Indian Psychological Theory?
By Siriyavan Anand
24 April, 2003
My five years of stay in
Europe and America had completely wiped out of my mind any consciousness
that I was an untouchable and that an untouchable wherever he went in
India was a problem to himself and to others. But when I came out of
the station [in Baroda] my mind was considerably disturbed by a question,
"Where to go? Who will take me?" I felt deeply agitated. Hindu
hotels, called Vishis, I knew, there were. They would not take me. The
only way of seeking accommodation therein was by impersonation. But
I was not prepared for it because I could well anticipate the dire consequences
which were sure to follow if my identity was discovered as it was sure
- BR Ambedkar in Waiting
for a Visa
Unwilling also to impose
on friends one a caste Hindu and the other a Brahmin-Christian
a young, scholastic Bhimrao did take recourse to impersonation.
He faked a Parsi identity to take shelter at a Parsi inn, and was unceremoniously
turned out when discovered. Humiliated by stick-wielding Parsis, Ambedkar
said, "It was then for the first time that I learnt that a person
who is an untouchable to a Hindu is also an untouchable to a Parsi".
Not much has changed in India
since that time in 1918 even for an educated, urban dalit. A dalit continues
to face the prospect of getting booted out of public spaces; but more
shameful still, even today, a dalit is under pressure to pass for a
non-dalit. As much became evident to those of us not otherwise bothered
by this at a seminar in Pune on `Caste and Discourses of the Mind'.
Overseen by Sushrut Jadhav, a psychiatrist and medical anthropologist
of dalit- chambar origin, currently at University College, London, and
Pune- based Bhargavi P Davar, a Tamil-brahmin researcher on women's
issues in mental health and director of the Bapu Trust, the two-day
seminar (14-15 December 2002) put caste on the couch. Dalits, brahmins,
non- brahmins, Americans, Europeans and a Japanese grappled with the
issues at hand. The seminar was, ironically, part-funded by a trust
that takes its name from Sir Dorabji Tata, a Parsi.
A range of issues was debated.
Does casteism lead to stigmatised identities? How are such identities
contested/subverted? Does religious conversion diminish or further stigmatisation?
If yes, how? What are the psychological consequences of casteism for
victims and perpetrators? Are there indigenous dalit psychologies? Do
indigenous dalit psychologies differ from historically ascribed ones?
What shapes a dalit self? What are the parallels with oppressive and
persecutory experiences of other communities worldwide? Do brahminical
ideologies permeate Indian psychological theory? To most questions there
could be no definite answers, while much remained unexplored simply
because the participants were on new ground.
The deliberations, as tend
to happen in discussions of caste these days, focused on dalit identity,
as if to speak of caste means to speak of untouchability and untouchables.
The few born-brahmins at the seminar problematised the brahmin's role
in the order of things, but compared to the dalit participants, they
clearly had done little homework. The seminar's aim was not to apportion
guilt to communities, but the lopsided focus on dalits gave the impression
that the emphasis was on understanding the psychological consequences
of casteism for victims rather than for perpetrators. That non- dalits,
particularly brahmins, have dominated the discourse on caste and dalit
issues in academic and non-academic fora perhaps explains this bias.
The white American-born sociologist
and activist Gail Omvedt, in her insightful paper on how Hindutva and
brahminical ideologies penetrate the social sciences, said: "In
the US, when you study social stratification you examine the whole system.
There is nothing such as `black sociology'; you equally study the ruling
class. But in India we find a sociology of the weaker sections and not
the stronger ones. There is a strong unwillingness on the part of the
social sciences establishment
to study their own imprecation in dominance".
The result, said Omvedt,
is that the few dalits, members of other backward communities and adivasis
who have done doctoral research have been encouraged to study their
own communities and not the oppressor castes. "Such has been the
lack of commitment", she said,
"that there has been no effort to generate sociological data on
At the seminar, it was also
evident that untouchability is not manifested evenly across the landscape.
The contrast in the experience of the urban and the rural dalit was
discussed by Professor Sukhdeo K Thorat of Jawaharlal Nehru University
(JNU), Delhi. Thorat recounted his experiences of growing up untouchable:
"In the village, the range of social interaction of a dalit is
predetermined. From the age when you learn to walk and talk, the limits
are delineated: residential, physical and social isolation combined
with day-to-day humiliation. All rural dalit children face one form
of humiliation or the other. At school, there is hardly any interpersonal
relationship between the dalit student and the teacher, and the feeling
of isolation is heightened". Thorat studied at an Ambedkar-founded
college, "so there was no discrimination since interaction with
caste Hindus was almost not there".
