Holding fast to whose truth? Resistance to caste and communalism as personal satyagraha (by Dr Mela Sarkar)

“…while always travelling seriously, he was always travelling light.”
(Williams, 1971, p. 88)

One way to travel light—a cycle rickshaw in Jadavpur, South Kolkata, viewed from our family’s fourth-floor apartment.

The serious traveller who always travelled light was George Orwell; writing in 1971, socialist critic Raymond Williams unravels Orwell’s multifaceted history and reveals aspects of his life and work I had not known about, in under 100 informative pages. I took the book along with me to India in mid-December 2022 primarily because it was so tiny. I also was attempting to travel light. I hope I may say, to travel seriously as well.

Serious topics, lighthearted interactions—the author with niece Padmini Chakraborty, about to defend her doctoral dissertation in philosophy, and cousin-sister Nupur Sarkar, long-time feminist activist and NGO worker.

Three months later, as I prepare to leave, I am still happening on unsuspected connections as I finish up that slender, chance-acquired volume. Orwell was born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903, at Motihari, in then British-occupied India. A few days ago, my morning’s must-read feed brought me an article published in Granta just about one month back, Amitava Kumar’s “Many words for heat, many words for hate.” Kumar’s father was also born in Motihari, Bihar state; Kumar himself was born not far away, and reminds us that Motihari was where Mahatma Gandhi launched India’s satyagraha movement, the form of nonviolent civil disobedience that Gandhi made famous and that helped to delegitimize British rule in IndiaSatyagraha is Sanskrit and means literally “truth-insisting”; it has been translated, variously, as “truth-force” or “holding fast to truth.”

In faraway Toronto, Canada, I was brought up on stories of the Indian struggle for independence. Gandhi is by no means an uncontroversial figure; his life and legacy continue to inspire intense debate, in India and abroad. But my father—a young man of 18 when India won freedom in 1947—revered him, though not uncritically. It’s not possible to be in India today without having many opportunities a day to reflect on Gandhi and what he has meant here. His face is on every banknote.

10 rupees.

Mostly what I have done here in West Bengal over the past twelve weeks or so has been to try to learn more Bengali, the heritage language my father did not pass on to us in Toronto in the 1960s (not his fault! The educational ethos of the time was dead set against family multilingualism; see, among others, King & Fogle, 2013). I have been greatly helped by the efforts of many family members—I owe them all a debt of thanks, for putting up with my brindled Bangla, stippled right through with bits of English, while feeding me sandesh, sooji, shukto, begun bhaja, and of course bhetki , chital, pomfret, and rui, cooked as only Bengalis can cook fish. 

Last week in this space I showcased the work being done by ISW (Institute of Social Work), the NGO with which my cousins Nupur and Bhaskar Sarkar are closely connected. My official, recognized-by-McGill sabbatical project has been the work in the ISW supplemental schools in West Bengal’s Birbhum district. I may have been of some use to the dozen or so hard-working, dedicated teachers I met while in that area. I don’t yet have enough distance from the experience to tell. 

The author with Nupur Sarkar and the ISW Chella-based teachers

But I do know that the ISW teachers have helped me more than they can possibly know, through their willingness to tell me about their lives and work. All of us kept our smartphones in one hand as we conversed, and relied heavily on Google Translate to keep the conversation going. My list of new vocabulary words continues to grow. Being able to spend more time here has meant being able to make much more progress in the language than was possible during previous visits of two or three weeks. I am nothing like fluent, but much more of what people say is now comprehensible. As second language researchers know, comprehension usually precedes production (see, for example, Shintani, Li & Ellis, 2013). 

With this newfound confidence and ability to keep a conversation going has come the linguistic wherewithal to talk to more and more different kinds of people here. My father was from a Bengali Brahmin family; they are high-caste and well-educated. On previous visits, therefore, I moved in a somewhat rarefied interactional sphere, where English, at a very polished level, was always there to draw upon in some form or other.

But this time I moved about on my own much more. On the one hand, it was linguistically possible in a way it had not been for me before; on the other, I could hardly ask my family members to be on call for my translation requirements 24/7 over a three-month period.

