For the longest time, I didn’t know what being a dalit meant. Yes, the lady who came to pick up the garbage had a separate cup and so did the maids. Also, there was a “jamadaarni” who came to clean the toilets. But I never paid much attention to these things. It was status quo and I didn’t know any other way to exist. I was completely unaware of what a surname meant or if it signified anything. The most I knew was that “Jains” were vegetarian. One of my close friends in school was a Jain, so I knew that much.
When it was time for college admissions, I got to know the hullabaloo around reservations and heard the argument about merit being stymied. Laments such as,“Unka hi raaz hai aaj kal, hum marginalize ho gaye hain, number leke bhi admission nahi milti” were ubiquitous.
In college, I heard whispers about my classmates that had come through reservation. This was the first time in my life any dalits entered my bubble, even though still not in any significant way. A good thing was that I didn’t notice any overt discrimination against anyone. I did become more aware about caste. My roommate told me I was a baniya. I was perplexed about what that meant. She was very knowledgeable about various acceptable castes in Hindus. Over time, I learnt the hierarchy.
In Infosys, I didn’t encounter any dalit/caste dynamics. It was a private company which did not have to follow the reservation policy, so the chatter about dalits taking over was muted. The only angry rants came from colleagues preparing for entrance exams for government jobs.
Then I moved to a tiny block called Shahpur in Betul district, Madhya Pradesh for the fellowship. That’s where I got properly schooled in caste issues.
People wanted to know as soon as they were introduced to me , “Aap kaun se samaj se ho?”. Being from Punjab was a point of respect, being an “Aggarwal” added another layer.
In the villages where I went for project work, all the castes lived separately. The SCs (scheduled castes) lived in one part of the village and the STs (scheduled tribes) in another part. In village Silpati where I implemented my project, the tribals were at the bottom of the social ladder. The tribal girls were the first to join my class, but as non-ST girls started joining, they started dropping out on one pretext or the other despite doing well. They were less confident, less ready to hang out with the other girls and kept more to themselves.
On the other hand, another village (Baretha) where ST’s were in overwhelming numbers, the SC’s were ghettoized. (I found this very interesting. Generally, ST’s are lower in the caste hierarchy than SC’s but in overwhelming numbers, the social equations were reversed.)
Things were better at the block level since the spatial demarcations were not so clear cut but the awareness of which household belonged to which samaj was very much there.
I was close to the family of an employee of the NGO- Prashantji. His wife, whom I referred to as Bhabhi, told me quite early on that they were SCs. It surprised me since I had never heard anyone say something like that. Prashant ji and Bhabhi belonged to Maharashtra and had an oppressed life in their village before they moved to Madhya Pradesh when Prashantji got a job with the NGO. Even though the money was tight, they had big dreams for their only son.
Their son Daksh, got admission in a JNV (Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalya) through an SC quota in 6th standard. It was a happy-sad occasion as even though he was going away for the foreseeable future to a residential school , he was going to have access to a good education with all his expenses taken care of by the government. I could see the other side of the reservation debate- how it had the potential to give so many families a shot at a future, when without it, there was a slim chance that could happen. Generally, the discourse goes that creamy layer candidates among the reserved category corner all the seats. Here I witnessed the opposite happening – my well-off general-category landlords chose to send their daughter to a JNV because according to them, “Who doesn’t like some saving? It can be used later for college or her wedding.”
Once when Daksh was back for a break , he happily told me how he had made some general category friends in school. That was a big thing for him. The contrast between him and me when I was twelve shook me – I had no awareness of caste, whereas he was steeped in this awareness about his station in life. Befriending general category peers clearly signified upward social mobility to him.
