The limits of empathy

Vivek Chibber’s reminder as to why the ‘dalit movement has to see itself as part of a class-wide movement’ is significant is making us rethink our political positions when protest has spawned an industry, and solidarity is a click or email signature away. In being the ‘radicals’ who are circumscribed by the very vocabulary of our critique—be it the old abiding refuge in academese or new fangled social media imminence, the limits of words need to be countered by a history of deed and fact.

As Chibber, the author of Postcolonial theory and the specter of capital, which argues for the political usefulness of universalizing capital in the wake of postcolonial scholarship, says,

For Dalits therefore to make progress really requires that they take up issues around wage labour and they take up issues around economic justice. What has happened is that the Dalit movement, like identity movements across the world, has really narrowed its focus to forms of oppressions that are very real, but which still constitute only a small subset of the oppressions that the Dalits face.

Drawing a parallel with the U.S. Black Lives Matter, he acknowledges the BLM strategies to be “very concertedly active around issues of economic justice. Because for them the most pressing issues are not so much discrimination in the labour market, but not having a job at all; not so much the exclusion in schools, but not having [access to] schools at all.” Perhaps for a society so deeply mired in its own bloody history, decades of activism has made it easier to see race percolate down to the last institution—that of the mind.

However, with such as this that talk of a single city—Allahabad, and the upper-caste monopoly in its Teachers’ unions, Press Club membership, trade unions, university faculty and NGO representatives, there emerges a rationale at work pivoted on caste identity. As Chibber quips, this is consequence of how “the articulate exponents of identity politics around the world, especially the Indian intelligentsia, belong to a relatively privileged stratum” and any attempt at grassroots political mobilization would fundamentally threaten this convenient position.

Much has been made of the caste-blind Indian Left, but despite its affiliations and institutions—or rather, because of them—the need remains to question the structural conditions that make caste a perpetuated reality. Chibber holds, “there is a simple and clear position to take, which is that one cannot and should not set issues of Dalit identity against issues of Dalit class interests because what they face is not simply economic exploitation but many things on top of that.”

Kanhaiya speech at JNU where says one need to be afraid of taking Modi on, of naming and shaming him
Kanhaiya’s speech on his return to JNU, where he says one needs to be afraid of taking Modi on, of naming and shaming him

Speaking on the spate of arrests in JNU, he criticizes the CPIM’s call for an investigation into the alleged charges of sedition, instead of directing a debate that questions the legitimacy of this archaic law in the first place. For the utterance of azaadi does not halt with the release of Kanhaiya or remain within his fiery speeches, despite what the daily wisdom of the lib-sec-dem clicktivists might have one believe. Umar Khalid, Anirban Bhattacharya and S.A.R. Geelani remain in custody and five other students stand debarred from all academic activity despite being a semester away from the completion of their arduous research degrees, not to mention the many Kashmiris, Manipuris and Nagas whose battle cry is being systematically sapped by sanitizing it within a national imaginary.

The self-congratulatory nature of such solidarity is most visible in the investment with which Rohith Vemula’s life is being dissected to suit a pre-written story, while his own writing is never analyzed, but used instead for emotional affect. And it is Vemula’s own insight that provides another sharp reminder why:

[I want to] compel the present stratified society, perforce, to take off it’s elitist mask of generosity and solidarity in the name of seamless majoritarian cultural unity or nationalism. My core intention is to challenge and expose the upper-class hypocritical advocacy of progressiveness which shamelessly maintains its ties with the oppressive structures of class, caste and gender. With my basic worldview conditioned by Marxism, I dream and work for a society which Babasaheb has always aspired for.


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