Willing to stand up and be counted

I remember I was just 12 years old and there was a caste enumeration at school. I simply did not know where I belonged.My parents have/had brought us up with a complete ignorance of a caste or class distinction. In fact, for a very long time I thought we were Christians because my mother celebrated my father’s birthday on December 25 each year in great style. And I also believed we were British because sometimes my mother would teasingly refer to my father (on account of his Western habits and his impeccable English) as `angrez’ – he had been working in the UK in the years before I was born and continued to visit the country quite frequently, even after.

By the time I was ten I was quite unceremoniously disabused of those ideas – friends at school quite clearly told me that with my name and the colour of my skin I could not be a Brit (Asian immigrants to the UK at the time were not in vogue). And I realised there was no Christmas tree or Santa Claus (only gorgeous cakes) coming home at X-mas, so my identity had to be distinctly different from what I had brought myself up to believe.

But the question of caste clearly stumped me. “You must be something,’’ my class teacher said. “Like a Kayastha, a Brahmin or a Scheduled Caste. You have to have a caste. Ask your parents and let me know tomorrow.’’

My father’s reaction was typical: “Who wants to know?’’ he asked frostily. “I refuse to poison the minds of my children with such details.’’

But when I was 15, he could no longer avoid the reality. There was a `caste’ column on my High School form and the Principal would not accept it unless that was filled up. That prompted my father to storm into my school in rage and ask the Principal the same question he had three years earlier.

“I don’t want to know. In fact, I don’t care,’’ said the Principal. “But the school board wants to know. They would like to know if your child needs a reservation.’’

“She doesn’t,’’ said my father. “And I refuse to let her put down her caste in that column!’’

They compromised by writing, “Non-SC/ST: don’t need reservation.’’

It was only years later, after I became a political journalist, that the reality of castes was brought home to me (The answer is simply, `I don’t know…’) quite brutally. But considering the way I was brought up, it was but natural to react rather violently to suggestions that I needed a caste to belong.

Now, after much water has flown under that bridge (post Mandal, Mandir etc), Census officials arrive at my door again with a column for castes – SC, ST, Others, they ask.

I wonder if I should tick the `Others’ column or if that is meant for OBCs alone. My pen hovers over those boxes for a very long time and I consider writing `Indian’ like Amitabh Bachchan did. I have heard arguments that it is unconstitutional and discriminatory to ask after your caste and I agree with all of them.

But as I mellow down over years of loving India and living India, I realise that those arguments are for `PLUs’ (people like us) rather than PLTs (people like them). It is all very well to say that asking for castes is discriminatory but that is an argument that holds only for the privileged to whom castes do not matter any longer.

In fact, I have come to the conclusion that castes bring to the people of this country a sense of fundamental belonging – you can belong to clubs, professions, strata, states, regions, communities, et al. But a real sense of belonging comes only when you are sitting amidst people your own with whom differences are very few and none of their customs or traditions make you feel alien or awkward. And that belonging also gives you a sense of being. Every which way – spiritually, socially, politically. So I am beginning to change my opinion about the abolition of the caste system.

But, at the same time, I am fiercely against using castes as a means of social discrimination vis-à-vis the so-called backward classes and Dalits or even by members of the same community (as in the khap panchayats) to ostracise/kill or otherwise ban the mixing of castes and communities, social mobility, friendships and marriages between them. There should be a strict ban against that sort of thing, punishable, preferably, even by death. But to do away with castes altogether, I believe, will take away a fundamental identity from the people which is very important to their existence.

My own parents are from two different regions of the country, straddling north and south India and we were brought up in the best of traditions from both the regions. It helped that my father’s career was with the Ministry of Defence and there was only the spirit of nationalism that governed social and community gatherings as we were growing up. My father always took pride in saying that his children were the true products of national integration, belonging to no particular state or region and being just Indian alone.

But I think my parents could swing that off because they came from privileged urban backgrounds. I recall some years ago visiting the home of a Dalit friend – her mother would just not give me any water to quench my thirst. When I said I was simply dying of a parched throat and couldn’t bear it any longer, she startled me by saying, “Oh, will you drink water from my pot? I didn’t want to offend you, so I have sent my son out for some cold drinks for you.’’

Of course, I drank the water from her pot – as she looked on with tear-brimmed eyes. This was the 21st century and this was Bombay and yet, I thought, there were people who thought they were not equal to the rest of their countrymen. It is to them that that column in the Census form matters and, I believe, they will have no hesitation in filling that up so that they can be brought level with the more privileged classes of society.

So I did what my father had done all those years ago with my school form: I filled that column up with a codicil: non-SC/ST. Non-backward. Do not require privilege. But willing to stand up and be counted!

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