Before it is forgotten and they can deny it was never this way I wish to place on record a behavioural trait of Tamil Brahmin men that was prevalent when I was growing up in Madras. When they wished to convey an insult they would hedge the risk by making it look like an ambiguous compliment or goodnatured joke. In this deceit lie the origins of the present universal appeal of Rajinikanth. The celebration of his superhuman abilities began as a cautious brahminical insult to the clown-deity of the masses, and it was a masked affront even at the inception of ‘internet jokes’. But the insult became a meme, the meme became tribute, the tribute became sacred until even its creators forgot its true nature. Many of the hip fans of Rajinikanth are fake fans, but many really do believe they love him.
Rajinikanth is rare. The bottom to top transmission of a cultural phenomenon almost never occurs in India. That is in the heart of the reason why news that involves Dalits almost never interests you. You turn the page, flip the channel. We know. Even if editors use brute journalistic force to sustain the news, your interest is often so faint the news soon dissolves unless the Dalit response to an event escalates so much that it collides with what interests you, like Narendra Modi.
If Dalits bore you, are you a bad person?
You may wish to say that you do manage to absorb some Dalit news. Isn’t it true after all that in the past few days you did get to know about yet another atrocity against Dalits.
It began with a viral video. A disturbing graphic video that captures an assault is what marks our modern age. It is captivating. Even if you did not get to watch the video, journalists did and they knew instantly it was news, at least for a day. Also, it was in Gujarat, the most newsworthy state in India.
In the film some malnourished bare-chested Dalit boys are methodically beaten by cow-devouts in Gujarat as a swift punishment for skinning dead cows. The attackers had posted the film online as an advertisement of their valour though they claimed it was a warning to others who skinned the sacred Mother Cow. Then something significant happened. Dalits started leaving cow carcasses outside government buildings in Gujarat. They began to gather in large numbers to protest. Some attempted suicide. But somewhere along the way you got bored, as journalists know, especially online and television journalists who have ways to measure your interest.
The mainstream media is under enormous moral pressure to dig deeper into Dalit atrocities. News channels and newspapers are criticised by humanitarians for not investing in stories about the poor, which naturally include Dalits. The criticism is absurd.
There is a reason why the humanitarians are not content with the coverage in niche leftist publications that only carry the type of the news they think is news. These publications are fringe. Mainstream media, on the other hand, has an enormous reach, hence clout. But then the media derives its clout from being relevant to its consumers. This relevance does considerable collateral social good but the objective of the media, and it is a correct objective, is to be interesting to its core audience, which includes not boring them. Such an objective is not corrupt. Editors and reporters do try to push important stories but important so often is no match for interesting. That is the way of the world. Mainstream media that does not respect human nature are doomed.
So are you the problem? Should you not, as an Indian, be more involved in the misery of the miserable? But then you probably are not insensitive. It is just that all your life you have heard those grim tragic stories and wish to seek relief from them. But, it appears, you cannot escape them completely. That is not only because journalists think those stories are important, but also because increasingly Dalit stories contain elements that interest you immensely, like Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.
Over the past few months, Modi and the BJP have proven to be the greatest marketers of Dalit issues. For instance, the thrashing of the cow-skinners was in Modi’s fiefdom, Gujarat. Also, the Dalit leader Mayawati found media attention when a major BJP functionary compared her to a prostitute. A few months ago, after the Dalit student, Rohith Vemula committed suicide, his death captured your interest, partly because his suicide note was in English and chiefly because activists interpreted his death successfully as a response to the politics of a Hindu cultural cartel, whose deity Modi is.
Far worse than the middleclass indifference to Dalit issues, is the middleclass compassion for Dalits, which has the qualities of a moral formula. Some intellectuals, for instance, now state with Pavlovian correctness that Dalits should refuse to skin dead cows. This is glorious but stupid advice. In the first place Dalits skin cows not out of artistic instinct but out of economic compulsion. Also, the fact that no other castes would perform some tasks offers serious commercial opportunities to Dalits that they must in fact exploit in a more aggressive and corporate manner.
In a way, isn’t everyone entrapped by professions that class dictates, aren’t most of us merely in more sophisticated versions of cow-skinning. What are the professions of most fortunate of Brahmins — software engineering, surgery, finance, endless doctorates. Some love these lines of work, most are only skinning cows because they are trapped by social class and peer scrutiny. Educated Dalits, too, are trapped in cow-skinning by other names. A devious alignment of college reservations, grants, false heroes, and left evangelism push them towards liberal arts academics, lament literature and activism, which are luxury professions that are firmly in the control of the posh. But there are Dalit stories that even Dalits wish not to see.