A Report on the 23rd Chennai Freethinkers’ Meet

Written by May 14, 2013 7:25 am 39 comments

We had four new attendees along with whom it summed up to a total of nineteen members for the 23rd monthly meet up of Chennai Freethinkers in April. The discussions were on assorted topics ranging from caste- based oppressions to child rapes to prostitution. Sruthisagar Yamunan started the discussion by mentioning the recent cosmological event that kicked off irrational reactions from gullible superstitious folk: the lunar eclipse! Yes, it was the partial lunar eclipse that came to pass on the 25th event of April, the first lunar eclipse of the year. We were despondent to note that even “educated” people seemed to be falling under the vicious grip of superstitions relating to eclipses which  convinced them that it was inauspicious  and ‘perilous’ to eat during the eclipse.  The discussion gradually phased forth into the topic of casteism – Sruthisagar described the sad plight of Dalits in certain areas near Madurai where the so called ‘upper caste’ perpetrated atrocities on them. Ganesh spoke of the insensitive comments by the so called ‘upper caste’  about the improving access to education to the Dalits.

Sanjay talked about the effect of violence on children. He opined that children who suffered corporal punishment  and  verbal abuse often take it out on others especially with women. He differentiated the behavior of children raised in a chauvinistic environment with those raised in an otherwise ‘good’ environment. But not everyone was convinced that it was  just the undesirable behavior of family members that made people violent.  Sanjay then asserted that ‘not everyone gets an opportunity’ to learn things from the faults of their family members since the exposure of most children is limited to the village / town school where  such behaviors are often condoned.

Ganesh requested the new members to introduce themselves. Subramanya Padillaya, a third year student of a B. Tech program at The Indian Institute of Technology- Madras, was born and raised in a orthodox family in Karnataka. Subramanya quoted his cousin’s advice to him on learning the Vedas and chants, “Learn them, understanding every part of it”. He sarcastically resumed, saying “I took his advice seriously and thus became a skeptic and agnostic eventually. To understand nature and natural phenomena, he took up science as his passion and also developed a fervor for philosophy and functional psychology. “I finally stumbled upon Chennai Freethinkers’ Facebook forum, as I started searching for online Freethought forums.” he added. Karthick, a journalist became agnostic and found that compared to atheists agnostics aren’t that easily victimized by religious trolls. He too reached Chennai Freethinkers on Facebook while attempting to find an online Freethought community with members who also met up physically.

SK and GR are freethinkers who were introduced to the group by Vaishnavi. Since they were not very much aware of the activities and the usual topics of discussions at Nirmukta, they chose to be observers.  Sanjay then recommenced the topic saying, “Now, let’s get back to discussing domestic violence and its impact on the young generation”. Madhavan avowed that children should be provided with a safe family environment which would give them confidence in dealing with gender issues. He also felt that boys must be raised to understand that gender discrimination is intolerable.

Madhavan’s stern remark on the up-bringing of children with respect to the rising crime against women routed to a discussion on rape culture in India. Poonguntan added oil to the furious fire, stating, “It’s not just a random increase in crime rate; we should take into consideration that  reporting rates have also increased. Crimes against women went unreported since the victim, or the victim’s family unfortunately believed that it might detrimentally publicize the crime and eventually take away their dignity.”

After the group gathered back from a break, Vaishnavi talked about a savage practice in some parts of rural Afghanistan where male children were sent by their parents as dance- boys, dressed up in women’s attires, to clubs in the vicinity. The kids, yes KIDS, were made to dance on a platform similar to that of pole dance and the customers, being testosterone filled psychopaths chose their own ‘best performer’ to accompany them in their private rooms for a little dance and a lot of ‘sexual pleasure’ or more appropriately brutal child rape.  It was even more infuriating to know that the parents of those KIDS considered this a lucrative business. Returning to the topic of rape culture, with regard to victim blaming, Vasudev wondered what kind of a ‘provocative’ apparel a five year old girl could probably wear to invite a rape. Rajavel talked about pedophiles and sexual oppressors/ psychopaths.

The argument on prostitution was kick started by Shyamala. It was a heated debate with fairly equal members on both the sides: pro decriminalizing prostitution and against decriminalizing prostitution.  Shiva Shankar suggested that legalizing, or at the least, decriminalizing prostitution might help reduce the rape incidents all around the country which was not accepted by many members. While Olga made a strong stance that objectifying a person, allowing ‘trade’ of a person’s body isn’t freedom of choice. Balaji refuted Olga’s argument.   Shiva Shankar added more saying, these people who come forward/ are forced to share their sexual pleasure in exchange for money must be ensured the rights every other citizen enjoys, so that there is no violence setting in the scene. The debate went on with Sai arguing, “When it is their right that they are forced to sell, how could they be ensured basic human rights?”

