By Adithya Prakash
As an upper caste Hindu boy, I was brought up to be ignorant about caste. I went to an English medium school, and later found myself ranting about reservations being caste-based rather than merit based when I could not secure admission to certain colleges. I naively assumed that India was a meritocracy. My schooling and social background had conditioned me to believe that everyone is given equal opportunity; therefore, only the ones who work hard actually get what they deserve. How wrong was I?
In India, caste and class often tend to mirror each other. Student activist Umar Khalid, in an interview with stand-up comic Kunal Kamra, remarked, “If you were ever to enter any of these upper middle class housing societies in Delhi, have a look at the name plates on all the houses. Those name plates will most likely belong to families who come from an upper caste background.” This thought stayed with me because I too am amongst the millions in India who are ignorant about how caste works, who do not understand how caste and class coalesce to form the biggest cultural divides India has ever known.
Most of us tend to believe that untouchability and caste bias are much like slavery, a relic of the past. However, these practices are strongly entrenched in our daily lives, yet rendered invisible. The ‘didi’ who comes home to pick up our trash is most likely a Dalit, as are the people who clean up our gutters before the monsoons. In spite of being declared illegal, 1.3 million people in India work as manual scavengers (98% of them being women), a job historically expected of Dalits. We also tend to assume that manual scavenging occurs only in rural areas, which is also not true. My education and my upbringing ensured that I was ignorant about the discrimination that is often treated as the fate of the lower castes in India.
What was your most recent experience with discrimination in India? I remember the first time I witnessed it. It is so clear in my memory that I feel like it occurred yesterday. I had just entered the lobby of a residential building in South Mumbai, and I saw two girls walking ahead of me. One of the girls was about to enter the lift but the other one stopped her, and pulled her towards the other lift. In Marathi, she told her friend, “Not this one, dear!” I remember wondering why she did that. As I approached the lift, I saw a notice pasted above the lift. It announced, ‘For residents and their guests only’. The other lift, which the girls used, was marked, ‘Service lift’.
I wonder what those girls felt like, when they were forbidden from entering that lift. After all, how different was this from the untouchability practised in India in the past? Then, the lower castes were not even allowed to stand in the presence of an upper caste person, out of the paranoia of polluting them. Now, this lower caste person cannot stand in the same space as a multi-crore flat owner just because she is a domestic help. Much has changed about life in India, yet much remains the same. I wonder what they thought might happen in case this segregation was not allowed. Like many things around me, I might have skipped noticing this had I not observed that interaction in the lobby that day.
If, like me, you find yourself being curious about how India’s caste system works in the 21st century, do have a look at the answers provided to this interesting question on Quora. One of the answers provided mentions how it is still common for households to have separate utensils for the maid. It is supposedly hygienic enough to have the maid wash our vessels, but not eat out of them. But if we ask around, most of us are likely to say that we do not practice untouchability. That is the real perversity of our caste system. It renders itself invisible, except to the ones who are at the receiving end of it. The only times when it comes to the attention of us elites is when we read newspaper reports of Dalits being killed for everyday acts that supposedly offend upper caste pride, such as riding a horse, or keeping a moustache.
Caste prejudice exists around us, if only we open our eyes to it. As a young boy, I would go and stay at my grandparents’ house after school as both my parents used to work outside the home. The area that my grandparents stayed in was a lower income group setting. A lot of the people staying could be described as first generation or second generational settlers, from all over Maharashtra, who came to Mumbai for employment and to begin a new life. Like any other kid, I too had friends in that neighbourhood — friends who would fight with each other, the way children fight.
I remember hearing slurs like ‘bhangi’ being thrown around. For those who do not know, bhangis are a caste, which was historically restricted to cleaning latrines and handling dead bodies — tasks that the other castes considered ‘highly polluting’. Did those children know the real meaning of that slur? When I look back to that time, I think not. These are just ways in which prejudice is normalised through language. Think of how the word ‘Bihari’ or ‘’bhaiyya’ is used derogatorily to denote either lack of intellect, or laziness. Think about how people from the North East are derogatorily called ‘chinki’.
How can we address all these fissures in our society? For a start, let us drive out these caste based slurs from our language. The next time you hear someone use it, make them aware, make it apparent that you disapprove. If you wish to make yourself aware of how caste oppresses our own people, read the writings of Ambedkar or Periyar. This article here is a list of movies that have explored the issues of caste with sensitivity. I personally recommend watching Fandry, a Marathi film that explores life from the eyes of a Dalit protagonist who dreams of being in school but is bound by society to his family occupation. We must question why we have such little representation of Dalits in positions of authority, or prominence. Can it be explained away by meritocracy? It cannot, and it must not.
Is caste prejudice also expressed through food preferences? Historian Romila Thapar, in her book Early India: From the origins to AD 1300, argues that the higher the caste, the higher were the food restrictions expected to be followed. Sociologist M N Srinivas argues that some of the lower castes actually gave up consumption of beef in an effort to move up the social ladder, an act which he terms ‘Sanskritization’. Even the humble filter coffee has a problematic history, where it was used to reinforce caste segregation as this interesting video from Scroll.in points out. To my knowledge, India is the only country where food is classified as either ‘veg’ or ‘non-veg’.
Food is clearly a battleground where notions of ritual and spiritual purity clash and collide. While growing up, I remember how the food choices of my grandparents differed from that of my parents and myself. While my grandparents followed what would be called a ‘pure vegetarian’ diet, my parents and I would consume eggs. The unsaid rule was that eggs could be cooked at home but not by my grandmother.
As a child, my food choices were primarily guided by habit and taste. I remember this one instance when I was a child. It was a day before Diwali, and I went up to my mother and requested her to make an omelette for me. I remember my father walking up to me, and telling me, “You can’t have it today.” I asked him, “Why not?”. He replied, “Because it’s Diwali tomorrow, and you are not supposed to eat eggs on this festival day.” I remember feeling weird about that. I remember wondering why it was okay to consume something the whole year but not on certain days of the year. After all, if something is wrong or bad, shouldn’t we not do it at all? When I look back and think about the food choices made on my behalf, they were certainly inspired by notions of purity even though I was never conscious of it.
I also remember the conversation I had with my mother when I told her that my girlfriend and I wanted to get married. I remember the look of relief on her face when she learnt that the woman who would be my wife did not consume meat even though everyone else in her family did. It did not matter to me but I realised then that it did matter to my mother. I wonder what might have happened if my wife was a meat eater.
Would her right to eat what she likes get curtailed because it made my parents uncomfortable? Would we have made a compromise wherein we would order ‘non-veg’ from outside, but not cook it at home? Or would we cook it at home using ‘separate utensils’ as happens in many homes? What side would I have taken in such a situation? Would I have supported my wife’s right to choice, or my parents’ right to have their religious sentiments respected?
Cultural diversity also means the existence of potential points of conflict. For instance, in my family traditions, meat is never served at weddings. My wife’s family traditions, on the other hand, are more lenient about serving meat at weddings. In my experience, contradictions can always be managed but this can only be done when we view cultures not as static or monolithic entities but as fluid concepts that change and evolve with us over time.
(Note: The author is a qualitative researcher who has worked on public health projects in India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. He tweets @adithyap.)