In this episode, Mexie talks with Dalit anti-caste and anti-speciesist activist, Prateek Kumar, about life as a Dalit in India. We discuss how the caste system operates, how casteism and speciesism are interlinked and how this affects both lower caste people and animals, and how things have changed and worsened under Modi’s Hindu nationalist regime. We end by discussing the potential for revolution here, and what comrades in the Global North can do to help amplify Dalit voices.
Sources and Links
- Prateek on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/polycycloid_polysemous/
- Prateek on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/deadwallflower/
- Prateek Kumar, Casteism In India Puts Both Humans And Animals Through Horrific Torture: https://www.youthkiawaaz.com/2019/01/interconnecting-casteism-and-speciesism/
- Suraj Yengde, Caste Matters: https://penguin.co.in/book/caste-matters/
- B.R. Ambedkar, Annihilation of Caste: https://www.versobooks.com/books/2150-annihilation-of-caste
- Yashica Dutt, Coming Out as Dalit: http://www.alephbookcompany.com/book/coming-out-as-dalit/
- Bojja Thakaram, Mahad: The March That’s Launched Everyday: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43154698-mahad
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F1: How can we not only discover more compassionate relations with human beings but how can we develop compassionate relations with the other creatures with whom we share this planet?
F2: There’s an us before the wound, there’s an us before oppression, and to me pleasure is the way that we tap down into that.
F3: We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings.
MEXIE: Hey everyone, welcome to The Vegan Vanguard. It is Mexie and today we are talking to Prateek Kumar who is a anti-casteist and anti-speciesist activist from the Dalit community in India. We had a fantastic conversation — pretty heavy conversation about life as a Dalit in India, especially under Modi’s Hindu nationalist regime. Just a content warning; we do talk about physical and sexual assault, including rape of Dalit women, so I wanted to give you a heads up on that before getting into the interview. The last thing before diving into the interview is to thank the new patrons, the new sustaining members of the show. Thank you so much to Rachel Zummo, Katie Mae, and Ayoola White.
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PRATEEK: [MUSIC] I am Prateek Kumar Gautam and I was born in a small town known as Basti in the state of Uttar Pradesh and I’ve lived in almost all the metro cities in the country. I’m currently living in Navi Mumbai. I work for Dalit Camera as a correspondent and as a video editor. Dalit Camera is the outlet. We can’t really call them as a news channel, I mean news — just a news outlet because their main agenda, their main focus is on our community, Dalit — that is, Dalit community, and Dalit-Bahujan and Adivasi community, so whatever the things happen in our community, this platform strives to bring their voices to — in the front, forefront — in the mainstream media. I’ve been vegan for seven years and I’ve been an anti-caste activist for around that much.
That’s how I discovered a lot of things about veganism, about speciesism, and about how to interrelate between the two. I’ve currently — and I’ve written a few articles on them as well. One of the articles was published in the [unclear]. I’m sorry if the pronunciation is wrong. I’ve currently made two documentaries and I’ve made about six short films, so that is — that’s all about me.
MEXIE: Wonderful. I’m so excited to have you on the show. Your work is really wonderful. We’ll definitely link to your articles and link to your work in the description box below. So, for those who are unfamiliar in our audience, could you explain how the caste system functions in India? Where did it come from and how does it operate?
PRATEEK: So, the thing is, it’s a really vast topic to begin because it has a lot of things to cover, from start to how we are raised here and how it’s working right now, because a lot of changes has happened over the past, what, 2,000 or 3,000 years. But I’ll basically start — I’ll basically say that it’s sort of parallel to how racism functions in western countries, but not really in that way. I mean, it goes much deeper because you see here, almost everyone here is of same race, if we exclude the people from northeastern part of the country. On the surface level it just looks like oh, this isn’t the worst of the capitalism that we’re seeing or the worst of the modern day slavery that we call it. We see — but then when we start to dig in, it’s like, it goes much deeper and deeper and deeper.
So, basically what’s happening here is the whole society, the whole Indian society is divided into — in traditional ways it was divided into four parts but now I’ll start with the current — how it’s functioning right now. It basically divides into almost three categories. One is the upper caste people. These are like the elites people, elites of the society. They are not really — you can’t really call them rich but when you see the rich of this country, all the rich of the country, they all belong to the same caste, like upper caste and Savarnas. We call them Savarnas. So, Savarnas are basically, it’s — you can just call them the upper caste, Hindi of upper caste. Then we come onto the lower caste people. These are the people — we can compare them to working class people but they’re not really — I mean, they are — they have all the traits of working class people but not exactly the working class, but they go beyond that.
They basically benefit the — they basically work as the servants of the upper caste. Whatever the work they do, it sort of directly benefits the upper caste people. Then we come to the lower part of the pyramid. We call them untouchables or the Dalits and — Dalits and Adivasis. So, basically, these are the people who are forced into all kind of menial jobs with no job security and with no assurance and a lot of life risk. All the things that we see in the country, like cleaning the drainage or doing any kind of work that is really considered filthy, and all the jobs are forced to them. There is a clear divided line because first of all, the people from the lower caste and the Dalits and Adivasi, they don’t have any means to climb up the ladder.
