Saving the World Like a Savarna
As Dr. Ambedkar said of the ‘Mahatma,” “I know Gandhi better than his disciples… He showed me his fangs,” many Ambedkarites know Savarnas saviors better than most.
Every month, Prof. Ravikant Kisana (aka Buffalo Intellectual) brings you field notes from Savarna culture.
In the first few weeks of my doctoral studies at MICA, Ahmedabad, the professor was teaching us about Paulo Freire and the “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” waxing eloquent about how the modern education system dehumanizes students and erodes their confidence daily. My cohort, though overwhelmingly Savarna, nonetheless had a few scholars from small towns. They didn’t have “good English” or “cultural polish” and struggled to follow the ornate vocabulary of our Brahmin professor. By this point in my life, I had mastered enough of the Savarna culture to pass off as “polished” and wealthy to their casual gaze.
One day, in the privacy of her cabin, the same professor ranted to me about my cohort-mates, saying she could not believe how some of them had been admitted to the program and was counting on me as a “bright light” to get her through the course. I was shocked and struck by the contrast between talking so passionately about marginalized students’ issues in the lecture hall and making mean-spirited jibes at the same students in her office. In an immature move, I told the professor off and walked out. It immediately soured our equation and she, along with her husband who later became the Director of MICA, proceeded to bring the might of institutional hostility upon me for years, the effects of which still follow my career.
Countless questions swirled in my head as I left the cabin that day: Had the things she said in class been completely insincere? Was she a hypocrite to the core? Was she just a good actor who could fake passion about classroom injustices while internally judging everyone harshly? A lifetime of being around elite Savarnas later, I don’t believe she was being particularly deceitful or mean. She meant what she said, both inside the class and outside it. This was simply typical of the way elite Savarnas engage with social issues and the larger world around them. They can be passionate and sincere in the moment, meaning most of what they say, but “switch” back to their Savarna selves – all the while still deeply believing that they have been genuine in their efforts to make the world a better place.
“Switching” in this context is the social behavior where Savarnas can pose as extremely radical and culturally progressive and then, with the flip of a metaphorical switch, slip back into their privileged family lives without the slightest existential friction. This switching is possible because Savarna social lives are largely public-facing performances, and their personalities are curated to be ideological. It is indeed very common for Savarnas to take radical posturings in their college politics, workspaces, on their dating app bios, Instagram stories, and to even bully their peers for less than radical views, while seamlessly switching back to a conservative family environment at home. Such posturing that borders on social deception is a public role to be played, a curation, a “look,” an outfit of sorts to mask what is fundamentally a conservative social core that is extremely difficult to unlearn. In fact, when most well-meaning Savarnas try to genuinely “de-Brahminize” in their everyday praxis, they often report a loss of cultural vocabulary, listlessness, and a near total hostility from every material aspect of their everyday privilege. It is too overwhelming. It is too absolute. Hence, it does not have many takers. It is easier to just roleplay a radical and switch back to less hostile, familiar Savarna culture.
Thus, within elite Savarna worlds, ideological dualities coexist and are even celebrated. Within the same family, it is quite common to find a very conservative, RSS-affirming person, while a sibling or a kin is radically left-leaning – WhatsApp group arguments notwithstanding, some families even take pride in how they have many divergent ideological personas co-existing together.
Individualism is the philosophical justification used by elite Savarnas to escape structural accountability. Any discourse that links them to the contradictory and exploitative networks within their own family and peers is dismissed by saying, “I am not them, I am not my family, I am my own person.” This would be fine if much of the Savarna worldview was built upon structural foundations, instead of individuality. From a young age, the guidance, the opportunities, the networks and introductions, the material benefits of privilege, the intangible social benefits of intergenerational wealth and literacy, and the fact that Savarnas in influential positions prefer their own people for responsibility all define Savarna “merit.” This merit is collectively aggregated but asserted individually. Simply put, no elite Savarna can claim to be “their own person.”
It is therefore unsurprising that, in any political discourse/movement, elite Savarnas, particularly liberal Brahmins and Kayasths, will have no shame in taking the center stage. Be it gender, sexuality, mental health, anti-capital, anti-fascist, or even anti-caste organizing, owing to their “better developed” social polish, confidence in the public spotlight, hyper-radical performance, etc., such elite Savarnas tend to stand out, co-opt leadership spaces, and set the agenda. Such Savarnas project “castelessness,” but this is often a farce.
