The words we use, and how we use them, make a difference to our social, cultural and economic experiences. They make a difference to our relationships with each other, and to our relationship with the land we live on and depend on to sustain us.
The words listed here are ones we often engage with in the india & me cafe. There are often many nuances of these words and phrases. We provide our researched, broad understanding of these terms here, along with links to articles and writings that we believe to be useful reads for those who would like a more in-depth understanding.
accessibility This term literally means how easy it is to reach or use something. From a social justice viewpoint, accessibility means gauging how meaningful or useful a piece of information, an activity and / or environment is -- is is accessible for a few people or for a lot of people?
It's also about identifying and responding to conditions of a lack of access: for example, by providing equitable opportunities, regardless of a person’s abilities or circumstances. Accessibility for a visually challenged person would include considerations like font size of written matter, usage of high contrast colours, whether the matter is available in Braille, etc. Similarly, usage of a sign language interpreter implies greater accessibility for a hearing impaired person.
But accessibility isn't just about consideration of people with disabilities. Accessibility is also linked to language, culture, caste, age, economic status or technological aptitude. An elderly, non-digitally savvy person may find it hard to access information that is provided only through an app on a phone. A person of lower economic status may also face internet quality issues. Language / comprehension access issues may arise while accessing an app that assumes that everyone can read and understand English.
activism Activism consists of efforts to promote, impede, direct or intervene in social, political, economic or environmental reform with the desire to further social justice. Such activism is grounded in the notion that no action is ever "apolitical", that everything we think, do, say, is meaningful and can have intended or unintended consequences.
advocacy To advocate usually means to publicly support the interests of an individual, or a group or a cause. It is about educating people on their rights and legal options, social options, crisis interventions, etc, and support through research, writing petitions, protests, fundraisers, workshops and awareness programmes, and fighting legal battles. Social media nowadays plays a key role in advocacy through raising awareness and facilitating participation. Doing advocacy can be part of building solidarity.
affirmative action / reservation This is a proactive system of social justice that aims to iron out past and current inequities across different sections of society. A good example of affirmative action is the reservation of seats in educational institutions in India for Dalits and other oppressed communities. Colloquially in the country, this affirmative action is known as “Reservation”. There continue to be many contentious debates on “Merit vs Reservation”. Reservation however has nothing to do with “merit” -- it is a way to provide socio-economic equity. Also, “merit” itself is a problematic concept (see the entry “merit”).
allyship and solidarity Allyship and solidarity are related, but not the same. Key differences are:
allies tend to “help” someone who is disadvantaged, while solidarity recognises that our collective well being is interwoven;
allyship work is public and performative, while solidarity is long drawn out, behind the scenes and intense;
allies focus on the interpersonal while solidarity is about dismantling social structures.
Jaime Grant explains this well in the context of racism.
In our experience, understanding allyship and solidarity happens through practice, making mistakes, un-learning and persisting (praxis). One way to do this is by practising Mansi Bhalerao's five ways to be an ally without Savarna Saviour Complex. As Mansi writes: "true solidarity demands one to re-fix the condescending gaze and work towards deconstructing the very caste system that facilitates Brahmanical supremacy." There are no shortcuts here - it will be hard work but worth every effort one makes.
casteism / being casteist Casteism is a mindset that values the lives of different people differently, the lives of a few are valued over and above the lives of many. Being casteist means believing in the caste system, a birth based social stratification existing in Indian Hindu society, and that has, to some extent, permeated into other religions in India also.
civil rights Civil rights are guarantees of equal social opportunity and protection under the law, irrespective of race, religion, gender, etc. As these are rights under the law, they have resulted from positive government action. Civil rights are an essential component of democracy such as: the right to vote, right to education, etcu.
colonialism / settler colonialism / internal colonialism / decolonialism Colonialism refers to the systems and practices that “seek to impose the will of one people on another, and to use the resources of the imposed people for the benefit of the imposer'' (Assante, 2006). Colonialism can operate within the political, sociological, cultural values and systems of a place even after the physical occupation by colonisers has ended.
Settler colonialism is a form of colonisation in which large groups of people migrate to lands already inhabited, and claim it as their own in perpetuity, building permanent, self-supporting settlements. Many such examples are touted as “discovering new lands”. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is when the English, Scots and Irish arrived at different parts of America, and decimated the Native American population, many of whom still continue to live on reservations. This means that settler colonialism is not just a vicious act of the past; it exists as long as settlers continue living on appropriated land.