There’s no way to jump up the ladder and become the — become part of the upper caste people because they’re always — they always say that you’re born with it. Whatever the work you are doing, you are meant to do that. It’s a god-gifted thing and things like that. It’s very difficult to, you know, break this line, caste divide line. A lot of violence happens when people try — people from lower caste and people from Dalit community and Adivasi community try to move up, like try to — not even move up; they’re trying to make their lives better or they’re trying to make the community better. A lot of violence happens.
For example, if you see all these white collar jobs in banks and in services and other public sector jobs, when these people, they start coming from — they work hard and — through all those reservation, they try to come up to those positions, they face a lot of casteism. Like, they’ll face a lot of jealousy and envy from the upper caste people that try to do their best to point any sort of things that can hurt them or hurt their jobs or try to — like, sort of crimes they do against them. So, this is currently how it’s working. What was the other question? Where did it come from?
MEXIE: Yeah, where did it come from?
PRATEEK: So, it’s like, if you look at the history, it goes way beyond 2,000 and 3,000 years, around — when Indus Valley Civilization was happening. When Indus Valley Civilization was fading, that’s — to my knowledge, there are a lot of debates on this; where did it come from and how did it originate? But to my knowledge, when the Indus Valley Civilization started to decline and people started to migrate from those areas to other parts of the country, they brought sort of — they sort of brought this system with them and all the people here, the indigenous people here in the mainland of India, they were sort of forced to move away or chased away. A lot of people were forced into slavery and all sort of things in that time this whole system was created. That time, there were four categories.
I can say five categories but officially people say four categories, so four categories were — there were Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. Then the fifth category that comes is Ati-Shudras. So, Brahmins were the one who controlled everything from education to what the king should say, or sort of priestly — you know how the priest works in the medieval ages; like, they control everything, the wealth — from wealth to how — what the decisions a king should make and everything. The Kshatriyas were the warrior caste who just — all the genders and everything, and they were there. The Vaishyas were the people who controlled education and, what do you say, the guards and everything to maintain and everything like that.
Shudras were all the working class people who were dyers or — like, the people who clean bedsheets and everything. Those are the people, like — those are the categories. Ati-Shudras were the people who were beyond this system, caste system; were not allowed to have any — who were not allowed to belong to this caste, any caste, and they were the one who were forced to do all the jobs, menial jobs, like cleaning the drainage and cleaning the streets and all sort of things. They were also not allowed to be inside the society, like be inside of society. They are not allowed to have any farm, they were not allowed to have any land, they were not allowed to have any crops, and they were not even allowed to wear clothes and wear sandals or any sort of things like that.
They were not allowed to even be inside of society beyond a certain time, like after the sunset and before the sunrise. After the sunset and before the sunset — sunrise, only they were allowed to be in society, and that too only for works like cleaning and, you know, the cleaning and maintaining all the — all sort of things. Like, if there was a dead animal, they have to come and clear it up, and like that. If there’s some murder or somebody died and — they have to carry it to the graveyard or for cremation. So, they’ll come and they’ll pick them up and then they’ll go. They were forced to live outside the societies where, you know, all the drainage water would go and sewage pipe drains out of some — all sort of things will go and they were forced to live there. That was how it was there.
But a lot of people, they justify — tried to justify these things. They’re saying that oh, these people were forced to do all those jobs because they were not skilled or they were not talented or they were not, you know, qualified for any other job, so they were forced to take up jobs. I mean, this was one of the arguments. Another argument was that they said all the works should be divided according to the caste. I mean, all the — yeah, all the work should be divided according to caste so that society functions very perfectly, society functions very smoothly and there’s not…there’s no any mess around it and there’s not any confusion, and so that people would be happy and everything would be fine, but that was not the case because even if you divided society based on the work, you have to pay people about — pay people what they are there doing.
Like, if someone is working even as a janitor, you should pay them a certain amount of — a certain amount for their living and you should provide them certain services and you should give them house and you should at least allow them to live in the society and you should give them access to foods and crops and everything else, but that was not the case. They were just — it was plain slavery. It’s just a euphemism saying that oh, this caste system was to made — to make society function smoothly but it was — I say it’s just a euphemism and they were just trying — it was just slavery, worst form of slavery, I’d say.
MEXIE: Mm-hm. Yeah, that’s absolutely terrible. So, you mentioned the Brahmin caste. So, today, are there still members of the Brahmin caste and are they the Savarnas or just for clarity?