Buying groceries at a roadside stall in Shyambati Bazar, Santiniketan, Birbhum district

On this visit I have been able to have extended conversations with all sorts of people. It was possible to develop relationships of a kind—with the teachers at the ISW schools, but also with the toto (tuktuk) driver who took me to the schools and back many times; with the elderly woman who came daily to clean the family house where I was staying in that area, supplying me with drinking water, fresh vegetables and gossip; with other cleaners, with shopkeepers, restaurant staff, market vendors. It didn’t matter whether they had a useful store of English vocabulary items or not. Many did, but it didn’t necessarily go along with a knowledge of how to put words together into sentences. These were people who had typically not had the opportunity to learn English in school. They were not high-caste or well-educated.

Construction workers, a housewares shopkeeper, a truck driver

They were also typically a lot darker than my family. It is no secret that in the subcontinent, fair skin is prized; there is of course “a long history behind the obsession with skin colour, owing to caste [my emphasis] and culture” (Rajesh, 2013). At home in Canada, coffee-coloured people like me are not considered white. My self-identity is brown. But here I learned differently; the ISW teachers laughed gently at any notion that I thought I was anything other than white. 

Does caste influence colour in India? Genetics study finds a profound link

Caste, as understood by most people inside India and out of it, may indeed, as Temple University scholar Sanjoy Chakravorty points out, be an artefact of British colonial policy. He argues that “What is now widely accepted as Hinduism…is better called ‘Brahmanism’…and enunciated the interests of a small, Sanskrit-educated social group” (i.e., the group to which my paternal ancestors belonged). Chakravorty makes “a strong case that the British colonisers wrote the first and defining draft of Indian history.” That history, as first documented by the colonisers, whose “power over information was absolute,” has had a profound influence on contemporary understandings and practices. It has shaped and continues to shape the everyday lives of many millions of people (Chakravorty, 2019).

The caste system was an aspect of my father’s growing-up in Bangladesh and Kolkata that I had always known about, but until this visit not understood the real-life implications of. A recognition of the deep-rooted discriminatory nature of the caste system is now making the news in North America, as well as in the head and heart of this half-Bengali, and therefore non-Hindu, occasional visitor (in previous blog posts I have written about my Ukrainian-Canadian maternal ancestry). On this highly charged topic, I would refer the reader to Chakravorty (2019) and to many other knowledgeable sources: the Seattle Times, for example, reported recently on that city’s history-making new ban on caste-based discrimination. Over a year earlier, the California State University system added caste as a protected category in its anti-discrimination policy. In this respect, they followed in the footsteps of Brandeis University in Massachusetts (named after the first Jewish justice of the U.S. Supreme court). The statement on that university’s Office of Human Resources site, much abridged here but worth reading in full, makes the case very effectively:

Caste is a system of rigid social stratification characterized by hereditary status, endogamy and social barriers sanctioned by custom, law or religion….caste identity [shall] be included within the university’s current bans on discrimination and harassment based on race, color, ancestry, religious creed, and national or ethnic origin….caste identity is so inextricably intertwined with those legally recognized protected characteristics that discrimination based on one’s caste is effectively discrimination based on an amalgamation of legally protected characteristics. Therefore, the university prohibits discrimination and harassment based on caste… (Brandeis University Office of Human Resources, 2019.)

In Canada we appear to be catching up. Within the last few days, the Toronto school board I attended as a child has followed suit, becoming “the first in Canada to recognise the existence of discrimination based on caste” (Al Jazeera, 2023, March 10). 

The caste system is so much a part of Hindu culture now that it is hard to think about, when in India. Fish don’t think about the water they swim in. But there have been notable voices speaking out against caste for decades. Kumar winds up his 2023 article with the recounting of a conversation he had with activist-writer Arundhati Roy at her flat in Delhi. In fact it was reading Roy’s 2020 collection of essays, Azadi: Freedom, fascism, fiction, during my month-long stay away from Kolkata that shook me into awareness of how deeply ingrained the discrimination embodied (quite literally embodied) in the caste system is, how tied to “Brahmanism,” as well as how easily that discrimination leads to communalist discrimination, now rampant in Hindu-rightist controlled India. “Communalism” is, baldly stated, the Indian English word for religious intolerance, an intolerance so extreme that it has so often led to violence against people belonging to other religious groups. Think Northern Ireland, think “The Troubles,” but with the numbers of deaths multiplied from the thousands into many millions—and in India it’s going on now (Kumar, 2023Roy, 2022).