Another kind of colonialism that is most relevant to india & me is internal colonialism. While it is well recognised that India was colonised by the British, the French, the Portuguese and the Dutch (in no particular order), there is less familiarity with internal colonialism. Both before and after the spread of colonialism in India by European countries, an informal but tacitly acknowledged and implemented policy of oppression of a vast group of people in India based on the caste system prevailed and continues to prevail. Another type of internal colonialism in India is of the Adivasis/tribal people, who continue to be driven away from their land in territory after territory for mining or development etc by corporates and rich, urban upper-class/oppressor caste Indians. Yet another example is the currently surreptitiously ongoing internal settler colonialism project in Kashmir.
As defined above, colonialism is not restricted to physical control of land and people. In his introductory course on British rule in India, historian Vinay Lal explains that even though the Irish “might have been colonised by the English”, they were “very good at being colonisers themselves, at least when they were in India”. So like him, what’s more interesting to us is “the colonisation of the mind”, how "an entire intellectual apparatus was created for representing the other". The consequences of this colonialism continue to be felt today.
How we view the world is learned throughout our lifetimes from many influences, both formal and informal. These include the state, the law, religion, our families, our neighbourhoods, public opinion, mass media and of course social media. This process is known as socialisation, and it is ideologically reinforced through school education, what Paulo Friere calls the banking model of education. When you layer this with colonisation, you get colonialism. As Vinay Lal argues, the “conquest of knowledge, the colonisation of the mind” is the most “critical component" of "colonial rule”.
In 1835, Thomas McCauley wrote that “literature in Indian languages is worthless, so English should be brought into India”. Along with this, “anthropology, botany, geology, history … a huge number of disciplines were all brought into service of colonialism”.
It is this “relationship of the entire intellectual apparatus that the British produced” to “colonial rule itself” and which was inherited primarily by the savarna caste communities to then continue to colonise the rest of India, that we try to make sense of in the india & me cafe.
culture, Indian / diversity “Do these people who use these terms [Aryan culture or Indian culture] so carelessly realise what transformations this Aryan culture has undergone after reaching India … ‘Indian culture today is so varied as to be called cultures. The roots of this culture go back to ancient times and are developed through contact with many races and many peoples, hence among its many ingredients, it is impossible to say surely what is native and what is alien, what is borrowed out of love and what has been imposed by force … if we view Indian culture thus we realise that there is no place for chauvinism’” (Kota Shivaram Karanth, as quoted by Ramachandra Guha on the occasion of the first book launch event of The Indians: Histories of a Civilization, edited by GN Devy, Tony Joseph, and Ravi Korisetta).
An elaboration of Indian culture(s) in this way was done by Aniket Jaaware in 2011, in his course “An Introduction to Indian Culture”, which is still available to listen on the University of Tübingen’s website.
discrimination To discriminate means to treat one person less favourably than another person on the basis of one’s social identity characteristics. For example treating someone less favourably because of their age, gender, race / caste / class, religion / belief, disability, marriage or civil partnership, pregnancy or maternity, and sexual orientation. Here are some examples:
excluding someone from a shortlist for a job even though they do have the necessary qualifications / experience
making it harder for someone to do their job or get a promotion
causing someone emotional distress (bullying)
paying a person less for the same work because of their gender (women often get paid less than men)
Generally only discrimination in public is of concern. But discrimination can happen anywhere and often without realising one is doing it. For example, not introducing domestic help to a house guest.
The Indian Penal Code, 1860 (Section 153 A) criminalises the use of language that promotes discrimination or violence against people on the basis of race, caste, sex, place of birth, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation or any other category. As of now the code is being revised and we will update this information accordingly in the future. But the point that concerns us most is not whether laws exist to identify and punish discrimination. Rather, we ask whether these laws exist only because it is politically correct to have such laws. While there is little or no concerted ground level effort to prevent and punish discrimination.
emancipation / liberation / empowerment These terms are not the same. Much is talked about women’s empowerment, but being empowered in the workplace does not mean empowerment in all spheres of life. So called "power women" often remain disempowered in myriad ways. So we prefer that rather than “powering” on, our focus should be on emancipation, which means being set free from the control of another, from the social rules and structures that seek to make all society an “open social jail”, for example, the combined structures and rules of patriarchy and the caste system. Only then can we experience liberation, and in that state empowerment will not be necessary.
equality or equity These terms don't mean the same thing.
equality means each individual or group of people have access to the same resources or opportunities. In social justice terms, equality often doesn’t play out as imagined. This is because it assumes that everyone starts from the same position of privilege in life, i.e. everyone’s English-speaking ability is the same, or everyone taking an entrance exam is equally well prepared (tuition, parental support etc).
equity means every person is allocated resources and opportunities based on their ‘starting position’ -- think of how an athletic racecourse has different starting points -- the athlete who will run on the outermost track starts from way ahead of the athlete who will run in the innermost track. This way everyone has equal opportunity to reach the common goal.
inclusion The terms upper caste and lower caste are, respectively, privileged and pejorative, and coined by “upper” caste people. As we refuse the caste system, we don't accept its hierarchies implicit in the words “upper” and “lower”. But it is necessary to acknowledge the caste system to be able to refuse it. So, wherever possible, we refer to castes by their allocated names and not by their hierarchies.
