A Vocal Vemula and Some Vakaalat from Desh-Videsh

“The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind. As a glorious thing made up of star dust. In every field, in studies, in streets, in politics, and in dying and living.

– Rohith Vemula

Racism in America went through its own process of naturalisation. Through this process, the court had occasion to determine whether a person was black or white. Invariably, people of Japanese descent, or Indian Sikhs of the Aryan descent and persons of mixed blood became the subjects of such litigation.

In one such case, United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, before the US Supreme Court, the court confessed the difficulty of deciphering black from white. It said:

“It seems to require a strong mental effort to sweep into a single category, however elastic, so many different peoples – Europeans, North Africans, West Asiatics, Iranians and other all the way to the Indo-Gangetic plains and uplands, whose complexion presents every shade of colour, except yellow, from white to the deepest brown or even black.”

A former professor at Columbia University, Edward Said, was famous for painting the world in an ‘us versus them’ paradigm. According to Said, the ‘Oriental East’ was colonised by the ‘Occidental West’ so that the ‘West’ could help the ‘East’ perform the “white man’s burden”. The reason why the white man felt the need to paint the Oriental East against the same stroke as the Occidental West is because “we, white persons” are “civilised, rational, forward and methodical” whereas “they, persons of the East,” swarming from the lands of slithering snakes, sweaty armpits and spices are “exotic, backward, chaotic and uncivilised.”

I saw this theory of ‘us versus them’ come to light in the same Thind judgment.

“When they [makers of the Constitution] extended the privilege of American citizenship to ‘any alien, being a free white person’, it was these immigrants – bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh – and their kind whom they must have had affirmatively in mind. The succeeding years brought immigrants from Eastern, Southern and Middle Europe, among them the Slavs and the dark eyes, swarthy people of Alpine and Mediterranean stock…” (emphasis supplied)

Said’s idea can also be understood as explicating a form of knowledge production – where the powerful monopolised over all forms of producing knowledge to be able to maintain their position over the less powerful. This judgment serves to eternalise how us, people of the East – us immigrants – shall never be “American” enough to “melt into the pot” of America, rather we shall always be immigrants who might receive the gift of blue passports, if we are lucky enough.

Nayyirah Waheed in her poem articulates this idea as:

“You broke the ocean in

Half to be here.

Only to meet nothing that wants you.

                                        – immigrant.”

In one of such cases before the court of appeals of Kentucky, Theophanis v. Theophanis, the court had to decide on questions of alimony and matrimony – and went into a discussion on whether a certain Mary Jane Walker was a person of colour. During this discussion, the court remarked:

“Mary Jane Walker, if indeed of negro blood, was not of pure negro blood. She had long black straight hair, a very straight nose, high cheek bones, and thin lips. She was of copper colour, and had a smooth and beautiful complexion. Certainly there is no showing in this evidence that she was of pure negro blood…” (emphasis supplied)

In this case, the court appears to equate a certain kind of beauty that is associated with white women with a non-white woman. Since the plaintiff in the above case, Mary Jane Walker possesses such “beauty,” she is believed not to be a person of completely coloured heritage. The court also seems to imply a certain “look” that women of colour embody. This “look” would include having hair which are not straight, perhaps frizzy or tied in cornrows; having a nose which is not straight, perhaps a broad, pudgy nose, having droopy and undefined cheek bones and thick lips. And of course-being “black” – having a rough and not beautiful complexion.

Also read: ‘I am Tam, But Not Brahm’: My Dalit Experience At BITS, Pilani

This idea of the courts judicialising stereotypes around a community to be able to determine some aspects of the law travelled to India with the case of Ram Singh v. Union of India. Instead of answering the legal question at hand, the court ends up delivering a class on Indian mythology. The court went onto say:

“Though the origin of Jat is shrouded in mystery, they are believed to be an Indo-Aryan tribe…They play a predominant role in this, region. Agriculture, soldiering and cattle rearing have been the main occupation of Jats. Jats are brave and hardworking and independent minded people. The Jats led a fairly autonomous political life. Historically, it is argued that the Jats and Rajputs were of one race. But a certain section of the people having risen in the social scale started associating themselves as the original Rajputs and hence Kshatrias. These Rajputs disassociated themselves from the so-called Jats or descendent of jata of Lord Shiva.” (emphasis supplied)

I see these ideas coming back.

While the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, was amended to sharpen its penalty and increase the specificity of the “atrocities” it covered, the legal knife doesn’t cut at the day-to-day micro-agression of violence against people from lower castes. Such micro-aggression may manifest itself in a university space as the professor never allowing a certain student to answer, or a student-led society from always excluding a certain student from its activities, to an administrative policies’ silence on questions of caste.

The Dalit PhD female student from Ambedkar University in Delhi exemplifies the above problem.

Conventional casteist slurs usually limit themselves to “chamar” or “bhangi.”

However, the legal knife doesn’t cut deep enough at the micro-aggression, where merely because of the fact that Preeti wears “decent clothes, uses lipstick and wears sunglasses,” she is somehow less of a Dalit than the others. And by virtue of all this, Preeti deserves the silence of her university’s human studies department. It is ironical that this department calls itself that of human studies, but lacks demonstrating any knowledge of being human-e.

It seems to me, that the idea of being lower-caste has also somewhere tied itself to the person’s appearance. And unless the person in front of us is not in tattered clothes or covered in observable bruises of being lower caste – such a person is not lower caste enough for us.

Caste cannot be judged by YouTuber Kusha Kapila’s ‘South Delhi Aunty’ solely on the basis of clothes worn or the size of someone’s diamond ring, for let us not forget that even such an “aunty” stepped on some shoulders, trampled some hopes and employed some dreams to be where she is today.

And so, when these trampled hopes – and partially fulfilled dreams – come to haunt us, let us not do what Rohith Vemula warned us against: reduce a person to their immediate identity, and discard them as “not Dalit enough”.

Tanessa Puri is a final year B.A. LL.B student at Jindal Global Law School. Her areas of interest include human rights law and critical race theory and caste. When not studying the law, finding avenues for receiving higher education at subsidised rates or begging for a job, Tanessa likes to write poems.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty