Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy!

RECENTLY, the CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey visited India along with Twitter’s head of legal and public policy, Vijaya Gadde and met some Indian women journalists and writers. The latter briefed him about how the social media platform fails on many occasions to act against communal, casteist and gendered trolling. Indian Twitter is notoriously overrun by vile and violent trolls, many of whom are followed by India’s Prime Minister. After the discussion, one of the women, a Dalit feminist activist, gifted Dorsey a poster with the slogan ‘Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy’ on it. In the photo shoot that followed, Dorsey held the poster in some of the photos. When the photos were shared on Twitter, it was met with a huge outcry, led by right wing ideologues, branding the slogan discriminatory to Brahmins and “Hinduphobic” hate speech against Brahmins, who were described as a “minority”.

Twitter buckled under the pressure - trying to claim the photo was a “private” one not meant to be shared on social media and claiming that Twitter aimed to be “impartial” and “apolitical” while also being proud of being a platform “where marginalised voices can be seen and heard.”

The entire episode says a lot about public discourse in India and the world today, and about the values and politics of giant corporations. In the first place, the term “Smash Brahmanical Patriarchy” is nothing but a variation of the call to “Annihilate caste” issued by Dr BR Ambedkar - leader of a powerful anti-caste movement and also author of India’s Constitution. Smashing Brahmanism does not amount to calling for violence against Brahmin persons - it amounts to dismantling a system that  oppresses women, Dalits and other oppressed castes.

In 1938, Ambedkar identified “Brahmanism and Capitalism” as the two enemies of workers in India, clarifying, “By Brahmanism I do not mean the power, privileges and interests of the Brahmans as a community. By Brahmanism I mean the negation of the spirit of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. In that sense it is rampant in all classes and is not confined to the Brahmans alone, though they have been the originators of it.” In fact, in India, Brahmanism is found in non-Hindu communities as well - among Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, for instance.   

The term “Brahmanical patriarchy” was coined by feminist historians to reflect the centrality of caste to patriarchy in India. In a seminal article published in 1993, historian Uma Chakravarti explored the relationship between caste and gender, identifying “what is possibly the central factor for the subordination of the upper caste woman: the need for effective sexual control over such women to maintain not only patrilineal succession but also caste purity, the institution unique to Hindu society.”

Chakravarti noted that “Women are regarded as gateways - literally points of entrance - into the caste system. The lower caste male whose sexuality is a threat to upper caste purity has to be institutionally prevented from having sexual access to women of the higher castes, so women must be carefully guarded.”

The obsessive surveillance and restrictions on mobility and sexual autonomy of women (masquerading as “protection”), and the murderous violence against inter-caste couples (especially in cases where savarna women love and marry Dalit men) in India today reminds us that this feature of Brahminical patriarchy is not a thing of the past. A recent survey found that one in four Indians admitted to practicing untouchability against Dalits, while another found that 50% or more of savarna Indians opposed inter-marriage with Dalits.

Those who are affronted by “Brahmanical patriarchy” are choosing to identify with Brahmanical patriarchy - i.e with the “negation of the spirit of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.” Most revealingly, Chitra Subramaniam, editorial advisor with Republic TV, demanded  Dorsey would ever “hold up a poster asking Xi Jinping to hold free and fair elections?” This question, in fact, admits that Brahminical patriarchy is as true of India as is the absence of free and fair elections in China!

The right question to ask would be: would Twitter and its CEO associate with, say, a Me Too poster, a Black Lives Matter poster, or slogans to Smash racist patriarchy or White supremacy? The answer is Yes. Twitter and Jack Dorsey did, in fact, take a public position apologising for a White supremacist advertisement calling for a ‘White America’ to run on its platform. Twitter also has policies against promoting hate based on “race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or ethnicity/national origin.” (The failure to explicitly recognise caste-based hate is, in fact, one of the problems with Twitter that Dalit activists tried to get Twitter to rectify.)

Clearly, at least in principle, Twitter is not “impartial” towards various forms of hate-promoting and oppressive ideologies. Why, then, did it play “impartial” and “apolitical” when it came to Brahmanism and caste? The answer to this lies partly in the kind of power and clout that the right wing Hindu-supremacist ideologues command on Indian Twitter, thanks in large part to patronage from and proximity to none less than the Prime Minister.  

What was most striking about the outrage performed on Twitter against the “Smash Brahminical patriarchy” slogan was the attempt to project a sense of victimhood of the dominant community. Elite claims to victimhood by fascist and far-right politics is not limited to India. In the US, Trump has repeatedly cast white people as victims of immigrants; and men as victims of women. In India, likewise, the Sangh Parivar and BJP survive by telling Hindus to fear victimisation by the Muslim, Christian, or Sikh minorities. In Indian media and popular culture, it is common to project Brahmans and other upper castes as “victims” of caste-based reservations and affirmative action. Patriarchal politics that claims to represent “men’s rights” has also gained ground, projecting men to be victimised by laws protecting women.

Outrageously, Congress spokesperson and former Union Minister Manish Tewari compared Brahmans in modern India to Jews victimised by fascists! Tewari’s tweet was a reminder that while the Sangh and BJP are certainly the most consistent political champions of Brahmanical patriarchy, Brahmanical patriarchy is held up by other political and social formations as well. The Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s political displays of the janeu (the sacred thread worn by Brahman men: the most prominent marker of Brahmanical male privilege) and visits to temples make it clear that the Congress is striving to reassure and appease rather than resist Brahmanism. Such a project is fundamentally inconsistent with anti-fascist politics in India, where Brahminical patriarchy is absolutely central to Sanghi fascist politics.