Before moving to Shahpur I had never paid much attention to Ambedkar jayanti. Prashant ji sent to me the following whatsapp message on that day
फूलों की कहानी बहारों ने लिखी रातों की कहानी
सितारों ने लिखी हम नहीं है किसी के गुलाम
क्योंकि हमारी ज़िन्दगी बाबासाहब जी ने लिखी
आंबेडकर जयंती की हार्दिक शुभकामनाएं
The deep reverence with which Dr. Ambedkar was held by millions of people and how they felt validated by his existence made me emotional. I grappled with the fact that this upliftment overseen by Babasaheb was a recent phenomenon – it happened just seventy-odd years ago while the caste system had existed for over two-thousand years. Later at their house, the mood was festive and Bhabhi told me how this occasion was celebrated with pomp and show in their village back in Maharashtra.
I was sitting with my landlady when I got this message. I asked her how Ambedkar Jayanti was celebrated in Shahpur since I wanted to participate. She took offence to my bringing it up and dismissively pointed out that I should ask the neighbours (who were dalits) about it. They had as big a house as my landlords but their identity when it came down to it was “dalits”.
As I came face-to-face with how openly caste system was practised in rural India, I realized things were not that different in the cities. I thought back to various incidents in my life and discerned that I just had the privilege to be shielded from it.
As a young girl, if I was fussy about bathing, my mom would rhetorically ask me, “choode chamaran di kudi hain?” I had no idea what that meant but I understood she was trying to shame me into bathing. It dawned on me fairly recently that a caste slur was so innocuously a part of the lexicon.
I had studied in two reputed convent schools in Ludhiana. I went through my facebook friend list of school friends to check the “samaj” they belonged to. They were the usual suspects – Gupta, Sharma, Khanna, and so on. I grasped that there were probably not many dalit students in my schools, if there were any at all.
In college, many people did not use their surnames, using a generic surname like Kumar/Kumari/Singh. I gave it a fleeting thought while there but looking back now, I understand how the surname could have exposed them to disdain from their general category peers who saw reservation-seekers as usurpers of seats of “more deserving candidates”.*
Another incident my mind flashed to was from a long time ago. When I was still in school, we had visited some relatives in Karnal. While catching up, they narrated how they had no choice but to get some tenants evicted from their house after they got to know their secret…they were Harijans.
I was confused. What did that punchline mean? My mom told me later that people from good families don’t rent to Harijans. That was the first time I had heard the word “Harijan” while simultaneously learning about its negative connotations. But it was only recently, the full-force of that incident hit me. It was just like back in the village – spatial segregation by caste – keeping dalits out of some neighborhoods because “we do not mingle with these people”. **
Back in Shahpur, I remember my landlady asking me if in Punjab, people were ok with marrying outside their samaj. I mentioned love marriages were becoming more common and parents preferred to see the education and salary of the groom more than his caste. I omitted to mention marrying far below your caste, especially into dalits, would still invite scorn. I was ashamed to admit that we were not as liberal as I liked to believe. She told me clearly, “Hamare yahan samaj se bahar shadi nahi karte”.
Once I questioned a relative who was making the point of dalits having become very advanced because of reservations, “Chachaji, since dalits are so advanced , will you be ok if your daughter was to marry a dalit?”
It was followed by a stunned silence. He struggled to find words. Something on the lines of, “They don’t know how to live. Their relatives will not be right, they can’t match our status, samaj main kya muh dikhaenge”…”etc etc sputtered out of him. I prodded on, “I am talking about creamy layer dalits”..
The topic of marriage is where gloves come off and our casteist fangs are displayed in their full glory. The topic of reservation is where our constant whining exposes our caste privilege.***
We look towards our elders to teach us right from wrong. But what if these prejudices are so entrenched in them that they cannot show us the right path? After all, the caste system has existed for so long because generation after generation has perpetuated it without question.****
I get accused of being “sensitive” and having my views colored by my time in the village. I don’t understand how that is a bad thing. Everyone can benefit from stepping out of the bubble. It may take time to get over our prejudices but we can atleast make an effort to acknowledge that they exist. That could be a stepping stone for us to live a more enlightened life and make better choices, to do right by people who have been condemned to a lifetime of discrimination just by accident of birth.
– names are changed
* Dalit author Yashica Dutt‘s interview on hiding her caste identity and caste in education systems
** Caste based spatial segregation news/opinion 1, 2
*** The delusion of caste system being dead