I am going slightly out of depths with this post, traversing into the territory of yet-to-be-formed thoughts, which could either be speculations or reflections; responses, or idiosyncratic musings. Part of it emerges with the experience I’ve had so far working ethnographically, and from my previous research encounters and readings; but the other part is deeply contemplative, troubling even. Here, I wish to work with another concept that can be read along with ‘subalternity’ as I discussed in the last post – that of ‘margins.’
Therefore, I would like the reader to be aware of the tentative nature of the thoughts expressed in this post, and the assumptions that guide them, and the delicate nature of the interventions that I make.
I began to think of margins more concertedly after I attended a lecture by Pnina Werbner recently, where she spoke about political revolution in the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements in 2011, and the aesthetics of effervescence and despair. She spoke of how such movements needed to be backed by politics so as to materialize the changes that guide them in the first place. Despite apparent failures, she argued that such movements do have an impression on the world: narratives, strategies, and so forth, which steer and shape protest politics in the world. While I am in agreement with her argument, I do think one element that was left relatively under-theorized – and one I think is crucial – is that of the margins of such politics.
I use the term ‘margin’ in a very specific sense in this post. In the first sense, I use margins to denote a space created by social and political forces, but with an important caveat that the social forces I am talking about can be broadly characterized as counter-hegemonic forces. Margins, while hierarchized, are not simply peripheries to an imagined center (I am also skeptical of ascribing a direct spatial link, which I explain below).
To return to the case that was central in Werbner’s lecture, the Arab Spring, one such margin I could think of was how the voices and actions of women protestors and activists were met with hostility and exclusion in some countries. The most notable case I can think of, for instance, is Aliaa Elmahdy in Egypt. More broadly, one can also think of the exclusion and neglect of queer, black and women of color in western feminism; or the exclusion of indigenous movements and narratives in anti-capitalist struggles; or the absence of the voices of migrants and refugees in some no border movements, as operating in such margins.
In the above cases, the margins I wish to outline are not only marginal in relation to an antagonist force, like brutal political regimes or a corrupt postcolonial state (which they are, no doubt). Rather, I want to point out how the political force of such counter movements exacerbates (or in some cases, creates) its own margins. In other words, every politics creates its own margins.
The second sense in which I use the term margins, is concerned with the kind of politics that is engendered in the margins – which is also why I think it is erroneous to conflate margins with marginalization. I feel compelled to reflect on margins in this sense following the rise in student protests in India at the moment, and particularly the question of caste. I want to highlight the tension between the recent and ongoing student protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Delhi, and at Hyderabad Central University (HCU).
In HCU, students have been protesting against the university administration and the government following the death of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit student and PhD scholar, who committed suicide in January after being persecuted by the university administration and ministers from the Hindu nationalist party, BJP, for his anti-caste politics on campus. Vemula’s suicide – or more accurately, institutional murder – also reflects the continuing caste discrimination and caste violence prevalent in Indian universities (and in Indian society at large). JNU, on the other hand, saw massive protests against the arrests of several student leaders (who were accused of sedition under colonial-era laws, for shouting ‘anti-national’ slogans). Not only did JNU occupy a more prominent role in the public imagination – for both, bad and good reasons, like hostile media coverage but also international solidarity, and participation of left political parties – some even argue that the JNU protests sidelined the HCU protests. This is especially so since HCU student protests were met with unprecedented police violence which saw very little media coverage, despite being widely shared on social media.
However, when I say the HCU movement – where anti-caste narratives and Dalit politics figure more prominently than critique of nationalism – inhabits a margin, I mean it is in a position that refuses to be appropriated by the larger leftist/liberal narratives guiding the JNU protests. This goes back to how the critique of caste precludes leftist politics in India, since most communist leaders were, and are, in fact upper-caste and privileged Hindus, for whom class struggle was historically more important than anti-caste struggle. This was reflected both in electoral politics, and also in epistemology – from the virtual absence of caste in postcolonial and Subaltern Studies, to an academic division of labor between theoretical Brahmins (the highest caste), and the empirical Shudras (the lower castes).
In this sense, the margin is a space of strong and relentless critique against political movements and epistemologies that occupy a center (along with right-wing and Hindu nationalist politics, of course). Far from being peripheral – and I strongly resist that conception – they are spaces of creating knowledge in its own right; a margin that is central in producing political and social critique; one that does not need the validation of the learned Brahmins of high academia or high politics. In that sense, the HCU protests are situated within the Dalit-Bahujan political milieu (the term ‘bahujan’ denotes the majority of people who are oppressed, Dalits, adivasis, minorities) that critiques caste violence, and the appropriation of Dalit politics by upper-castes, most notably, of B. R. Ambedkar (Ambedkar was one of the leading figures of the anti-caste movement in pre- and post-independence India. He was a rationalist, modernist, feminist, and played a vital role in drafting India’s Constitution. His scathing critiques against Hinduism and the Hindu Right, however, have been recently appropriated by both upper-caste progressive writers, and the Hindu Right, which dilutes the critical edge of his thinking, to say the least). Following Walter Mignolo, conceived in this sense, the margin is a space that is challenging dominant, caste-blind narratives by forcing them to change the terms of the conversation and not merely the contents.
As I watched the JNU and HCU protests unfold on my timeline, I realized how marginal I was, and I am, to them; deeply invested as I may be politically and philosophically, but nonetheless, marginal in the sense that I am not materially invested in them (the physical distance being just one). This is how I use the term margin in the third and final sense.
As an upper-caste, I feel a deep sense of ambivalence and unease writing about caste, and expressing ‘solidarity,’ which more often than not risks becoming mere tokenism (or appropriation). Despite my claims to denounce my caste markers, caste has an undeniable materiality that sticks to you: in your name; your habitus; what you read; what you consume; who your friends are; what life possibilities you have; and the limits of your political engagement.
While it is possible to imagine what an anthropology-at-the-margin would look like in the first and second instances, with the question of caste, however, I have difficulty wondering what my anthropological engagement can look like – which is why I have now consciously decided to not engage in researching and writing academically on caste. Of course, I am not suggesting that we become mere bystanders (the conversation should continue, but not on the terms of vaunted academics. I nonetheless continue to discuss caste in personal and public conversations, like this one). By all means, anthropologists, scholars and activists continue to produce fascinating and relevant accounts of caste and caste politics in modern India that challenge the assumptions of how politics and political movements work, and challenge the assumptions, positions of privileged academics invested in the status quo. At some point, however, I sense that despite being an anthropologist, I am somehow still a part of this privileged group of theoretical Brahmins (perhaps this position of inhabiting a privileged margin is something anthropologists face in different political contexts – I would certainly like to hear more from the readers).
What, then, are the possibilities of engagements from such margins of the political? More importantly, what are the limits of such engagements? How can we think of anthropology, public engagement and cultural critique, when we come to be part of structures of power like caste (or perhaps, race or gender) that sticks to us? In my first post, I wrote of the need to get our feet muddied in the ground to do ethnography. It would seem almost contrary that I now advocate for a distance of sorts. Perhaps, in such moments, being at the margins can be about observing a distance (not observing from a distance), and yet somehow finding a way to speak truth to power.
 In 2014, Arundhati Roy published an introduction to an annotated edition of Ambedkar’s famous and critical text, Annihilation of Caste (AoC), which was widely criticized by Dalit scholars and activists as an appropriation of Ambedkar (since AoC is already a widely circulated and translated text anyway. Read the critiques of Roy published on the Ambedkarite forum Round Table India, here and here). Hindu right-wing parties like the BJP, on the other hand, ironically claim Ambedkar as a Hindu icon, although he was staunchly critical of the Hindu right.