Venkat found it astounding as Shiva Shankar asserted that it could be a person’s freedom of choice to ‘sell’ one’s own body.   Karthick interrupted saying, “The most the government can do is to ensure that they have a good access to health services and make sure that they have a complete medical check up on a regular basis.” Sai Sanjay was flabbergasted as to what would determine the price of a human’s body once it is ‘allowed’ to be sold as a product in the open market.  Balaji tried to relate the situation to the freedom of choice a person gets in donating blood and body parts. Olga rebutted him by drawing the difference between donating one’s kidney on a covenant that lets the kidney be removed from her/ his cadaver once (s)he’s biologically dead and donating (mostly SELLING) one’s kidney while he’s alive.

The session then had to be wrapped up and the members eventually found three hours too less. Chennai freethinkers then set out of the confined air- conditioned space to blend in the vastness of the universe but continued their discussions and arguments gathered in clusters at the proximity of the Hotel.

(The heated discussion on prostitution was continued in our Facebook group).

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This post was written by:

- who has written 2 posts on Nirmukta.

I believe in a billion plus one gods and am a pious devotee of them all. If you believe that could possibly be a case of human existence, I'd presume that you're not very much used to sarcasm. A science addict and a freethinker, who had to give into the usual Indian anecdote of "B. Tech or M. B. B. S", after high school. A quintessentially heretic blasphemer and atheist, technically ignostic. A scurrilous despiser of malevolence, misogyny, misandry, nationalism, malice, patriotism, racism, religious preoccupation, farce fanaticism and misanthropy. A boisterously OUT feminist. I write articles for pleasure and causes, and rarely if I do, publish them in my blog. [And the collection of those unpublished ones must be subject to editing on terms of blasphemous, heathen, sacrilegious, impious contents.] I'm a student who doesn't really mind spending his night on learning something new rather than preparing for my next day's exam PS: I don't have any paranormal, supernatural, metaphysical or psychic abilities and am as normal as any Homo sapien, to the best of my ken.

39 Comments

  • I don’t think we need to write out “so-called ‘upper castes’” to indicate our stance against caste-ism. It’s not like the upper castes ever called themselves “upper,” it’s a naming convention we’ve settled on in English. It’s a pain to write out and I don’t think it’s necessary.

    • After all, it’s a naming convention social scientists invented to study the phenomenon. There’s no point in criticizing a naming convention thus created as if it were indigenous.

    • Geetha T.G.

      Referring to a group of people as ‘upper castes’ would reinforce the casteist label and give them an exalted position that is totally unwarranted. Being a humanist the author has done the right thing to prefix ‘so called’ while referring to caste categories.

      As for the ‘so-called’ upper castes never calling themselves “upper,” well, that is a sweeping statement. They definitely thought of themselves as superior by birth and treated others with disdain (atleast a vast majority of them did. I don’t think anybody can deny that.

      If it is a naming convention, it was not a random one and we need not stick to it. It might appear as a pain but making small and subtle changes in the way we speak and write so as to be sensitive and humane is not all that difficult. Once you become conscious of such ‘triggers’ you will not longer think it is a pain or unnecessary to be sensitive.

      • No doubt such concerns are why they are legally referred to as “forward castes” today. I do see the merit in that.

        It merely seemed ridiculous to me that we as outsiders created the label of “upper caste,” then ridicule the very label that we created as if someone else made it up. (Upper castes may have largely considered themselves superior, but the label itself was never used by them).

        Perhaps I nitpick. As Roger Ebert rightly pointed out in the case of the term “midget”, if a label causes pain, it is best to retire it. So too perhaps with the term at hand. I’m perfectly content with using “forward caste.”

      • It is absolutely an external naming convention, although the phenomenon is certainly indigenous. There is no word for “caste” in Indian languages. The oft-quoted “jati” merely means group. It CAN mean caste, but the correspondence is not one-to-one.

        The language that was used by those whom WE call upper castes is “good birth,” “pure blood,” etc. but the actual TERM upper caste is not of their invention.

        Thus, if we want to make fun of it, we are fools, not them. I don’t think this is the case. Empirically, the are upper castes– so long as there is a caste system, there are upper castes. This is the reality.

        • Satish Chandra

          Varna or Jati. Doesn’t really matter which is which. What matters is what we understand as caste as it is today and not commit the genetic fallacy by citing etymology.

        • I’ve mentioned why jati /= caste above. as for varna,it fails to be a useful model of caste given that most castes cannot be mapped to a single varna, especially in south India (conferring varna status on kings is part of what made Brahmins so powerful).