Instead of being an emancipatory pathway of love, parity, and inclusion, allyship often devolves into a performance for a clean chit from the marginalized person/organization, endorsing the savior brand of the Savarna.
Aiman, a Pasmanda Muslim woman working in the development sector, says “I feel marginalized communities are expected to express only those aspects of their identities that Upper Caste people find palatable. Casteism and communalism is often covert but widespread.”
I have personally seen many Savarna academics/social workers “innocently” carry bottled drinking water while doing fieldwork in SC or tribal communities and refusing food/tea for hygiene reasons, giving off untouchability cues and upsetting the community, who are often too polite to say anything. Such elite Savarnas often come off as patronizing and condescending, expecting gratitude for their social work and are clueless about how out of sync they are with the interests and feelings of the communities upon whose behalf they are advocating.
It’s not a pattern that’s just restricted to the field. In 2020, at the peak of the “Dalit Lives Matter” online movement, many Savarnas put “Jai Bhim” or “anti Caste” in their social media bios; these have quietly been removed since then because the cultural capital to be gained from such markers has shrunk. Elite Savarnas switch on and off from social causes as and when it benefits their personality curation. Being engaged with social justice in some capacity is a form of personal capital and brand building. This is the only capital they lack, as they already possess all other forms of capital, in terms of wealth, network, and access.
Allyship offers savior Savarnas a strategic entry point into marginalized movements. In early interactions with marginalized activists, often there are the most humbling, ingratiating introductions where the Savarnas are incredibly self-critical and deeply apologetic. Almost to the point where one feels like requesting them to not be so scathingly negative about themselves. However, as the dialogue/collaboration/friendship grows, the “allyship” often reveals interesting contours. Instead of being an emancipatory pathway of love, parity, and inclusion, it often devolves into a performance for a clean chit from the marginalized person/organization, endorsing the savior brand of the Savarna. Christina Dhanraj writes about this in her inimitable searing style: “[To] use our extension of friendship as an opportunity to gain access into our narratives and worldviews, only to other us later; to promise unfaltering allyship but buckle at the slightest calling-out; to place your fragility over and above our experiences of oppression; to say that you thoroughly understand our struggles and complexity but gaslight us into believing that we are angry and reactive for almost everything… – none of these is solidarity. And more importantly, to not stand up for us when we really need you to and fail us when push comes to shove – that is ally-theatre at its best.”
As Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar said of the “Mahatma,” “I know Gandhi better than his disciples… I was an opponent… He showed me his fangs.” Many Ambedkarites similarly know elite Savarnas better than most, since they too “bare their fangs” on being critiqued for their positionality and privilege.
The “theatre” of Brahminical heroism/saviorism comes from a deeply internalized narrative of victimhood. In many Brahmin myths, there is a recurring trope of the poor Brahmin who is scorned, ridiculed, and misunderstood and yet persists on his path of purity. This same trope evokes much humor and astonishment among SC/ST/OBC communities because, from their location, the “poor Brahmins” are not poor at all. Rather, they appear rather privileged. Nonetheless, it is from this position of victimhood and “struggle” that many Savarnas approach “making the world a better place.” This constant self-aggrandizing myth-making celebrates Savarna “sacrifices” and glorifies their contribution while simultaneously invisibilizing their privileges and the labors/struggles of marginalized peoples. Christian Dhanraj sums it up beautifully: “It is the Savarna’s tendency to lament, especially to marginalized folks whom they are trying to ally with. ‘I am so poor, I have so much trauma, my life is so terrible.’ And you come away from these conversations feeling guilty and asking if you should be one helping them. Perhaps give them the little money you have in your purse?”
Indeed many Savarna millennials will begin their narrative by saying things like, “I grew up poor, we lived in a small flat and did not have much,” ignoring the fact that in the 1970s and 1980s, hardly anyone had luxury housing, air conditioning, or private cars compared to today. “Not having much” by today’s standards was in fact not austerity but a fairly comfortable lifestyle for the times. The elite Savarna millennial generation benefitted from the market reforms of the 1990s and technical education boom in 2000s. They used these to make enormous wealth for themselves but somehow sold themselves the myth that this success was due to their special talent and hard work and not because they were best placed to benefit from macroeconomic changes. This generational cohort has since set up luxury segregated housing for themselves, private elite schools and colleges for their kids and charitable foundations for their bored.
