Black Lives Matter and Savarna Supremacy, by Vishal Jamkar and Richa Nagar

A banner demanding justice for George Floyd during a demonstration in Minneapolis on May 30, 2020 (Source: Delil Souleiman/ AFP).

On June 4th, the civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton Jr., powerfully eulogized George Floyd, the 46-year old unarmed Black man who was brutally murdered by four Minneapolis police officers when one of them kneeled on Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and forty-six seconds even as Floyd repeatedly pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” Pointing out that Floyd’s story has been the story of Black folks in the United States for 401 years, Sharpton said, “What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services, and in every area of American life. It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, ‘Get your knee off our necks!’” As he asked America to observe a moment of silence for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, he also used a scriptural reference to note that he was more hopeful today than ever: “When I looked this time and saw marches where, in some cases, young whites outnumbered the Blacks marching, I knew that it’s a different time and a different season. When I looked and saw people in Germany marching for George Floyd, [I knew] it’s a different time and a different season.

We begin here, with Sharpton’s words, as two writers whose lives are lived across the borders of India and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, where Floyd’s murder has led to a great global uprising against racist and colonial settler structures and logics of the United States and of the European empires that preceded it. Reflecting specifically from our respective locations and histories as Dalit and savarna (upper caste) in India’s violent caste order, we cannot stop asking ourselves: what lessons does this “time and season” hold for those of us who claim to be fighting against systemic oppressions in India? Are we going to hold on to these lessons, or will they quickly fade away as part of the nation’s short-term memory?

Savarna Silences and Complicities 

Recently, the Indian state has come under intense critique for a series of anti-constitutional moves that not only commit human rights violations but that also reek heavily of savarna supremacist and settler colonial logics. These moves include the abolishment of Article 370 and occupation of Kashmir; the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act; and the rampant imprisonment of Indian intellectuals, students, and activists under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. However, such violence is not new. Indeed, it has been a defining feature not only of Indian democracy but also of the larger cultural ethos of the nation. Over the last several decades, news headlines in India have been filled with reports of countless suicides, murders and rapes of Dalits, the imprisonment of thousands of Adivasis on the suspicion of being “Maoists,” and lynchings of poor Muslim men and adolescents by cow-saving gangs of Hindutva vigilantes. While the blame for these barbaric acts is often laid at the door of political leaders and parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress, rarely have Indians from a broad spectrum mobilized to demand justice for the victims or to name the systematic casteist and anti-Muslim structures that enable and abet these heinous crimes against humanity.  More importantly, India’s citizens have collectively failed to grapple with the ways in which savarnas have not only been complicit in maintaining and reproducing such violence for several thousand years, but also the ways that their own positions and privileges are contingent on the oppression of Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi and Muslim peoples.

Protesters denouncing police brutality and systemic racism at the Manhattan Bridge in New York City (Source: Scott Heins/Getty Images/AFP).

In this “time and season,” however, when protests rocked the whole world immediately after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, many prominent Indians rushed to express on social media their solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. This selective public outcry by celebrities, the majority of whom otherwise remain silent about the brutalities committed by the Indian government and society, promptly received its due criticism. Critics called attention to the anti-Black racism of Indians in a variety of forms, pointing out the hypocrisy of Indian celebrities who had endorsed fair skin products in the past and who were now hash-tagging Black Lives Matter on social media, as well as the everyday humiliations inflicted by Indians on immigrant students from African countries. They also noted the excruciating silence on the histories of Indian Ocean slave trade and centuries of oppression suffered by communities of African descent, including the Sidis. At a time when well-known American actors, sportspersons, and singers are publicly condemning the racist criminal justice system, the school to prison pipeline, and other forms of structural racism that are rooted in centuries of white supremacy in the United States, many Indians have denounced these unbearable silences on the historical and ongoing everyday violence against Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasis, Muslims, and Black people in India.

Minneapolis protestors rally at a downtown police station on June 13, 2020 (Photo by: Vishal Jamkar).

