What Sort Of A Meaningless Term Is ‘Brahmanical’? – OpEd


I followed the news item where, during a talk at JNU, Delhi, the critic and theorist Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak attempted to correct a student who mispronounced the name of W. E. B. Du Bois, a prominent thinker whose influence can be seen in almost all major anti-colonial movements across the world. Apparently, the question that the student wished to ask was: “Spivak claims to be middle class. She said in her lecture that Du Bois was an upper-class elite. How is she as a great granddaughter of Bihari Lal Bhaduri, a close friend of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, supposed to be middle class?” He also referred to himself as the “Founding Professor of the Centre for Brahmin Studies”. 

However rude the student’s attempts to pose the question might have seemed, I think Spivak should have responded to him. If the student is accusing her of being privileged, I don’t think, in itself, privilege is a bad thing. Nothing is wrong with being born into privilege. It is what you do with your position of privilege that really matters. If she’s a professor at Columbia University, it’s obvious that she enjoys a certain amount of privilege. But, to be fair to her, she used her privilege correctly. She dedicated her writing to deconstructing power. This is not to suggest that she did not earn her global reputation as a formidable intellectual through hard work and commitment. 

Therefore, for an 82-year-old woman professor to be asked the question, implicitly presupposing that she is concealing her class, is a bit too much to take. She responded to his rudeness with a subtler kind of assertiveness that manifested in the way she corrected his pronunciation and evaded the question. I don’t blame her. No one likes to be treated with condescension. Someone should tell the boy that he cannot treat people as if they owe him an explanation for who they are and what their background is. Nothing gives you the right to ask me a question with regard to who I am unless I have given you such a right. She is an 82-year-old woman scholar. The least he could do is pose his question a little respectfully. Would he speak in the same manner if she belonged to a marginal community? Not that it makes it any better. Then, why talk to her as if she’s a five-year old who is caught hiding a sweet in her hand? 

This tendency to constantly attack people for belonging to a certain community or for their social background is popular in universities which have a leftist culture. How is it my fault that I am born in a certain caste? How is it your fault that you are born in a certain caste? It works both ways. The Brahmin did not commit a sin by being born a Brahmin for exactly the same reason that the Dalit did not commit a sin by being born a Dalit. This is the reason why I am opposed to the use of the word ‘Brahmanical’. The more appropriate word is ‘casteism’ or ‘casteist.’ 

Brahmin is both a caste and a varna. If ‘Brahmanical’ means upper caste supremacism, why should it be restricted to Brahmins? Are there no members in other social groups who are casteist? Some of them even fall under the category of OBCs. In my view, ‘Brahmanical’ is a term of abuse that is used randomly to refer to people whose views we assume represent mainstream Hindu thought and culture. I remember an honest and upright Muslim professor being called ‘Brahmanical.’ And the man was anything but that.

This culture of spewing venom against professors and students in universities through the use of the term ‘Brahmanical’ is unpardonable to say the least. It’s a form of harassment which, in its extreme form, is called persecution. Indian public universities are fountains of toxicity where there is a group of teachers and students, self-professed activists, who make it their full-time business to attack people in the most disrespectful terms possible. The justification for it is the caste and sometimes the minority card. ‘I come from an oppressed community.’ ‘I’ll abuse you.’ ‘I’ll file atrocity cases against you.’ ‘I’ll basically spoil your reputation and make you look like a casteist or a communal person’. This ‘perpetual victim syndrome’ (PVS) of marginal communities, which sometimes includes minorities as well, is the bane of Indian universities.

From my own experience, in 2016, an extremely toxic student filed an SC/ST atrocity case against me in the nearest police station because he claimed that I evicted him from the English and Foreign Languages University campus on Ambedkar Jayanti. Until the police officer called and told me on phone that an atrocity case had been filed against me, I did not know that the boy was a Dalit. There was nothing in his appearance or name which vaguely suggested he was Dalit. Caste, unlike race, is a hidden signifier. The other thing is that he never called me to find out if I had actually given a verbal instruction to the security officer in question. The security officer, a literal-minded man, made the decision on his own. Had he asked me, of course, there is no way I would have asked him to evict the student from the campus on a special occasion such as Ambedkar Jayanti. The student did everything possible to destroy my reputation in as many ways as possible. Needless to say he had ample support from so-called leftist teachers and students from a certain department that professes to teach culture and from other universities as well. Likewise, with some other students who lied through their teeth and got away with the online abuse that I was subjected to, because, as a rule, I don’t like to get back at students for their stupidity.