PRATEEK: They are still there. The caste system almost — the names and everything is almost there but it’s slightly different. It functions slightly differently because now we have a lot of things coming and we have — industrialization has happened and capitalism has come in and a lot of things have happened. But basically, the power remains with the Brahmin people and Savarna people. All the people down below — you just see the — you see it as a pyramid. You imagine it as a pyramid; the top of the pyramid there are Brahmins and actually, Brahmins and Savarnas, I categorize them into two parts but basically Brahmins and Savarnas are same. Like, Savarnas, you — Brahmins also come, Kshatriyas also come, and Vaishyas also come.
But I divide it into two parts because Brahmins are the prime beneficiaries and we should actually hold them accountable for everything that they’re doing against all of this. So, I divided them into two parts; Brahmins and Savarnas. But in reality, if you see official statements and everything, Brahmins, Savarnas… Yeah, I divide them into two because I hold them accountable for all the things that they’re doing.
MEXIE: Mm-hm. I just ask because I knew a Brahmin anti-caste activist here in — well, I met them here in Canada, but I was just wondering because you had mentioned that Brahmins were more of the ancient caste, so thank you for clarifying that. It’s also my understanding that India has, in their constitution, made the caste system illegal but that, of course, that hasn’t translated into real life. Is that correct?
PRATEEK: Yeah, it’s definitely correct. I’ll say that just because it’s in constitution, it doesn’t mean that it has disappeared. A lot of people, they try to argue that oh, because the constitution had made it illegal, the caste system had disappeared but it’s just not dead. I’ll tell you one point — with one point. When our constitution was found in 26th November, 1950 and — 1949, sorry, and was implemented on 26th January, 1950; after that, more than — it took India more than forty years, thirty-nine years, to come up with a special law called SC ST Atrocities Act. So, that was the act created to prevent atrocities against Dalits and Adivasis in the country. So, that is a clear indication that caste system has existed even after the constitution had made it illegal.
They had to come up with a special law to prevent atrocities against us to the — against Dalit and Adivasis. Even to make that law, it took a lot of struggle, a lot of fight, and lot of killings and lot of things. You see a lot of people — before this law, the only way to fight caste system in India was to join a Naxal group. A Naxal group is basically — I’ll explain it later. Either join a Naxal group or a Maoist group, or become a bandit in Chambal. Chambal is like a west — while, while west of India. So, you then become a bandit and go rob all the Savarnas and all those Brahmins. That was the only way to fight casteism. This SC ST Atrocities Act made it — it made it easier for us to fight casteism in modern day.
MEXIE: Yeah, I mean, that makes sense that a lot of people similarly point to laws in the United States or Canada and say that oh, there can’t be racism or there can’t be sexism because legally — so, of course, that never actually works out. So, could you explain the particularities of the Dalit caste and what it’s like to live as a Dalit in India?
PRATEEK: So, Dalit caste — Dalit is actually not a caste but it’s actually, yeah, it’s a group of oppressed people, we can say. A lot of caste come under Dalit caste.
PRATEEK: All — yeah. So, I mean, if we look at the government’s document, there are more than 3,000 castes under Dalit community itself. So, all the untouchables in the ancient times, what — we call them untouchables and what we call them Ati-Shudras in their — like, before British came in here in India. Even during the British time, untouchable caste was there, still there, but all the untouchable caste and all the people at the lowermost part of this caste system, the lowermost start of this caste system are all Dalits. We call them Dalits. So, Dalit word is basically — means scattered or depressed or broken and it was first coined by Babasaheb Ambedkar.
So, all the people from untouchable caste, all the people from lowermost caste and all the people from the caste that are not allowed to be in the society, they all come under Dalit caste. Yeah, so that is what the Dalit word means. All the people doing — I mean, all the lowermost people are called Dalit, Dalit people, and to live as a Dalit in India, I don’t know how to explain it. Like, it’s like you’re having a nightmare but you’re living the nightmare at the same time.
MEXIE: Oh, man.
PRATEEK: It’s really difficult. I mean, over the last ten years, it has become more and more — it has become more scary. It’s become more — what do you say — deadly and, yeah, it’s very scary to be here. A lot of people from Dalit community, they hide their caste often in order to escape from the violence, because you see here, we can’t just really pick someone up from the color of their skin that oh, they belong to this caste or they belong to that caste. We almost have all similar color skins and it’s easier to hide your caste. A lot of people do that in order to escape the violence, in order to escape the casual casteism, in order to escape a lot of brutality against them, because even if you’re doing — even if you’re not harming anyone, even if you’re not profit — getting profited — profit from anybody or you’re just living on your own and doing your work and trying to make a living and trying to make yourself or your caste better, people from higher caste, people from upper caste, they’ll feel jealous.
They will envy you and they’ll start doing some things; like, they’ll start doing violence against you. They’ll start — they’ll come and beat you and a lot of things that happens, or they’ll try to put corruption charges on you or things like that so that you don’t do well in your life or you don’t do better in your life, or your caste feels ashamed about it. A lot of things that happens. If you just start seeing the caste-based violence, you’d be surprised at why all the things that are happening like this. Like, you’ll be — there’s just no explanation to it. Like, somebody from upper caste will come and beat you up simply because you were doing better in your school, better than them in your school. Like, that will happen. A lot of things happen.
