A CONVERSATION WITH SHOBANA SHANKAR
We end this issue with a crucial conversation on the caste and race nexus. Author of the book An Uneasy Embrace: Africa, India and the Spectre of Race (2021), Shobana Shankar helps us understand the forms of resistance against it, from “South Indians”’ possible identification with Blackness to the transnational solidarity between Senegal and Dravidians of the Subcontinent.
LÉOPOLD LAMBERT: Beyond the specific geographies of the African Continent and the Subcontinent, your book allows for a complex comprehension of the regimes of race and caste. Could you please tell us how these two operate in association with one another, but not necessarily overlapping—a crucial distinction to make?
SHOBANA SHANKAR: Many Africans in different parts of the Continent, curious about Indians’ lives, have asked me what caste is like, what it means to experience caste. In some contexts, for example, in Kenya, the question came from observation. In Nigeria, on the other hand, this question was driven by curiosity based on what people had heard and read. In other places, as in Senegal, this question has had local significance, as castes exist there as well. The Senegalese scientist Cheikh Anta Diop, in 1967, wrote that “the study of the caste system in India holds a wealth of lessons: it allows one to judge the relative importance of racial, economic, and ideological factors.” Known for his Afrocentric scholarship, Diop’s proposed African study of India—in a history of precolonial African civilizations—shows that the Afrocentric study of race and difference he was developing was complex, sophisticated, and profoundly global—hardly the simplistic reactionary work that many critics tried to make Afrocentricity out to be. The burdens Africans writing precolonial African history faced differed somewhat from the ones Indian historians faced, but, after independence from European colonization, this was a common priority and one that found Africans and Indians deeply interested in each others’ pasts. This necessarily meant grappling with caste and race as forms of difference in comparative, coexistent, and contrasting relationships.
One of the subjects that has interested me is the idea of purity, and how this perception of purity and pollution—in systems of caste as well as racialization—is a very powerful social inhibitor, which shapes how people actually interact on a day-to-day level. Purity and its absence (through pollution or some kind of forbidden mixture) is underscored in some discourses—religious (including but not limited to Hinduism), biology (as in blood or stock), language (mother tongues, borrowings, etc.), and so on. Of course, racial purity and its absence through “miscegenation,” as it were, is an entire field for the creation of hierarchies, boundaries, exclusions, and feelings of belonging. I do not believe that the idea of pollution is a thing of the past, even if liberal democratic norms discourage people from segregation. We must look at sociocultural practices and attitudes.
I have described caste to Nigerian friends through illustrations of how untouchability operates. Taboos on sharing cups or shaking hands: these are lived experiences that produce jarring violence and everyday partitions. I recall a Christian Indian scholar arguing that the only remedy in India against caste is intermarriage. And this is, of course, one of the defining features that’s prohibited by caste. Beyond an intellectualization of caste, intermarriage as a practice is precisely the opposite of untouchability, right? It is people coming together, who are “not supposed to,” in order to be intimate with each other, to have children with each other, to eat together, and to share space. And I think that you can look at that in relation to race as well, particularly the practices of official segregation in the United States or South Africa, and the kinds of physical and social separations that ending segregation has not erased.
LL: One dimension of the Subcontinent that we have yet to discuss in this issue is what we may call “colorism,” analyzing the political mechanisms that implement a structural domination of fairer, northerners, Aryans, over darker, southerners, Dravidians—with, of course, many notable exceptions such as Pashtuns or Kashmiris. What your book does extremely well in its articulation of race on the Subcontinent and in its diaspora is to read these structures through those more global categories of whiteness and Blackness. This question of Blackness in relation to “South India” and northeastern Sri Lanka is, in our opinion, crucial: not because it would come in the form of an undeniable affirmation that Dravidian people are Black in the exact same way that African and Afrodescendant peoples are, but rather, because it allows the possibility for a more complex understanding of Blackness globally—as we have often tried to articulate in the magazine in relationship with Melanesian nations. Could you please articulate this relationship and the idea of Black India for us?
SS: Colorism has a comfortable home on the Subcontinent, and the education in the higher value of fairness begins early; as early, I would argue, as childhood. It is entirely acceptable and expected to evaluate human aesthetics and value by measurement on a scale of lightness and darkness of skin color, especially of females. It is for this reason that feminist scholars have done some of the most important work on the social and political dynamics of colorism in South Asia. It would be intriguing to explore how colorism is experienced in relation to identification (official and unofficial) as being mixed race. In some countries, the official government census may recognize and allow identification as mixed race—does this official space destigmatize this status? In other countries, meanwhile, mixed-raced peoples are present, but whispered about or must account for their origins rather than being accorded a place. Indeed, interracial unions may not be recognized in any religious or governmental sphere. So color differences become associated with illicitness. I recently heard stories of Nigerian-Chinese couples and their children facing such hardships. In Hinduism, caste may override color preferences in marriage, but preference for lighter skin among brides is well-known. This is why in my book I note the dramatic and significant appearance of a Muslim Indian discourse of darker skin and slave origins as signs of Islam’s universalist humanism as a deliberate contrast to Hinduism that emerged in the 1920s.