In these circles, privilege and self-worth take on absurd new meanings. As Karishma Mehta – the Savarna founder of Humans of Bombay, an imitation of the Humans of New York blog – mentioned recently that she considers herself “self made.” Even though she admits that her family sent her abroad to study and “invested in her education,” she still feels she should not be labeled privileged since she works very hard and started her blog with a Rs 1 lakh loan (from her father). Despite far-reaching ridicule and rampant jokes on social media, it is unclear whether there has been any introspection.
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Even when Savarna mistakes are accepted, there is always the “Ganga-dubki” (Dip in the Ganges) scheme for restoring public face. As part of this scheme, Savarnas can publicly put up a contrite apology and a vow to do better and, much like how the dip in the holy river of Ganges is mythically supposed to wash off sins, such a public performance restores all credibility. And they can then, with renewed gusto, go about the business of saving the world and be applauded for it. Savarna careers are not ended, they are simply relaunched.
Any attempts to question this Savarna privilege of remorse, dislocate Savarna wokeness as the center of discourse, or question their positionality results in a backlash. As Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar said of the “Mahatma,” “I know Gandhi better than his disciples… I was an opponent… He showed me his fangs.” Many Ambedkarites similarly know elite Savarnas better than most, since they too “bare their fangs” on being critiqued for their positionality and privilege.
The most common modus operandi is to question the character and motivations of the people critiquing the Savarnas and make them appear irrational, petty, and ultimately untalented and undeserving of having a platform or a voice. For example, award-winning author Yashica Dutt is currently entangled in a very public feud with Savarna “indie Bollywood” elites, Shrivastava and Akhtar, who refuse formal acknowledgement for using her likeness even as Savarna director Anurag Kashyap stepped in to discredit Yashica’s demand by labeling her a “narcissist.”
This is not a one-off situation or even new, old-timers within the Ambedkarite movement have long memories of today’s progressive Savarna liberals being yesterday’s cancel mob.
For instance, in the 2000s, as the founding editor of Insight, India’s first Dalit college magazine in English and circulated in over 90+ universities, Anoop Kumar remembers the elite Savarna backlash against their editorial stances. “When we would critique the Savarna positions of Tehelka magazine, which was the critical publication back then, they would undermine us by claiming we were practicing ‘identity politics’ and not editorially sound.” A similar situation played out in 2014, when Anoop and few others from RoundTable India criticized the celebrated Savarna hero Arundhati Roy. She had just written an introduction to Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s iconic text Annihilation of Caste and attached Gandhi to the discourse – a move that Ambedkarites saw as co-optation. They were nastily dismissed by many Savarna liberals as being “misogynist” and “reactionary.” They claimed this was an attempt to “confine Ambedkar to Dalits” and the whole discourse was belittled as being anti-intellectual through unflattering posts on Facebook and public opinion pieces. Today, many of the same Savarna critics use similar arguments when someone like Tharoor writes about Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, without any acknowledgement or attribution to Anoop or the original dissenters.
When author Sujatha Gidla’s powerful memoir about growing up as a Dalit woman, Ants Among Elephants came out, Savarna journalist Raksha Kumar penned a takedown, calling it “misrepresentation of Dalit history, wrongly recounted Maoist history and misunderstanding of the Telangana struggle.” Prof. Vijeta Kumar rightly called this out as the “privilege” of a Savarna journalist to be able to instruct a Dalit woman about how her memoir is a misrepresentation of her own history. In an act of petty retaliation, Raksha attacked Prof. Vijeta’s writing for being full of “sweeping generalizations” and “lacking nuance.” She also questioned how the editors at Firstpost could have published Prof Vijeta’s writing, openly suggesting a fall in editing standards. This is very typical of Savarna liberals, who otherwise talk big progressive words but, when sharply questioned, resort to undermining the professional talent of Dalit and Bahujans and signal (often quietly behind the scenes) that they should be deplatformed from Savarna spaces.
Prof. Vijeta, who blogs as “Rum Lola Rum,” in her rebuttal for the ages, asks in the very first line, “Sister, I am using this piece and platform to exercise my writing. I want to know if I can protest while I’m also laughing and singing.” The beauty of her joyful response – full of pathos and pain yet uplifting and light in the face of intimidation – contrasts sharply with the petty Savarna ego taking precedence over any feminist solidarity that could have been possible between the women.
“They can’t even hear a Dalit woman speak for 5 minutes with respect and basic etiquettes.”