But pursuing a PhD at JNU,
he missed the close communication he had become used to. Later, in his
first teaching job at an Aurangabad college, the students comprised
mostly denotified tribes and dalits; besides most teachers were dalit
too. Here, again, he felt socially comfortable. Thorat contrasted his
experience with that of his son. Born of an academic couple and brought
up in the left-liberal JNU campus atmosphere, the Thorats' son did very
well in school. But after enrolling for a bachelor's degree at a Delhi
University college, he inexplicably failed in his examinations. It emerged
that there had been `incidents' at the college, which had taken their
toll. It seems that a teacher on the very first day told the class:
"Look, those of you who come from a reserved quota background have
somehow made it to the first semester, but you cannot survive beyond
this period". The young dalit student, never exposed to such an
openly discriminatory threat, did not know how to handle subsequent
pressures and succumbed. So, Thorat concluded, "For a dalit child
in a village, untouchability or humiliation is real, open and constant.
For an urban child when it happens suddenly one day, it is too shocking
and much tougher to
Thorat grew up in a village
where ritual submissiveness was not the norm. "When I was about
eight, the Ambedkar movement entered our village. Many of us rejected
the Hindu social order, Hindu idols and temples. We melted the images
of gods and goddesses and created implements out of them. Creating a
new identity is necessary. Today, I am probably the only dalit teacher
in JNU who does not celebrate Diwali". Thorat feels that an average
dalit child has a severe inferiority complex. "A dalit develops
feelings of humility, timidity and submissiveness in order to be able
to socialise with caste Hindus. Dalits are under immense psychological
pressure when their identity
is about to be disclosed".
As for Ambedkar, for Thorat
too a sustained stay away from caste society enabled him to emerge stronger.
Thorat, by age 31, had a remarkable academic record. He had produced
four books and 30 papers. But once he returned to JNU as faculty, a
downslide set in. He did not write or publish for several years. He
was left out of the informal networking on caste, language, regional
and religious lines that are crucial to academic success. After some
struggle he landed a three-year trip to Iowa's International Food Policy
This recharged him. "My esteem among JNU colleagues grew. There
was newfound respect. African-American writings helped me put some perspective
to the problems I was facing here". Sushrut Jadhav told Thorat:
"Dislocation, exile the trip to the US did you good.
You returned a hero as in the classic mythical Hindu and Greek texts".
Such a journey outward can enable reframe issues inward, foster additional
identities and reconfigure oneself to feel healthy again.
Thorat's experience proves
that when not under pressure to interact with caste Hindus, and there
is no need to be vigilant about prospective discrimination or humiliation,
the dalit is socially and intellectually at ease. Ambedkar was alive
to this. After being blackmailed into signing the Poona Pact of 1932
by Gandhi's dramatic fast, and subsequently realising that joint electorates
were deployed by the Congress to effectively block the chances of genuine
dalit candidates, Ambedkar came to believe that not just separate electorates
at the political plane but also separate village settlements for dalits
at the social level was the only way of countering caste-Hindu hegemony.
The decision to seek separate
settlements resulted from the deliberations of the All-India Scheduled
Castes Conference at Nagpur in July 1942. As recognised by Resolution
No IV: "...so long as the Scheduled Castes continue to live on
the outskirts of the Hindu village, with no source of livelihood and
in small numbers compared to Hindus, they will continue to remain Untouchables
and subject to the tyranny and oppression of the Hindus and will not
be able to enjoy a free and full life".
This rings true even today.
Validation of this perception came from Sushrut Jadhav, whose paper
examined the psycho-biographies of five `creamy layer' dalits. One,
a dalit information technology professional trained at an Indian Institute
of Technology (IIT) and an Indian Institute of Management, and now based
in Bombay, recalled practising "reverse discrimination". He
remembered sometimes even bashing up brahmin fellow students who acted
smart. Given that his parents, like most dalits in the area, were employed
in a factory, he remembered growing up in an ambedkarite stronghold
in Maharashtra where his parents had only a `working class' identity
and not an `untouchable' identity. "My parents never had to stand
before caste Hindus and cower or beg for money, loan, or any help or
mercy". Reinforcing the need that Ambedkar felt, of isolating the
dalits from caste Hindus, this scholastic overachiever never had to
use the reserved quota for admission to elite institutions or for getting
his job. Caste, however, hit Jadhav's interviewee in the face when he
felt he was bypassed for a deserved promotion.
