This following is a reflexive article written by a cohort of CSGS’s TAARIF (The Transformative Arts and Research Initiatives Fellowship). The first cohort of TAARIF brought together two individuals, for a period of four months (April 1 to July 31, 2023). The fellowship serves as platform for emerging trans* scholars from the subcontinent to bring cutting-edge research into the public domain. Trans* is an inclusive term used to refer to a wide range of gender non-conforming identities (such as transexual, transgender, non-binary and agender identities) as well as several queer trans theoretical frameworks.
TAARIF is interested in incubating and funding scholarship by emerging trans* academics in India.
The research question of my working paper titled ‘Begumpura: Heterotopia of Surplus Bodies’ investigates the type of site Begumpura is. In order to understand this site, I emphasize on the need to see caste through the frame of subcategorization. Subcategorization within the existing Scheduled Caste (SC) quotas aims to distribute quotas within the SC community to ensure equal distribution of resources. The idea of subcategorization tends to a fragmentary experience, free-living and extending, sovereign to its subcaste. It gives a sense of being scattered, unstructured, independent of itsorigin. On the lines of caste, subcategorization as a method is useful to encompass lifeworlds, life narratives, many forms of socialities and religious practices of the subcastes. What does Begumpura as a site signify in context to the complex particularities of Dalit-trans, Dalit Christian, or an Adivasi’s experiences? In this essay, I will discuss some of theirexperiences and their relation to a site like Begumpura through instances of religious practices among the Dalit communities. Begumpura, a poem by Sant Raidas, describes a land with no taxes, toils, harassment and caste hierarchies (Omvedt 1). Begumpura is invoked as a recurrent theme in the anti-caste capabilities, as a reference point to imagine transcendence of caste through the reconfiguration of experience and space. But its relation to experience and space has more abstract political tendencies than sufficient theoretical ones on which it can be imagined in the contemporary more concretely. How do we think of Begumpura as a site, especially in the light of trans people being debarred from accessing free transportation in the BMTC buses, or being denied rental housing where even law cannot intervene in the homeowners’ decisions? How do we understand this site amidst the politics of category and exclusion of Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims from the SC status?
What becomes of this site in context to the placelessness experienced by those Dalits whose state, which as Sumit Baudh refers to as the silence and invisibility of the “other” (1) Dalits? There is a lack of theorization of Dalit experiences in terms of placelessness they experience in SC’s legal terminology. The categories and frameworks deployed to understand caste experiences can be enormously inadequate to encompass the diverse histories, experiences of caste, grassroot anti-caste movements from a vast range of regional, and religious practices across time and space. Which is why subcategorization is useful as a method standpoint in order to dissect the types of probable sites Begumpura can be. I will now elaborate on a few instances involving Dalits and Hijra women centred around religion and community that correspond to the need for subcategorization.
One of my lowered caste Hijra friends in Bombay claimed that there is no caste in the trans community—this was also echoed by two Dalit trans women on two separate occasions in specific contexts but always amidst and in the company of their own community and friends. My Hijra friend claimed that their community of kinship, though hierarchical, has mobility that is not marked by caste. She recounted how malleable religious identities are among her Hijra gharanas; she herself has converted to two other religions, Hinduism and Islam, and uses her different names and religious identities simultaneously. Religion is so precariously tied to their socio-economic status that they don’t mind changing their religion as per their necessities and gharanas. It’s common to spot a Muslim Hijra in a Hindu temple, and a Buddhist Hijra singing in a dargah. This isn’t to overlook what might be practiced as a primary religion for a Hijra or the mechanism of caste in gharanas , but to complicate the idea of conversion and religion itself, since that isvery central to transcendence of caste¹ or how caste could be read when unmediated by its own logics.
In another instance of complex religious practice is that of the worshipping Madarsavlu, a Sufi saint and a village deity worshipped in my village in Telangana. Part of my family is Dalit Christian and other is Hindu, and our madigawada is a mix of Muslims, Hindus and Christians. During the annual jaatara of Madarsavlu, a Sufi saint, Hindu and Christian Dalits—even though the saint is their house deity—are banished from entering the dargah by OBC Hindus of the village. Amidst the most visible practice of heterogeneity among Dalits, the imposition of untouchability is largely overpowering. At the same time, a small scale temple entry of Hindu Dalits in the village has just been sanctioned as till very recently it was not allowed. With more Hindu Dalits getting education and jobs in cities some of them are now allowed to become patrons for the renovation of Hanuman temple. But this onset of temple entry movement has brought with it the neglect and demolition of the worshiping sites of Yellammavva, which are often under the shade of a tree and not in a built temple². Due to Brahmanical colonization, the Hindu category becomes a default for many Dalit and Adivasi communities, and their uncategorical religious practices and identities eventually homogenize into Hinduism. In this sense, identification as a Hindu for a Dalit becomes a default due to their difficult encounter with their own sense of placelessness. Subcategorization, then, becomes an important intervention in the production of surplus bodies in the caste system to legitimize their identity.
It is these steep contradictions, that Dalits and trans people tread on, that make it difficult for them to be subsumed under a fixed religious category and political ideology. What my Hijra friend told me can be seen “as placing oneself in the centre of aporias of caste in a way that its logics reject us” (Jaaware 194). Sayan Bhattacharya calls this as a mood of inhabiting the state subjunctively, which refers to “improvisatory, provisional, contingent modes of engaging with the world” (2). These experiences mentioned above are a few of the many instances that highlight the need for a different method of theorization of experience and space. By drawing attention to the experiences of surplus bodies through the frame of subcategorization, Begumpura as a site can be envisaged more concretely than in the otherwise insufficient abstraction of the two fold savarna and avarna divisions.
¹ Shireen Azam and Sumeet Samos pose a question about religion and untouchability and argue against limiting caste to Indic religions.
² Yellammavva is one of the indigenous deities in South India mostly worshipped by lowered castes. Brahminical appropriation or Hinduization of these sites is prevalent in recent times. The Jaatara of Samakka-Sarakka is one such example, too.
Ambedkar, B. R. “Annihilation of Caste”. Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, 1:25–96. Bombay: Government of Maharashtra, 1979.
Azam, Shireen and Samos, Sumit. “Who benefits from keeping Dalits ‘Hindu.’” Scroll, 2022. https://scroll.in/article/1036411/who-benefits-from-keeping-dalits-hindu
Bhattacharya, Sayan. “Inhabiting the state subjunctively: Transgender life-making alongside death and a pandemic”, Global Public Health, pp 1-3, 2021.10.1080/17441692.2021.1986561
Guru, Gopal. “Experience, Space and Justice.” The Cracked Mirror An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory, pp. 71-73. Oxford University Press. 2012.
Jaaware, Aniket. “Recapitulation”. Practicing Caste On Touching and Not Touching, pp. 193-195. Fordham University Press. 2019.
Omvedt, Gail. “Introduction/Vision.” Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals, pp. 1-3. Navayana. 2008.
Shripad Sinnakaar is a researcher and an artist from Mumbai. They have a postgraduate in Philosophy from University of Mumbai. They were also a fellow at Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore and have worked at Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. Their research interests include infrastructure, informality, labour, and caste. Their works are published in The White Review, Dalit art archive, Mumbai Urban Art Festival, Manchester Museum.