          I don’t see the genetic fallacy here given that we are arguing about teinology itself. The question is: who invented the term “upper caste”? The claim is that since it exists only in the Engliah language, it must be a scholarly term invented to study India, not the upper castes own invention.

          We’re debating the origin of a term, not anything else. But I’ll follow Ashwin here- I’m not interested in hairsplitting.

    • Satish Chandra

      If one where to go into lower level constituents of what “upper caste” meant, I don’t see it as an “external invention”. Karma, the bedrock of Hinduism, despite all the various byzantine obfuscations constructed around it, gives a very clear hierarchy of which caste is the upper and which is the lower.

      • While this is all true, you won’t find the specific term “upper caste” in any Indian languages.

      • Just read your link. No we aren’t debating definitions, but rather, the origin of a term.
        The motivation is as follows: if we use the term upper caste, are we pandering to the oppressors’ self designation or are we reflecting a scholarly naming convention? I am arguing the latter. This regardless of the fact that everyone knows the meaning of the term today.

        If you find such a debate pedestrian, you’re free to abstain. As I said, it may be hairsplitting. But if it is, I’m afraid I will continue to use the term upper caste without guilt.

      • Hi Satish,

        The claim is not that caste hierarchy is an external invention, as you seem to have
        understood. The discussion is about whether or not the term “upper caste” is an external naming convention, and consequently whether we pander to upper caste
        traditions when using the term.

    • Captain Mandrake

      The author wrote the following

      The discussion gradually phased forth into the topic of casteism – Sruthisagar described the sad plight of Dalits in certain areas near Madurai where the so called ‘upper caste’ perpetrated atrocities on them.

      It is reasonable to wonder why the author phrased it that way when in fact he could have written the following instead.

      The discussion gradually phased forth into the topic of casteism – Sruthisagar described the sad plight of Dalits in certain areas near Madurai where the upper caste perpetrated atrocities on them.

      In a sense both these constructions convey the same message. The message being this “Dalits were at the receiving end of the atrocities perpetrated by people who are considered upper caste.”

      But in a another sense the first construction has an additional message in it. It is that the author does not think there is any thing superior about the upper caste people. Given that the author wanted to convey this additional message the first construction seems more appropriate.

      • Thank you for clarifying the purpose, captain.

      • Yes, thank you for putting it out so clearly.

        The disputation was that the descriptor “upper” does not indicate that the speaker considers these castes superior. It is simply a descriptor such as the upper in “upper class.” In a class system, there are, by definition, upper and lower classes. It is similar with a caste system. We would not say “so-called upper class.”

        • Captain Mandrake


          The disputation was that the descriptor “upper” does not indicate that the speaker considers these castes superior. It is simply a descriptor such as the upper in “upper class.” In a class system, there are, by definition, upper and lower classes. It is similar with a caste system. We would not say “so-called upper class.”

          Ok, here is the question.

          In what sense do you think the author of this piece uses the term “upper”?

          Upper as in superior in the sense in which the Hindu varna system ranks a brahmin above a shudra.

          Or

          Upper as in rich in the generic division between the rich vs poor?

          • The former. He’s talking about class not caste.

          • Sorry meant caste not class.

          • Captain Mandrake

            The former.

            Now that it is clear in what sense the author used “upper” it must also be clear why he prefixed it with “so-called”.

            Of course that does not necessarily mean that anyone who uses the term “upper caste” is also acknowledging that these castes are superior to other castes. I do not think anyone here is making that point at all.

          • Ok, I must have read too much into Geetha’s response. I take it I can still use the old term without guilt?

          • Captain Mandrake

            You can use whatever term you want to use. But when you bring up irrelevant trivialities like whether or not the word caste has an equivalent word in any of the Indian languages some people might think that you are engaging in apologetics for castism.

          • Thanks will do. That I am not should be clear to anyone with critical reading skills- neither you nor Ashwin seems to have misunderstood. Thanks again.

          • I should add that he started the trail.

  • there is a difference between a taboo and a superstition… in my experience the activities surrounding eclipses have been the former, no the latter. taboos, by definition, cannot be irrational– though they can certainly be harmful.

  • Ashoka, you know why I started the trail. To say “so-called” upper caste is to imply that something is wrong with the term “upper.” I fail to understand what given your own justification: in a caste system, there are upper and lower castes by definition.

    Captain, as for the “origins” comments, Geetha’s post certainly implies that to say upper caste is to imply casteism. This could only be true if casteists invented the term. It has been shown that this cannot be the case, and therefore, the term is not casteist. Furthermore, as much as I despise casteism, I find it hypocritical to impose a term on a group from the outside and then ridicule that term as if the group itself made it up. It would be like white people ridiculing the Navajo for bwing called Indians.