This is a good point to bring in Black India and assess who did or does call themselves “Black” in South Asia. The cultural studies scholar Vanita Reddy probes just this question of why “dark” is the designation embraced by a group of Indian campaigners against colorism in 2009, and not Black. She argues that the failure of “Dark is Beautiful” lies in its discourse of women’s empowerment of liberalist vintage, instead of anti-racist and anti-casteist politics that are disruptive to Indian nationalism.
Indeed, household microhistories tell us a lot about where and how colorism is experienced. For this reason, it is often art, film, fashion, and fiction that address and reject colorism. So we find Black India in political moments, such as Afro-Dalit politics discussed by Vijay Prashad, Nico Slate, and others. But we also find Black India in the intellectual project of Afro-Dravidianism between India and Senegal that picks up on popular ideas among African peoples and Indians as having common civilizational ancestors. There is a popular discourse of Black India, told in origin stories of particular communities in South India and parts of East and West Africa. There is also a tradition of Afro-Indian love stories. We can think of the Turkic princess Razia Sultana and her lover Jamal al-Din Yaqut, an Ethiopian general, whose romance was depicted in film, as well as W.E.B. Du Bois’ 1928 novel, Dark Princess, and Meera Nair’s 1991 film, Mississippi Masala, and Netflix’s Namaste Wahala in 2020. There is a veritable genre of African-Indian love stories, and added to this is the Blindian project by Jonah Batambuze, a multimedia artist and activist. Within these projects is the idea of Black India that celebrates radical possibilities and power in the embrace of racial recognition, as opposed to erasure in a color-blind discourse of liberalism.
SHIVANGI MARIAM RAJ: Could we then consider Black India an alternative, borderless community, where solidarity or coming together is within the context of fighting colorism, a way for people to be closer than nation-states can ever bring them?
SS: I definitely think so. When activists spoke of Afro-Asian solidarity, they likely did not mean gender and skin color politics as organizing frameworks. Scholars, too, seem to suggest that Afro-Asian solidarity stood for anti-colonialism or Cold War non-alignment or workers’ struggles, wherein the political-economic model means the absence of gender or sexual politics or cultural struggles. But what do the daily lived realities (past and present) of postcolonial or Third World or Global South societies look like?
Blackness brought women, especially, a sense of recognition of subordination, as Mamadou Diouf and Jinny Prais have argued, as a global subjectivity and collectivity.
I’m really interested in going back to examine Indian responses to changes in the period of the 1940s, when Black soldiers served in India and Burma, and then in the 1960s, when African independence and the Black Power movement placed dark-skinned people on covers of magazines and in films. We know that South Asian women have found comfort in the African rejection of skin-lightening, which has been outlawed in several African countries.
Borderless communities are made in some sense through local non-conformity. I believe that the embrace of non-conformity comes through willingness to remove oneself from social familiarity, and this is precisely why I discuss Indian migrants to Africa and African migrants to India who created interactions anew, apart from older patterns of colonial-era encounters that come to us in the image of the Indian-owned shop in East Africa. In my book, I capture the stories of the wider universe of African-Indian engagement in which profound enjoyment and appreciation thrive as distinct African-Indian modes of life. Some South Asians, who I know living in African countries, have fully immersed themselves in African history, culture, art, and music, to reject a diasporic consciousness of preserving Indian heritage—whatever that means. Likewise, Africans in India, who are growing in number, are creating new reaches of Black India.
LL: You describe a lesser-known nationalist project than Jinnah’s idea of Pakistan. Could you please tell us more about Dravida Nadu (the Country of Dravidians) and how it articulated an agenda against both Brahmanism and anti-Blackness?
SS: When I was growing up, as a child of Tamil parents, I heard more about the idea of a Tamil nation (expressed in the politics of Dravida Nadu, which ultimately failed) and relatively little about India. This movement for a sovereign South Indian state was initiated in 1916 by E.V. Ramasamy, popularly known as Periyar, leader of the self-respect movement. There is much more to this history, and I really only knew it through the fractured and nostalgic memories of my immigrant parents. So that makes my historical understanding of India incomplete and partial. I cannot claim to have a scholarly understanding of the Dravidian movement, so I will leave that to experts. But I can speak to the emotional attachments of South Indians as Dravidians that are expressed through myth and mother tongue—Sumathi Ramaswamy’s work is the standard-bearer.
