Looking at the Civilising Mission in the Mirror

With full disclosure, I am against the proposed ban on Leslee Udwin’s film; at the same time not a big fan of the film myself. But, I am not here to talk about the film. I am here to say why the positions taken by many of the Indian detractors of the film, um well, annoys me.

A few days ago, Kavita Krishnan wrote an open letter declaring that “we” don’t need a civilising mission. Reading the very title two questions came to my mind. 1. What does she mean when she says we, and 2. who or what does she think is the civilising mission? The answer to the first is quite clear. By using “we” in her statement, she has constructed an identity that clubs herself with the nation’s most underprivileged and everyone in between, and at the same time makes herself and her company at AIPWA (and by extension the larger liberal and left intellectual and activist class of India) representatives of the entirety of India. This leads us to the second question: who does she think constitutes the civilising mission? Reading the opinion piece, the impression one gets is that the BBC, Udwin, and the entire neo-imperial West form and drive the civilising mission, as an extension of the colonial “white man’s burden”. So to put it simply, Krishnan thinks of herself as part of the Third World India standing up against the First World cultural hegemony.

There is a big irony here, illustrated by the fact that she is one of the activists featured (that too very prominently as compared to the rest) in the film. I can’t help but wonder, if the civilising thing ever occurred to her when she agreed to be interviewed by the filmmakers, knowing that it’s a British production primarily supported by none other than the BBC. This irony in the film is representative of the delusional stand that is taken by many post-colonial intellectuals and activists, including Krishnan. The delusion being that they believe themselves to be different or rather outside the colonial/neo-colonial system they so vehemently oppose. And it is this delusion that leads Krishnan and her comrades to distance themselves from the civilising mission, not realising the fact that they are very much the part of it. Let us not forget that this is the same Kavita Krishnan who admonished the many Dalit activists of the country, for speaking up against the appropriation of Ambedkar by Arundhati Roy and S. Anand’s Navayana, by conflating their discourse with the rabid nationalists and Hindutvavadis. She always acted like the missionary of civilisation, and continues to do so with her use of “we”.

But she is part of the larger class of urban bourgeois Savarnas, who are beneficiaries of the neo-colonial system, who speak, write and think in the colonial language, and who have no problem with dissecting, studying and judging the spaces of the “subaltern” (while leaving the spaces that they occupy untouched and pristine). They are the ones who go around the West talking about the problems ‘back home’, they are the ones who get featured in newspapers and documentaries of the West, and they are the ones who have the gall to represent the many subalterns of this country and fight for them (Note: And there should be no doubt that I belong to this class).

The Savarna bourgeois of this country very clearly needs to snap out of our delusions and need to wake up to the harsh reality that we are part and parcel of the same colonial and capitalist systems and institutions. Like a male feminist fighting against patriarchy, there is nothing wrong in attacking the system that is essentially ours. But the bare least we must do is to start acknowledging the privileges we acquire from it and contextualise our ideological and normative positions with the relational positions of our self. For that, our class as a collective needs to reflect.

Into the Woods: Giving “Snow White” a New Meaning

I happened to watch the trailer of the upcoming Disney musical “Into the Woods” recently:

Notice anything peculiar? Everyone is white. It’s a large ensemble cast of white people. (Scan through the cast on IMDB for more.) I wonder if this occurred to the people making the film. Did Meryl Streep and Anna Kendrick (who I’m guessing are liberals) exchange glances during the shoot and say “Hey Meryl/Anna, how come everyone here is white?”

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Bonding Social Capital

In a post titled “Social Capital and Cultural Capital” last year, I talked about the British class survey which measured a specific type of social capital – “the number and importance of social contacts”. This type of social capital is referred to by social scientists as linking social capital – the connections we have to people of importance, influence, who can get things done.

There are various other types of social capital used by sociologists. One type generally recognised today is bonding social capital. Bonding social capital is that which exists within a social group, and consists of shared norms and values, reciprocity, trust, expectations and obligations. Social “group” seems akin to the social identity model used by social psychologists – an “in-group” formed through categorisation, identification and comparison (here is a good primer on Social Identity Theory which explains this). We all belong to various social identities – based on gender, ethnicity, wealth, nationality and caste for example. Bonding social capital is the capital we get by virtue of being part of the in-group. Note that like social capital in general, bonding social capital is an asset – a resource that you can use (consciously or not) to your benefit. Secondly, it comes from social structure and processes – the social mechanisms described by sociologists and also the social-psychological processes described by social psychologists.

