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JNU Seminar Row: Gayatri Spivak Says the Student Didn't Identify Himself as Dalit

Spivak said, 'Anshul Kumar had not identified himself as a Dalit. Therefore, I thought he was a Brahminist, since he was saying that he was the founder of a Brahmin Studies Institute. I did not stop Kumar from asking his question...'
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/	Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung/CC BY 2.0 DEED

New Delhi: Amid the controversy that erupted during her talk at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak said that she had not stopped the student with whom she had an altercation from asking his question, and underlined that the student had not identified himself as a Dalit.

Speaking to The Hindu, she said, “Anshul Kumar had not identified himself as a Dalit. Therefore, I thought he was a Brahminist, since he was saying that he was the founder of a Brahmin Studies Institute. I did not stop Kumar from asking his question. He was still mispronouncing Du Bois’s name and started to talk to me in a very rude way. As an old female teacher confronting a male student, and especially since I had not been given the information that he was Dalit, my wounded remark that I did not want to hear his question was a gesture of protest.”

She said that the audience at the talk “for some reason” was not pronouncing Du Bois’s name correctly, which is the Haitian way. “Since Du Bois was himself a Black ‘Dalit’, I would like to suggest that the correct pronunciation be learned,” she added.

Calling it an “extremely instructive experience” for her, Spivak said, “That this kind of public misunderstanding and defamation can be undertaken in contemporary India is deeply disturbing to someone like me and others.”

Videos which emerged out of the May 21 talk, and have now gone viral, show Spivak interrupting Anshul Kumar from asking his question, insisting that he pronounce Du Bois’s correctly. The 28-year-old student, who is studying at JNU’s Centre for the Study of Social Sciences, sought to ask Spivak how she could position herself as middle-class.

Kumar had sought to ask during the question-and-answer session, “Spivak claims to be middle class. She said in her lecture that Du Bois was an upper-class elite. How is she as a great-granddaughter of Bihari Lal Bhaduri, a close friend of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, supposed to be middle class?”

In response, Spivak had said the question had nothing to do with the theme of the talk – ‘W.E.B. Du Bois’s Vision of Democracy’. “And I am not Bihari Lal Bhaduri’s great granddaughter. I believe he was the person (I cannot be sure of this) who asked my real great grandfather (at the time a cook hired by a middle-class family) to marry a widow.”

She had continued, “Incidentally, I did not say Du Bois was an elite upper-class person. The only thing I said was that he had not been enslaved, and for lacking the experience of slavery he was apologetic.”

Responding to the controversy, Spivak in the interview to The Hindu clarified that she was not correcting Kumar’s accent, but was asking more people in the audience to pronounce Du Bois’ name correctly. “This is because the French had colonised Haiti. Du Bois’s father was Haitian. From all the documentation that I have seen, I believe the ‘Haitian’ was heard as ‘Englishman’,” she said.

Meanwhile, Kumar, for his part, has been using quotes from Du Bois’s works to argue against the dismissal of subaltern voices due to requirements of “syntactical obedience”. Many scholars have also weighed in on the controversy, questioning if subaltern voices are heard at all when they do speak up – pointing to one of Spivak’s most-read essays “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

Also read: The Gayatri Spivak Controversy Is About the Implosion of ‘Subalternity’ in Public Discourse

Spivak said, “Subaltern and Dalit are not interchangeable words. The upwardly class-mobile Dalit person – and the academy is an instrument of upward class-mobility – should certainly use his/her new privilege to work for the entire Dalit community, especially the subaltern Dalits, who do not get into elite universities.”

When queried if an individual stops being a subaltern when they enter elite academic spaces, she said, “Yes, they do, although they certainly don’t stop being people of Dalit origin, who should use their privilege to help the subaltern Dalits. There is a kind of somewhat frightened reverse casteism among politically correct non-Dalits of which the serious activists do not take advantage.”

She explained, “As far as subalternity is concerned: our sustained position has been that subalternity must be destroyed and made more generalizable as citizenship. I do regret that Subaltern Studies, which is a historiographical endeavour, does not seem to acknowledge caste. For the last forty years, I have been working for subalterns, running elementary schools, rather than studying them.”

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