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Dalitness and the Idea of Brahmin

Srinivasa Ramanujam ( is a Tamil writer and translator. He is the author of a book titled Renunciation and Untouchability in India: The Notional and the Empirical in the Caste Order.

Engaging with Suraj Yengde’s book Caste Matters, an attempt has been made to negotiate with the notion of “Dalitness” and the idea of Brahmin, by problematising the relation between the discrete jatis and the political categories. Yengde’s thesis of “Brahmins against Brahminism” is analysed through the idea of Brahmin, which is intrinsically related to the practice of untouchability.

Suraj Yengde (2019) in his book Caste Matters attempts to conceptualise the lived experience of the Dalits. He brings the narrative of Dalit politics to the present and also interrogates the various possible positions that the Dalits adopt towards their present problems. Based on how the Dalits respond, varying from either adaptation to opposition of Brahminism, he classifies them as empirical Dalits, conservative Dalits, reactive Dalits, salaried hypocrites, third-generation Dalits, harmful Dalits, and radical Dalits. Not only are these shades fuzzy in nature, but, as Yengde notes as well, these can also be found in any category of people and need not be limited to the Dalits alone.

Let us consider the two types—conservatives and radicals. I do not see the conservatives negatively or the radicals positively. Each one depends on the other; in particular, the concept of the radical depends on the concept of the conservative. What has been achieved by the radicals at a particular historical juncture has to be “conserved” in society. Hence, I feel that the author is sometimes too harsh on Dalits, and with their normal life. But, we need to ask what it is that the conservative Dalits really “conserve” or attempt to “conserve?”1 Do the Dalit jatis have really anything to “conserve?” Non-Dalits have something to “conserve.” What do the Dalits have? If they have nothing to “conserve,” can the term conservatives be applied to them? Similarly, what does the word “radical” mean when applied to Brahmins or non-Brahmins? How can we conceptualise a radical Brahmin? These questions cannot be easily answered, and they pose a greater challenge to our existing understanding of caste.

This book has two threads of narratives. One narrative is based on the Dalits’ empirical relations—the personal experiences between the Dalit self and the non-Dalit self. The other narrative can be read as the relationship between the individual Dalit and modern institutions. These are two realities that exist side by side as independent universe. The first narrative is that of the jati self. The second narrative is that of the category self. In this article, I wish to problematise the first narrative.

For this, I engage with the articles published in the Economic & Political Weekly discussing the role of lived experiences in social sciences. M S S Pandian (2008) and Gopal Guru (2002) wrote excellent articles on this issue. Social sciences as an objective enterprise does not allow the author’s lived experiences because the lived experiences become subjective and not worthy of social sciences. Pandian (2008) highlighted this issue, linking M N Srinivas’s theoretical works and his personal anxieties. Yengde (2019) brings his personal experiences into the larger narrative. We cannot expect much like this from the non-Dalit scholars. The credit must be given to the Dalit scholarship for bringing the lived experiences into the larger theoretical framework.

But, I wish to raise this question: Does the author bring his lived experiences into the larger narrative as a jati subject or as a category subject? That is, does the author read his experiences as an empirical Dalit jati self or as a Dalit category subject? Can the narrative of the Dalit category be equated with the experiences of a Dalit jati self? These questions need not be limited to the Dalits alone. These questions are applicable to the political categories like non-Brahmin or Hindu.2 The narrative as a category subject has been very powerfully brought out in this book.

But, the question is this: Can the narrative from the position of the Dalit category get replicated also as the Dalit jati point of view? Though both are based on the lived experiences, one is in the public space, and the other one is in private space.3 The reason for differentiating these is because the experiences of a particular jati subject are based on different sets of past and present, and the conceptual reading of these experiences based on a particular category is based on different sets of past and present.

For example, the idea of Brahmin is based on a different notion than the modern political category of Brahmin. The Brahmin jati self as a political category embodies Hindu nationalism, statism, state-sponsored science and technology, and development. But, the lived experiences of Brahmins are not related to these. A Brahmin self-defines himself (there is no her in the Brahminical framework) through untouchability in his normative life, and through Hindu nationalism, statism, science and development in the public sphere. Similarly, a Dalit jati self-defines themself through untouchability in the lived experience, but as a Dalit category, they are socially oppressed in the Brahminical world order. Both the narratives are real. Both need to be addressed. The private sphere of the jati self still does not have a proper place in social sciences.