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Freedom of Expression without Harm, a Caste Privilege

I have two roommates who are staunch Hindutvavadis, highly Islamophobic and big time fan boys of Narendra Modi. I on the other hand a secular humanist, left-leaning atheist have to live with them and many a times have made my anti-Modi, anti-Hindutva stand very clear.

Only recently did I realise that they consider me to be a Brahmin* (they enquired to me about the janeu/sacred thread and I instinctively lied that I cut it off way back), and I realised that the only reason they tolerate me is because they think of me of belonging to the highest caste. They never use cusswords when talking to me, while it is pretty usual for them to do so with each other. Neither do they disregard whatever I say, they take me seriously sometimes with reverence. Now I notice that they do not even touch me or my stuff and that I am always designated with the pronoun ‘Aap’, although I am clearly much younger to them (people in Maharashtra, especially Mumbai, very rarely use Aap in common parlance).

I am extremely uncomfortable with such a relationship, but now I am actually afraid of clearing this misunderstanding. These guys are violent and extremely chauvinistic. They have little when it comes to respecting an individual as an individual for simply being human. Me being a Brahmin in their eyes is what is clearly giving me the immunity from their punches. And I, honestly, do not want to risk this immunity by correcting them and making it clear that I am just a degree lower** to what they assumed me to be.

This will never give me a clear conscience. But I realised that my caste name as Nair gives me powerful immunity in this extremely prejudiced society. It always has and I know it always will. I knew I enjoyed caste privilege, even when people knew that I was not a Brahmin. It is with these guys I realised the extent of my privilege, which is keeping me safe and unscathed. It has till now very clearly kept my free speech and expression protected, and has kept me away from real harm. My case did not take place in some remote village in the hinterland. This is the centre of our country’s largest metropolis and among the urban English-educated class we so blindly believe to be progressive. This is how caste works in India.

*It seems many in Mumbai consider Nair to be synonymous with Iyer, and hence the confusion
**I will not make preposterous claims that I am “casteless”, “beyond caste” or “have left my caste behind”. Because caste is not a choice. It’s a social reality, much like gender and cannot be erased as long as you live in a casteist society.

On Appropriation of Ambedkar

When Caravan published Arundhati Roy’s piece The Doctor and the Saint, I was one of those who celebrated it as the next big thing that was to emerge in the Indian academic circles. Roy’s essay constitutes the first half of Navayana’s annotated edition of Bhimrao Ambedkar’s seminal work ‘The Annihilation Of Caste’. The article, like every other work by Roy, sparked instant controversy. Almost in every controversy, and even in the sedition charge, I was one of the scores of Arundhati Roy Fans who not only argued for her right to expression but also the arguments she raised in her works. But this time, my support for Roy is only limited to her rights and liberties, and not the case she and Navayana is trying to make.

I was always of the opinion that Roy because of her activism understood very well how power works. Whether one agrees with her or not, one can not deny that her activism and her politics was always to put attention on the expendables of India. She was the one who made the following statement,

‘There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard.’

What baffles me is the most is that both Roy and S. Anand, publisher of Navayana, did not see that their action amounted to something as indecent as appropriation. Even this Scroll.in article misses the point. And so do every other privileged activists and writers.

The Dalit anger and resentment against both Roy and a Navayana is best articulated by the irreverent Anoop Kumar here at the The Round Table India (not the nationalist one).

You need Omprakash Balmiki’s Jhootan’s English version to know the caste horror. Need Fandry to get shocked. You required 60-70 years to discover Ambedkar..You also require your own high priestess to now interpret Ambedkar for you. To tell you what was right and wrong with Ambedkar. To force you to even start reading him..

How long this will go on man, just how long!

To be honest even I was of the opinion that all this resentment was highly misplaced. If for Roy reading Ambedkar’s work felt “as though somebody had walked into a dim room and opened the windows”, reading Kumar for me felt as if somebody snapped me out of the delusion that I’m blind. Blind to my privilege and the privilege of the likes of Roy and Anand.

