By Allika Naresh:Nobody can talk about rural India without bringing caste into the conversation. Everyone has some perspective on caste. Caste in rural India is far more prevalent compared to urban areas. People have been following this system since ancient times. In this article I’m going to share my experiences of caste and region in rural Rajasthan.
I come from a village. Facing challenges regarding caste was not something new to me. Yet, it turned out to be much more in case of Rajasthan. I worked in Sujangarh, Churu district in Rajasthan in July, 2015 as a Gandhi fellow. Rajasthan is very different culturally from where I come. Everything from food habits to language is very different.
On the first day of my fellowship I decided to face challenges even though I didn’t know the language. After some days, the leader of our program assigned schools for us to work in. On the first day of my work, I went to the school I was assigned and tried to converse with the teachers. I began by introducing my name and where I come from.The first question they asked me was about which caste I belonged to. I was shocked. Teachers, who are entrusted with the role of educating children were asking about my caste. I did not tell them. After ten minutes, I went to interact with students studying in class V. They were very funny and I enjoyed a lot.
There was one girl in class V who didn’t like touching my hand while we were playing. After a few days I got to know that she believed that my touch would make her skin as dark as mine. It made me laugh. Teachers need to work on the thinking of the students or else they will not change. I proceeded to class III to interact with the students. In the middle of class, one student asked me, “Bhaiyya (I had asked them to call me as bhaiyya and not guruji), aap ka jaat kya hai?” It translates to, “Elder brother, what is your caste?” I was shocked again. When teachers, students and people enquired about my caste, I felt embarrassed. I faced these experiences on the first day itself.
After some days I got accustomed to facing this question. Everyone I mingled with in Sujangarh block was curious to know about my caste. It made me understand that caste matters a lot here. In rural Rajasthan, every person you talk to will invite you for tea and food but the hospitality you receive will be based on your caste.
In one of the schools I used to go, the students sit according to their caste. Brahmins will sit in the first row, Rajput and Jats in the subsequent ones. Students lower down the caste hierarchy sit even further behind. After a few days I discussed this with the teachers and tried a lot to change this practice. Sometimes I planned certain activities, but all students did not participate. Higher-caste students pointed out that they should not be playing with lower-caste students. There was nothing left to say. I tried a lot to change their thinking about caste, but in vain. If society around them is practising such things how can they leave such practices.
I didn’t just face questions related to my caste but also faced challenges because of where I come from. I stayed in one village as part of village immersion. During the time in the village, we had to arrange food for ourselves. It meant that we had to request the people from the village to provide food for us. I ate many times in the houses of Dalits and people belonging to backward castes. The youth in the village used to ask me differences between where I come from (South India) and North India. They had certain negative notions regarding South India.We are considered impure as we consume non-vegetarian food. I clarified a lot things. On one fine day, they questioned, “Bhai, you are from Hyderabad. There are many Muslims in that area. Do you like Pakistan? If there is a match between Pakistan and India, which team will you support?” These questions struck me hard. I didn’t know how to confront such prejudice. The questions are still ringing in my mind. Like these, I faced many challenges related to caste and religion. Throughout my work, I never revealed my caste to anyone except my house owner. I don’t know when such prejudices will be erased from the minds of people. I hope the day comes soon.