Many kinds of hate, and many words for it, as Kumar points out. In the work I have cited, Kumar and Roy are mainly concerned with anti-Muslim sentiment in India, another highly charged topic which it is hard to discuss when in India—the ruling regime is repressive (a good, balanced recent analysis can be found here). Communalism is “very nastily and dangerously present in India,” I was told, by a reliable source whose name I may not use—the ruling regime brooks no opposition, and, in its reliance on violent repression, “does not understand what Hinduism is—actually Hinduism does not have anything to do with violence”—as my father also taught me. I have been an onlooker at Hindu religious and cultural events as far back as I can remember, though naturally I am not, strictly speaking, Hindu. The ISW teachers based in Chella village invited me to their Saraswati-puja ceremony—it was a privilege to be allowed in.

ISW teachers and students honouring Saraswati, the goddess of art, music, knowledge, wisdom (and therefore of education), at her annual festival—a highlight of the year for Hindus in West Bengal

But Hindu rituals such as this, however meaningful in the local context, are not the underlying reason bringing these young people together. Providing educational alternatives is. As TDSB (Toronto District School Board) trustee Yalini Rajakulasingam said earlier this year when she proposed that motion asking the Ontario Human Rights Commission to create a plan to address caste oppression in my home province’s public education system, “We all have privileges, and it’s about how you spend your privilege to support those that don’t have it.” The many ISW workers I have met would, I know, agree.

Organizations like the Institute of Social Work, devoting themselves to improving conditions for a particularly needy segment of India’s very large and very needy population—and themselves free from caste and communalist prejudice—exemplify the secular ideals that Gandhi, with all his flaws, as well as many other leaders of the Indian independence movement, understood to be absolutely essential to the survival of India as a nation. Getting closer to the challenges my family and friends here confront every day has been in equal parts terrifying and inspiring. Terrifying, because, as Amitava Kumar points out (and as Arundhati Roy has said many times in many ways), India is more than ever “like a plane flying backwards with all its parts falling off” (Kumar, 2023). Inspiring, because despite the difficulties, people like my cousin-sister Nupur and her ISW colleagues continue their work. They’re not giving up. I was present at their Annual General Meeting a few days ago, so I can leave you with their words rather than mine:

From the final page of the ISW Annual Report, presented to the membership on 26 February, 2023, in downtown Kolkata, India


Brandeis University, Office of Human Resources. (2019, November 26). Statement on the Interpretation of Caste within the Brandeis Nondiscrimination Policy.

Chakravorty, Sanjoy. (2019, June 19). How the British reshaped India’s caste systemBBC News, Viewpoint.

Frayer, Lauren. (2019, September 29). Gandhi is ‘An object of intense debate’: A biographer reflects on the Indian leaderNPR (National Public Radio).

Jaffrelot, Christophe. (2019, April 4). The fate of secularism in India. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

King, Kendall A., & Lyn Wright Fogle. (2013). Family language policy and bilingual parentingLanguage Teaching, 46(2), 172-194.

Kumar, Amitava. (2023, February 9). Many words for heat, many words for hateGranta 162

Maizland, Lindsay. (2022). India’s Muslims: An increasingly marginalized populationCouncil on Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs magazine.

Mishra, A., Nizammuddin, S., Mallick, C. B., Singh, S., Prakash, S., Siddiqui, N. A., Rai, N., Justin Carlus, S., Sudhakar, D.V.S., Tripathi, V.P., Möls, M., Kim-Howard, X., Dewangan, H., Mishra, A., Reddy, A.G., Roy, B., Pandey, K., Chaubey, G., Das, P., Nath, S.K., Singh, L., & Thangaraj, K. (2017). Genotype-phenotype study of the middle Gangetic plain in India shows association of rs2470102 with skin pigmentationJournal of Investigative Dermatology137(3), 670-677.

Rajesh, Monisha. (2013, August 14). India’s unfair obsession with lighter skinThe Guardian.

Roy, Arundhati. (2020). Azadi: Freedom, fascism, fiction. Penguin.

Roy, Arundhati. (2022, April 22). The battle to save India has to be waged by every single one of usThe Wire.

Shintani, Natsuko, Shaofeng Li & Rod Ellis. (2013). Comprehension-based versus production-based grammar instruction: A meta-analysis of comparative studiesLanguage Learning, 63(2), 296-329.

Taylor, Sarah Grace. (2023, February 21). Seattle bans caste-based discrimination, becoming first U.S. city to do soSeattle Times.

Walker, Nani. (2022, January 20). Cal State system adds caste to anti-discrimination policy in groundbreaking decisionLos Angeles Times. 

Williams, Raymond. (1971). Orwell. Fontana/Collins.

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