In Gujarat, a lot of — Gujarat is a state of India and if you just see the caste-based violence over there, it just doesn’t make sense. Somebody is doing well in their jobs and next day, you find them dead because they were doing good in their job. They were bringing what — pride to their caste or they were trying to move up in the society. The next day, you find them dead with no reason because upper class people don’t want them to be above them. It’s like they want to scare us. They want to threaten us and they want to show us our place, that this is your place; you can’t move above it. A lot of violence just happens because of that, just because of that.
MEXIE: Yeah, people just want to hold onto their position of privilege in a society and they’ll obviously do that through violence. So, have you ever — do you — I don’t know if you’re able to talk about this. If not, I can just edit it out but so, do you hide your caste and how is that really possible, because I know you said that everyone kind of looks the same so it’s hard to tell, but as you were saying before about caste being really tied in with what job you’re supposed to do in society; are you able to kind of hide your caste to break away from that and get a job outside of your caste?
PRATEEK: Yeah. We find out about somebody’s caste through their surnames. A lot of people — yeah, so a lot of people from our community, they just take a surname from some upper caste and they just use it as their surname. They just fill their — on their ID cards and everywhere. But yeah, when you’re applying for some official jobs or even other jobs if you’re applying, you have to mention your caste. But that thing stays with the official and it’s under the document and it doesn’t really come out unless you really have some really bad person sitting in the official who just wants to, you know, take revenge, sort of revenge, sort of thing that how did he come up to here. So, in that way, we sort of hide our caste and yes, I have hid my caste for a very long time because I was really scared of what’s happening around me.
Because there’s a reservation system here if you — if — I don’t know if people know about it; it sort of works almost in a similar way how reservation works in US, slightly differently. So, we have — there are reserved seats for students in the college and there are reserved seats for people in the jobs, in government jobs, and so when you apply for any jobs, when you write any company’s exams, you have some sort of seats reserved only for your category, so when you go there and apply, so you have, what do you say, you are assured that you will be given seat if you are qualified for the job. So, that way, there is this reservation system. In that way, a lot of people find out about your caste but then it just remains there unless you just — there’s some official over there who tries to, you know, really feels that you — doesn’t deserve to be here.
MEXIE: Mm-hm. God, that’s terrible. I also was just watching a really upsetting video about how Dalit women are often subjects to the most unspeakable physical and sexual violence including gang rapes and murders at the hands of mostly upper caste men and that this doesn’t really happen to upper caste women in the same way, and so I just thought that was obviously really devastating but also kind of exemplary of the fact that the caste system is really alive and well and how much it is related to other hierarchies of power like patriarchy and things like that.
PRATEEK: Yeah. So, violence against women is used — is often used as a tool in every society, if I’m right about it. Here also in India, violence against Dalit women and Adivasi women have been used as a tool to suppress the voices of Dalit community, to bring — in order to bring shame to the community so that they don’t come up — they don’t do well in their lives and they don’t come up — they don’t live their life in dignity, so that rape against Dalit women and violence against Dalit women is basically — it’s mainly because of the caste, not because of anything else. Caste is the main driving factor of all the violence that’s happening against women. That is to suppress the voices of our community.
I’ll give you one example; I won’t name the people and I won’t name the — when did it happen but I mean, I won’t name the people, the victim’s name and everything, but it happened in Punjab a long time — around six or seven years ago when people from a family from Dalit community was doing really well. They were farmers, basically, but then they just — I mean, they were doing better, a lot better, and they were sort of doing almost same as any other upper caste from that area. Then what happened was one day, people got really envy — people started envying them, upper caste people started envying those families and then one day what they did was they kidnapped the daughter of that family and they gang raped them.
Then later they also — when — and when all this happened, the father of the girl, he tried to fight a case against them, put rape charges and everything, and he was also beaten up and he was also brutally thrashed but he survived. That is one of the examples that has happened, but even in the recent time, it has happened, like around a week ago. Almost every week, you hear about it. Almost every week.
MEXIE: Oh, that’s disgusting. So, I’ve heard some talk about Dalits potentially converting to Islam or Buddhism to try to disrupt the caste system. I guess under a Hindu nationalist government, that wouldn’t maybe be a viable option but what are your thoughts on this?
PRATEEK: Converting to Buddhism is one of the ways to disturb the casteism but other than that, I’ve — I personally not felt that converting to any other religion is a way to disrupt the casteism. But a lot of people from Dalit community has converted to — have converted to Islam or Sikhism, Christianity, and I won’t really put a finger on them and tell them oh, this is the — this is not the way to do it, but then I personally feel that only converting to Buddhism is one of the ways to disturb the casteism, because casteism also — caste system also exist in Muslims also, in Islam also, in Sikhism also, and in Christianity also. Because Islam is not — I mean, Islam — it didn’t come from Indian subcontinent. It came out — from outside. Same for Christianity.
