On Monday, the CEO of Twitter Jack Dorsey found himself at the center of the social media storm as a photo of him holding an anti-caste poster went viral.
It is unclear how much Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey knows about India’s socio-political system but on Monday he found himself at the centre of a raging debate around it. Dorsey was in India the past week and met a group of women journalists for an off-the-record conversation. However, a photo of him from the session did make it to to the outside word, in which he was seen holding a poster titled “smash Brahmanical patriarchy”.
The photo set off a storm. “By holding that offensive poster Twitter head, Jack just proclaimed he is a Brahmin hating, racist, bigot, masquerading as a woke Feminist,” thundered columnist Smita Barooah. Mohandas Pai, chairman of Manipal Global Eduction, called it a “hate poster” which served to “malign a community” and Bollywood screenwriter Advaita Kala termed it “hate speech”. Most confusingly, Chitra Subramaniam, editorial advisor with Republic TV, drew an analogy between Brahmanical patriarchy and Chinese totalitarianism, rhetorically asking whether Dorsey would ever “hold up a poster asking Xi Jinping to hold free and fair elections?”
Alarmed, Twitter apologised immediately, dissociating itself from the poster. “I’m very sorry for this. It’s not reflective of our views,” said Twitter’s “Legal, Policy and Trust & Safety Lead”.
Preserve Brahmanical patriarchy?
Not only was it odd that there was outrage over a call to end a system as obviously oppressive as Brahmanical patriarchy, it was even odder that Twitter thought the point of view so controversial that it distanced itself from it and apologised. Would a call to end, say, racism or White patriarchy in the United States also see a similar reaction from Twitter? After all, there would also be people in the United States who might be outraged over attempts to end such a system. Should those people be allowed to dictate policy at the social media giant?
That social order and patriarchy are linked has long been recognised by historians and social commentators. Such is also the situation with India’s Brahmanical caste order and the oppression of women as well. “The purity of women has a centrality in brahmanical patriarchy, as we shall see, because the purity of caste is contingent upon it,” wrote historian Uma Chakravarti in 1993, one of the first academics to explore the concept of how the two are linked. Chakravarti points out that social organisation in India consists largely of a “closed structure to preserve land, women, and ritual quality within it” and it is “impossible to maintain all three without stringently organising female sexuality”.
This theory connects brutally to present-day Indian reality, given that this system requires 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”. The modern-day result: India’s horrific record of killings involving so-called caste “honour” in case a woman marries a man of a supposedly lower caste. Just a few days ago, on November 11, an inter-caste couple from Tamil Nadu – the husband was Dalit and the wife Vaniyar – were allegedly killed by the woman’s family. The wife was three months pregnant at the time of her murder.
So ironclad is this system that even as of 2011, 19 out of 20 marriages in India were conducted as per the dictates of the caste system.
What is Brahmanism?
On social media, there was also some specific outrage over the use of the qualifier “Brahmanical” to describe what was essentially the Hindu caste system. Again, this is not a new term. The use of caste within Hinduism has often been equated with Brahmanism, no less than by BR Ambedkar, the Chairman of the drafting committee of the Indian Constitution, caste reformer and one of the founding fathers of modern India. In a famous 1938 speech in Mahad, Ambedkar said:
“There are in my view two enemies which the workers of this country have to deal with. The two enemies are Brahmanism and Capitalism. 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”.
Given this background, to portray the words “Brahmanism” or “Brahmanical” as somehow being solely against the community of Brahmins would be similar to characterising patriarchy as being bluntly against men. While patriarchy does seek to reduce the power of men that is only because this power is derived unfairly and in opposition to the principles of human equality. If a man feels threatened by the word “patriarchy” it would mean he supports such a system. In which case, his feeling threatened has little moral weight. Much the same can be said of “Brahmanical”.
Are Brahmins a minority?
Probably the most curious reaction in all of this is the portrayal of Brahmins as a “minority” who “constitute 5% or less of India” by writer Hindol Sengupta. Hence, goes the argument, calls to end Brahmanical patriarchy are hate speech.
Such an understanding of “minority”, as simply a marker of numbers, is incorrect. By that absurd standard, the British in India before 1947 would have been a “minority” given their numbers were microscopic. Being a “minority” is not solely about numbers, it is also about power.
Brahmins are the polar opposite of being a minority given that there is barely any global parallel to the relative socio-economic dominance the community enjoys in modern India. Brahmins punch above their numerical weight in politics and dominate elite white collar jobs. One survey in 2006 found that Brahmins hold 49% of the top jobs in national journalism. When it comes to positions of high power, Brahmins go way past their numbers. This economic prosperity is, of course, underpinned by social dominance: Brahmins, for example, use caste surnames even as Dalits try and keep titles which can’t be traced back to their caste.
In this sort of iniquitous society, calls to end the system of caste are vital – not something to outrage over or apologise for.