The Rohith Vemula case of a Dalit student who committed suicide in 2016, was closed recently and then reopened with some pressure on the Congress government in Telangana. I don’t intend to go into the details of whether he was or wasn’t a Dalit. What is important is that he took his own life which in itself is a tragedy. However, I would like to go with the reason for the suicide as stated in the note left behind: “No one is responsible for my this act of killing myself. No one has instigated me, whether by their acts or by their words to this act. This is my decision and I am the only one responsible for this.”

(I’m not a BJP supporter by any definition of the term. This is the party that is directly and indirectly responsible for me losing my job. The VC who removed me from service used ABVP, RSS and BJP connections to ensure that there was no response from the Ministry of Education with regard to complaints on my removal from service. The VC even went to the extent of taking an article of mine written in 2013, where I was critical of the hanging of Afzal Guru, and sent it to every ABVP, RSS and BJP personage he knew and he even used it even in the High Court of Telangana to spoil my case, calling me a “communist” and “urban naxal”, only to cover up his own criminal misdeeds. He succeeded while I lost my job.)

Therefore, I have no special affection for the then Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad (where Rohith Vemula studied) Prof. Appa Rao Podile, the BJP member of parliament, Mr. Bandaru Dattatreya or Ms. Smriti Irani, who happened to be the education minister. Certainly there were issues on the campus between the right-wing ABVP students and the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA). Yet, I’ve no doubt in my mind that all of the accused in this case were innocent of Rohith Vemula’s suicide. Prof. Appa Rao Podile was virtually subjected to every abuse imaginable, short of burning him at the stake. Again, the man mishandled the issue by not calling for a dialogue between both groups of students. But, to crucify a man for no fault of his and ensure that his reputation is destroyed for life is a bit too much in my view.

This is the kind of poisonous culture behind the arrogant casteist epithet, “Founding Professor of the Centre for Brahmin Studies”. Members of the upper castes among teachers, a disgruntled lot who like to pretend that they are beyond caste, and bleeding-heart white liberals with a savior complex, are usually behind this kind of bullshit with teachers and students from marginalized groups. The bottom line is that you must get a degree, earn a position and use your position to correct discrimination wherever it happens. You cannot alienate everybody by playing the ‘lower’ caste and the victim card all the time. You cannot be filing false cases against people who belong to other groups simply because you are a full-time activist who has made it your business to target people who are opposed to your views.

There are white American and European Christians who happen to be racist. That’s not the fault of Christianity. There are Hindus who are casteist and their casteism needs to be challenged. It doesn’t mean you call every Hindu a casteist or see Hinduism synonymous with casteism. It doesn’t mean you randomly target people because in your mind you are convinced that they are casteist. What sort of a meaningless term is ‘Brahmanical’? Or another equally nonsensical term ‘savarna’? It’s offensive and reverse casteist as well. There are good people everywhere (though in significantly small numbers) just as every community has its share of hardened criminals. Why specially target Brahmins or any group for that matter? Why say that Hinduism and the caste system are one and the same thing? They are not. I know a lot of devout Hindus who are anything but casteist, either in their private or their public lives.

I think it’s high time that Dalits and minorities, especially in universities, realize that this culture of spewing venom on members of other groups is going to work against their interests, both in the short and in the long run. They are going to isolate themselves and this is going to damage their progress in a big way. Fighting discrimination is not a bad thing. But it has to be fought in a just way. Not through abuse and by making constant claims of victimization without concrete reasons. Exclusion cannot be answered with exclusion, but with inclusion. Just as you want to be trusted and respected it is only fair that the other person expects the same amount of trust and respect from you. But I blame their leadership and their so-called spokespersons for burning bridges between groups. If communal and caste discrimination would come to an end a lot of these people would be without jobs. They made their careers by playing the caste and victim card. That too is privilege in a way. Why would they want to give it up now?

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is an independent scholar from Hyderabad, India.

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