    Captain’s final comments were distressing. Despite the fact that understanding caste is a very fertile field in many disciplines, us laypeople cannot seem to have analytical conversations about it. People hear the word “caste” and block the rest of the argument out, ready to prejudge. This unfortunately seems to have happened with Geetha and Satish- perhaps due to the difficulty of our medium. Ashoka’s mere claim a that jati =/= caste and varna =/= caste, while true, would unfortunately get him branded as a casteist.

    • On that note, MN Srinivas would quite certainly be lynched here if he even brought up the concept of a “dominant caste.” Quite unfortunate for a freethinkers forum. I’m sorry, I took the suggestion that I was casteist quite personally.

    • Captain Mandrake

      Ashwin,

      I understand the point you are making. In order to understand and analyze a phenomena we have to use terms like upper caste and dominant caste. Usage of such terms do not make one a castist. I think I was clear about that in an earlier post.

      Having said that I fail to see the purpose behind Ashoka’s claim that there are no equivalent term for upper caste in any of the Indian languages. Even if such a claim was true what does it add to the current discussion?

      • Thanks– I apologize if I was unclear, I understood your views. It was this that I was responding to:

        “Referring to a group of people as ‘upper castes’ would reinforce the casteist label and give them an exalted position that is totally unwarranted.”

        I personally do feel that Ashoka’s claim is true– he could probably best explain for himself, but I think that such a claim was made in order to show the whole self-designation thing I’ve been talking talking about. It is not a self-designation of upper castes, therefore it is not casteist and can be used as an analytic tool.

      • To show at least the validity of what Ashoka was saying, I’ll quote Axel Michaels. This chapter of his book provides an excellent history of how Indian hierarchy was understood by Europeans. Michaels writes, though, that:

        “There is one convincing reason not to use the word caste uncritically: it is not an Indian word! If you use it you have to be able to say what you mean.”

        • Yes, that is what I meant.

        • Captain Mandrake

          So what?

          Not having an Indian word for caste does not change the reality of stratified social structure (aka caste system) in India, both before and after the Europeans set foot in India.

          Focusing on the supposed lack of an Indian word for caste seems totally irrelevant to the discussion on whether or not it makes sense to use the term “so-called upper caste”.

          • Dear Captain,

            Nowhere have I implied that caste hierarchy never existed before Europe. In my previous post I even mention “European understanding of Indian hierarchy.” Why are you unjustly putting words on my mouth?

            The origin of the term does matter. Suppose it is of Indian origin- one day the upper castes drove into town and proclaimed “WE’RE THE UPPER CASTES, SUCK IT!” obviously continuing to use that term reinforces such pretensions. But what if it is not if Indian origin? Then, explorers and officers came to India and said, “There iis a caste system. These castes are the upper ones.” Then it is an analytic term.

          • Captain Mandrake

            Ashwin,

            What is the big deal if there was indeed an Indian term? It would still be a word in an Indian language and you could still make a case for the term “upper caste” being an analytical term.

            I hate to draw out this debate over a trivial issue of the usage of the term “so-called upper caste”. But I do find this focus on whether or not there was a word for Hinduism or castes in an Indian language to be an irrelevant distraction.

          • Well, that’s okay I guess. We seem to have a slight disagreement. I claim that if upper caste were a self-designation, then we should discontinue its usage. You claim that even if this were true, we should still be free to use the term.

            I guess I’m in between you and Geetha. Perhaps for different reasons, we both agree that we can use the term upper caste though. That’s good enough for me.

          • Captain Mandrake

            Ashwin,

            I claim that if upper caste were a self-designation, then we should discontinue its usage. You claim that even if this were true, we should still be free to use the term.

            I am not saying that at all. In this entire discussion I have really made just two points.

            1) I understand why the author used the term “so-called upper caste”. There is no reason to throw a fit at this usage for it does not directly imply that anyone who uses just the term “upper caste” is a casteist.

            2) Not having an equivalent term in an Indian language for the English term “upper caste” adds nothing to the debate on whether such a term should continue to be used or not.

          • Sunil D'Monte

            Ashwin and Captain Mandrake, please wrap this up. Thanks – moderators.

          • Captain Mandrake

            Sunil,

            My apologies for one too many posts with essentially the same message. It is a waste of space. Will be more careful in the future.

  • Of course, I think we should stop. It’s my fault for calling attention to a small detail- I tend to be detail oriented and thought that the small word was masking a larger conceptual bus. But this is t the point of the article. A lot of good work was done, we should focus on that :)

  • Good job organizing this meet.

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