LIFESTYLE

The Allegations Of Casteism Against A South Delhi Jazz Club Expose The Many Hypocrisies Of Privileged Indians

Check your privilege please.

05/06/2017 10:19 PM IST | Updated 07/06/2017 10:07 AM IST
The Piano Man/Facebook

Casteism doesn't have one face in India. It isn't only a bunch of violent, weapon-wielding group of men and women baying for human blood -- easy to spot, easy to be reviled by. It also thrives under the cloak of civility, mostly in the form of ignorance combined with spectacular nonchalance about it.

While caste discrimination is the lived reality of a great majority of the country, for many of us living in the bubble of privilege, it has traditionally been something people could be complacent about. Like sexism, protests against casteism were and are often met with allegations of being humourless, 'too serious' and basically a sour misanthrope. Yes, that's how blinding and big this complacence is.

Only, one cannot hope to get away with it all the time. Like folks at Delhi's Piano Man Jazz Club just realised.

On June 2, the club -- considered the refuge for jazz lovers in a city blaring sexist Punjabi hip-hop in cars and pubs alike -- announced on their page that they will be hosting a band called 'Bhangijumping'. The event was scheduled to take place on Monday, June 5.

Now the musician duo, who claim to have been unaware of the offensive nature of the name, said they tried to pun on the word Bungee Jumping, and brought in the mention of 'Bhang' in it. Only, the name came across as anything but clever wordplay.

Bhangi is a term coined and used widely by upper castes to acknowledge people belonging to a historically oppressed scheduled caste who make a living by being manual scavengers and sweepers. Consequently, in certain sections of the society, the term is also hurled as an abuse, implying a person is filthy and an addict.

Piano Man -- who advertised the band and decided to host them -- were also clearly ignorant about the real meaning of the word.

Piano Man -- who advertised the band and decided to host them -- were also clearly ignorant about the real meaning of the word.

However, people noticed and soon after Piano Man posted the announcement of the event, people started commenting on the post, pointing out the casteist nature of the band name. The protesters claim that were politely pointing out the highly problematic nature of the name and condemning both the band and the club's ignorance. However, they claim, people who they assume are friends of the band members and patrons of Piano Man, started posting aggressive, abusive comments against them. The protesters didn't try to call the club or the owner to register their protest and decided to stick to social media. The original post has been taken down since.

Arjun Sagar Gupta, a musician himself and owner of Piano Man, claims that the next day he simply skimmed over his club's Facebook page and saw people were asking the club to be boycotted. The first thing he did on reading the comments was to call up one of the band members and speak to him about the fiasco. When the musician -- called Akshay Kapoor -- mentioned he knew nothing about the Bhangi community and didn't meant to demean them, Gupta says he asked him to change the band's name anyway and went on to write a 'clarification'.

Only, it was hardly a 'clarification' and Gupta now accepts it was arrogant and uninformed.

"For those people who chose to call for boycotts of our club for this, without talking to us, please don't visit the club. We don't want your small mindedness and aggression in our home. For those who brought this to our notice politely and with the intent of a positive resolution, thank you, we appreciate that you took the time out to do so. Lets focus on the art, shall we?" he wrote.

This infuriated the protesters further as Gupta's post was symptomatic of the classic 'chill bro' defence of casteism. As protests intensified on social media, Gupta says he sat down and read about the Bhangi community on Sunday and realised the full political implications of calling a band 'Bhangijumping' and how it trifles the oppression the caste faces. Which is when Gupta tendered another 'clarification' on Facebook -- this one actually in the mould of an apology -- and cancelled the event.

However, people still continued to attack and abuse Dalits and their allies on the club's Facebook page.

"They (the band) were not a new band and had other gigs before this, but we were hosting them for the first time. They had performed before under the same name and it was only much later that I realised that it had a much deeper meaning than what we assumed it was," says Gupta.

"Also, I find it problematic that we expect Dalits and Bahujans to justify and 'educate' non-Dalits about caste. Is it just our obligation?"

Jyotsna Siddharth, one of the several people who protested on the Facebook page, told HuffPost India, "I would tell a non-Indian and explain what the issue is. But to an Indian, especially an upper caste person? Is it okay for them to not know caste names and what is problematic and oppressive in our society? Also, I find it problematic that we expect Dalits and Bahujans to justify and educate non-Dalits about caste. Is it just our obligation?"