When colonialism was happening, everything was happening, it came from outside, and so a lot of people were offered to be converted to Islam and to — converted to Christianity. So, a lot of Brahmins, a lot of Savarnas, a lot of Kshatriyas, they willingly converted to Christianity and were — and Islam and Sikhism. So, but conversion did not just, like — it converted — they converted to all those religions but then they did not leave the caste behind. They brought their caste with them in the religion. What happened was when a Brahmin converted to Christianity, they became Christian Brahmin, and when a Brahmin converted to Islam, they became top of the pyramid, sort of person in that religion. That sort of brought all those system into the — into those religions.
So, personally, I don’t feel that a lot of people from community, Dalit community, they feel degraded when they convert to Christianity and convert to Islam because Hinduism is anyway very oppressive and not just in one ways but in many ways. So, it’s a better option but I don’t — I personally don’t feel like only — I feel like only converting to Buddhism, you disrupt the caste system.
MEXIE: I guess could you explain a bit more about that? ‘Cause if you convert to Buddhism, would they not — would they treat you any differently given that your surname would be the same? How would they know that you were Buddhist instead of Hindu?
PRATEEK: Basically, I mean, there is no way to — when you convert to Buddhism, your surname doesn’t go. Your surname stays the same. I mean, for Christianity also and everything, there’s also — it’s almost — remains the same but then there are a lot of ways to know. There are a lot of subtle ways to find out about whether you converted to Buddhism or converted to Islam. A lot of people when they convert to Islam and Christianity, they change their name. They change their surname also. They change their name also. So, that way you could find out okay, that person converted to Islam or that person converted to Christianity but in Buddhism, it almost remains the same.
That is why I feel it’s better to — personally, I feel it’s better, I am constantly insisting because once this comes out, a lot of people will be like oh, how can you say that? A lot of Dalit people convert to Islam and they’re happy about it and everything. I’m not blaming anybody. I’m not putting — pointing finger at anybody. But Buddhism, when you convert to Buddhism, you all — your name remains the same or you can change but almost remains the same and then you just convert to Buddhism. That’s all. There’s no other special things happening over there.
MEXIE: Mm-hm. But I mean, would the upper caste treat you differently if you convert to Buddhism versus remaining Hindu?
PRATEEK: No, they won’t treat you differently at all. You’re saying that if a person from Dalit community converts to Buddhism, would people from upper class treat us differently?
PRATEEK: No, they won’t treat us differently.
MEXIE: So how does that disrupt the caste system then?
PRATEEK: Because then you leave their system. Like, you leave Hinduism and then they feel threatened about it. They become more insecure about their places and they’re like, they’ll say we’re all Hindus and all Hindus are brothers — and everything, but they live badly in that system, so you leave that system, so they feel the heat and then they — yeah, so they won’t treat you any differently but then, yeah, they’ll be — they’ll feel insecure and they’ll be like — they’ll become more fragile, that I’ll say. They’ll become more fragile, they’ll become more — yeah.
MEXIE: Oh, okay. That makes sense. So, I guess turning now to your work on speciesism and how that intersects with casteism, could you explain how speciesism, capitalism, and casteism are all intertwined?
PRATEEK: So, when I first became vegan, I did not know about speciesism at all. I just saw all this violence against animals and everything and I — one day I decided to go vegan overnight. Then when I started doing my activism, I was all into all those people from western hemisphere — I mean, western countries who were doing all sort of, you know, I’d say white veganism, sort of things, following the — and here, people — all the vegans here all — were all upper caste and all Savarnas and they were sort of following the same thing here. But then when I started doing this activism in my own community, I started to get a lot of flack from my community and they were like oh, this is like upper caste people and this is like white — this is like a western thing you are doing and this doesn’t really suit our community and everything.
So, I started looking different ways to know about veganism. That’s how I came to know about speciesism. Then when I started to see speciesism, I started to make connection with how casteism works in India, and how speciesism — how Hinduism is speciesist. There’s a lot — I think you might know about how Hinduism and vegetarianism goes hand in hand, and a lot of people say that oh, being vegetarian is like — it’s about purity and everything like that. So, when I started doing activism in my community, a lot of people thought that this is vegetarianism and it doesn’t really suit our community and you’re just advocating for Brahmins or you’re just advocating for upper caste people and this is not what Dalit people do.
But then I started to find how this whole Hinduism or this whole caste system is a system that is not just oppressing Dalits but also through Dalit, is exploiting animals at the same time. So, while I call it — is a casteist speciesism, the lowermost people — I’ll explain in a different way. All the animal industry that you see in India, all the lowermost jobs like tanning and where the rotting flesh is there and where they have to collect all those things, all the — all those jobs are done by Dalit people only, and Dalit people and Adivasi people. All these animal industries are set up on the lands of Adivasi people. They are chased away from their lands and all these industries are set up on their land. The prime beneficiary is that — the industry is controlled by Brahmins.
