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Growing Up In America, Caste Was Never An Issue. Then I Saw Its Reality In India

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By Anjana Radhakrishnan:

An activist of the Dalit Liberation Front (DLF), a social organisation of Nepal, shouts slogans against Nepal's King Gyanendra in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh June 2, 2004. Dozens of DLF activists on Wednesday in Chandigarh staged a protest in support of a three-day transport strike called by Maoists in Nepal. REUTERS/Ajay Verma AH/CP - RTR3H7B
Image Credit: Reuters/Ajay Verma.

As an Indian-American conducting research in India for the past six months, I’ve had a lot of time to think about my various identities, non-identities and the intersectionality between all of them. Most recently, following the suicide of Rohith Vemula and the agitation around the inclusion of the Kapu caste in the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category, I’ve been ruminating over the ways ‘caste’ distorts people’s perceptions of themselves and others in this society.

My parents not only follow different religions, but they are also of different castes. When my parents were making wedding arrangements, people said: it’s fine that you love each other, but what about your children? How will you raise them? How can you put your children through such confusion? Who will want to marry the offspring of an inter-caste marriage?

So, my parents moved to America where people wouldn’t bother them with stupid questions like that.

Growing up in America, I’d never thought about caste. In fact, I never even asked my parents what castes they belonged to until a month before I left for India – that’s how much of a non-issue it was for me. I’d read a lot of literature on caste politics, especially as it related to gender, but it seemed very distant to me and it certainly didn’t feel personal.

I feel a certain sadness in saying that that that distance has closed for me, that I’ve now felt and seen the reality of casteism here in India. Caste bubbles under the surface of everyday life here. In a social contract of sorts, people silently agree that it is natural to treat certain people as if they exist only to be subservient, as if they can only achieve a certain status in life, or as if certain people don’t exist at all. It’s a strange sensation to watch this subtle, yet blindingly obvious caste discrimination unfold before me, in its varying forms.

Every time I read a story or an editorial piece on caste, I find myself almost stunned, as I’m instantly transported to a different life, a life humiliated and denigrated every minute of every day because of an arbitrary system. I want to stand up and shout, “you all realize that this is stupid? That no belief can ever be supported when it degrades another individual? Where is the right to reduce a human’s entire existence to a word, to a surname, to a label? Where is that right in your religious texts?”

“Ah, but you were raised in America. You do not understand the way of life here, the importance and fragility of tradition in our modern world. There are some things that are greater than us, things we must not question and must never change. Traditions, beliefs, values handed down to us for millennia. Who are you to question that sort of weight?”

And there are moments when I can almost understand this pigheaded rally to tradition, the indignant righteousness in preserving a way of life – there is a certain sweetness that resides under the shade of peepal trees here, a romance to the elderly ‘maman’ on his rusty bicycle that refuses to give way to impatient bus horns and plumes of noxious gas, a sincere affection in the bright, thick flower garlands strewn across the front of a new auto, making you question if the driver can even see where he’s going. Ostensibly, in order to protect the ‘Indian way of life’, caste-based oppression, violence against women, communal agitation is not only necessary, it is in fact for the greater good – a way to preserve ‘pure’ names, ‘pure’ marriages, ‘pure’ graveyards, a ‘pure’ India.

But, you see, when people try to defend their ‘way of life’ by pushing down others through race, caste, gender, it’s not the sweet air and cool shade, the creakings of a rusty bicycle, or the smell of rose petals in an auto rickshaw that they’re trying to save. The fact is, these things are things that exist regardless if Dalits marry Brahmins, if a woman loves a woman, or if a person undergoes sex reassignment surgery. It is power, it’s the sense of being ‘better than’, the feeling of looking down on others from a higher pedestal – that is what’s preserved by keeping institutional caste-ism, racism, sexism. The tradition of feeling ‘higher’ because of pushing others ‘lower’, this is the tradition people are trying to preserve.

Often times, this tradition of power is maintained, not through violence, but through every day, minute, stinging abrasions of the soul. Your peers refusing to eat lunch next to you for no other reason than your lower caste. Your friend who refuses to stay the night in your house for no other reason than your lower caste. Your college ignoring your requests for a doctoral committee for no other reason than your lower caste.

While it’s true that these acts are not acts of physical, overt violence, the way these acts bring down a person’s self-worth is its own type of violence, distorting the self, distorting the perception of self.

The way we define ourselves is a collection of all the reflections we see in the world around us. If those reflections are filled with the ever-present sense you are deemed less than what you are, that you are not welcome in certain spaces, that no matter what you do or what you accomplish, you will never amount to anything more than your low birth in the eyes of others – well, that would make anyone wonder what the point of living in such a world was anyways.

I grew up in America, so I never thought of myself in terms of caste. Even now, though I have a greater awareness, a more personal relationship with caste, it is not something that has distorted my perception, my identity, my self-worth. I thank my parents for saving me from that pain, but this is not a luxury that is afforded to the 1.2 billion Indians living on the subcontinent (and I suspect, to a certain extent, to many of the Indian diaspora).

I wish I could have known Rohith, so I could have told him how I wished the world had been a better place for him too, how powerful his mind truly was, how his life and death would become the power behind a movement, a push for a better world now. I wish there was a clear path, unobstructed by the petty obstacles of those in power, towards a better India – an India unencumbered by gender, race, caste, religion not only in the law, but in the reflections it bounces back to every Indian, in the everyday actions of everyday people. But perhaps Rohith was right, perhaps that clear path cannot exist in this world – just on other stars, in other worlds.

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  1. Vishakha Sethi

    Great piece of writing Ms. Radhakrishnan. It is a sad reality of India that we still identify a person from his/her caste than the skills. Even though this system was placed some hundred years ago but we don’t accept a change, especially when it comes to a wedding in the family.

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