Notes on Allyship From an Anti-Caste Savarna

As the #DalitLivesMatter movement gains traction, many savarna-Brahmin folk are engaged in performative allyship that is shrouded in misinformation and benevolent casteism. A recent Twitter thread by Dalit activist Sankul calling out a Brahmin woman who referred to caste as a colonial legacy in a TED talk has gained attention, and rightfully so as it is a fundamental example of false narratives that emerge if we savarnas lead the conversation.

The necessity of passing the mic has been expressed by Dalit activists for decades, and only now do we choose to engage in that dialogue. Community and academia – the two spaces where I predominantly spend my time – will talk about passing the mic, but assume silence after doing so is work well done.

But the key to allyship is to realise that the mic we hold is stolen and thus never ours to pass, and the spaces where we need to speak up as anti-caste savarnas, and ask questions as researchers, are spaces and structures that put us here in the first place.

Let’s take the world of social sciences. Savarna liberal academics, much like the seemingly well-natured woman from the TED talk, are people with aspirations of “wanting to give back” to marginalised communities. We will vehemently insist on passing the mic in online spaces, but ultimately advance our careers by studying Dalit, Bahujan and OBC communities and attain success through their experiences.

Also read: On Realising My Inherent Casteism at an Art Collective

Savarnas in research have externalised the problem of caste to a point where we study this all-consuming force as if we’re removed from the system, and thus have no positionality – even though we are the beneficiaries of it. Why do savarna researchers formalise caste atrocities without lived experience, and study it in ways that further perpetuates a myopic view of caste survivorship, when instead the answers to caste lie within our homes, our communities, and ourselves?

It is time we reverse the gaze of academia and critical judgment, and along with it, the gaze of activism as well. We must remove ourselves from the spaces that are meant for Dalit and Adivasis to reimagine and organise, and work within the expanse of the oppressor: our homes, our communities and our minds.

How and when do children get indoctrinated with caste discrimination? How do upper-caste women weaponise the puritanical values of Brahminical patriarchy in order to propagate violent casteism against Dalit women? How are conversations about caste held in tightly-knit savarna families, and do these conversations bring about desirable change? How do Brahmins continue to practice untouchability in urban spaces under the guise of class and cleanliness?

Also read: Inside the World of a ‘Casteless’ Indian

Savarna allies would rather spend time absolving their ancestors of caste atrocities by blaming the British or providing ignorant perspectives to studying the intergenerational trauma endured by Dalit communities, when in truth, the only structure we are capable of analysing are the casteist practices that we are entrenched in, structures that are life-threatening if attempted to be accessed by Dalits. Savarna households have a consolidation of ancestral and financial power, and with it comes detailed traditions that ensure the containment of these privileges within our caste. Not only must we show to the world the existence of this power as academics and as revolutionaries, but we must expose the ways in which our communities accumulate capital, exploit Dalit and Bahujan labour and engage with the larger sociopolitical forces to maintain their position.

This isn’t something new to appeal to – many Dalit and Adivasi activists, inspired by their own rhetoric and works of black activists such as Malcom X, have posited this in their activism only to be met with silence. It is important to note that documenting the lived experiences of the many marginalised caste communities in India takes utmost preference, but this is not the avenue for us savarnas to venture in as we are simply re-perpetuating caste violence under the guise of positivism and so-called academic freedom. Dalit and Adivasi communities are not for us to turn into subjects, but our own oppressive caste communities most definitely deserve our critical view.

Where do these perspectives culminate? A deeper understanding of dominance will not only show the world the key to destroying it, but will also give us the morality to disengage with it. Allyship is ultimately about action and not about identity, it is a constant role we’re engaged in and should translate into the material with time. As long as we live in a capitalist structure and until we socialise our means of production, a radical shift in hierarchy through allyship can only happen if the actions of savarnas result in transactions of power and property to Dalit and Adivasi communities.

It begins with taking back conversations of Ambedkar and radicalism home, and to hold those relationships at stake if our families refuse to engage. This comes with consequences of losing out on familial privilege – how many of us are ready to do that? To show true allyship is to share and give up our ancestral capital and the resources we squander through privileged education. How many of us will actively turn down the opportunities of power that are handed to us under the guise of meritocracy in order to see more Dalit leadership?

To succeed in this process would mean we would need to dismantle many of the values we cling onto as indicators of success and self-worth, and ultimately realise our roles as enablers of Brahminical capitalism. Oppressive systems of caste go hand in hand with capitalism, imperialism and fascism, and forces that continue to perpetuate the myths of wealth, meritocracy and hierarchy – all of which are core values of savarnas. To commit to the annihilation of caste, savarnas must be ready to take this path of ego-harakiri and accountability, otherwise, we are merely perpetuating lies of fraternity that result in the illusion of change.

Featured image credit: 愚木混株 Cdd20/Pixabay