Black feminists in the US, such as the great Audre Lorde, have consistently noted that White women tended to side with their racial interests at the cost of pan-woman solidarity. Many Dalit feminists have made similar observations about Savarna women. When #MeToo arrived in India, championed in large parts by Savarna feminists on social media, there was an emphasis on “believing women” when they named their abusers. Yet, when Raya Sarkar put out an anonymized, crowd-sourced list that named predatory men in Indian academia, many prominent Savarna feminists signed a public letter condemning it as “dangerous” and advocated for due process.
Responding to this argument, Prof. Varsha Ayyar says, “while advocating and gesturing towards ‘due processes,’ one also needs to examine who actually delivers and adjudicates over these ‘due processes?’ It is well-known that several committees such as grievance redressals, Scheduled Caste (SC) cells, Scheduled Tribes (ST) cell, Women’s Development Cell etc, perpetually run into the risk of accommodation, cooption, and even intimidation. Often such cells’ function is merely ornamental, and worse, they are disempowered to carry out their statutory functions.” She further adds that such an invisibilization of the marginalities of Dalit women stems from an epistemic sidelining by Savarna feminists. “In the Indian feminist movement, the understanding that ‘all women are Dalits’ has been common. This has led to ‘savarnisation of womanhood’.”
Riya Singh, Dalit activist and co-founder of Dalit Women Fight, has also resisted this flattening of caste marginalities into a common narrative of vulnerable “womanhood,” clashing publicly with noted Savarna feminists such as Kamla Bhasin. Bhasin is famous for the statement “our honour doesn’t lie in our vagina” – a notion that Riya rejects. “I strongly disagree. Our (Dalit women’s) honour does lie in the vagina because vagina is that place that gets violated and mutilated in all the caste rapes in this country. If the honor doesn’t lie in vagina then why so much focus on mutilating ours in such hideous and violent manners? What is the message that savarnas want to give by mutilating our vaginas?”
At a public event organized after the barbaric Hathras atrocity, instead of acknowledging the centrality of caste in such cases, Riya recalls that Bhasin kept dismissing her and smirking. “It was horrendous. They can’t even hear a Dalit woman speak for 5 minutes with respect and basic etiquette.” This is not a one-off case; she also recalls how, at a different events on caste atrocities on women, Savarna feminist Kavita Srivastava from PUCL “shockingly claimed that there were a lot of cases where Dalit girls were having affairs with Savarna men and rape cases were filed against such men when the parents of the girls found out about the consensual affairs.”
The consistent position of many old-school Savarna feminists to insist that “a rape is a rape,” which fails to acknowledge caste-motivated rapes and delegitimizes the intersectional vulnerability of Dalit and Bahujan women. Despite repeated sidelining of caste and SC/ST/OBC lived narratives, Savarna feminists largely retain their liberal credentials in public discourse and many Dalit feminists, such as Riya, get branded as “difficult and disrespectful” in the popular Savarna narrative.
Sharp questioning of public-facing Savarna activists or institutions, especially on matters of intersectional caste privilege, is often met with mean-spirited and petty responses and behind-the-scenes lobbying for discrediting/deplatforming. Nikita Sonavane, Dalit lawyer and researcher working on Brahminical policing with the Criminal Justice & Police Accountability Project, beautifully summed up this fragility in her tweets: “It’s amazing how incredibly fragile those who have historically used everything about marginalized lives as data points reveal themselves to be, on the rare occasions that tables are turned… especially affirms the unraveling that Brahmins and Savarnas experience when they find themselves even remotely being treated as research subjects.”
In a country where PhD scholars step into MGNREGA worksites to pay their dues, where income levels are positively correlated to caste hierarchy, with the poorest coming from the oppressed castes, where SC men are lynched for growing moustaches or wearing stylish clothes, SC women are assaulted and stripped to teach the community a “lesson,” where indigenous peoples’ cultures are erased, where Buddhist history of a thousand years of resistance has been left buried, where even the stone statues of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar are broken and vandalized daily, where elite institutions remove fans from hostel room ceilings because so many students commit suicides after coming back from classrooms where Paulo Freire is taught, where there is money to send rovers to the moon but not to pull out men from the sewers – one wonders what “saving the world” even means.
Ravikant Kisana is a professor of Cultural Studies and his research looks at the intersections of caste with structures of privilege and popular culture. He tweets/Instagrams as 'Buffalo Intellectual,' focussing on critically scrutinizing Savarna systems of cultural hegemony. His podcast, 'Mind Your Buffalo' is available for streaming on all platforms.