How often have we heard that casteism no longer exists, at least, in the urban areas? In fact, this is what I thought too. Until the past few weeks in which I have tried to research on casteism in an unbiased manner. And now, as a much more informed and opinionated person, I can firmly tell you that casteism continues to exist: it exists in institutions, in offices, and at homes. The only difference is that this form of discrimination is extremely subtle, sophisticated, and so much a part of our upbringing that we fail even to realise that is it wrong in the first place.
For example, I study in one of the top colleges in Delhi University and people I know have told me firsthand that when they enter their class, they can see people from the lowered castes sitting on one side and those from the dominant castes on the other. Discrimination in institutions is exactly why institutional murders take place, and people like Rohith Vemula and Payal Tadvi lose their lives.
Now, before I proceed, there are a few things I would like to explain. Firstly, why do I use the terms ‘lowered’ and ‘dominant’ instead of the more commonly used, ‘lower’, ‘oppressed’, ‘upper’, etc.? I have come to realise that there is no ‘upper’ and ‘lower’. Caste status is something, we as a society are responsible for. It is us collectively who have ‘lowered’ certain castes and avarnas, and also us who have decided that some castes are ‘dominant’ with respect to others.
Savarnas are people who fall within the caste system: in the four main castes of Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. Avarnas are people who weren’t even given a place in the caste system. These are the outcasts and Dalits. Now, why the term ‘Dalit’ instead of ‘Harijan’? Harijan is the term Mahatma Gandhi conferred upon the Dalit community, and I think it is an absolutely hypocritical term. Firstly, it takes away their identity—an identity that we have reduced to menial work. Calling them ‘Children Of God’ is not going to change the fact that even after hundreds of years, they are being exploited and nothing has been done about it. Secondly, Dalit is the word the lowered community has taken for themselves. They refused to accept ‘Harijan and ‘untouchables’.
I am a supporter of reservation, and I have till date met only two kinds of people who do not support reservation. The first is the people who feel that ‘their’ seats are being taken away to give to others. To such people, I would like to say, on an approximate scale, the dominant castes of our country makes up 30% of the population and the lowered caste, the remaining 70%. And according to the Supreme Court, reservation should not exceed 50%. Now, this clearly means that when you compete for seats, you are doing so with people who have had the same kind of upbringing and a basic level of exposure in their lives. After all, we often fail to take into consideration whether a child goes home after school to tuition or whether he/she goes home to wash utensils for a living.
The second kind of people I have met is those who say that among the lowered caste, only those people avail reservation who already have financial security, and this is not fair. To these people, I would first like to ask: did reservation come into place for economic upliftment? No! The reservation was looked at as a means of uplifting the lowered community socially and culturally, and to undo the decades of historic oppression meted upon them. And these objectives have clearly not been achieved.
Secondly, reservation is not for an individual, it is for the entire community, it is the only measure which leads to the representation of the lowered community in educational institutions. And most importantly, who are you to have a problem if a relatively well-off lowered community individual avails reservation? Did you even know that the cut-off lists for reserved category don’t even close half the time. This year itself, about 65% of the seats have been left unfilled for the reserved category in DU! And after all this, people want more division in the reservation system?!
What I want to say lastly is also probably the most important thing. What role do we, as Savarnas, have to play in this whole scenario? The problem is that we tend to behave in two manners. Firstly, without understanding the background and consequences, we oppose all the affirmative actions taken for the lowered community, hence, becoming a part of the problem. Secondly, we try to become saviors. We have to understand that we don’t need to ‘become’ their voices and shout out their message. All we need to do is shut up and step out of the way so that their voices can be heard on their own!
Another essential thing we need to realise is that privilege is not a bad thing; however, we need to call out our privileges if they start attacking other people. For example, it is not okay to use casteist slurs because you are a member of the dominant caste. In times like these, it becomes important to call out your privilege. Hence, casteism is very much prevalent in all walks of life, and it has to be fought collectively.