8-10. MAY 2017
A three-day Anti-Caste Exhibition was organized in the campus of Otto-von-Guericke University in Magdeburg, Germany in appreciation of Dalit History Month and to celebrate Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar’s 126th birth anniversary. The exhibition had been on display in Göttingen in the previous month and was displayed in Magdeburg with the addition of some content from the official Dalit History Month website. The exhibition was attended by over 200 people, mostly university students. This event managed to initiate a conversation on the otherwise tabooed topic of casteism.
As part of the event, two scholars from the Centre for Modern Indian Studies (CeMIS), University of Göttingen, Dr. Sumeet Mhaskar and Dr. Gajendran Ayyathurai were also invited for a guest talk on the historical as well as modern overtones of the caste system. They also spoke about Dalit resistance movements, which are not just limited to South Asia, but are also surfacing throughout the world including countries like Germany, UK and USA. The short talk was followed by a round of open discussion, a video of which has been made available online. The discussion session was attended not just by students from the Sociology department at the University of Magdeburg, but also from the faculties of Computer Science, Engineering, Medicine, and Management. Participants belonged to diverse countries like Germany, India, Iran, France, and Russia.
Anti-Caste Exhibition – A Template for Future Events
The exhibits showcased powerful moments of the Dalit struggle against upper-caste hegemony throughout the past century up until the present day. The movement initiated by Mahatma Ayyankali to own bullock carts and use public streets in Kerala in 1893 was displayed alongside the “Dalit, Queer, Proud” campaign, commenced by Dhrubo Jyoti, Akhil Khang, and Dhiren Borsia in 2015, New Delhi. The exhibition also celebrated prominent individuals associated with the anti-caste movement like Savitribai Phule, Jotirao Phule, E. V. Ramasami Periyar, Jogendra Nath Mandal, Abdul Qaiyum Ansari, Kusuma Dharmanna and Pandit C. Iyothee Thass. As the exhibition was open to visitors with diverse backgrounds, some posters also attempted to explain the concept and significance of Dalit History Month.
Furthermore, the influential role of Dr. Ambedkar as a charismatic people’s leader and also India’s first law minister formed a prominent part of the exhibition. Amongst others, photographs of the Mahad Satyagraha, as well as Dr. Ambedkar’s letters to the University of Bonn, Germany seeking permission to further his studies in economics were put on display, depicting both, his particular activism for human rights and his multi-disciplinary as well as cosmopolitan educational background.
Based on academic sources, scholars and students from CeMIS conceptualized around 30 exhibits which encompass photographs as well as illustrations by Malvika Raj, Anil E.V. and Unnamati Syama Sundar. However, the exhibition has room to grow further: Dr. Mhaskar, one of the exhibition’s initiators declares to have created a “template” which is now free to circulate and further develop in other venues throughout Germany as well as in other countries. As such, the exhibition plans to travel from Magdeburg to Berlin in the following weeks.
The exhibition culminated in a guest lecture on “caste” and “casteism” by two scholars from CeMIS, Dr. Sumeet Mhaskar, and Dr. Gajendran Ayyathurai. The combined talks, entitled “Thinking against Hierarchy: Caste Entanglements and Anti-Caste Movements in Modern India”, were chaired by Prof. Dr. Heiko Schrader, from the department of Sociology, University of Magdeburg. Introducing the topic, Dr. Mhaskar outlined the “caste-system” in an explanatory manner to an international audience which was predominantly unfamiliar with concepts of varna, jati, and pollution. Drawing parallels with the concept of social classes, Dr. Mhaskar was able to delineate the concept of caste while discerning understated differences between the two like the absence of social mobility in the caste-system that usually accompanies a shift in one’s economic class. In the subsequent talk, Dr. Ayyathurai discussed casteism from the standpoint of critical modernity: the establishment of “Hinduism” in the context of British colonial rule together with the influence of foreign Indologists, such as Max Mueller, who propagated the Brahmanical viewpoint in their attempts to study Indian culture.