One of the other narratives
was of a well-known writer, a senior official in a bank, who with a
brilliant record at school aspired for and nearly won a coveted Sanskrit
award usually pocketed by Pune brahmins. However, when he switched to
an English medium school at the higher secondary level, he lost his
early confidence and fell silent for a year. He feared that his identity
would be revealed if he opened his mouth. Jadhav characterised this
as selective mutism, and presented a narrative account detailing the
stuttering suffered by yet another of his research subjects, now a senior
bureaucrat, during his student days at an IIT. This stuttering, a symptom
of psychological distress, resulted from an internal-isation of the
perception of `incompetence' that was consistently projected on him.
Another of Jadhav's interviewees,
an internationally acclaimed dalit poet, continues to grieve for the
loss of her family. Her son committed suicide following the caste-based
discrimination that he suffered during his initial years at a premier
medical school in Bombay; and her husband died of the alcoholism that
commenced after this terrible tragedy. Her daughter took an overdose,
preferring to die rather than suffer through the revelation of her caste
identity that risked being disclosed at the time of marriage with a
non-dalit boy. The poet now copes with the tragedy through her literary
work which addresses
a wide range of issues on dalit suffering.
To return to the problem
that Ambedkar faced in Baroda, several papers replayed the theme of
identity, the trauma of its concealment, and tried to come to terms
with it. Thorat felt that most dalit academics are in a coma, "When
I write a book on Ambedkar and water policy, my standing is not high
among academics". Jadhav introduced the idea of "inter-caste
transference", elaborating that it is accompanied either by over-compliance,
extra-friendliness, a denial of caste, or anger and distrust. Sometimes,
through a process of collusion, a dalit can suffer from over-identification
with caste Hindus. Jadhav also argued that humility could be good, suggesting
that one may need to be the `wounded healer' to come out of the coma.
In response, Gail Omvedt
pointed out that American blacks have a sense of pride in their identity,
which they have built. They can never pass for being what they are not,
whereas in India dalits can pass for non-dalits, and are under pressure
to do so. This takes a very
heavy toll on them.
From Gail Omvedt's paper
one could conclude that the dalit inability to hit back when subjected
to obvious discrimination owes to the larger
brahminisation of history, language and memory. She pointed out that
even progressive left-leaning historians such as Romila Thapar have
their `Hindu' biases, evident in their uncritical participation in the
brahminical incursions into their profession. Consequently, the hierarchies
and inequities of brahminical Hinduism are to be found in the output
of the historian. Thus, the pre-vedic non-brahminical Indus valley civilisation
is categorised as prehistory merely because its script has not yet been
Omvedt compared the dalit
in India "unaggressive, soft and gentle" to
the blacks in the US. A black colleague had once told her, "The
day I stop saying motherfucker I will know I have been co-opted".
Demonstrating how and why language becomes a tool for contestation,
control and psychological humiliation, Omvedt spotlighted orthographies
as received through history. "In Thapar's work there is a bias
for north India, bias in spellings and a lot more. The matrilineal Satavahanas
(who used names like Gautamiputta) are ignored by scholars like her.
In Satavahana literature the word for baaman is used, but this figures
as brahman in Thapar. Historians rely
heavily on puranic texts, but puranic texts never mention Asoka.
Asoka was discovered by British
scholars. All Buddhist literature was found outside India. Pali and
Prakrit inscriptions are found in India before Sanskrit inscriptions.
The first Sanskrit inscription came in the Gupta period, 600 years after
Pali inscriptions. And despite all this evidence, we continue to read
of ancient India as Hindu India and not as Buddhist India".
If in the Satavahana period,
brahman was actually spelt baa-man, in Telugu country even today non-brahmins
refer to the brahmin as baapanodu, without the `r' indicative of the
brahminic influence. Similarly, it is paappaan in colloquial Tamil and
bamman in much of north India. In Marathi, the Kanoba of dalit-bahujan
circles becomes Krishna under Sanskritic influence. Omvedt said a similar
brahminisation of village names took place in the suffixing of the nasal
`n' to the term gao to render it gaon; the village where Omvedt lives,
Kase-gaon, being originally `Kasegao'. Takasila becomes Takshasila;
Paithan becomes Pathistana, and so on. "It is almost a conspiracy",
said Omvedt. Obviously, the consequences of such linguistic violence
and sustained erasure for the psy-che of dalit-bahujans can be terrible.
In his paper, Lokamitra,
a white British-Buddhist activist based in Pune, addressed the question
of religious conversion; specifically, how and why neo-Buddhists of
Maharashtra tended to relapse into Hinduism. "Since the Ambedkar-led
mass conversion of mostly mahars to Buddhism
in 1956, the brahminical interest in Buddhism has declined.