LGBTQIA+ This abbreviation stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual or Ally, and “+”, which means any other gender or sexuality based options not specifically named / indicated. The term LGBTQIA+ therefore seeks to include all known and as yet unnamed / unknown genders and sexual orientations.
Intersex includes people whose biological sex characteristics don’t fit the traditional definitions of female or male. Asexual is someone who experiences little or no sexual attraction.
history We like the standpoint that there is nothing like history, there are only histories of the South Asian region. In this, the idea of a “pre-history” comes from a particular literate-in-a-condescending-way position. It implies there was no history before the settled civilisations we know about today and we don’t have to worry about it. We appreciate there is “a deep history of humanity” that has implications for the way we live and understand the world today, and for our relationship with our ecological surroundings.
lower caste / upper caste The terms upper caste and lower caste are, respectively, privileged and pejorative, and coined by “upper” caste people. As we refuse the caste system, we don't accept its hierarchies implicit in the words “upper” and “lower”. But it is necessary to acknowledge the caste system to be able to refuse it. So, wherever possible, we refer to castes by their allocated names and not by their hierarchies.
majority and minority These terms are quite commonly used to indicate smaller and larger groups in a social context, especially when talking about oppression. The “size” can be based on various identifiers such as skin colour, gender, caste, indigeneity. There is a general sense that the larger or majority group (e.g. White people in the USA) oppress the smaller group (Black people in the USA).
In the cafe, we discuss what these terms mean in the Indian context. We argue that the common way of using these terms is deceptive, specially when used in relation to caste. In India a caste-based minority (the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas) are on “top of the hierarchy” and take up disproportionately more space and use disproportionately more of the country’s resources, and “reserve” the privileged positions in society for themselves (e.g. how many judges belong to these castes, how many senior academics and teachers belong to these castes, how many bureaucrats belong to these castes and so on). We talk about the importance and urgency to do a caste census to dispel the myths around majority and minority in a caste-based society.
narratives Narratives are the flesh and bones of a story - the details of events and experiences that make up a story. But how these events and experiences are narrated is not simple. There is a saying that history is written by the victors. Events and experiences can be described in different ways. There is a saying that history is written by the victors, but the way the “victor” describes the events in a battle could be very different from the way the “loser” does. Hence it becomes important to know who is telling a story, where are they coming from.
Hence it becomes important to know who is telling a story, where are they coming from. Vinay Lal points out that in the British colonial times, many volumes about India were written by people who never visited India, and in some cases, never left Britain. Hence Lal argues that the texts that the British wrote about and on India do not tell us much about India but they tell us a lot about the “people who wrote those texts, what intellectual milieu they came from, what was their intellectual background ,what were their epistemological assumptions about another society.”
How a story is told (narrated), who is telling the story (the narrator) and with what authority the narrator is narrating the story -- all have consequences for the people who are narrating and the people who are listening (or pretending to listen).
So our understanding of our own self, of the narrator, of our world and their world and the world beyond both, comes from narratives
In short, narratives are around us all the time, they are political, and they have real impact on us.
nation / citizenship / borders The political maps of the world keep changing -- the borders of countries as we know them are not set in stone.
The main sense of "citizenship" today is the kind called legal citizenship, which people can claim if they fulfil certain legal criteria in a given context. The passport is the proof of having legal citizenship. But very few of us have the privilege of having legal citizenship and a passport. It is well known that the Government of China has denied passports to most Tibetans and recalled passports of Uyghurs. And then there is also a hierarchy of passports. A Western country passport allows the holder to claim "global citizenship" or be a "nomad" by virtue of visa-free travel; and we need to be mindful of how these claims are in reality based on exclusions and therefore antithetical to the worldviews of those who genuinely practise nomadism or global citizenship. As of 2023, an Indian passport allows visa-free entry into 24 countries. A UAE passport and a US passport allow visa-free entry into 127 and 121 countries, respectively.