Metaphysics of Dalitness

Yengde (2019) discusses the difference between liberation and emancipation. He articulates the liberation of Dalits through the idea of Dalitness. The arguments are powerful when we locate them in the binary of Dalits/Brahmins or Dalitness/Brahminism. He says that

emancipation puts all the onus on the oppressor, whereas the Dalit as an oppressed subject is asked to stand before the doorsteps of emancipators pleading for emancipation … The emancipator is only interested in freeing subjugated bodies up to a level that can ensure the continuation of his or her domination. (p 87)

The liberation of Dalits is not only for the Dalits, but includes the liberation of their oppressors. Hence, in the narration of the author, Dalitness becomes an ideal. The author’s grandmother becomes the symbol of the embodiment of Dalitness. He says,

Dait Love is our Project—a common and harmoniously created experience. (p 50)

He further says that

Dalit universalism demands a complete annihilation of caste hierarchy, thereby inventing a new society for the oppressed to thrive—the Begumpura envisioned by Ravidas. (p 63)

And that

Dalit Love, Dalit humour and Dalit universalism echo the articulations of Dalit freedoms. (p 65)

He talks about Dalit nationalism, which is not “geographically constricted spatiality,” and adds that

It is a consciousness of the highest standard based on the solid foundation of respect to everyone. Dignity and justice form the crux of Dalit Nationalism, which is a radical reimagination of selves in the topography of human virtues. (p 84)

The way Dalitness is defined in this book makes me suspect if it is taken to the metaphysical level. For Guru (as quoted in Gopani 2018: 185), the idea of Dalit is not a metaphysical construction, but, according to him, the term Dalit “derives its epistemic and political strength from the material and social experience of the community.” Does the notion of Dalitness subsume the Dalit jatis? Or is the notion of Dalitness readily available as the inherent component of the empirical Dalit jati subjects?

This question needs to be raised because the idea of Dalit or Dalitness makes perfect sense if it is positioned in the binary opposition to the idea of Brahmin. Here, Dalitness as a notional entity is counterposed to the notional idea of Brahmin. But, if we take the least common denominator, that is, the discrete jatis, the narrative gets into a problem. When we take the jatis as
the least common denominator in the caste order, then how can we handle the differences between liberation and emancipation? How do we position the set of discrete jatis counterposing to the idea of Brahmin? For example, Yengde (2019) says,

ask any aspiring middle-class Dalit about his/her opinion of the Dalit political situation. Without delay, they will point to the lack of unification among the Dalit leadership. Due to this lack of unity, Dalit votes are split, which sustains the problem. By an oversimplified logic, they brush aside the political complexities in the make-up of casteised democracy. (p 189)

I agree with Yengde. But, here, I am not raising the question of the political unity of the Dalit jatis. I am raising the question about the inherent quality of the boundary line that distinguishes and separates the Dalit jatis. The empirical existence refuses to confine to the dictates of the categories. Or, can we say that the idea of Dalitness can exist in surplus of the empirical Dalit jatis, similar to the idea of Brahmin that exists in surplus of the empirical Brahmin jatis?

This issue becomes very important, not from the point of the desired political unity, but because we do not have the proper language to handle the social, political and cultural issues between discrete jatis. We are unable to handle the issues between discrete jatis conceptually. For example, when what is called a “caste honour killing” is done by a non-Dalit, and the victim is a Dalit boy, we are able to articulate that socially, politically and culturally. But, if the same so-called “caste honour killing” is done by a member of one Dalit jati and the victim is a boy from another Dalit jati, we do not have the proper social language to articulate it. The non-Brahmin movement in Tamil Nadu and in other states have evolved conceptual language to handle the Brahmin and non-Brahmin contradictions. Similarly, the Dalit movements have evolved conceptual language to handle the Dalit and non-Dalit contradictions. But, to handle the contradictions within the non-Brahmin jatis or Dalit jatis or Brahmin jatis, we do not have a conceptual language.

Recently, a newly-married Dalit couple was killed in Thoothukudi district of Tamil Nadu. Both of them were Dalit, but belonged to different Dalit jatis. Are we able to discuss this conceptually? This disability can be observed whenever there is a social contradiction between discrete jatis, be it Brahmin jatis or non-Brahmin jatis, or Dalit jatis or non-Dalit jatis. Why are we unable to evolve a conceptual language to discuss the contradiction between discrete jatis within the same category?

Though, Yengde writes that the “Dalits are not a mono-identity, and the perception of them so creating an additional burden on Dalit being. There are multiple cultural differences and lived experiences among Dalits” (p 45), only by erasing or not acknowledging the existence of the discrete jatis, not empirically, but conceptually, that the political and the social language of categories becomes a reality. At the same time, I agree that in spite of this erasing or not acknowledging the discrete jatis, the narrative based on the categories has contributed immensely to the democratisation of the society as a whole. But, what is it that gets erased continuously in the whole narrative? It is the untouchability between discrete jatis. We can observe the practice of untouchability not only between the Brahmin, non-Brahmin and Dalit jatis, but also within the Brahmin jatis, non-Brahmin jatis and Dalit jatis. This makes the whole caste order more ambiguous. Gopani (2018) writes,

If untouchability is an important demarcation to distinguish savarnas and avarnas (Dalits), the “hierarchy of untouchability” among untouchables (Dalits) makes the Dalit category more ambiguous. (p 187)

According to Yengde (2019: 99), there are 1,200 Dalit sub-castes and approximately 4,000 “sub-sub-castes.” Can we say that we have 5,200 Dalits jatis? With these numbers, not only does the Dalit category become more ambiguous, but also the category of non-Brahmin, which must be inclusive of Dalits as well as the political narrative of being a “Hindu,” which must be inclusive of non-Brahmins and Dalits. Categorical narratives have a life of their own, and their existence is premised on the unacknowledged empirical element of untouchability between discrete jatis. The practice of untouchability and the idea of Brahmin are two conceptual positions in the caste order. These two conceptual positions need to be addressed not only socially and politically, but also culturally and philosophically.

