotify. So maybe we will leave the rest of the questions for another time; whenever you have some to spare. May be, we will be able to bring in some more discussion topics into that follow-up recording.
Thank you Buffalo Intellectual. It was a real pleasure talking to you. It always is a wonderful but rare opportunity or occurrence, when two marginal community representatives sit down and talk [about their lived experiences]. Otherwise, usually we always end up in Savarna spaces; where an “upper” caste interviewer platforms, and interrogates us condescendingly. Those interviews are thus usually about commodifying our marginal culture and our trauma.
So, this discussion was a great break from such pseudo-philosophical interrogations.
Thank you so much.
BI: Thank you Anurag. I really enjoyed this conversation too. Though, I think, I rambled on a little bit [in places].
AMV: No no. It was very good. I got to learn so much today; and I am sure the listeners will also take a great deal away from this discussion.
BI: I think we should talk more; and [I have to say] this was a really good experience for me. I really had a good time. I am a big fan of yours and seeing your work always makes me really happy.
AMV: Same here.
BI: Thank you for having me over.
AMV: Thank you so much. So, this was today’s podcast. If you have any thoughts or suggestions about this podcast, you can DM them to me on Instagram.
To wrap up, I have a request for my listeners. If you appreciate my work, you can support me on the Patreon link below. Your support will enable me to me purchase some better-quality sound recording equipment; which will in turn improve your listening experience. Thank you so much, once again, for listening to the Podcast.
Patreon link: https://www.patreon.com/anuragminusverma.
The transcription above takes certain liberties with filling in certain gaps with obvious but unstated phrases. For the cognitively disabled (like the transcriber) there are certain notations made about the tonality of what is being said. The reader needs to keep in mind that this transcription is also a translation into English of audio content originally recorded in conversational Hindustani, interspersed with Indian English.
Additional notes, explaining certain terminologies, are the transcriber’s personal notes. They have been cross-checked and verified using the most reliable of publicly available scholarly sources.
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