They are the ones, Savarnas — they are the one who control this industry. They are the ones who have the grip on the industry and they are the ones who have the resources and power to chase away Adivasi people from their lands and use their resources to feed this animal industry. This way, all these things are connected in one thread. So, I have explained this in my article in a very — in more — deeply.
MEXIE: Yeah, we can definitely link the article below but yeah, that’s a really great overview of how these systems are connected. Could you give us maybe some examples of speciesism in India and how they relate to caste?
PRATEEK: So, all the system that you see, all the caste system that you see, divided, that has also divided the animals, how the animals are used and which caste should use which animal in India. So, cows are considered holy and — here in India. But — and the resources, the products that come from cows like milk, butter, ghee, yogurt and everything, that is only accessible — that was only accessible to Brahmin people in the earlier time. It was only accessible to Savarnas and Brahmin people. No Dalits or no untouchables were allowed, even — allowed near the cow or even to touch the cows because they were considered holy and if you touch the cow, that cow will become unholy and then they’ll have to do a lot of tantas to make them holy again like that.
So, they were not allowed — so, we were not allowed anywhere near the cows. Cows were only, what you say, reserved for upper caste and Brahmins and everyone. Then you come down below via Kshatriyas who had access to elephants and horse and everyone. Even Brahmins had access to all these things but I’m just categorizing the different castes where relatable — had positions to certain animals, related to certain animals, but almost every Savarna had access to all these. All these untouchable people — all the untouchable people and Dalit people, they were not allowed to be near anywhere these sacred animals. All the upper caste people were allowed to ride horse, they were allowed to ride elephants, they were allowed to hunt lions and everything like that.
But the untouchable people, they were not allowed to be anywhere near that. But what happens when the cow dies or a horse dies or an elephant dies? Then people from Dalit society, people — untouchable people were called to pick them up or to clean them up. When the cow dies, it becomes unholy. That’s all I can say. When it becomes — when they become unholy, then people from Dalit society are called to clean them up and to dispose them of all, you know. They had the rituals to cremate them but then they were called to pick them up and to clean them up and everything else. When the cows — dies, then all the things happens, and the skin of the cow, they — they are peeled by our community, people from our community.
All the tanners, they were asked to take the skin off the animal and then those skin were then given back to, again, the people from our community only who made a lot of different things from that skin like instrument, musical instruments, and a lot of things they would make, like belts and everything. In the ancient time; I’m talking about the ancient time. Again, those — what do you say, those instruments and those things that are made from animal skin and everything, they were not allowed to be used by any untouchables or any lower caste people. They were only reserved for upper caste people.
So when the cow is alive, all the products that is accessible is only to Brahmins and Savarnas and when they died, people from — lower caste people are called up to clean the mess and then the skin and everything useful in that cow is again cleaned up and done everything and made into nice things and beautiful things, and then those things goes back, again, to those people of — higher caste people. All these things, people from — lower caste people, they were exploited because they were not paid also. They were not given any reassurance or anything, any benefit, and they were chased away back to outside of the society. Here, you see both things are exploited; both people are exploited.
Dalit people are also exploited — and the Dalit people. Animals are also exploited. The only prime beneficiary are the Savarnas, or Savarnas and Brahmins. So, this is how speciesism and casteism are interlinked. Even today, it works exactly the same way but you just bring in capitalism and you just increase the number of times the cows are killed and number of times the horses are killed and all those things. You increase the exploitation of Dalit community to ten times or twenty times more.
MEXIE: Mm-hm. Yeah, unbelievable. It’s really, really telling; I know that Aph Ko — I don’t know if you’ve read Aphro-ism but it talks about the animalization of people and how that functions to uphold hierarchy. So, yeah, I guess it’s pretty telling that Dalit people have been animalized even moreso than some of these sacred animals, right? They are treated worse than the sacred animals even in a speciesist society.
PRATEEK: It has affected our community in a lot of ways. All this casteism has not just exploited us in one way. It has exploited in a lot of ways, and through generation and generation and generations of this exploitation happening, a lot of things in our community has changed. We were forced to eat the food that we’re eating now. We are forced to live the way we are living now. We are forced to have the lifestyle that we are having now. We have no access to all the grains. We have no access to milk. We have no access to all the resources that we had before, that upper caste people had. That has affected our diet. It has come into our diet, it has come into our lifestyle, it has come into our living in a lot of ways. So, a lot of advocate — Dalit advocates — Dalit people advocate about the dietary thing and how we treat animals and how we should treat animals, how we should not treat animals.
It has actually come from Brahmin people only. They’re exploiting us in such a way that we had no option but to kill other people, like kill animal people and to survive on them and to live on them. So, if we advocate about speciesism and casteism at the same time, we just — we — not only be able to fight for animals and fight for animal liberation, but also our own liberation in that way. That is one of the main thing that I wanted to say.
