The rape and murder of the 19 year old Dalit woman, Manisha Valmiki at Hathras, Uttar Pradesh, has awakened the consciousness of the nation. An important question being asked in debates everywhere from popular news channels to Twitter threads is how this case was about caste: “Why are you making rape about caste? Why does her Dalit identity need mentioning?”. This question is important because it shows us a glimpse of the true state of general society with respect to awareness about caste. This case is of a young Dalit woman who was working with her mother in the field of an upper caste, where four upper caste men rape her, then break her legs and cut her tongue off. What followed is a series of administrative actions nearly as brutal and horrifying as her rape and eventual murder: delay in getting her adequate treatment, the police locking her family up and burning her body in the dead of the night, the administration desperately trying to prove there was no rape. This case has caste smeared in bold red all over it. Yet, Indians fail to see the casteist violence here, just like we are blind to the violence that people around us and we ourselves perpetuate through our caste privilege.
The Uttar Pradesh government, despite backlash for their mishandling of the Hathras case, is currently set to investigate an “international conspiracy” to defame the Yogi Sarkar and incite caste violence. Rape apologia, thakur men threatening with agitation if the four accused Thakur men aren’t released, the National Savarna Council supporting the accused — all of this has followed since, but it shouldn’t be surprising. Indian society has historically failed at even acknowledging casteism, let alone working on obliterating it.
However, such a denial of caste coming from urban upper caste journalists, academicians, feminists, people with social/political power, is truly regressive. Leaders like Atishi Marlena from the Aam Aadmi Party have been heard demanding “justice for all women, not just Dalit women”. Savarna (upper caste) feminists speaking about this incident have amply displayed such hypocrisy.
Even those savarnas who claim to understand caste and call themselves anti-caste allies end up taking too much space in a movement about Dalit feminism. Swara Bhaskar, an upper caste woman, deemed it correct to climb up to the roof of Bhim Army Chief Chandrashekhar Azad’s car at a recent Delhi protest. Kiruba Munuswamy, an anti-caste activist and lawyer, spoke in a panel about how savarna women talk so much about the upliftment of the marginalised castes, appropriating a movement where they are supposed to be allies, not the spokespersons or leaders.
Such space-hogging and appropriation hurts the movement by snatching space from the actual leaders, those with the experience of marginalisation. This ends up reproducing the very marginalisation that the movement is against. Allyship is important as there is strength in numbers, but tokenistic understanding of the role can become toxic for the movement and add to the oppression further. It is important to address this toxicity, to understand what being an ally should be about. Even well-meaning people may have confused notions about allyship.
Allyship has to be understood as an actionable construct. It is not an identity tag for someone who knows a bit about a community’s oppression and is sympathetic towards them. Allyship is an active practice of unlearning and reevaluating one’s privilege because one seeks to work in solidarity with a marginalised group. It is something that one chooses to do not out of guilt but out of responsibility. This is important because allyship is a genuine, effortful investment, and someone acting out of guilt would do this more for themselves and less for the marginalised group.
Anti-caste allyship then is a continuous process of building a relationship with people who have been oppressed by savarnas for centuries. As savarnas seeking to support marginalised caste groups, we would first and foremost need to acknowledge our own privilege consistently. We should use this privilege to help the community. People in positions of power should make space for better representation of the lower-castes in their respective fields.
We must always remember that we are here to support the others, and so allyship cannot be self-defined. Work done as an ally should be recognised by the marginalised group and be framed to help them. For this, the abilities to be sensitive, communicate well, and take criticism are important. And doing this work shouldn’t mean that we shift the focus onto ourselves.
Anti-caste allyship should also involve educating ourselves and our private, upper-caste circles, about privilege — talking to them, calling them out, fighting them for oppression through their actions, and even failing to recognize their own privilege. This is specially needed right now, when most people don’t acknowledge the oppression at all. Work on ending the oppression can only happen when the oppression is recognised in the first place.
Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar said that caste is like a multi-story building without doors and ladders; wherever you start, that’s where you are for perpetuity. The current ally-activism is like the savarnas in the upper storeys chanting anti-caste slogans, since they have “understood” that caste shouldn’t exist. But the building still exists intact!
Posting on social media, going to protests for Manisha or even ultimately getting the culprits punished will not be the end of this. In the words of Kiruba Munuswamy, justice for the Hathras case is nothing less than annihilation of caste. This is a long journey, and it demands consistent, morally conscious action from us all. Despite all the allyship duties listed above, being an ally is actually quite straightforward. We can start simply by reading Annihilation of Caste or truly listening to even one Dalit person’s experience, and just being more compassionate.
Mansi is a student of philosophy and environmental studies at Ashoka University. Her other interests include performing arts, politics and octopuses.
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