Making Dalit Lives Matter  

Since the last week of May 2020, multiple news stories and interviews have undertaken comparisons between racism in the United States and casteism in India, often highlighting lessons that can be drawn from #BlackLivesMatter for #DalitLivesMatter, #MuslimsLivesMatter and #AdivasiLivesMatter. Many savarnas have also embraced, with renewed vigor, the challenge of grappling with our own silences and complicities in relation to the prevailing structures of racism and casteism. While the parallels between racism and casteism are an obvious place from where to advance this work, it is also important to remember that superficial comparisons across the United States and Indian contexts can translate into a missed opportunity for serious reflection and action. The fire for justice that is burning organically across the United States today emerges from decades of sustained struggle by Black communities — the civil rights movements; the anti-racist work in literature, the arts, academic scholarship, and organizing; the inspiring mentorship by Black leaders; and of course, people’s movements such as Black Lives Matter. Although casteism in India is much older than racism in the United States, the movements against racism have been more strongly organized and have succeeded in enacting critical legal frameworks and policy changes over a period of almost two centuries. The oppression of Dalits, Bahujans, Adivasis, and Muslims in India stems from the religiously sanctioned brahmanical order whose painfully detailed and thoroughly ritualized workings of power and violence are complicated by the fact that along with the hierarchy of the four varnas, both caste Hindus and Dalits are sub-divided into countless sub-castes. It is not surprising, then, that the radical idea of Annihilation of Caste came from a Dalit, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar. He pointed out, “Caste system is not merely a division of labour. It is also a division of labourers”; annihilation of this system is necessary because “the anti-social spirit is not confined to caste alone. It has gone deeper and has poisoned the mutual relations of sub-castes as well.” However, the movements to annihilate caste have been met by stiff resistance and the kinds of policy changes that the United States has seen against racism have been very hard to attain in the Indian context.

Dalit movements across India are marked by great heterogeneity. Although Dalits constitute 16.2 percent of the coutry’s population according to the 2011 census, more than half of the country’s Dalit population resides in four out of 35 states and union territories of India: Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, and Tamil Nadu. While social movements such as the Satya Shodhak Samaj and the Dalit Panthers as well as political parties such as the Republican Party of India and the Bahujan Samaj Party have played a significant role in forming anti-caste agitations in specific regions at particular times, the forces countering Dalit movements and appropriating Dalits in the fold of Hindutva have been overpowering. Such regional and local specificities of caste oppression have often stymied the possibility for a powerful nation-wide struggle of the kind that is unfolding in the United States today.

History has been witness to the fact that more often than not, radical emancipatory movements such as the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s are led by those who have been oppressed, due to their everyday experience of living a life being rendered inhuman by the dominant narratives and practices. Eventually, however, these movements do not liberate only those who are oppressed but the oppressors as well. Amoke Kubat, a Minneapolis-based Black activist, artist, and elder put it beautifully in a recent conversation with us: “Our struggle is not about taking revenge on white people; our struggle is for equality and justice…. Nobody’s free until we all are liberated!” As part of this struggle, the Black Lives Matter movement has inspired millions of white Americans to scrutinize and critique the ways in which their racial privilege helps to nourish the white supremacist system in which George Floyds get killed every day. In this “time and season”, then, the white protestors who filled Al Sharpton with hope are those who are prepared to follow Black leaders and organizers with humility; who understand that unlearning their own privilege is a basic requirement for not only fighting anti-Black racism but for their own and America’s collective liberation as well. If savarnas are genuinely committed to learning from Black Lives Matter they, too, need to start by intense critical reflection on their own privilege before stepping up to participate in the emancipatory movements in India, not by leading from the front, which is often their tendency, but by following those who have been oppressed for several thousand years by savarna supremacy. Although this idea has been professed repeatedly over the last three and a half decades–for example, in terms of participatory approaches in the non-profit sector or through acknowledgements of one’s positionality in academic scholarship–Indian society is still far from internalizing it and translating it into practice. The actualizing of this idea can happen only when savarna participation in transformative processes begins with a fundamental political consciousness and commitment: That the vision and leadership can only come from those who intimately know, live, and suffer the everyday truths of casteist, anti-Muslim, and settler-colonial oppression in India. Only then can India become the “casteless society” that Dr. Ambedkar fought for — a society that “can hope to have strength enough to defend itself.”


About the authors: Vishal Jamkar is a doctoral student at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. He has worked extensively with grassroots organizations in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh on issues of social justice and livelihoods among Dalit and Adivasi communities. Richa Nagar is Professor of Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at the University of Minnesota, where she holds a Fink Professorship in Liberal Arts. She works closely with people’s movements and artistic forums working for social justice in India, particularly with the Sangtin Kisan Mazdoor Sangathan in Uttar Pradesh and the multi-sited community theatre project, Parakh.
Suggested citation:
Jamkar, V. and R. Nagar. 14 July 2020. “Black Lives Matter and Savarna Supremacy.” AGITATE! Blog: http://agitatejournal.org/black-lives-matter-and-savarna-supremacy.