73 years have passed since the transfer of power from British control to Indian dominion. Hopes were high about the new India – some said the new India would be a happy India, free from all bondages that prevailed during the colonial era. Others held high hopes for an egalitarian society.
73 long years have passed since. The dreams of the makers of the Constitution still haven’t been realised. When the Constitution was being drafted, the question of positive discrimination, (or affirmative action), remained a crucial issue. While it was drafted with a need to uplift the lowest of lowest (antyaja or ‘untouchables’), today the scenario has hardly changed for the better.
73 years ago, our country was a hostage to evils of the caste system. In response, the Constitution banned untouchability in all forms. The caste system was declared illegal by Right to Equality. But what was the impact? Political and legal rights often do not translate well to socio-economic rights. Casteism continues to flourish today. Lesser in magnitude but not lesser in impact. Caste-based societies still proliferate. Politicians still continue to use certain castes for their political gains. Panchayats still get formed on the basis of castes. It is an identity stamp on people that refuses to go away. Communities work hard to ensure it stays rigid. Politicians work hard to mobilise caste support. Panchayats work hard to ensure nobody in their purview oversteps their caste boundaries.
Older generation parents still focus on marriage within the community or caste, not without. Talking about actual practice, one can still see the Brahmin hegemony in Hindu rituals. The idea that Brahmins alone have the necessary connections or the link with God, and that only they are allowed to perform certain rites or rituals is rooted in caste ideals. While Dalits and other scheduled communities are disallowed from even entering temples, and relegated to abject and desolate poverty, Brahmins are given huge amounts of wealth and gold for performing rituals and chanting mantras.
The “lower” castes have become easy targets of assault. They are targeted under various pretexts, to create conditions for an agitated mob to lynch them. The police, representing the same ethos, record only those incidents captured by someone on cameras. Many incidents, however, go unreported and often unheard in the public.
“You can’t sit with them,” some say. “You can’t eat in the same plate they ate in,” others add. Yet some others, unable to remove themselves from the shackles of the caste they are bound by, which restricts them to poverty and social exclusion, blame it on their fates to have been born in terribly deprived conditions. What can they do, when the social institutions themselves are privy to caste hierarchies?
But when “upper” castes are forced to share seats in colleges and jobs with lower castes, they protest. They call it “discrimination”. They call it “oppression”. Aeons and aeons of having taken up all the space – now is the time to move. To allow those who haven’t. Passing the mic to those who have been silenced. Reservations are temporary, but the fact remains that they are only conditional to the length of time casteism prevails.
It is easy to sit and comment on injustice when we are structurally contributing to it. Only when we change, one mind at a time, can we change the system as a whole. Recognising privilege is the first step. And the hardest one. When you recognise it, half of the battle is already won.
The author is a poet and a social activist