Our country has always been a land enwreathed by enigma. My entire childhood was replete with stories elucidating India’s vast diversity making me surmise that we Indians live a life full of peace and opulence, despite having so many cultural and ethnic barriers. We speak over 1621 languages, belong to 3000 or more communities, are the World’s largest democracy, and are being titled as Tower of Veritable Languages. I was smitten by our country’s greatness since I saw a Catholic lady stepping aside for a Sikh Prime Minister to be sworn in by a Muslim President. But one concern that always perturbed me was – Why cannot I trace the same fraternity among the masses?
‘The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.‘
These were the departing words of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula. His words made me discern, that no matter how magnificent we seem to be from outside, deep inside we are still struggling with the long fought battle against caste.
Or maybe, we have always been obsessed with Caste, Varna or Jati.
So what is about caste that Indian society obsesses about despite 66 long years of efforts at affirmative action?
It need not be mentioned that the classification of Indian society on the basis of caste was something that was built upon the whims and fancies of the colonisers. Caste was a definite reality of Indian society. But why is it becoming perpetual?
The country’s great, liberal constitution was supposed to end the millennia-old obsession with the idea that your place in life, including your occupation, is set at birth. It abolished untouchability. And there are various laws which forbid discrimination by caste. But the results are still appalling.
In rural India, it can still be fatal to disregard social rules and marry someone of a different caste. Haryana, a socially conservative state has always been famous for frequent murders of young men and women who transgress. Even in towns, caste is an important criterion. You can easily witness it among casual conversations, where just uttering”Aggarwal”, would come out adhered with a long definition of Marwaris.
And when it’s being caste talked about, how can we miss Politics? Every other party has indulged in caste politics, some politicians have excelled at appealing to voters by caste. Everywhere, voters can be swayed by the caste of politicians. And not just politicians, strong social actors such as leaders of “khap panchayats” or doughty family elders do much more to keep caste identity going.
But the main concern is, for how long? For how many more years, this nasty business of caste would continue to engross the mindsets of people. How many more leaders like Gandhi or Vivekananda would be required to make people realize that it is the person and not the caste who determine his identity, and how many more Rohith Vemulas would have to sacrifice their lives because of this gamut of problems.
Vemula’s suicide note is much more than being a signifier of his mental agony. It is testimony to the fact that we as a society have hardly gone far enough to shake off the colonial tendency of attaching statistics to human beings, reducing their value to a mere manageable number. It is a gentle reminder of the fact, that we as a society have failed him and many more Samaritans just like him because of our incapability to dodge from the tyranny of caste and creed, of being upright, and of being as diverse as we have always claimed to be.