Dr. Suraj Yengde
I grew up in Nanded in Marathwada. It is a small city in the hinterlands of Maharashtra. The region I come from was never colonised by the British & was under the Nizam rule. Therefore, I have a very different interpretation of the independence movement & India’s relation with the freedom struggle. We have two independence day celebrations, the second one on 17th September when we got free from the clutches of Nizam which we celebrate as Marathwada Mukti Sangram Din. We don’t have a colonial archive or history. Apart from decolonising from the British, we also have to decolonise from the hegemony of dominant castes in these regions.
For me, the biggest inspiration has been Babasaheb Ambedkar. If he would not have pursued two Phds, I would not have been here. People often emulate their leaders and if he were some low-life, tobacco chewing politician we would have been stuck in the same roles. He is the reason many communities started aspiring to be more.
Growing up, my father was also an inspiration. He studied in a simple Marathi school and didn’t even matriculate. I grew up in a small house with 5 family members. The roof was made of tin. We were the ‘weather people’ because we were the first to know when it would rain and the first to feel heat and cold. I had a rough childhood when it comes to physical comforts. We slept on a chatai (a mat made from recycled plastic) on a hardened floor. I get very nostalgic when I remember the sacrifices made by my family members. They have made me who I am.
That’s the difference between us and the accent speaking elite bourgeois of any caste from urban areas. Their life is very different. They consume western pop culture & their references are Friends or Family Guy. I didn’t even know what Friends was up until recently. They literally mimic everything Western that is wedded with strong social and cultural capital.
Life as a Dalit is difficult. The political parties only want to tokenise you. They don’t want you to think or speak independently. I think Dalits are exceptional but our talents are not tested. A lot of political parties approach me in the hopes of tokenising me but it won’t work. Dalits have fought feudalism, landlordism, casteism and Brahmanism. It is similar to patriarchy, where women are merely tokenised but their opinions are not entertained.
In my journey, there was no encouragement and people, even my professors would laugh at my ideas. There was absolutely no support system. For a sapling to grow, water isn’t enough. It needs nourishment, sunlight and proper care. As a sapling, I had no support. This kills the energy inside you. In the casteist economy that we live in, the aspirations of many Dalits are dead. The dominant castes take away much of it. In my final year of law school, I decided this is it for me. Like Nelson Mandela said in his autobiography, after climbing one mountain he saw there were many others to climb. So I decided to pursue international human rights law and then African Studies.
Every oppressed group has a commonality of suffering, which is not just individual but also structural suffering. You suffer because you are a part of the ecology that is oppressing you. Like Modi’s govt passed a law against Advisasis and they were rendered homeless. The Africans experience similar oppression.
I refuse to identify upper castes. I call them oppressor criminal castes. If I speak as someone from Harvard people are interested, if I speak as a Dalit they are not. Media houses used to invite me until I gave my strong Dalit position but I don’t care. The Harvard tag is there for others to feel relevant when they are talking to me. They think they are talking to an educated Harvard scholar and that is the cardinal problem. Neither am I respected or valued. Also, Harvard is the dream of many dominant caste people. It makes people want to associate with me. On my political position I don’t get support. They want photos and events but don’t want to act on my ideas.
In Black Lives Matter, you could see white young people and even celebrities as part of the movement. They took responsibility for their role in racism. But in India, no dominant caste would confess that. The Dalits are alone in their fight. We need people across caste and religion as part of the cause and to take that responsibility individually. We don’t have people with courage. We need to push that dialogue with our friends. The struggle should be everyone’s struggle.
This Govt is a national disgrace. I believe that the opposition is also responsible for the current state of affairs. Like Trump reaped the benefits of Democrats’ bad deeds, BJP is reaping the benefits of the Congress’ failures. Is hamaam mei sab nange hai.
People are afraid to speak up because they are scared of the consequences. This is a definitive Orwellian moment but also an Ambedkarian moment. Ambedkar had predicted this and said that unless we strengthen democracy, this is going to rise. People supporting Modi are the ones who were never paid attention to before. They want to trust Modi because they have no one else to trust. This is why we need an injection of progressivism which means upholding constitutional values. The Constitution is merely tokenised in India. One thing Congress does well that if a person did something unethical they would fire him. BJP has normalised that bigotry. How do you control the polity as well as the public’s mind? What happened in Hathras: Thakurs and Brahmins came openly to threaten the victims. This is the hell we are living in.
Parties need to be liberal in the real sense and not just on the face of it. Right now, the Congress is good because of people like K Raju and Nitin Raut who are doing good work. Priyank Kharge also provides a moral compass in the Modi wave. My suggestion to the party would be to make reforms in the state where they are in power to ensure that Dalits can own land. Indira Gandhi had pursued it to some level. It should push for an accountable private sector by pushing for more affirmative action. To recognise the oppressed and to pursue an agenda that will help them make universal healthcare of same quality for all, give the same education and facilities, scholarships, nutrition, without bowing down to others. The Congress should also have a Dalit president of the party for a few terms.
What I would like people to know about me is that I am a loving, humorous guy. When I am talking or expressing my political opinions, I am also trying to create a space for my community which has never been heard before. But despite everything, I have not given up on loving the other. I still love people. This is not Gandhian love but a Dalit love- a love which protects from all ills. I hope people from all castes and religions who find value in respecting and treating people equally will have a better life and a better future than what they have right now (which is worsened because of an assault on our programmes and futures). In my ideal world we need a rigorous democracy that is premised on the emotion of the oppressed and priority of the marginalised. What we need is not just token democracy but social democracy. These people need to re-evaluate what they have done wrong. We need to puncture the cannon of Brahmanism and bring forward Dalits, LGBTQI and Adivasis. We need to identify and celebrate these people. We need our own Obama. For that, there needs to be a revolution to fix our social fabric.