If I got a penny for each time I heard someone say, “Casteism does not exist anymore,” I could sponsor good quality education for half a dozen Dalit children. But not everybody is as base. A crime is committed against a person from a Dalit community every 16 minutes if government statistics are to be believed. And, once in a blue moon, some of these crimes, like the recent double murder of Dalit children in Madhya Pradesh, find their way to the largely apathetic eyes of the urban upper-caste newsreaders. These people, while agreeing that casteism and caste-based violence is a problem that still plagues rural India, continue to aggressively deny its existence in cities.
The tall skyscrapers of Mumbai and Bangalore have conveniently managed to cast a large shadow on sweepers, cleaners, and manual scavengers who dive into roadside gutters as big cars pass by. The urban upper-caste so frequently pretends as if caste is an ‘alien’ word that affects our day-to-day lives only when the conversation of reservations pops up. This is obviously a blatant lie.
Even today, one’s caste often informs one’s occupation. The women who work as domestic help in our homes almost always occupy the lower rungs of the caste spectrum. And it would be an even bigger lie to not acknowledge the discrimination faced by them on the basis of caste. Most households still serve their maidservants in separate utensils. But that is not a one-off case.
There is a sufficiently large number of examples of caste-based discrimination in cities. My friend in Delhi University talks of a hostel mate whose father taught his son, rather specifically, which surnames to have in your list of friends. Even in apparently ‘modern cities‘ like Bangalore, certain big apartment complexes have separate elevators for cleaners and domestic helpers.
My friend from Bhubaneswar talks of a family friend who is not allowed in their kitchen owing to his supposed ‘low-caste’. Another Bangalore friend’s mother taught her son not to play with the neighbours because they were Dalits. My mother’s former Brahmin colleagues would not dine at our house, and I was born in a caste family!
But there is some truth in caste not being a part of the daily lives of individuals. Most of my peers too, in their school days did not have much of an exposure to casteism. This is also true of many office-goers or homemakers, who genuinely do not see untouchability or other casteist practices every day. What we forget is that it is difficult to spot casteism in our interactions, if we do not have interactions with those from the so-called lower-castes.
A few days ago, I sat on my dinner table, complaining about issues of casteism with my friends, each of whom recognised that it is a serious problem. But as I looked at the table I realised that no matter how radically anti-caste we may be, each member on that table was an upper caste.
And so it was, with my other social interactions—very limited to privileged ‘upper-castes’. That is how deep a divide casteism has caused in our society. Irrespective of our opinions, the system had forced us into segregation. It is this segregation perhaps that contributes the most to the urban upper caste being both ignorant and apathetic towards caste issues.
The prolonged history of oppression has put the privileged apart from the underprivileged in a manner in which we are unconsciously drawn to strengthen the divide. It is unfortunate that simply based on my exposure and interests, in every stage of life, I have been surrounded by friends from the same section of society. Despite almost half the seats in my college reserved for persons from historically marginalised castes, even in a large social circle, the proportion of people belonging to lower castes in that group dwindles.
It is imperative that we realise that the unfortunate fate of people from Dalit communities is not merely restricted to villages and small towns. It is easy to remain ignorant and say that incidents like the Khairlanji massacre, Badaun gang-rape or Una floggings did not happen in large cosmopolitan cities, but examples like the Ramabai mass killings in Mumbai and the Bhima-Koregaon violence in Pune are stark examples of the opposite.
The urban upper caste has the privilege of being influential in society, and a conscious effort from them into recognising the existence and abuse of their privilege can go a long way in this fight for equality. It has taken us thousands of years to recognise that casteism is a problem. We cannot afford to take a thousand more to solve it.