Why caste?

A deeper understanding of the realities others face eludes us. The others can take many forms with identities based in gender, caste, class, geographical origin, language, religion, ethnicity or political thought. Not much unlike unseen dimensions in the physical universe, unseen realities others face may exist in the same spaces we occupy, and yet go unnoticed. Amartya Sen in Identity and Violence suggests that people identify with multiple identities, and the identity they hold most dear may not be the one through which society sees them. Hence identities that people would rather shed, stick with them nevertheless.

On the occassion of the 125th birth anniversary of Bhimrao Ambedkar and a few days after the 189th anniversary of Mahatma Phule, I only begin to delve into one reality, caste. Just having read an Introduction to Annihilation of Caste by Arundhati Roy, I begin with the realization and feeling of immense dissatisfaction that my school education didn’t in the least bit attempt to capture within its textbooks, the complexities of caste, shelving the reference to the casteist nature of Indian society to a few lines in a paragraph about Ambedkar. But this merely reflects the denial we still live in and the uncomfortable questions we would rather not think about. History, to those who don’t question will always be understood as one in which parallel crusaders Gandhi and Nehru led the political revolution that rid us of our ultimate foes, the British. Never will they realize the intensity of the even greater foe of caste which is intertwined within the fabric of our society. History is written by the winners.

Increasingly urban educated Indians are growing up in environments where the explicit reminders of caste are few and far between, mostly restricted arising when talks of inter-marriage are heard. In some ways, urban settings allow “lower” castes to escape their tag and its associated woes. Levels of access to basic services for instance (water, rations, electricity,education etc) in urban spaces do not reveal visible caste discrimination. Does this allow us to ignore the reality of caste, assuming that urban expansion will eventually ‘annihilate caste’. A cursory look around proves that this isn’t likely. Caste oppression carries on into the halls of universities, it prevents equal access to housing, caste influences designation in government offices, and in some cases such as that of waste pickers and sewage cleaners, urban spaces does absolutely nothing to unbolt the shackles of caste. By virtue of the lower economic status and lack of education/alternate skillsets many “lower” castes start out a few rungs lower when they move to urban spaces, denying them economic prosperity in the same measure. Will caste oppression transition into class oppression? Will injustice persist in the form of caste oppression as well. The lack of urban processes of dialogue to debate these questions leaves their fate in the hands of another scarcely controllable process, namely capitalism, that drives urban growth and in some cases has benefited the oppressed castes while in many cases (e.g. environmental exploitation) it has done them more harm.

Can we take control and build a future we collectively desire? What would society look like though if we made intimate efforts to understand caste realities. The hope of many is that it would bring in more empathy, empathy that compels us to action. In this age of the consumer, we would wake up as citizens again.

It all begins here: The Annihilation of Caste

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