Subsequent to the talk, room was given for further questions and discussions, which immediately turned into a vivid debate. While the majority were astonished at the still prevalent violence and discrimination in India as well as abroad, others found strong words against the institution of caste itself. Narratives put forth by Caste Hindus covering casteism under the mask of “everybody is equal” were put in perspective by scientifically based explanations of Dr. Mhaskar and Dr. Ayyathurai.
India’s Portrayal through the Male Brahmanical Lens
Despite the enthusiastic participation in both the exhibition as well as the open discussion, organizers of the event also encountered multiple roadblocks, especially in the form of reluctance and resistance from the local Indian community in Magdeburg. Dr. Ayyathurai’s impassioned contention that the west and, consequently, the rest of the world, has always seen India through Brahmanical eyes was synchronous with the refusal of the International Office at the University of Magdeburg to send email invitations to university students informing them about the event out of fear of offending the local Indian community. Not surprisingly, they had already received complaints from Caste Hindu men that the event being organized was political and/or religious in nature and, thus, should not receive support from the International Office or InterKulturelle Studenten (Inter-cultural students’ group). Additionally, many Indians linked to the University of Magdeburg vented their bitterness across online forums over the celebration of Dalit History Month altogether, equating it with “backward” thinking and presenting a “bad image” of the country. The issue was also dealt with in the open discussion session, where it was first raised by a Caste Hindu man himself who began in a noticeably disrespectful tone, but mellowed down later due to lack of support in the audience and evidence-based rebuttals from the panelists.
In conclusion, the exhibition and the talks provided an opportunity to learn, discuss and reflect on one’s own bias with regard to the predominant portrayal of India. The event successfully managed to bring together people with diverse backgrounds and kindle an exchange of ideas. The exhibition was organized by students at the Process Engineering as well as Sociology departments at the University of Magdeburg, and was funded in full by the University Student Council.
Some of the feedback received from the participants at the exhibition:
“For under informed and under read ones, like me, it’s a way to information. An eye doesn’t see what a mind doesn’t know. ”
“Thank you for this inspiring exhibition! It is showing how caste discrimination is a worldwide and big issue and giving important ideas about intersectionality and political struggles. We need more discussions about (invisible) privileges and discrimination inside and outside the class room!”
“People (both Indian and non-Indian) are afraid to talk about caste-based discrimination. This is very true of Indian universities as well as universities abroad. So, it is refreshing to see the exhibition and the points put forward by the struggles against caste. Hopefully, this starts a conversation about how exclusion still works in places like Germany and is legitimized by the upper caste students/Indian community! There is a need for this new discourse, thanks for making it!”
“Thank you for informing and enlightening us regarding this topic – a topic which is so deeply damaging to the lives of so many people in India yet we know so little about it. I hope this discussion continues until we see social change.”
“I liked the event and the explanation. To add some suggestions: a general explanation of Caste would be so helpful or a general title like Anti…ism (Anti casteism) would attract more international people” – Nona
“Thank you for giving the opportunity to learn. Although I thought I knew much I realized there are so many layers to casteism and discrimination in South Asia. As such, the exhibition is so important! I would love to see this event travel further in Germany, encouraging people to discuss and exchange their views and experience. Only this will eventually contribute to a change in society. In South Asia & abroad.”
“CASTE is a human rights issue. There should be more discussions about it, because without talking about this evil it cannot be annihilated. THANK YOU for this exhibition. It shows a very empowering and inspiring side of India which otherwise never comes up, especially in places like Germany.”
“Thank you for the exhibition, for raising awareness about such an important issue that should affect us all. Thank you for standing up for human rights and providing an opportunity to inform people! Keep FIGHTING! All of us – Everybody!” – Andrea
“Thank you for raising awareness”
“Thank you, I think it is important to show the tragedy of the caste system and its Apartheid like consequences. It is important to tell to public that it is no nice ancient cultural specialty but an inhuman, suppressing mechanism.”
The event was organised by Sayali Zarekar, Nora Wagner and Anurag Misra.