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Navigating Caste And College As An Urban Dalit Female: “I’ve Lost Count Of The Times We Stay Silent”

This post is a part of JaatiNahiAdhikaar, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz with National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights & Safai Karamchari Andolan, to demand implementation of scholarships in higher education for SC/ST students, and to end the practice of manual scavenging. Click here to find out more.

“Kya Bh*ngi / Ch**aro wale kapde pehene hai?” (Why are you wearing clothes resembling bhangis and chamars?)

“Tera dost vegetarian hai. Anda bhi nahi khata? Brahmin hai kya?” (Oh, your friend is a vegetarian? He doesn’t even eat eggs? Is he a Brahmin?)

Rajput/ Jaat/ Pandit/ Gujjar/ Chaudhary XYZ on Facebook ”

“Abey itni kanjoos hai – Baniya hai kya tu” (Such a miser, are you a baniya?)

“Acchha…He’s your guy? Sahi hai parents bhi maan jayege araam se. Same CASTE ka hai”(Oh, he’s your guy? Great! Even your parents will agree to this relationship given its from the same caste)

“Caste doesn’t exist nowadays yaar. I didn’t even know about my caste before reservations made me hate ‘those’ SC/STs.” (Caste doesn’t exist, friend)

Representational image.

I often wondered how something, which doesn’t exist, became such common parlance. No, this isn’t some village. This is the capital of the country we are talking about. One of India’s top colleges. Amongst supposedly highly educated, intelligent people.

I’d like to quote lines from this article written by an anonymous savarna author:

“I remember, it was New Year’s Eve, we were just talking and – out of the blue – a guy asked everyone: ‘What is your caste?’ The conversation then went on to telling each other what happens in each other’s caste. My friend, who comes from a lower-caste community, kept mum the whole time. She is very confident otherwise but stayed silent throughout.”

I’ve lost count of the times we stay silent.

Caste names are either used as derogatory abuses or as symbols of caste pride. Calling out such behaviour often only means outing yourself, ‘othering’ yourself.

It is more difficult, dare I say, traumatic, to make them understand why it’s not “just a joke” or not “just a normal conversation”.

For the sake of friendships; for the sake of my sanity, I had let such things pass. If you start calling out everyone for such micro-aggressions, I think you’ll just be left alone. Being brave is a lonely road. I often chose to be a coward. Not very helpful for my self-esteem either way.

There is a reason it is called ‘Systemic Casteism’. You don’t have to do anything unusual or even outright discriminatory. You just follow the status quo. The system ensures that what is ‘normal’ for you, is degrading or humiliating for someone else. It manifests in things as ‘simple’ as asking for a surname or father’s occupation or the place where you live.

Yashica Dutta, author of “Coming out as a Dalit” started a thread called Documents of Dalit Discrimination. It had many stories of urban SC/STs detailing casteism faced by them, stories which are often relegated to the background in favour of ‘caste exists only in villages’ rhetoric.

Often, conversations serve as an efficient filter. I started avoiding groups discussing their caste pride. Then they also started avoiding me. This ‘filtration process’ starts from the time of college admission and counselling process itself, where people first meet those from their categories. In some of the colleges, roll numbers are allotted according to admission numbers, effectively grouping people of the same castes together. And then the initial conversations about entrance marks ensure that you become the ‘other’ instantly. Slowly many of the friend circles often end up resembling caste cliques.

A savarna classmate once confided in me that she hadn’t told her orthodox parents about the Caste of her best friend (a Dalit), otherwise, they would disapprove of their friendship. She adored her best friend, at the same time, she hated Reservation.

It never occurred to my esteemed classmate that the girls’ college we were studying in was, in other words, a college ‘Reserved’ for women.

Representational image.

So, dear savarna classmate, you can be assured that the prejudices you carry from your homes will be safe with you till you graduate at least and even after that. No one would sensitise you, not your families obviously, not your schools, not your colleges, not your friend circle, not the media, not the movies. You might even make SC/ST friends, because you, of course, are not casteist. Yes, the same friends whom you criticise for being “meritless parasites” behind their backs. Sometimes, even in front of them.

You are right. You are not casteist. You only hate students from SC/ST communities because of Reservation. If there were no Reservation, there would be no casteism, right?

Okay here now, let’s bridge the generation gap of casteism. You need to talk to your parents, your family.

Tell them you are going to marry an SC girl/boy. And watch their reaction.

Observe their behaviour towards the house-help. Watch how many times they use the expressions “neechi jaati ke log” (people from the lower castes) and “aukat” (standing/status) implying a place in the hierarchy. Count how many times you are asked your surname in a day? A week? A month? That will give you the average number of times I am reminded of my ‘otherness’ on an average day.

Try to recognise that entrenched casteism – the hate for periods, pregnancy and labour, the obsession- not for cleanliness, but ‘purity’, which also comes back to haunt the womxn of your own communities.

And, ‘Manu’ forbid, if you really fall in love with an SC/ST person? I have now seen enough breakups because of caste. Some amicable. Some ugly- where entire families got involved in the humiliation process of the supposedly ‘neechi jaati ki ladki/ladka’.

Apparently, education and wealth and a stable loving relationship of many years still can’t make you fit enough to ‘pollute’ their bloodline.

Now, why should WE have to explain this to you? Do you not know your own parents, your own families? How can you flatly say that caste doesn’t exist? How are you so blind to its omnipresent, all-pervasive nature?

Imagine a man saying, “I don’t believe in sexism. I wasn’t even aware of my gender before Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Abhiyan.” Absurd, right?

That’s exactly how you sound when you say “I don’t believe in caste.”

Anti-racism educator Robert Terry says about privilege, “Privilege is like water to fish, they don’t know water exists until they are without it”.

Unlike the #BlackLivesMatter where even White people came out in huge numbers to support the movement, in India, savarna people don’t even want to acknowledge that caste is a problem.

Other than some real bigots, there are many people who unknowingly propagate casteist attitudes simply because they haven’t ever been exposed to views from the other side. And then there are people from the marginalised communities who keep quiet and don’t share their experiences because of the shame associated with their identities.

Caste is not just Reservation.

Sweeping it under the rug won’t make it disappear.

I’ll end by saying that talk, read, and discuss about Caste. It is everywhere around us like water around a fish. But we can only see it if we have the awareness to observe and address it. Also, savarna allies instead of making grand shows of solidarity, need to first talk to and educate their families about caste.

That is the way we can reform ourselves as a society.

Featured image is for representational purposes only.

Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Jaati Nahi, Adhikaar Writer’s Training Program. Head here to know more about the program and to apply for an upcoming batch!

This post is part of theJaati Nahi, Adhikaar Writers' Training Program, a campaign by Youth Ki Awaaz with National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights & Safai Karamchari Andolan, to demand implementation of scholarships in higher education for SC/ST students, and to end the practice of manual scavenging. Click here to find out more and apply.

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