Caste in an unbreakable mould



I have had a friend – a sort of buddy – for years and I never cared to find out what caste she might belong to. Her name told me nothing but when I first visited her home some years ago at the peak of one summer, I was stunned to discover how caste matters even today to even people in an urbanized metropolis.

Her mother did not offer me any water and as I sat there parched and dying of thirst, I wondered about the lack of hospitality. Then my friend asked if I would like to a restaurant nearby for a meal.

“Why lunch out?” I asked. “I would rather have some home cooked daal and rice right here, if it is not too much trouble,” I said.

I have still not forgotten her mother’s reaction.

She suddenly jumped to her feet and asked, “You will eat here? Food that I have cooked with my own hands?”

I did not understand. Someone, if not she, would have to cook with their own hands after all. Whatever did she mean?

“We are Dalits. I thought you would not want to drink even water at our place!”

Now it was my turn to be floored as she ran to the kitchen to fetch me some water and nimboo paani.

I had been brought up without any caste consciousness snd the only restraint we ever observed was one of hygiene.

But when I told my friend that, she said, “You have no idea what we go through even in cities like Bombay, even in some high rise buildings. We are always eyed with suspicion and we never volunteer to send food to our neighbours. Even an exchange of sweets during Diwali is a strict no-no.”

A few years later when I visited the rehabilitation work at Latur where a severe earthquake had devastated several villages in the district, I was stunned to discover that caste continued to be a bitter reality in the villages of even an advanced and progressive state like Maharashtra.

Then chief minister Sharad Pawar was attempting some social engineering of his own – in the new housing that was coming up, he had bunched the people together by their economic status. Free homes of 250 square feet for the very poor. Subsidised ones of 450 square feet for the middle classes. And fully paid up homes of 750 square feet for the comparatively rich who could afford it.

The unhappy people were the ones entitled to free homes – they had no choice and many Marathas and upper castes among them then discovered that their neighbours were Dalits.

Pawar had asked a temple to be built across one end of the villages and a mosque at the other with a Buddh Vihar in between but religion was not their problem. “We are willing to live next door to Muslims but we will absolutely not live beside a Mang or a Mahar (two of the most deprived castes in Mahaashtra),” one upper caste housewife told me.

The reactions of the Dalits were almost similar – they all wanted to be bunched together, never mind other considerations, their chief concern was that there would be safety in numbers.

As I paid more and more attention to the caste issue, I came to the realisation that caste engenders a sense of belonging in the people, never mind which strata one might belong to.

You know all the customs and traditions, there is no risk of violating any sentiments or creating any conflagration inadvertently when you are among your own.

And this is true of not just dalit or other backwards classes. Even Brahmins and other upper castes have their own societies and organisations that are much like a club.

While I have realised that though modern laws can eradicate malpractices and discrimination, nothing can come in the way of your identity, the basic fundamental of what and who you are.

So while a court judgment this week may well recieve kudos fo having banned caste based political rallies, I do not think the eradication of castes in this country could be quite as simple.

Mandalisation will continue to exist in India even if all castes begin to mingle freely and people will continue to vote on caste considerations, many upper castes will continue to exploit Dalits and Dalits like my friend’s mother will never get over centuries and a lifetime of feeling somehow different and inferior.

My simplistic solution might seem facetious and frivolous but I have come to the conclusion that the only manner in which these lines can be obliterated or at least blurred is if there are mixed marriages and the children are brought up as just Indians with no other identity.

But as is obvious from the recent case in Tamil Nadu where a Dalit boy was found dead on the railway tracks a year after marrying an upper caste girl – after much interference from political parties, I might add – even love has been unable to conquer this breach and, with no disrespect meant to the courts, it is my experience that educated liberals from the non-deprived castes often find it very difficult to understand why castes should matter.

They should not, as they did not to me when I first visited the home of my Dalit friend.

But it meant a lot to her mother that I sipped water from her tumbler and ate off her plates food cooked by her with her own hands.

We invited them home on several occasions and each time the lady was touched that we would cook for them and eat alongside them.

I am waiting for the day when that will no longer matter to people of the older generation like my friend’s mother and neighbours in villages will not fume about each other’s caste origins.

Until that kind social change comes from within, I do not believe any kind of judicial intervention can stop political parties from keeping the nation divided – if they are barred from holding caste rallies, these meets will only go underground.

Centuries of stratification cannot be broken down in a day. But one day at a time, as the judgment comes, should be good enough.

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