In none of my rants I suggested that it is about her essay actually. I do not care what she has written on Ambedkar or on anything else she wrote about in her essay. My rants are about something else. My rants are about what she actually represents before us, not as a person, but as someone who gets two national magazines simultaneously to provide her ample space – to talk about her essay, about caste, about dalits, about Ambedkar – which is so cruelly denied to us, is shut for ever. Not even Ambedkar could ever breach it, till he got discovered by people like Ms Roy.

Closely related with what she represents to us is another issue of the whole politics of her introducing Ambedkar’s seminal text to the world, to upper castes, to western world as has been continuously professed by her publisher and his friends – both desis and whites- telling me in no uncertain terms that this publication is actually not meant for me, for dalits, for all those who know their Ambedkar but for upper castes who have refused to read him and for western academia who have yet to discover Ambedkar. Your introducing him will make them all to read more about Ambedkar they say.

And they are accusing me of wrongly calling you a messiah!

You are already a messiah, Ms Roy!

Declared and accepted by many, all those who actually matter in this country. It is not for nothing that national magazines provide you so much space on issues they care two hoots about. What is it if not the ardent belief of your followers on your miraculous power to make people read something that they have avoided their whole lives?

And like what happens with every messiahs, you already have very cunning followers who are quoting your messiah status for their private gains, cheating gullible masses who believe in your messiah-ness.

I am merely resisting your messiah status now being thrust on us. Just for the simple reason that it is more difficult to dislodge a messiah, a mahatma, than to create one. We spent some seven decades and enormous efforts in dislodging one, thrust on us quite forcefully, by others who also were as persuasive as you are today in claiming that it was only in our best interests.

Social Capital and Cultural Capital

In April of this year, the results of the BBC’s 2011 Great British Class Survey were published (free PDF available here). It’s quite a landmark study – it’s the largest survey of social class ever conducted in the UK, and consisted of a web survey having 161,400 respondents, as well as a parallel national representative face-to-face survey having 1026 respondents. The summary of the findings is:

Using latent class analysis on these variables, we derive seven classes. We demonstrate the existence of an ‘elite’, whose wealth separates them from an established middle class, as well as a class of technical experts and a class of ‘new affluent’ workers. We also show that at the lower levels of the class structure, alongside an ageing traditional working class, there is a ‘precariat’ characterised by very low levels of capital, and a group of emergent service workers.

An important and interesting feature of the study was what they measured as an indicator of class. We’re used to thinking of class inequality in terms of income. But the study instead used a more modern approach, where they measured three different kinds of “capital”: economic capital, social capital and cultural capital:

[…] a new, multi-dimensional way of registering social class differentiation. A highly influential scheme is that developed by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1984), which argues that there are three different kinds of capital, each of which conveys certain advantages. He differentiates between (1) economic capital (wealth and income), (2) cultural capital (the ability to appreciate and engage with cultural goods, and credentials institutionalised through educational success), and (3) social capital (contacts and connections which allow people to draw on their social networks). Bourdieu’s point is that although these three capitals may overlap, they are also subtly different, and that it is possible to draw fine-grained distinctions between people with different stocks of each of the three capitals, to provide a much more complex model of social class than is currently used. This recognition that social class is a multi-dimensional construct indicates that classes are not merely economic phenomena but are also profoundly concerned with forms of social reproduction and cultural distinction.

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“Race is Not Biology, Race is Sociology”

I’m currently reading the book “Americanah” by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and loving it.

"African Negro" - Popular Science Monthly - 'The Races of Mankind', July 1881

“African Negro” – Popular Science Monthly – ‘The Races of Mankind’, July 1881
(Image shows a portrait sketch of a young black man in a suit and tie. The journal identifies him as “Jacob Wainwright, Livingstone’s faithful boy”. Image in Public Domain; links to source.)

There’s a segment in the book where a fictional blog post by the main character talks about what “race” means in America, which I just had to transcribe so you can read it: [Read more…]

Privilege, Helplessness, and Choice

In India, labour is cheap. A middle-class family like mine can afford domestic workers. Laxmi (name changed) has been coming home for over three years now, every day. She scrubs the floor, does the dishes and the laundry. She sometimes cleans the bathrooms, and tends the plants.

Laxmi is old and poor. She sits on the floor with some porridge my mother prepares for her every day, and tells her in broken Tamil, stories of how her drunk husband abuses her – the details of said abuse hidden in her descriptions but not in her scars. Of how her son is a “leech” and never contributes toward the family income or chores. Of how distraught she is because her oldest daughter married for love.

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