Even among those who are eligible for legal citizenship, people with particular social identities are denied full rights of citizenship in reality. For example, many people in India are denied the right to shelter when the government wants to "beautify" an city.
neoliberalism Neoliberalism is a phenomenon which is commonly understood to be about “free markets”. But such a market economy cannot “flourish” unless it is accompanied by the withdrawal of state from providing those services to people that we are due as fundamental rights. By fundamental we mean the basic securities of life. So our fundamental rights include right to health security, to food security, to education security, to social security, to income, job and work security. All these rights are diminished when the state withdraws from its responsibility to ensure fundamental rights. We become increasingly dependent on our own selves -- and if we lack capacity in any way we might find ourselves struggling. Or dependent on or at the mercy of "NGOs".
positive discrimination / positive action Positive discrimination or action is where an employer does something with the aim of helping an employee or job applicant because of a protected characteristic. In some circumstances an employer can use protected characteristics to help a disadvantaged or an underrepresented group. This can also help an organisation be more diverse and representative. But 90% of the Indian workforce is in the “unorganized” sector, which means they work “informally” without proper contracts. Hence any argument that “positive discrimination” is harmful for others does not bear out.
prejudice Prejudices are of various kinds, the ones that concern us here are the ones that have institutional consent. These are prejudices in which entire groups of people are seen as stereotypes of one kind, "inferior" or "infidel" and thus eventually less human than us. For example, in Rajathan's 18th-century caste society, if a savarna caste person asked an "untouchable" person to beat another savarna person, the savarna person was punished for asking an "untouchable" to touch another savarna person rather than for getting the other person beaten up. In other words, when prejudices become institutionalised, violence of all kinds becomes normalised, and crimes against humanity are condoned as justified acts. Acts of humanity on the other hand become criminalised.
privilege This is a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group. The privileges we are particularly concerned with in india & me are those that people accrue because of their social identities, such as gender and “upper” caste background.
racism Racism in our view is a kind of discourse, it's a way of giving your group a sense of inflated importance by creating "a radical difference" between your own group and another group which then becomes "the other". Very often, globally, this difference is skin colour in which white colour is perceived by the white group to be far superior in intellect and progressive ideas than people who have a different skin colour. But it can also be based on cultural differences or religion (e.g. Orientalism) or in being "touchable" or "untouchable" (as in the caste system in India). Racist ideas about the "other" group do not tell us any real facts about that group, rather they tell us how the so-called "superior" group constructs their own identity in relation to others to gain power over them.
rights versus duties / obligations All of us have some duties to fulfil -- towards our self, our family, each other, and our country -- it is not coincidental that the road leading down from the Indian President's house, the Raj Bhavan, to India Gate and beyond has been renamed from Rajpath [the right to rule] to Kartavya Path [the duty to serve]. While the right to rule certainly is worth questioning, the rights that we're interested in are the rights we all have as humans, as members of a social community, as citizens of a country, as people displaced from their lands against their will, as people living where borders are drawn without their consent.
Besides the right to live, to shelter, and to food and health security, this crucially includes our right to information (RTI). In their “RTI Anthem”, Janane Ka Haq, Charul and Vinay take examples from everyday rural life in India to show how this right is fundamental to all rights. We have shared three stanzas here.
... My feet have the right to know
Why they have to walk from village to village
Why no sign of a bus!
My hunger has the right to know
Why grains rot in godowns
And not a fistful for me! ...
... My fields have the right to know
Despite so many huge dams
Why my crops are lifeless! ...
[Translated by Suresh Desai, visit Loknaad.in for the original Hindi version and full English translated version]
SC / Dalit / Bahujan / Harijan These are contested terms, sometimes even within the communities themselves, and are often debated. By and large the communities seem to prefer being collectively called DBAV (Dalit/Bahujan/Adivasi/Vimukt) or by one of the terms as applicable. How should other people address the members of these communities? To decide that, one needs to understand the origin of these terms - some originated as government categories, others are adopted by the people themselves.
SC In 1931, the Census Commissioner of India decided to categorise the communities referred to as "untouchables" as "depressed classes". He said: "I have explained depressed castes as castes, contact with whom entails purification on the part of high caste Hindus. It is not intended that the term should have any reference to occupation as such but to those castes which by reasons of their traditional position in Hindu society. are denied access to temples, for instance, or have to use separate wells or are not allowed to sit inside a school house but have to remain outside or suffer similar social disabilities.” The Government of India Act 1935, which aimed to bring in self-rule in India, redefined "depressed classes" as Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST). These terms derived from the list (schedule) of all the depressed classes (the untouchable and indigenous tribal communities) that was prepared to protect them from discrimination. SC/ST are constitutional terms, that is they are used in our constitution, and therefore in all official communication and bureaucratic documents referring to these communities.