The international community
of Buddhists preferred to send preachers of dhamma to the West and not
to India. So there are many dalit- Buddhists with very little knowledge
of Buddhism. The net result is the dalit thinks instead of praying to
Santoshi Maa, saying `buddham saranam gachchami' will help beget a child.
In Maharashtra, if you say you are Buddhist they would ask if you are
mahar. To a large extent, Buddhist identity came to be tied with mahar
identity. After 1956, caste Hindus saw Buddhism as a good thing for
dalits but not for themselves. So it is not as if conversion in itself
reduces stigmatisation. The consequence is today the neo-Buddhists prefer
to marry their next generation to non-Buddhist Brahmins than to non-
Spectre of humiliation
Political scientist and Delhi
University professor, Gopal Guru, theorised on humiliation, elaborating
on the psychology, structure and the transcendence of humiliation. At
times, in some societies, humiliation can be a `state', whereas in others
it is a `condition'. Guru offered ragging humiliation by a peer
group as an instance of the former. A state is temporary, and
consequently holds the possibility of transcending humiliation. In India
and the United States, however, humiliation has been a condition, implying
permanence. Where humiliation is a condition, its structure is constantly
(re)produced. To emerge from this condition, a person has to acquire
self-respect. This is possible in a society where liberal humanism is
the credo since the language of rights enables self- respect (as was
the case for the blacks in the US). A person transformed into a vegetable
cannot have self-respect. And even if she or he were to invent images
of self-respect, a situation of conflict would arise with the oppressor
who would be tormented by any assertion of rights. In India, where society
is based on the language of obligations to the preclusion of the idea
of self-respect, the subjugation is total and a person is sometimes
reduced to a cipher.
According to Guru, in caste
societies one can produce humiliation without an object, as an abstraction.
In Western societies, there must be an object (such as a sweating body)
for it to be the subject of humiliation. In India, the presence of the
gross body is not even required. It is already condemned if the humiliation
has been designated. Guru gave the example of a woman who is a `scavenger'
(sanitation work is invariably done by dalits), but whose daughter is
not. Yet, the daughter is also humiliated she too is seen as
a scavenger. Through the transference of the abhorred labour, humiliation
travels across time and space. This is not the case in most Western
societies, except perhaps where racist segregation operates. Guru said
that an act of humiliation has structural requirements
of a victim, a victimiser and an observer. A victimiser
must have some power in the form of race or class or caste
or state or sex to be able to humiliate a victim. And without
an observer, an act
of humiliation is not complete.
On the issue of transcendence,
Guru said, transcending humiliation was possible only if human worth
is recognised as an essence in itself, as a non-transferable
non-exchangeable value. Indian caste society lacks the conditions to
appreciate genuine human worth. For instance, Kolhapuri leather footwear
and cricket balls are highly valued but (because they deal with cowhide
to produce these goods) not their makers. The commodity is aestheticised
but the person responsible for it, and indeed the community, suffers
humiliation. At the abstract level, the dalit product is appreciated,
but the dalit person the concrete being is
As a secondary source of
humiliation, a dalit can also be a victimiser. To illustrate, Sushrut
Jadhav suggested the dynamics of the victim turning victimiser as may
happen in cases of sexual abuse.
Asking a corollary question
whether it is possible to shame a brahmin Bhargavi Davar
took the discussion towards brahmins and shame. Why is the brahmin shameless?
One participant suggested that brahmins do not like to publicly acknowledge
shame (there is a private/personal sense of shame), but reflecting the
lack of brahminical scholarship on the oppressor castes, there were
no structured answers from among the brahmins. Guru pointed out that
in the Hegelian master-slave context, knowing that he lacks a certain
skill that the slave possesses, the master can be humiliated.
It was observed that brahmins
such as VD Savarkar and BG Tilak felt ashamed vis-à-vis the British,
shame defined here with regard to someone perceived to be superior.
With regard to someone hierarchically lower, brahmins think of themselves
as above shame. The brahmin always articulating, never self-reflective
even as a reflex claims to be above-board; there is intellectual
arrogance as in Sankaracharya.
In their next seminar, Sushrut
Jadhav and Bhargavi Davar hope to bring together a new set of participants
with the aim of understanding the brahmin and non-dalit non-brahmin
minds that perpetrate humiliations. Dalit autobiographical accounts
of pain and sorrow, which have become grist for the academic and publishing
mills, are now available for easy consumption for non-dalits. It is
time we insisted that the perpetrators of casteism reflect upon themselves.