Trigger warning: mentions of casteist instances
The first time I understood that caste had not disappeared in Kerala was when I overheard a conversation between my mother and her friend. She was lamenting her latest transfer to a department where she would be overseeing Scheduled Caste-Scheduled Tribe (SC-ST) welfare.
According to her, she was being punished by having to work in “such a department”. I was astonished and asked her why, and her response was that as a savarna woman, it was disgusting to have to take care of “those people” and to have to meet them.
This was my first glimpse into how overtly casteist people can be.
I should not have been surprised, because just a few years later I heard the same thing in government colleges. As a student who joined college under the general category, I saw my friends and classmates argue about merit. I would try my best to explain how social equity works, but they would hardly ever be in the mood to listen.
They felt that it was unfair that they had more marks and “their seats” were being taken, even if that’s not how reservation works. In simple terms, reservation means reserving access to seats in government jobs, educational institutions, and even legislative bodies, to certain sections of the population.
Reservation was implemented to provide equity in terms of social and therefore, financial privilege. When we say that seats should be given to those who hold merit, we forget that our “merit” comes from the generations of social privilege and capital that our caste identity affords us.
The argument of the “rich Dalit-Bahujan” person is even more flawed because financial security does not guarantee them safety against social discrimination. Upon asking my batch mates how they came to this conclusion, they would say they heard this from a parent, sibling or an uncle, in an offhand conversation.
Caste is something that has always operated in the subliminal spaces here. In savarna households, it could be something as subtle as separate utensils for the house help… Or, always having the right contacts across government offices, courts, hospitals etc.
There is always a savarna relative who can help others from the family bypass queues and push our files to move faster.
And don’t get me started on marriages. Even in my own case, my grandfather, who was a well-known communist leader and gram panchayat (village council) president, refused to marry outside of his religion or caste. Every single one of my direct relatives have married within our caste and/or within our religion.
Every marriage is preceded by a few “subtle” inquiries made to ensure that the bride or groom fit into our religious and caste identity.
I haven’t come across too many overt examples of discrimination, because in Kerala, being openly casteist would be a matter of shame. I don’t deny that this could be a reflection of privilege in my own social circles, being a savarna, upper caste Hindu woman.
As the table below will show, Kerala is better off in terms of crimes against SCs, and I could sit back and think that things are better here, that they will never be as bad as the rest of the country. So, it’s okay… But it’s not!
I believe that Kerala isn’t quite so much the bastion of secularism people hold it up to be. Because, casteism isn’t quite as extreme as other states, it’s easy to let it remain in its covert forms.
It can be something as small as how our social circles end up becoming an echo chamber for “people like us”— your caste identity is being subtly asserted when you find that most of your friends are upper caste and others don’t seem to “fit in”.
Caste identity is perpetuated right from our childhood, because our privilege lets us go to schools where we are surrounded by peers from similar family backgrounds. We never think of opening up our circles, and by the time we reach institutions like colleges or workplaces, where our peers include people from SC-ST communities, we refuse to let them into our circles because we don’t have anything in common with them.
We don’t put in the effort of getting to know people from all walks of life. We can’t position ourselves as saviours. We need to extend the dignity of labour and respect that we accord to ourselves, to everyone. If you hold greater social capital or resources, redistribute them without making it a grand gesture.
It can be something as simple as not looking down at someone because we believe we come from a “superior” background.
It can take the form of being mindful about being elitist about things like how fluently one can speak English. It can be ensuring that we give people access to the same privileges and exposure we had growing up.
It can be creating equal opportunities for growth. Read up… Educate yourself and open your eyes to the subtle affairs in which caste matters.
In my own case, when I realised the huge disparity between how well I could communicate in English, I began making an effort to help my college classmates. I would lend them my books and I stayed back after classes, with an offer to help them anytime they needed it.
If you think this is something that matters only in the personal realm of our lives, it becomes even more important to know that it continues to affect people on a larger scale, too. Let us understand this with the help of a couple of examples.
In an interview, a senior IAS officer, Dr B Ashok, the chairman and managing director of Kerala State Electricity Board Ltd., had said that only two savarna men—Govindan Nair and Amitabh Kant—have been suspended in the history of Kerala’s civil service.
Only two of the 10 or so officers who have faced disciplinary charges, are Savarna men. The numbers speak for themselves.
A study conducted during the Kerala floods of 2019, revealed that the easier rescues were mostly that of landed, savarna people, because they occupied easily accessible areas.
The NGO that conducted the study, Rights, found that only 61.92% of adivasi and 67.68% of dalit Christians received immediate financial assistance, in comparison to 83.90% of those in the general category.
The disparity is huge, and it is something that needs to be challenged. We need to think about how we can do better as savarna people. How can we argue about what’s unfair and what’s not, when so much of what we have today was granted simply by the accident of our birth into a certain religion and caste?
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.