Dalit The former untouchable communities selected the term Dalit to define themselves. While the word “Dalit” means broken or ground-down in Marathi, it symbolises the assertion for social justice and the emancipation of the “untouchable” communities. But in the current political assertion of oppressed- caste communities, those who have converted to Buddhism, especially in Maharashtra, are assertively self-defining themselves as Ambedkarite Buddhists, followers of B.R. Ambedkar who, like him, converted to Buddhism to break free from the caste shackles of Hinduism. For them, Dalit is the oppressors’ terminology.
Bahujan Literally meaning "the masses", Bahujan has its roots in Buddhist philosophy Bahujan Hitay Bahujan Sukhay (for the welfare and happiness of the masses). The term Bahujan gained political fervour with the self-respect movement led by Kanshi Ram, a government employee from northern India. In 1971, Kanshi Ram formed an all-India association of public service employees belonging to Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes and minorities. Following in the footsteps of Dr. Ambedkar, Kanshi Ram aimed to unite all of India's marginalised communities under the Bahujan identity. In 1981, he established a social organization that focused on Dalits and other oppressed groups. Finally in 1984, he founded a political party, the Bahujan Samaj Party. Bahujan has become a political term to describe those who believe in the unity of oppressed and marginalised masses. Dalit-Bahujan is another term that denotes this unity.
Harijan Literally meaning 'people of God', this term was coined by Gandhi, who himself belonged to an oppressor caste. He justified his choice as "a solution to the problem of untouchability within the Hindu religion" but it was rejected by B.R. Ambedkar, as a euphemistic attempt to cover-up the harsh reality of untouchability. B.R. Ambedkar preferred the term Dalit. Historian Ramchandra Guha says, “… Gandhi’s own earlier coinage, ‘suppressed classes’, explicitly targeted social discrimination, whereas ‘Harijan’ euphemized it."
social justice and human rights Today's liberal progressive perspective on human rights is more often about individual rights rather than community rights -- it can get to be all about "me". The (purposeful) aim of this liberal perspective to place emphasis on individual human rights over community rights, is so that (some) individuals gain (some) rights, but the institutions and those on the top of the pile remain what they are.
Therefore in the india & me cafe, when we talk of human rights, or their more specific versions -- women's rights, children's rights, gender rights, labour rights, to name a few -- we talk of them within a broader framework of social justice. This allows us to always think of both individuals and communities together. Most of us live as "social selves" -- that is, as part of a society, a community. Even when we live alone most time we are not fully alone. The utilities we have at our disposal -- tapped water supply, electric supply, internet supply -- are only available to us because someone somewhere is working to ensure we have all these comforts.
solidarity versus charity / saviourism Moari activist Lilla Watson's words, in our view, explain these concepts as clearly as can be possibly done: “If you have come here to help me [do charity / savioursim] you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine [do solidarity], then let us work together.”
ST / Tribal / Adivasi / Indigenous The Constitution of India uses the term Scheduled Tribes to include all indigenous communities in India. However, while the indigenous communities in the north-eastern states identify as "tribal", those in central and eastern India identify as "Adivasi" which means "first inhabitants". The term Vanvasi literally means forest dweller, and is a pejorative term used by some political parties to imply Adivasis and tribals are "backward" people who need help in being "civilised". Vanvasi is refused by the communities themselves because it connotes that they only live in the forests, which is not true, and which denies them recognition as the first inhabitants of this land (India to date has refused to ratify the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989).
The characterisation of STs as used by the government in the Lokur Committee report is also dated (primitive traits, distinct culture, geographic isolation, shyness and a lack of contact with the community at large and backwardness). The wise words of Adivasi poet Jacinta Kerketta are telling: "They are waiting for us to become civilised; We are waiting for them to turn human".
stereotype A stereotype is a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. It assumes that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same. For example, the assumption that all women are nurturers and all men are aggressive is a stereotype.
Vimukta / Nomadic Tribes / Denotified Tribes / NT / DNT Vimukta is the term used by India's indigenous pastoral communities. A group of them were brutally categorised as "Criminal Tribes" by the British. In common parlance they were referred to and unjustly treated as "habitual offenders". It was only in 1952 that they were "denotified" (De-Notified Tribes / DNT) but they are still ostracised as "habitual offenders". NT stands for "nomadic tribes", communities whose ancestors and many still today lead a pastoral life. Together, the pastoral communities have claimed the name "Vimukta" which means "free from [bondage]".