Yes, it is 2017 indeed. And many of us – sitting in our air-conditioned offices, navigating between the umpteen tabs on our laptop – will consider the caste system as a problem of pre-independent India. That’s what privilege does, it makes things oblivious for the person on top.
However, Shashi Tharoor’s blog “Why Caste Won’t Disappear From India” might help you gain some perspective. Written for Huff Post, the politician and the ex-diplomat tries to get to the root of this complicated problem which continues to plague the country.
“The news that a recent survey has established that 27 percent of Indians still practice caste untouchability is not, in many ways, news at all.
Most Indians have grown up in an India where we have seen such behaviour, though the kind of people who read English-language op-eds probably think of it as something that happens in rural, backward villages rather than urban India.“
His blog goes on to call out how the social evil is still practised through subtleties, instead of straight up ostracising the people from the lower caste.
“Almost every third Hindu (30 percent) admitted to the practice.
That is, they refused to allow Dalits, the former ‘untouchables’, into their kitchen or to use their utensils.
But bizarrely enough, data from the survey showed that untouchability was also practised by Sikhs (23 percent), Muslims (18 percent) and Christians (5 percent).
These are faiths that pride themselves on their enshrining of equality and the brotherhood of faith.”
He goes on to mention personal nuggets how he came to find out about it, and how being liberal and not talking about it, is not a part of the solution.
“The son of a Keralite newspaper executive who dropped his caste name (Nair) at college in response to Mahatma Gandhi’s exhortations to do so, moved to London and brought his children up in Westernized Bombay, I am a product of a nationalist generation that was consciously raised to be oblivious of caste.
…So I grew up thinking of caste as an irrelevance, married outside my caste, and brought up two children to be utterly indifferent to caste, indeed largely unconscious of it.”
He even discusses how he first heard about caste, and what prompted him to go to his father and ask him about it. Bollywood has something to do with it:
“I still remember my own discovery of caste. I was a ten-year-old representing the 6th Standard in an inter-class theatrical event at which the 8th Standard’s sketch featured “Chintu” (Rishi) Kapoor, younger son of the matinee idol and producer Raj Kapoor, later to become a successful screen heartthrob in his own right. I had acted, elocuted a humorous poem and MCed my class’s efforts to generous applause, and the younger Kapoor was either intrigued or disconcerted, for he sought me out the next morning at school.
“Tharoor,” he asked me at the head of the steps near the toilet, “what caste are you?”
I blinked my nervousness at the Great Man. “I – – I don’t know,” I stammered. My father, who never mentioned anyone’s religion, let alone caste, had not bothered to enlighten me on such matters.
“You don’t know?” the actor’s son demanded in astonishment. “What do you mean, you don’t know? Everybody knows their own caste.”
I shamefacedly confessed I didn’t.
“You mean you’re not a Brahmin or something?”
I couldn’t even avow I was a something. Chintu Kapoor never spoke to me again in school.”
He also speaks about how it is the very caste-system which forms the backbone of the UP political landscape. SP appeals to the Yadavs, Mayawati’s BSP to the Dalits and how the candidates have segregated the state over the years.
“India is a land of multiple identities, and one of the key identities, inescapably, is caste. To some, it’s an instrument of political mobilization. As the ‘backward caste’ Yadav ascendancy in north Indian politics has repeatedly demonstrated, when many Indians cast their vote, they vote their caste.
…After all, none of us would object if a Dalit leader advertised her pride in being a Dalit or called for Dalit solidarity. “
The caste system like Tharoor mentions in his blog, time and again, is something we’re not supposed to admit to. Even though it lurks somewhere beneath the surface. How many times have we asked a friend’s surname, deduced his/her caste and then teased them about the stereotypes attached to it.?
However ironic, the point of the matter being – caste-bias is something, which might never fade from India. And that’s a point Tharoor’s piece drives home beautifully.