The answer is simply, `I don’t know…’
“I am Gokhale. She is Iyer. What are you?” a politician close to former Prime Minister V P Singh once asked me in the decade when the star of the so-called socialist parties, led by Singh, was on the ascendant.
“I am Anandan,” I replied.
“That I know. But you have to have a surname, surely?”
“That is my surname,” I insisted.
I knew what he was getting at but I did not want to give him the satisfaction of knowing – he stared at me for a few seconds, then turned away. I know he thought I had snubbed him but I just could not care enough for I was utterly shocked that politicians who proclaimed equality of all still determined their friendships by the castes you belonged to. It was not surprising that he rarely spoke to me again and, of course, he never again asked me for my caste name.
In a resurgent independent India my father had chosen to drop his surname and go by his own (which is what I chose as my surname) and after years of not understanding I had finally begun to see why he had done so. I was not about to let that be defeated by allowing a petty politician to categorise me not by merit but by caste.
But over the years I have come to accept that this is the Great Indian Reality – one can’t avoid such categorisation particularly in these times when political parties are distinguished by the castes they represent. Like my colleague Kumkum Chadha wrote in her blog this week, I would have liked to see Meira Kumar not be referred to as a Dalit but as a woman achiever in her own right (she has been a diplomat before becoming a politician, after all). But I was comforted by the fact that at least, unlike Mayawati, she was not shrill about her Dalit antecedents and stressed more upon her achievement as a woman (who, by the way, has got there without the benefit of 33 per cent reservations).
However, there is a long way to go yet before we can put an end to this distinction by caste. I can only go by my own experience — a few years ago I was shocked when I followed the sound of temple bells in the jungles of Naxal-infested Adilabad and Karimnagar in Andhra Pradesh and was stopped from entering the sanctum sanctorum because I did not know which gotra I belonged to. The question the priest asked me was identical to that Mr Gokhale of the Janata Dal had done. My reply was identical, tool. But the priest was not as easy to shake off as Mr Gokhale. “You have to have a proper surname. Tell me are you Sastry or Sarma, Iyer or Iyengar?”
This time I knew. But I still kept to my dogged answer, “I don’t know.”
“How did you get here?” he then asked.
“I am a journalist who has been brought here by a group affiliated to the People’s War Group. I am reporting on the Mandal elections.”
There was a lightning change in his attitude. Much later I realised he might not have wanted to be caught up in allegations of discrimination (and consequent retaliation) by Naxalites. So he sprinkled some water on me, gave me a gotra and much against his will allowed me to enter the temple.
As I left after offering a brief aarti, he said frostily, “Next time you come here, ask your parents what gotra you belong to.”
I did. My parents were equally frosty as they asked, “Who wants to know?”
Of course, there was never any question of visiting that temple again (in fact, I wonder if I will even find it again) but it took me a while to convince my parents to arm me with these facts of life. It came with a statutory warning from my father: these facts are irrelevant to your performance in school/college/university/ work/life. “Let no one convince you that you are either superior or inferior because of an accident of birth. It is what you yourself make of yourself that should distinguish your life and achievement.”
It was a lesson well learnt but I realised that my father was romanticising too much. India had moved on from the early days of Independence and Nehruvian ideals. And while I was brought up completely without awareness of being either a Hindu or a Muslim, Brahmin or Dalit, everyone now wears both religion and caste on their sleeves.
So I try not to get angry when they ask me for my antecedents, though I still stick with the “I don’t know.” And when others flaunt their identities based on anything but their merit, I still squirm but let it be.
For I am convinced it is just a matter of time before sincerity of purpose alone will be India’s distinguishing characteristic. My optimism is based on the results of last month’s elections – caste and religion was by and large defeated. Merit and performance, hope and aspiration prevailed.
As for Meira Kumar – yes, she is Dalit; she is a woman. But what’s more important is that she is the Speaker of the Lok Sabha despite Goswami Tulsidas (who still has many followers, even in parliament) and what he had said about one half of the human population all those years ago!