MEXIE: Mm-hm. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense that a lot of the ways that you associate with eating and how you associate certain diets with the Dalit people, that that has come from this broader hierarchy that left people no choice, right?
PRATEEK: Then there are other ways, also. There are contradictory things that are happening here in casteism and speciesism. So, people from Dalit community, they are not allowed to ride horses during marriage ceremonies. So, I don’t know if the people who are listening to this are aware of it, that we have a tradition here in India in the — during marriages where the groom rides horse and goes to the wedding. That thing is — that whole ceremony is not allowed for people from lower caste and untouchable caste. So, this act of riding horse, a lot of people from Dalit community, they feel that when they do this act, like act of riding a horse during a wedding ceremony, they break this caste system, they break the stereotype or they sort of challenge the system. But that is not exactly right in my opinion.
That is not actually — that should not actually happen because in this process, the horse is getting exploited. The horse is exploited and he’s — we are oppressing another animal. Like, we are trying to liberate — we are trying to achieve liberation on the back of other animals, on the back of other oppressed beings, and that’s not the right thing to do, because if you really want to fight caste system, if you really want to fight — break the system, we actually have to advocate riding against the horse. Doesn’t matter which caste you belong to. Imagine how it will be, like how powerful it can be when we, from Dalit community and when we from Adivasi community try to disrupt the marriages where horse are being ridden, where we try to stop those marriages where the horse is put into all those — put into all those situations.
They’re like, loud music happening and everything. Basically, I mean, even if you just look at it like it’s absolutely wrong to ride a horse. It’s actually wrong to ride a horse. So, if you just advocate about it, that you should not ride a horse during a marriage ceremony, it will again — it will automatically break that system of hierarchy. You will again just come down to untouchables and people on the par with untouchables and Adivasi because we also don’t ride — we are also not allowed to ride horse or ride horses during our ceremonies and you also won’t be allowed to ride a horse during your marriage ceremony. In that way, they come on par with us and we liberate horses, or we sort of advocate against them, against riding horses.
MEXIE: Mm-hm. Yeah, I think that’s — that would be a powerful way to kind of disrupt hierarchy on multiple fronts. So, for people who aren’t aware, India right now is being ruled by a fascist Hindu nationalist government under the rule of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has ushered in new waves of state violence against religious minorities and marginalized castes, so I’m wondering how have things changed or worsened for marginalized people and for Dalit people in particular under Modi’s regime?
PRATEEK: It has become a lot worse, I’d say. It has become a lot worse, a lot worse than it was before. But then, India was always like this. I have not personally seen much difference between what was happening during communist regime or sort of democratic regime and what’s happening now. Yet, violence has definitely increased and a lot of people from upper caste, they have become more open about it and they’ve become sort of more powerful and daring that they come out on the street and do all the — all sort of things. But it has existed before, also, because like I’ve said before, it took around forty years for India to come up with a special law about atrocities, again, SCs and STs. SCs and STs is basically Sadhu caste and Sadhu tribes.
Sadhu castes and Sadhu tribes are basically people from Dalit community and Adivasi community. So, it took forty years for India to come up with a special law to have — to protect people from all this violence. So, it has been there and Modi is sort of famous for being a Hindu nationalist and everything. Even in 2003, even he was a Chief Minister of Gujarat. He had sanctioned a lot of violence. I don’t know what will happen after I’ve made this statement, but I won’t be — I won’t back down from making this statement that he actually did — he actually sanctioned a lot of state violence against Muslims and Gujarat here in 2003, 2002, 2003 riots. He just sort of ignores when this violence happens in India, when — after becoming prime minister. I’ll just say that it has become a lot worse now.
MEXIE: Mm-hm. Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been seeing a lot across the news. So, I mean, recently the world watched as farmers and workers across India staged the largest protest in human history over Modi’s neoliberal agricultural reforms, so worker power there seems to be fairly solid but I’m wondering are workers in these protests really keen to disrupt the casteism — caste system as well, and do you see any potential for real revolution here?
PRATEEK: Potential for revolution, I guess there is potential for revolution, but then what kind of revolution that we want from it, because the people that are representing the farmers right now and all this — the whole farmer protests is actually led by — again, is led by Savarna people and upper caste people only, because if people — if they’re see — saw — if they saw the news like, two days, two — three days ago, there was a tractor rally during Republic Day. A tractor costs around three to seven lakhs, around 2,000 — 2,000, 3,000 dollars, American dollars. One tractor costs around 2,000, 3,000 American dollars and that is the money only people from upper caste and Savarnas — only they can afford. So, again, this protest, this farmer protest, is basically led by them.
