Friday, 21 March 2014

Casting Away the Caste?

Late 80s – Bihar: There was an ongoing rate list for dowry as per the jobs held and salaries earned. I remember that lowest in the rate list was that of a bank PO. The rate then was a whooping Rs.7 lakhs, unthinkable at that time. Of course if you belonged to a higher caste, you could attach a premium and nobody questioned.

2004 – South India: The concept of Indians backpacking was not really known then; so my travel partner and I were often mistaken to be foreigners. The first question people asked us after clarifying that we were Indians was, “What is your caste?”. We were accorded quick and good service because my travel partner was a Brahmin. Naturally, we took advantage of it.   

2009 – Mumbai: An employee of a well known education NGO got super excited when she found out that my colleague is married to a Brahmin. She asked me enthusiastically if I was a Brahmin too.

2011 – West Rajasthan: We travelled to a village on work where we had lunch in the house of an adivasi family (one of the best meals I have had so far but that’s a different story). We invited our Muslim driver to join us but he consistently refused saying he already had his meal. Later we realised that he didn’t want to have food in an adivasi home.

Village elders who usually form the Jati or Caste Panchayats (in Rajasthan). 

2011 – Jodhpur: We had stopped for food at a roadside dhaba run by a Rajput, who told us with some pride in his voice that all people including dalits and adivasis are welcome to eat at his Dhaba. A bit later he adds that he however will never eat at a dhaba run by an adivasi or a dalit.

 2011 – Melghat: A tribal village in a forest had been assigned an Aanganwadi worker who threw her weight around because she belonged to a ‘higher’ caste. The result was that none of the families sent their children to the Aanganwadi resulting in waste of food every day.

2012 – Bhopal: A friend has a neighbour who belongs to the Scheduled Tribes. She asked my friend if her domestic help could also work for her. When my friend approached the help with the request, she flatly refused. The maid, also belonging to a Scheduled Tribe told my friend that she can’t work for the family because they belonged to a lower stratum than her.

An adivasi woman from a forest village in Maharashtra

2013 – Gadchiroli: Aanganwadi worker approaches me and asks, “Madam, Aapka surname?” (to figure out my community and caste). I tell her only my first name instead.

2013 – Delhi: An employee of a rights based organisation is heard asking another colleague her caste.

2014 – Pune: A well educated, professionally successful girl works in one of the best consultancy firms. She is 35 and single. Despite her background she has not been able to find a match because she belongs to a Scheduled Tribe and nobody from the ‘higher’ castes wants to marry an ST (as told to her). 
Across India: Areas in most villages are segregated as per community and caste. Due to reservation, many villages now have SC / Dalit sarpanches but they are treated just as nominal heads. The Up-Sarpanch from a higher caste holds the main power and people listen to him. If a Sarpanch is a woman from a lower caste, then she doesn’t have much of a chance of being heard at all.

Its a power game mostly – this desperate need to somehow feel superior in the absence of any other way to prove their superiority. Proving that you are better than others through deeds and actions is hard work and also subjective, hence its so much easier to fall back on your superiority by birth. Power comes easy.

Ambedkar was as usual right, social reforms are necessary if the country has to progress on all fronts. Abolition of caste so far has been neatly done on paper. The politics now behind the caste system (despite the best intentions of affirmative action) will ensure that it remains deeply entrenched in our society. Even after so many years of actually seeing and experiencing the fallout of some decisions by our founding leaders, we as a nation do not have the guts to debate again on this. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity like Secular are just mere words without meaning in our Constitution.

And since we do not have the ability to understand and follow the essence of our Constitution, we will continue to remain Un-Indians. 


Annihilation of Caste: An interesting read, more in the perspective of how Gandhi defended the caste and varna system.


  1. Ah, what rich traditions, what sophisticated systems, what beautiful, elaborate social mores! Don't you just lurve Bharatiya Sanskriti?

    My Bihari pal informs me that the dowry rate card is published periodically in a local newspaper. It has been updated to include, after due deliberations to ascertain the state of the industry, appropriate rates for new professions like BPO and software.

    Jai Mata Di.

    1. ohhh really? I thought it existed but underground since dowry is a crime by law. sigh, but Bihar is socially a very special region, things work exactly the opposite here than the rest of the country.

    2. Nothing is underground. The Delhi Police Women's cell advised a woman to simply hit her husband everytime he hit her. And then coolly closed the file. The MLA couldn't even understand what the fuss was about. "Arre madam, ye aapka aadmi hai, itna kya hogaya?".

      I remember reading a story in the NG magazine about a survey done on the condition of women in rural India. One of the questions asked to women in Bihar (I kid you not): "Is a woman smarter or a mouse?" and a majority said, 'a mouse'. They're conditioned that way!!