Connecting with each other as fellow Dalits seems easy enough. But when we realize that we are entering the area of fragmented solidarities, things get a bit complicated. I don’t think our solidarities themselves are fragmented, but in forging solidarities, we often work with fragments.
In Willie Jennings’s recent book, After Whiteness, Jennings notes that we work with various fragments in coming to know ourselves and the world. Structural violence in various parts of the world, including casteism in the Indian context, has broken the worlds of those on the underside of history, leaving us scattered like fragments. Dalit people know this very well — the very term “Dalit,” meaning “oppressed” and “broken” recognizes the fragmented nature of the words and worlds Dalits work with.
Think of the broad range of identities that Dalits occupy. In terms of religion, there are Dalit Christians, Dalit Hindus, Dalit Buddhists, Dalit Sikhs, Dalit Muslims and others... Added to this layer of complexity is region and language; Mahar Dalits in Maharashtra are different from Madiga Dalits in Telangana. Further layers of complexity include patterns of migration — forced and voluntary — that Dalits have undertaken with colonialism and globalization. Each of these layers of complexity contain unique fragments. How, then, does one form authentic inter-Dalit solidarities when each of our stories and histories are so very different?
Forging solidarities with other Dalits when all we have to work with are fragments necessitates freeing ourselves from forces — subtle and not-so-subtle — that fragmented us in the first place.
For me, this journey to freedom has meant quite a bit of unlearning.
I am an English-speaking Dalit. Sometimes, there is a feeling that sets in—it’s never quite clear whether it arises from within or comes from the outside — that sometimes makes me feel “more special” than other Dalits because I speak good English. Being told by others, “you speak good English” does not help — it is not a compliment. It has the sinister effect of making us feel like we are “not like the rest” and, therefore, somehow special.
This is true not just of English but also of vernacular languages. The kind of Tamil that is spoken in the much-criticized TV series Never Have I Ever is the dominant caste, elitist version. The Tamil that I grew up hearing and now speak does not sound like that and I love that. But this was not always the case when I was younger. Although the Tamil I heard around me was a more common and colloquial Tamil, I knew there were differently judged versions simply based on how other Tamil speakers responded to my Tamil usage. I distinctly (although I don’t remember what exactly I said) recall visiting some Dalit family friends for a meal as a child, and when I said a phrase in “high Tamil,” the host complimented me by telling another member of her household, “Enna nalla Tamizh pesaran” (“How nicely he speaks Tamil”). I had fooled them into thinking that I spoke “high Tamil” all the time. Interestingly, a Tamil word for “high Tamil” is “thooya Tamizh” (“pure Tamil”). I wonder how “pure” came to mean the opposite of colloquial. The truth was and is I heard and spoke colloquial not-so-“pure” Tamil all the time.
Is not being more of ourselves (rather than being less)part of finding our individual and collective freedom? Whether it is acknowledged or not, casteist society often shames us into thinking the opposite.
After my conscientization began and I found myself longing for Dalit solidarity and intimacy, I had to learn to shed my English-speaking pride and interspersed “high vernacular.” It was freeing. I stopped caring about elitist inflections and accents. A teacher I had during my graduate education once asked me, “What happened to your English?” Apparently, my accent had deteriorated. I laugh thinking about those days and experiences wondering who made accent a criterion for assessment.
Once we embrace our Dalit identities, a longing for connection and intimacy—rather than employing accents and inflections to differentiate ourselves—is a healthy side effect. If such longing for connection and intimacy might be compared to an ember, then the truth is that such embers have to be constantly kindled and rekindled. When we breathe in the air that arises from such kindling, it lights up our imaginations for a better world. It is not unlike the smell that Robin Kimmerer describes in her book Braiding Sweetgrass when she notes, “Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.”
I breathe in such smells, and I remember a Dalit elder’s kindness or encouragement. I breathe in and remember an inspiring story about my people. I breathe in and begin to pull various fragments together. Inter-Dalit solidarity work begins thus.
At other times, finding inter-Dalit solidarities might not be as evocative. To use another image from Kimmerer’s book, “We [might] wade like herons through the marsh, minus the grace and poise.” It is possible that’s what solidarity work feels like sometimes. There is no one way to form inter-Dalit solidarities. Nevertheless, we begin somewhere, seeing ourselves in connection with each other.