Do you remember your first encounter with caste?
I clearly remember mine.
I was studying in Class V. One evening; I went to play with my neighbourhood friend Nisha as usual. It was the time before mobile phones took over outdoor games. As we were walking back to our homes, Neha said, “You know… this mangal (Mars) is very inauspicious. Even Mayawati lost the elections.” She was referring to the recent news of Mars being seen from the Earth and the supposed effect it had on the Uttar Pradesh elections back then. I didn’t understand why it was a bad thing, so I went back home and told the same to my family. My family explained why Mayawati’s loss was a problem for my friend. That’s how I first became aware of caste.
As a kid, I was torn between empathising with my friend’s sadness and joining in my family’s indifference.
Well, it is said that time heals all wounds.
Over the years growing up in a middle class family, I saw caste factor in on a number of occasions – when my friend, Neha’s mother, refused to name her caste in front of an aunty in the locality, when land acquisition in my grandparents’ village took the form of caste politics, when I heard about young men from the dominant castes raping a lower caste girl and the girl’s father shooting her daughter dead, and on many more such instances.
But it is just one side of the story.
Over the years, I also saw a different reality – when my cousin got happily married to a person outside his caste, when Class IX students of a Govt. school in Haryana told me, “We don’t believe in caste.” And also when I read the cogent writings of one of our intelligent leaders – Dr B.R. Ambedkar, and many more such occasions.
It has been a privilege so far to see the different colours of Indian society, from villages to elite institutions and programs.
I remember one of my friends in college who said, “I don’t know my caste. My parents never told me.” I hope many more of us can say that someday.
It is time to stop taking pride or offence in our caste identities. It takes a lot of courage, but we need people who can speak up or walk out when they are in a public or private space, and not let the pressure consume them.
Caste is a label that divides us. Don’t give caste the power because of some hatred from the past. Let us choose empathy over dividing labels, every chance we get in our lives.