Turns out, Gupta's clarification didn't make much of a difference as people kept abusing the protesters. While differences of opinion about the method and language of protest is still understandable -- and a lot of people didn't agree with the protesters' opinion that Piano Man had incited, abetted and enabled hate crimes against Dalits -- some commenters went overboard. They hurled pathetic abuses at Dalits on the Facebook page.

Raya Sarkar/Facebook

Raya Sarkar, who has been vehemently protesting the event online tells HuffPost India, "I was just browsing how much discourse this had gathered and if the artists have already realised their mistake but friends of the artistes got increasingly hostile. It was mainly women complaining on the page and male friends of the band attacking and refuting them and just making a total joke out of it. That's when I also put up the first Facebook post explaining the meaning of the 'word' and then calling for a boycott of the place. Other Dalit Bahujan folks joined in and started commenting and sharing my post and echoing my call for a boycott. Then a fake profile with a picture of Babasaheb Ambedkar started abusing Dalits and asked us to go back to the gutter. We think that the abuser was a friend of the band who had created a fake profile."

Gupta says that they don't have a social media team to constantly monitor their Facebook page and he himself is busy managing two properties so had no clue about the abusive content. The posts were removed, but after a couple of hours. The protesters also pointed out that some of the abusive people were also 'friends' with Gupta on Facebook. Gupta told HuffPost India that several people -- patrons at the club, business contacts -- add him on Facebook and he uses the platform for business and networking purposes as well. So most of the people, he contends, are not people personally known to him or close to him. He admits knowing one of them -- a man who lives abroad -- and said he called him up and chastised him for his sickening comments.

He admitted that it was a grave mistake to have not enlightened himself immediately.

However, the protesters are not buying the argument. One of the protesters, Sumeet Samos, a JNU student, tells HuffPost India, "Many of us commented on the event page explaining how this particular word has been used historically to enslave, oppress and humiliate a group of people. In fact, most Dalit students have been humiliated by this word so many times throughout their lives. Every thing was posted on the event page of which we are sure the club and band members surely follow!"

It took Gupta a backlash of this proportion to actually sit down and read up about the Bhangi community. While speaking to HuffPost India, he admitted that it was a grave mistake to have not enlightened himself immediately.

"No one in my events team had identified the term as abusive. We are not ill-meaning and we did not target any community. It was a serious lapse of knowledge and it was ignorance that did us in," Gupta says.

However, what actually did him in was the complacence that we referred to in the beginning of the article. The air-conditioned bubble of privilege that some of us live in, often keeps us thrice removed from the realities of the country. The Bhangi community or other oppressed castes and classes are a big, mangled mass that we subconsciously label as 'them' as opposed to 'us' and go about with our lives. Understanding the history of oppression is only a Google search away and mostly doesn't require special expertise like decoding GDP numbers. You just need a conscience.

Given the political climate in the country at present, people who have the means and resources to educate themselves on the history of caste-based oppression, shouldn't have to wait for a wake-up call like this to know the trials of the people they live among. One must realise that an act of casteism cannot and shouldn't be dealt with the way we deal with stepping on someone's foot on a crowded bus -- with a casual, 'oops, sorry'. It should start with an acknowledgment of the privileges that has kept the aggressor blind to the struggles of his own country men and women and end with an unconditional apology in the least.

"We may not know that xyz is a particular caste, but when told that its offensive they should have stopped and apologised."

Like Siddharth points out, "There are many things we don't know in this world, sure. We may not know that xyz is a particular caste, but when told that they have done something offensive, they should have stopped and apologised."

The protesters have started an online petition asking Piano Man to be shut down. Wouldn't that jeopardise the livelihoods of several staff members who weren't a part of the callousness? Siddharth says the question should be asked to Piano Man instead.

Siddharth says, "If you follow the thread on Facebook, you will find that nowhere, not even once have they brought up the issue of staffers losing jobs if the place is shut down. Do they care? Only logic that's being argued over and over is what will happen to the musicians, the owner and the band."

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