Vantage point

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Identity is not always Community

A few days ago, Rajdeep Sardesai, generally a liberal, reasonable and likable voice in the Indian TV media, tweeted,

Big day for my goa. Two GSBs, both talented politicians become full cabinet ministers. Saraswat pride!! @manoharparrikar and Suresh Prabhu.
I cringed. And not just as someone who, through the random genetic lottery, was born in a family whose caste label reads Goud Saraswat Brahmin (GSB). I was particularly disappointed that an otherwise progressive voice was echoing such medieval sentiments. I tweeted back my disagreement and gave in to the hashtag impulse, labeling it #SaraswatShame. The hashtag was half in jest, half in disappointment, and not exactly accurate, but we'll come to that later.

I was not the only one who found fault with his tweet. Many people pushed back, with the responses ranging from outright abuse to expressions of disappointment. Rajdeep doubled down, responding,

 proud GSB, proud Goan, proud Indian. No contradiction.
And yesterday, he defended himself at length in a column in Hindustan Times titled Identity is not always destiny.

The title of the column is perfect, because identity may not always be destiny, but identity is not always "community" either. In fact, the core of my disagreement with Sardesai lies in conflating caste with community, and placing caste identity in the same bracket as being from a state or a country.

I hate writing stuff like "Oxford/Webster's dictionary defines community as....." so I'll leave it to you to look up exactly what the definition is. But the way I see it, a community is shaped and defined through some common experience or attitude/outlook.

I consider myself a part of many many communities. I am part of Indian, American, Indian-American, Punekar, Mumbaikar, New Yorker, Maharashtrian, Marathi, etc. communities as a result of sharing geography or language and/or nationality with others in that group. I am part of Engineer, IIM, MBA, PhD, Penn State, Academia, Marketing, etc, communities as a result of sharing my education or career related experiences with others in that group. Thinking test cricket is the best sport ever makes me part of the test cricket puritan community. Loving the Pittsburgh Steelers team and cheering it on every season makes me part of the Steeler Nation.

I am not sure what experience or attitude or outlook would or should make me consider myself (and with unabashed pride) part of the GSB community, at least in the 21st century. I can understand caste being considered a source of community identity a century or two ago, when people lived more or less segregated into those castes. But then we all generally realized that the caste system isn't the best topology to adopt if we want to build a good society, because the system seeded and engendered discrimination on the basis of birth.

Almost all Indians I know think (or at least say) that the caste system is a relic that should be relegated to irrelevance in an ideal society. Then a good start would be to think of caste as irrelevant, not as a specious source of pride. And that's where Sardesai's tweet had a problem - by perpetuating that which should ideally be irrelevant.

Sardesai drops a lot of names, from Sachin Tendulkar to Deepika Padukone, when enumerating the "enormous contributions" of our supposed community. But what exactly do Rajdeep or I as GSBs have in common meaningfully with Sachin Tendulkar as a GSB, that we don't with Ajinkya Rahane, also from Mumbai and not (as far as I can tell) a GSB? What have we as GSBs shared with other GSBs other than simply the label of being called GSBs?

Is it the most commonly defined culinary feature of GSBs - we have religious sanction to eat fish? Heh! We do not have religious sanction to eat steaks but clearly both Sardesai and I enjoy a good slab of succulent cow meat.

I don't really consider myself part of the Saraswat "community" and so don't really feel #SaraswatShame in Sardesai's bizarre views. I know being Saraswat is a tiny irrelevant trivial part of my identity, but it's no more defining of me than my identity as a guy with black hair. And I am surprised that someone like Sardesai is conflating such an irrelevant expression of identity with community.

What is the basis of defining this community other than just the label identifying ourselves as such?

Shared history? I won't go into the specifics of the problems with the history-based argument Sardesai makes in his column, mainly because Kaustubh has done it splendidly already.

But history brings me to the other problem with the "Saraswat Pride" sentiment that Sardesai espouses. And that's the history of the privileged and powerful position that brahmins in general, including GSBs, used to hold in the caste system with legal sanction until recently. We had a monopoly on education and on running the religion. We were the "haves" in a system that perpetrated the vilest atrocities, violent as well as insidious, on a large swathe of the population we defined as lower caste or caste-less.

As Sardesai notes a little fallaciously

In this political milieu, the Brahmins have usually lost out because their numerical strength doesn’t justify greater political representation. Which is why it is significant that Parrikar and Prabhu made the cut.
This is a point on which I recently had an argument with some fellow Marathi Brahmin friends as well. This weird self-pitying victim mentality that many Brahmins have about not being uber-dominant in politics the way we are in almost every other aspect of Indian society, from industry to academia to entertainment. Never mind that the proportion of Prime Ministers, Presidents, Chief Ministers, and Governors over the years from the Brahmin community is probably at least 3 times the proportion of Brahmins in the general population (caveat - I haven't crunched the numbers, but I strongly suspect this to be the case based on what I could remember).

But we still love indulging in this weird victim mentality in the "political milieu". Never mind that both guys Sardesai mentions have held positions of political power in the past. Parrikar was the Chief Minister of Goa and Prabhu was a cabinet minister in the last BJP government as well.

Regardless of all this, even if you grant the factually questionable premise that Brahmins are deprived of political power as a result of caste-based politics prevalent in many parts of the country, this cannot be viewed as divorced from history, especially in a democracy. Autocratic rule allowed higher castes to monopolize power, resources, and education for centuries. If 6 decades of democracy has resulted in a backlash electorally, well, suck it up.

Related to this, someone asked me online, "Why do you have problems with Sardesai touting Saraswat pride but you have no problems with people celebrating historic Dalit or OBC achievements in politics?"

I couldn't believe that I had to actually explain it, but here is what I said. Dalit or OBC leaders achieving a position of power after centuries of discrimination and systematic disenfranchisement is actually bucking the trend of history. Righting old wrongs in a way. In terms of a sports metaphor, it's like cheering the underdog. On the other hand, when people from a caste that held power, enjoyed monopoly over intellectual resources and were complicit in perpetuating discrimination until recently start gloating about their achievements, it almost suggests they are implying supremacy again.

It's many commentators, black and from other races, expressed pride and satisfaction in a black man becoming President of the United States. In the historic context, it makes perfect sense. Your expressions of community pride, to not seem distasteful, have to gel with the historic context.

Let's say the next President of America is white. What Sardesai tweeted was the equivalent of a white news anchor like Brian Williams tweeting "White pride!" in response. And responding to criticism with "Proud white guy, proud Jersey guy, proud American! No contradictions."

Because identity is not always community.