Yeah, there are people from Dalit caste — Dalit community and Adivasi community also who are in this protest. They’re in very large numbers. Like, because we already are very large in number, so we — anywhere we will go, the protest really becomes large but then it’s, again, represented by upper caste and Brahmin people. Yeah, it’s important. I mean, yeah, workers’ powers are — workers’ power here is really solid. They are really fighting it. As people from — as a person from a marginalized community, I really support this, like whatever is happening here in India about the farmers’ protest and everything, but we should not really forget that the caste system here also exists in this farmers’ whole protest. Somebody’s getting their voice heard from everybody and somebody’s not even getting anything.
MEXIE: Mm-hm. Yeah, I was wondering about that, whether it was mostly a protest against neoliberal reforms or if there was a potential for a wider disruption of the caste system but it sounds like that might be alive and well even within the protest. So, how can comrades in the global north then assist in the struggle of lower caste people in India?
PRATEEK: Give them more space and whenever a person from a higher sort — elite class is coming and talking about the caste system and everything, you just ask them about the people from that community and whether they know people from that community. They should actually — what is — amplify the voice of the people from our community. There are actually people who are making a lot of statements, who are doing a lot of protests, and who are really voicing their opinions from our community, but they’re not — they’re overshadowed by people from upper caste. They are like, liberal upper caste people who just sort of leech onto our struggles and they just make it their own, try to make it their own, and they try to benefit from it. That is the — that is one of the things that we need to find out who is doing that, because they just try to own our movement and they try to make it their own and our struggle remains the same. That’s what happening.
MEXIE: Yeah. Absolutely. Is there anything else you would like to add to this discussion? I don’t have any more questions but is there anything else you’d like to add, anything else you’d like the listeners to know?
PRATEEK: Yeah. The thing that — about Modi’s fascist government that I just sort of skimmed a lot of things, and that — yeah, I wanted to just go through it again. A lot of things, yes, a lot of things have changed. For us Dalit people, there are not much difference in the violence that we are seeing. Yeah, it has increased from the previous years and it has become worse in the — from the previous years, but almost — it has almost remained the same from the last seventy or seventy-two years that — in the existence of India. But what Modi’s regime has done is that they’ll just control the media in very bad way. Like, he runs propaganda in a very — really good way and he has the power to mobilize any crowd at any time.
Like, he will just come on the TV and say that — bang plates and spoons at 5:00 PM and the entire country will come to their balcony and the entire country will come to the street and start banging plates and — yeah, it has happened, actually, it has happened. Last year it has happened. Yeah. I think on 31st March, 2020, he came on TV around 12:00 PM in the afternoon and just told people to come out on the streets, in their balconies, on their windows, and bang plates and spoons to increase people fighting covid. The entire country did that. An entire country did that.
MEXIE: Wow, wow.
PRATEEK: Yeah, so he has such influence. He has such influence on the people. He can just make people do anything. He has such a strong propaganda tool with him. All the steam and all — everything that he has, it is very strong. He can just make people do anything. Even in the farmers’ protests and everything here, the coverage you see, it’s for like — it was the world’s largest protest that — it’s the world’s largest mobilization and protest that is happening right now. But when you switch on television sets, no matter what news channel you see, there are rarely any news channel that talks in favor of farmer protests or in favor of the farmers or is willing to listen to what farmers are going through. Everybody’s talking against farmers.
Everybody’s trying to demonize farmers like they’re some sort of evil people who just don’t want anything good happening to the country. They’re like, they should be jailed and they should be — done this and that, everything, and it’s been happening from last two to three months. It’s all under the propaganda that it’s happening. I’d say before we had a little bit of democracy in the country, where there was something that we had hope for, but now the democracy is just for a namesake. It has become fascist. We sort of — we always try to say that oh, China is our worst enemy, China is our enemy, and they’re communist and everything and they’re like, they control people and everything, but in a way, we are just a mirror image of China now.
In a lot of ways, all these Hindu fascists who hate China, they are actually just mirroring the parts and images that they have of China in reality. They’re just mirroring that. Modi is like the center stage of all that.
MEXIE: Mm-hm. Yeah. I mean, I guess if he has so much power that whatever he comes out and says is taken really seriously, then the fact that he is pretty openly Hindu nationalist must be also having a big influence on the increased violence that you’re seeing. But although as you said, you’ve been experiencing this violence for a very long time. But yeah. Yeah, well, thank you so much for coming on the show today. This was really enlightening and we are going to link to your articles and if you’d like to send me — I don’t know if you have links to the documentaries that you worked on but we can include those in the show notes as well for people. But would you like to maybe shout out where people can find you online if you’d like them to find you?
PRATEEK: Yeah. They can find me on Instagram. The Instagram handle is a little bit complicated. It’s called @polycycloid_polysemous. I’ll send it to you. That is on Instagram. On Facebook you can find me as Prateek.
MEXIE: [MUSIC] Great, yeah, so we’ll link that below so that people can find you and your work and just, yeah, thank you so much again for coming and speaking about this today. Yeah, I mean, if there’s any way that we could help the struggle even further, than please don’t hesitate to let us know.
PRATEEK: Yeah, sure. Thank you for inviting me and for the talk.
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