Before I proceed to present the trap of my convoluted yet unintelligible idea, I must confess something. Confess of the habit of living in my bubble. Confess of fighting for justice elsewhere when my city itself burns. Confess of my shortcomings. And confess that I am afraid to write.This could be another “upper caste” person appropriating the opportunity of the marginalized telling their story. Hence, I want to leave you with only questions and no answer.
The first time I became familiar with the caste system was through stories of protest against the Mandal Commission. The havoc my father had witnessed in his student day at Delhi University. As a young kid still learning about the world, I couldn’t be more un-bothered about the situation. It was like a gory tale with no implications for me. As is the case with most Indian households, opinions about reservations are part of casual conversations. Over the years, I had learned the habit of listening to all without much second thought. Although it changed this year. Taking part in the admission rollercoaster for undergraduate degrees; I could see how it could alter my world. When some of my friends couldn’t get admission even after scoring well and saw others with much lower get through due to reservation…they were not happy. While cheering them, the only thought that occupied my mind was whether or not this innocent frustration part of the larger issue. Are the polarized opinions on the reservation just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the internalized caste system? Or does feeling bad about the fact that there is a substantial probability of my ancestors being the part of the zamindari system, cancels it out?
Over time, there has been a rise in the trend of caste becoming part of pop culture. Most famous Punjabi songs rarely ever come without the use of words like Jat. Though an illegal practice, people flaunt their caste on their cars. In more absurd cases, the youth of the country is mentioning caste in their Instagram bio. With the caste becoming an indispensable part of identity in popular culture, have we risen above the caste system?
It is isolating to talk about the Indian caste system without mentioning Gandhi. While seen as a champion of the cause, there are some pressing issues in terms of his ideology. Is the usage of the term Harijan only about self-respect and reverence? Or an attempt to hide the ugly history under the shiny veil? The likes of the intellectuals like historian Aishwary Kumar have critiqued Gandhi for contending the idea of compassion towards Harijan based precisely on an ethic of ‘distance’ between the brahmin and the Harijan. To simply say, to become equal both had to be dispossessed from their identity. A stark contrast to the acceptance of each other without any conditions.
Let’s discuss a more recent example. Bindeshwar Pathak, best known for his venture Sulabh Shauchalaya and organization Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan. For those unaware, Sulabh Shauchalaya is a national campaign to end manual scavenging. He is a believer in Sanskritization. It is the process by which caste or tribes placed lower in the caste hierarchy seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the dominant or upper castes. Is the behavior counter-intuitive as he condemns degrading caste occupation and yet performs it? Or the nuances missed in the common interpretation?
I could have ended my article with a series of statistical data proving how much of a role caste plays in being the victim of violence. But I feel that statistical figures are too inhumane, too easy to forget, too easy to justify, and manipulate everything. So today I advise you to listen to the stories, to remember them, and to be honest to your conscience. Now answer this -does caste even matter now?