Dravidian resonances with Black politics is a topic that has not been touched on until now, though there are exciting developments in the work of V. Geetha, a feminist writer and activist, and Gajendran Ayyathurai, an important voice in critical caste studies. The attention to the non-secular politics of caste and race, for example, emphasizing the importance of Buddhism among Tamils in India and in spaces of indenture, such as South Africa, will invariably lead, I believe, to new considerations in the meanings of Blackness and race in Dravidian politics. Religious conversion is very important, as Dalit activists themselves highlighted this, as did Black radicals such as Malcolm X. Secularist scholarship that ignores religion or treats it as divorced from material realities, and liberal secular solutions to the problem of inequality can only take us so far. Caste and race are not secular ideologies. Religious conversion is a rejection of an order and can transform social and economic realities.
LL: One postcolonial state of the African Continent has driven much of your research: Léopold Sédar Senghor’s Senegal. Many of us associate Senghor’s presidency with the emergence of “Francafrique,” i.e., neocolonial structures that allow the French state to keep a relative political, economic, and military control on formerly colonized nations in West Africa. The work of Quito Swan around the history of solidarity between Senegal and West Papua (see our 39th issue The Ocean… From the Black Atlantic to the Sea of Islands, Jan-Feb 2022) renders Senghor’s role more nuanced and global. So does your research on the relationship between Senegal and Dravidians. Could you please tell us about it?
SS: Senghor’s Afro-Dravidian project was a formal scholarly linkage between University of Dakar (now UCAD) and Annamalai University in Tamil Nadu, wherein African and Indian scholars studied ancient Afro-South Indian linkages through linguistics, folklore, archaeology, and other disciplines. While France was the backdrop for Senghor’s growing curiosity and higher studies of Afro-Dravidian linkage, what is fascinating about the Senegalese-South Indian project is its many roots. Cheikh Anta Diop’s research into ancient African civilizations in world history prefigured the university exchange, as did the formation of a popular consciousness created through Senegalese love of Indian films. These early films were not the stuff of Bollywood today, but often retelling of epics that older Senegalese say reminded them of their own Mande epics, notably the Sundiata story. Once again, premodern history—not the anxieties of modernity as often discussed in anthropological works on Indian films in Africa, as an example of a vein of interest among Western fascinations with the apparent African love of Bollywood—inspired curiosity, imagination, and relationality.
LL: What other forms of solidarity between African and Afrodescendant peoples and “South Indians” and Eelam Tamils (both at home and in the diaspora) can you describe historically and presently?
SS: I witnessed an incredible scene near Accra, at the Hindu Monastery of Africa, founded by a Ghanaian Hindu monk, Swami Ghanananda. It was a night of devotional singing (in Malayalam and Tamil) to commemorate the arduous Sabarimala pilgrimage in Kerala, with Ghanaians and members of the South Asian diaspora together. This diaspora was polyglot and of many origins, not simply Indians and Sri Lankans, not as people from those places necessarily, but as people from many “somewhere elses,” in motion, for different reasons. Their consciousness was not based in a national origin or a singular religion, but rather in languages of devotional songs for a sacred journey up a mountain—a pilgrimage. I think this was only possible in the diaspora and in a land, like Ghana, where diasporic consciousness is rich and profound, always connecting the pain of the past, the trauma of slavery, to life in the present. I knew the South Asians were free to imagine the Sabarimala pilgrimage in Ghana in a way not possible in India, where caste, gender, and exile created partitions.
The religious remakings in African-South Indian solidarities and differences in South Africa, another space of indenture, exile, and apartheid, have not been explored, as it is assumed that religion and race are separate. Afro-Indian studies have tended to have a notable secularist bias, but there can be little doubt that Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and African religious traditions informed, shaped, and distanced Africans and Indians. The Christian connection between Keralites and Ethiopians, for example, is clear in the rich novel Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese (2009), though only a few scholars have been interested. I am writing the history of Telugu Christian mission in South Africa with my colleague Joel Cabrita, a topic that has surprisingly been understudied.
One of the most exciting projects that crosscuts scholarship and activism is by Thenmozhi Soundararajan, the executive director of the Ambedkarite Equality Labs based in the U.S. Their work connects the problems of casteism, racism, and gender-based oppression to diaspora in bold new ways—indeed as spread by diaspora—and recognizes the debt of South Asian activists to African-Americans in leading solidarity movements, and embodies collaboration in ways that will change the way caste and race oppression are studied and challenged the world over. ■