Brahmins against Brahminism

Yengde (2019) takes an important position drawing on the experiences of the “whites” who positioned themselves against racism, not only politically, but also culturally, and by making sense of racism in their lived experiences. He also draws from the experience of Brahmins who accepted not only Jyotirao Phule and B R Ambedkar, but also their ideology. He says that at the present juncture, the Brahmins must rally against Brahminism. His position of “Brahmins against Brahminism” needs to be elaborated. The question we need to ask is this: If Brahmin as individuals revolt against Brahminism, what do they become? Can Brahmins as a community revolt against Brahminism? A Brahmin as an individual who revolts against Brahminism cannot continue to be a Brahmin.

For example, Yengde (2019: 257) gives the example of Chakradhar Swami’s reforms in the 13thcentury. This reform movement had universal principles and attempted to incorporate people from all communities, refuting the claims of the empirical Brahmins. But, the question is why this movement became a separate sect called Mahanubhav and the members of this sect became separate jatis. What is the relationship between the sects and the jatis? In ancient and medieval periods, we know that many Brahmins became Buddhists, Jainas, Christians, and Muslims. As individuals, they revolted against Brahminism. The option of becoming something other than being a Brahmin is always available at an individual level. To understand this in proper perspective, let us take the examples of non-Brahmin and Dalits who converted to Christianity, Islam or Buddhism. When they convert to other religion as a group, they become Dalit Christians, Nadar Christians, Dalit Buddhists, Rajput Muslims, etc (Das 2012).

Is this sort of conversion possible for a Brahmin, so that they convert to other religions and become a Brahmin Christian or Brahmin Dalit or Brahmin non-Brahmin or Brahmin Muslim? Or, let us take the experience of the Ramanuja tradition of the 11thcentury. Though he revolted against the practice of untouchability, his followers became a separate sect called Vaishnava, which practises untouchability. Similarly, the non-Brahmin reform movements of Basavanna, Narayana Guru, Chaitanya, Kabir, Namdev, Shaiva Siddhantha, to name a few, though revolted against Brahmin and Brahminism, eventually, these became a separate sect and started practising untouchability. Where do we locate these movements in terms of Brahminism? Are they part of Brahminism? Or, are they against Brahminism? Even in the Sikh religion, we can observe the same phenomena.

So, if every sect or reformer started with universal values, why did they become different sects with distinct signifiers? How is the boundary of that particular sect defined? How is it that each sect has many jatis? How is it that the member of the same jati identifies with different sects? For example, in the Dalit jati Paraiyars, some follow the Vaishnava tradition and some follow the Shaiva tradition. How are we going to understand these things socially, culturally and politically? The reason for bringing out these issues is to ask the question: Can a Brahmin be against Brahminism? We cannot simply equate the “whites” with Brahmins, and the “blacks” with Dalits, only through the oppressor–oppressed framework. The historical making of these identities needs to be seriously studied from our own experiences and through our own language.

Yengde (2019) rightly points out that the left has attempted to transplant the Marxist thinking into India, without taking the caste reality into account. For the idea of Dalitness to evolve as a social reality, and a universal reality, it must, foremost, evolve a language not only to discuss the issues between the Dalit jatis, but also to engage with the idea of Brahmin. To liberate ourselves from the disability of touching, we need to annihilate the very idea of Brahmin. But, the irony is that without liberating our social body from the disability of “untouch” sense, the idea of Brahmin cannot be annihilated. The idea of Brahmin and the practice of untouchability are intrinsically connected. One makes and remakes the other. They cannot be separated.


1 Here, I am reading the term “conservative” both socially and politically. For example, Jati subjects conserve the caste order (for different reasons). Hence, we can have “conservative” Brahmins. But, the Dalits as a social or political category have a particular reading of the past, from which they attempt to liberate themselves. In other words, they cannot carry forward or “conserve” anything from their past. But, as the Dalit jatis, they definitely have something to “conserve.” Thus, there is a differentiation between the Dalit jatis and the political/social category called Dalit. Yengde (2019) uses the term Dalit both for political/ social category and for Dalit jatis throughout his book.

2 I do not see the Hindu identity as a religion alone.

3 I am not going into the complexities of defining the public and private here: where does the private end and the public begin in the caste order?


Das, Veena (2012): Structure and Cognition: Aspects of Hindu Caste and Ritual, New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Gopani, Chandraiah (2018): “New Dalit Movements: An Ambedkarite Perspective,” The Radical in Ambedkar: Critical Reflections, Suraj Yengde and Anand Teltumbde (eds), New Delhi: Penguin Random House, pp 181–200.

Guru, Gopal (2002): “How Egalitarian Are the Social Sciences in India?” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 37, No 50, pp 5003–09, 14 December.

Pandian, M S S (2008): “Writing Ordinary Lives,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 43, No 38, pp 34–40.

Yengde, Suraj (2019): Caste Matters, New Delhi: Penguin Random House.

Updated On : 13th Jan, 2020


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