“Dwibedi… toh Brahmin ho?”
“ Achha. Kahan ke Brahmin ho?”
“ Umm… humlog Kolkata mein rahte hain”
“Achha. Toh Diwali ke time ghar nahi ja rahe ho?”
“Nahin. Aap ticket dekh lijiye.”
“Rahane do bitiyan. Sambhal ke jana”
This is a snippet of the conversation I had with the ticket checker while travelling from Jaipur to Udaipur this Diwali. I was on a trip with my co-fellow Lekshmy, who happily slept away during the entire interaction. Quite frankly, I don’t know how I felt about the entire conversation. The man seemed to be genuinely concerned about our safety and I don’t think his questioning my caste was due to anything but idle curiosity. But what surprises me is how easy it is for people to question someone’s caste.
Caste has never really been something that I have encountered personally in my life. I have only ever lived in big metropolises – I have grown up mostly in Kolkata, and now I live in Delhi. My relationship with caste has till date mostly been during the offerings during Pujas when you mention your ‘gotra’. In the social circles I usually frequented till a few months back, caste was a topic brought up only when discussing the reservation system. Even then, unless you are a hardcore Leftist, most people would deny any trouble lower castes face in our society in modern times. Denying the existence of problems gives them the opportunity to crib about the obsoleteness of the system and how it hinders the worthy. Personally, I too believe that there should be additional criteria to reservation system; something which will prevent the children of already affluent lower-caste individuals from availing the benefits, while keeping the opportunities for those who have actually overcome hurdles to reach where they are in life. But that is a discussion for some other time.
How deep-rooted is caste in our social fabric? Even among people who claim that they do not believe in caste, usually when marriages are discussed about, people still prefer marriages within their own castes. I have heard bizarre reasons for the same: from “It helps in adjustments post marriage” to “Genetic mixing among different castes can lead to deformed babies”. I used to wonder whether they considered different castes as different species.
This is I believe, the less violent but no less insidious approach towards caste based discrimination. Then of course, there are parts in our country where inter caste marriages can even result in ‘honour killings’ (who defines honour I ask – a father who can mercilessly kill his own child simply because she went against their set boundaries?). I do accept this is one extreme form of the current caste discrimination practices. In other places, there are separate drinking water facilities for lower castes, streets where they have to walk barefoot, segregated utensils they can be served from, segregated places they can sit on. I cannot even fathom the humiliation that a person has to go through on every instance of his life, just because he was born in a family the society deemed as ‘nichi jaat’.
I come from a culture where caste is a topic that remains under the rug. There are places in my country where it is something openly discussed and no, not usually in a constructive manner (or at least what I consider to be a constructive manner). I do not know which is worse: simply ignoring the problem, or encouraging it. I do know that neither can ever lead us to a better future. We watched a documentary called “India Untouched” as part of our India Fellow Induction training. It was a rude shock to many of us. Some of us are currently dealing with caste based discrimination head-on. They will no doubt have their own stories to share. Personally, I got my own jolt the first day of our rural immersion module during induction training. I met a family whose children were discriminated against at school due to their caste. They were not able to avail the free-of-cost facilities available for all in government schools. The other time I faced the question of caste during my work was during filling up of questionnaires during the implementation of a UNDP project. We had detailed questions on the caste of the interviewees. The reasoning behind the occurrence of the question was probably for pure analytical purposes. But how used are we as a society to casteism, that even international bodies, while in India, fashion their questionnaire on caste.
Discrimination based on gender, caste, ethnicity among others, is a phenomenon that is, and has been observed worldwide since times immemorial. People have fought for their rights too since times immemorial. Even today, there are countries where women have basically no rights – not even over their own bodies. As a woman, I owe every opportunity that I can avail so easily today to the generations of men and women who have fought for women’s rights across the world. Coloured people across the world face discrimination even today. Still, today we have an African -American as the President of a country which treated people of his skin colour as slaves just two centuries back.
Like many other forms of discrimination, maybe casteism too will disappear from our society one day. Hope springs eternal after all. But that is a dreamer’s view. In the meanwhile, each one of us, in our own ways can do something about it. Standing up for your belief is a monumental step. And I hope each one of us finds the courage within ourselves to do so.
As Dumbledore said, “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.”