A few days back, while interacting with a college-goer on a leading newspaper’s tweet on Dalit related crimes, I was shocked to encounter the fact that he thought India has left behind its “colonial” ideas of casteism and oppression. Many of his age even pointed out how feminism was a make-believe concept as women aren’t really oppressed anymore. This wrong insight of the privileged future generation of India surprised and worried me. Hence, I decided to write down my own experience with oppression, which was once a myth, perhaps to my surrounding as well.
To start with, let me point out that this “woke” idea of casteism being introduced by the Brits or women oppression as a gift of the long rules of Sultanate and Timurids is wrong. Casteism existed in India since the Vedic age and it’s rigidity often a part of myths and folklores (like Parashurama cursing Karna because he was a shudra dressed as brahmin to learn weaponry from him).
Before the British colonised the subcontinent, our women were the most independent and most affluent in the world. Women like Raziya became Sultan, co-regents like Noor Jahan hunted, rode horses and opened schools for girls, royal women played polo, traded goods and even had jobs and heiress rights to their father’s property. Women like Jahanara Begum commissioned buildings and gardens, wrote books and took an active part in politics while those like Makhfi (pseudonym of Princess Zeb Un Nisa) wrote poems. Women were respected, equal and powerful. They had choices and opinions. Not many acknowledge or know this fact and it is indeed sad.
My personal experiences with oppression in the urban city life in Bengal hasn’t been very severe. I was blessed to be born and brought up in an environment which was privileged and overprotected. I was perhaps in the 6th grade when the girl I sat beside in a private tuition class asked me my caste. “I am a Brahmin,” she said proudly. “What is your caste?” Honestly, I didn’t know. I never heard such discussions at home and I had no idea what my caste was.
In fact, in my small brain, casteism was a way of the past, something we read in History books, a way of determining which section of society one belonged to, based on one’s work. It was then when it started. Hence, even in epics like Mahabharat or Ramayan that the Hindus often refer to, a Sudra became a Kshatriya (Karna of Mahabharat), or a Kshatriya became a Brahmin (Sage Vishwamitra in Ramayana), or a Brahmin became a Kshatriya (Lord Parashurama). I thought as Vedic age became rigid and castes became nepotistic, based on heredity than quality, casteism was abolished.
The girl also added she only befriends people of her caste. It was then that I asked my dad about casteism and he was shocked. He scolded me for befriending someone who was this way. It was my first introduction to caste rigidity. Later on, I became aware of caste-based reservations because a classmate of mine, despite being a good student from a financially well off family, misused it. I found many speaking against reservation hence.
Later on, I realised how when Dr Ambedkar made the provisions for reservation, the idea in his mind was to provide a platform for the oppressed, who have been suppressed too long. I am perhaps lucky to live in a family or society where untouchability doesn’t exist. The rest in the country aren’t that lucky. Newspapers are frequented with honour killings and Dalit suicides and it disturbs me to the core. What exactly is the use of this system? Does it serve any purpose in society today? Why can’t the caste system today be as flexible as early Vedic ages and be based solely on merit and work, if at all this idea of a community should exist in our society?
A few years later, a relative’s son was getting married and they were looking for a bride on matrimonial sites, telling relatives and asking around. One day I came to hear they wanted a Baidya (sub-Brahmin Bengali) caste bride, same as their own, who should be “fair”, “well mannered” and “healthy”. It irked me, as though women were some product ready to be advertised.
What irked me more was the additional judgement from some at a wedding where the groom had chosen a bride of scheduled caste/tribe. They judged her background, intelligence and family, unaware of her education, upbringing and most importantly what kind of a person she was. This isn’t uncommon here, in our country. All of us have faced this gossip in more than one social gathering.
I was travelling home from college one day and beside me sat a little girl with her father who was scolding her for befriending a Muslim boy, stating how Pakistan is our enemy. It didn’t shock me though how a common man treats a country as an identity of everyone living in it. They refuse to believe there are people like us there too, but scolding a child for befriending another child of a different religion? I often wondered what she grew up to be like? Intolerant surely, but perhaps even inhuman.
He later added, much to my shock, that she should always befriend those of her standard and community. The word “community” is very often used in India as a more polished word for the state, caste, class or creed. That was the day I reached an inference.
Everything starts at home: love, hate, distinction and the idea of humanity. When a child grows up seeing their parents distinguish between people, illtreat someone because of their caste or teach them that they being the upper classes have the right to rule over others, they learn to do so. Dalit parents and those of the poor and minority often teach their children to fear the suppressors. This has continued to be so in this society for decades. But there is a point where every idea reaches beyond its saturation when it starts taking lives with hatred. Hitler’s suppression of Jews is always a good example of that.
The massive protests for “Black Lives Matter” made me a little hopeful of the youth. I realised almost immediately, in perspective, that when a Dalit student was being beaten up for studying, racism is a battle; casteism is a separate war. The bullies of the society, the so-called upper castes, privileged and majority, to which I not so proudly belong, often take pride in suppression because they perhaps cannot achieve what the lower section is capable of. They fear that they have to obey the orders of someone someday whose forefathers they illtreated as slaves.
And with knowledge, education and awareness come the idea of right and wrong and determination to protest. An educated person no longer gives them the right to control their lives and, hence, they will rebel against such oppression. Bullies fear that. We see this psychology of bullies being the most insecure human beings in schools, and society is no different.
The right to education for all is a key here, which is never practically followed. As Dalit casteism has even reached the employers in the USA, perhaps India has managed to spread it’s hate for minorities everywhere, much like the British introduced a fetish for white skin to the world. There was a time when fairer women were looked upon as pale, frail or lacking blood or haemoglobin in their system. But that didn’t last long as the fetish for whiter skin, fairer complexion and obsession with brightness spread among brown people. It is as much a problem to society as any.
Coming back to the topic, if everyone has the right to equal education, then it is the Government and schools that have to ensure children unlearn such values, they are taught compassion and everyone sits together. A few months back I read a report on how a teacher, blinded by his faith, didn’t let the Dalit students sit in the class together with the others. They sat separately at a distance. If such people teach students, the whole community of people who impart knowledge are looked down upon.
One crazy yet effective way of abolishing the judgement based on caste is to abolish the system of titles. Our surnames, for example, reflect our caste, creed and religion. If a person is only known by their name, people won’t be quick to judge. Next, children shouldn’t be aware of their caste or creed. They should be taught that their character, work and actions judge the kind of person they are over everything else.
The Government should also make sure that people who are monetarily or education wise privileged at least since the past three generations can’t avail the benefits of reservation so that it goes to who truly deserve, need and want it. Workplaces, schools and societies should make strict lawful rules against any caste-based distinction or abuse. The older generation, blinded by such norms, should be questioned by the younger generation at every step as to why they judge a person by caste or creed.
Most importantly, people should mix with and befriend people of another caste, creed, religion, social strata and countries and learn not to judge a race by the action of one. In this age of rapid globalisation and internet connecting us to like-minded people across the globe, the privileged class has easy access to mix with others and remove rigidity. The suppressed, in turn, should be taught that oppression is a crime and rebellion against it is their lawful right.