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Why The Ticket Collector Thought It Was Okay To Ask My Caste

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India fellow logoEditor’s Note: This post is a part of a campaign by The India Fellow program on Youth Ki Awaaz. India Fellows spend 13 months working at the grassroots level to bring about real on-ground change. They are also mentored to be socially conscious leaders and contribute to the development of the country. Apply here to be a part of the change.

Dwibedi… Toh Brahmin ho?” (Dwibedi… So, you are a Brahmin?)

Umm… Haan.” (Umm… Haan.)

Achha. Kahan ke Brahmin ho?” (Okay. You’re a Brahmin from where?)

Umm… Hum log Kolkata mein rahte hain.” (Umm… We live in Kolkata.)

Achha. Toh Diwali ke time ghar nahi ja rahe ho?” (Okay. You’re not going home during Diwali?)

Nahin. Aap ticket dekh lijiye.” (No. Please take a look at the ticket.)

Rehne do bitiya. Sambhal ke jaana.” (Let it be girl. Travel carefully.)

This is a snippet of the conversation I had with the ticket collector while travelling from Jaipur to Udaipur during Diwali last year. Quite frankly, I don’t know how I felt about the entire conversation. The man seemed to be genuinely concerned about my safety and I think he questioned my caste just out of curiosity. But what surprises me is how easy it is for people to question someone’s caste – on par with marital status and salary.

Caste has never really been something that I have encountered personally in my life. I have only ever lived in big metropolises. I have grown up mostly in Kolkata, and now I live in Delhi. My relationship with caste has till date mostly been thanks to the offerings during pujas when you mention your ‘gotra’.

In the social circles I usually frequented till a few months back, prior to the fellowship, caste was a topic brought up only when discussing the reservation system. Even then, most people would deny that lower castes face troubles in our society today.

Denying the existence of problems gives them the opportunity to crib about the obsoleteness of the system and how it hinders the worthy. Personally, I too believe that there the reservation system needs some changes; something which will prevent the children of already affluent lower-caste individuals from availing the benefits, while keeping the opportunities for those who have actually overcome hurdles to reach where they are in life. But that is a discussion for some other time.

How Deep-Rooted Is Caste In Our Social Fabric?

Even among people who claim that they do not believe in caste, usually, marry within their own castes. I have heard bizarre reasons for the same – from ‘it helps in adjustments post marriage’ to ‘genetic mixing among different castes can lead to deformed babies’. I used to wonder whether they considered people of different castes as people belonging to different species.

Then, of course, there are parts of our country where inter-caste marriages can even result in honour killings. Who defines honour? A father who can mercilessly kill his own child simply because she went against the set ‘boundaries’?

I do accept this is one extreme form of caste discrimination. In other places, there are separate drinking water facilities for lower castes, streets where they have to walk barefoot, segregated utensils they are served from and segregated places for them to sit. I cannot even fathom the humiliation that a person has to go throughout his life, just because he was born in a family the society deemed as ‘neechi jaat’.

Dalits from Malabar, Kerala. (1906) Image source: Wikimedia commons

I come from a culture where caste is a topic that remains under the rug. There are places in my country where it is something openly discussed and usually, not in a constructive manner.

I do not know which is worse. Simply ignoring the problem or encouraging it. I do know that neither can ever lead us to a better future. We watched a documentary called “India Untouched,” as part of our India Fellow Induction training. It was a rude shock to many of us. Some of us are currently dealing with caste-based discrimination head-on. They will no doubt have their own stories to share.

Personally, I got my own jolt on the first day of our rural immersion module during induction training. I met a family whose children were discriminated against at school due to their caste. They were not able to avail the free-of-cost facilities available for all in government schools.

The other time I faced the question of caste during my work was during filling up of questionnaires during the implementation of a United Nations development project. We had detailed questions on the caste of the interviewees. The reasoning behind the occurrence of the question was probably for purely analytical purposes. But how used are we as a society to casteism, that even international bodies, while in India, fashion their questionnaire on caste.

Discrimination based on gender, caste, ethnicity among others is a phenomenon that is and has been observed worldwide since times immemorial. People have fought for their rights too since times immemorial. Even today, there are countries where women have basically no rights – not even over their own bodies. As a woman, I owe every opportunity that I can avail so easily today to the generations of men and women who have fought for women’s rights across the world. Coloured people across the world face discrimination even today.

Like many other forms of discrimination, maybe casteism too will disappear from our society one day. Hope springs eternal after all. But that is a dreamer’s view. In the meanwhile, each one of us, in our own ways can do something about it. Standing up for your belief is a monumental step. And I hope each one of us finds the courage within ourselves to do so. As Dumbledore said in one of the Harry Potter films “It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but a great deal more to stand up to your friends.”

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

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The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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