An unlikely place to initiate a dialogue about the invisibility of caste was a students’ festival in Mumbai’s elite century-old college St. Xavier’s. When students chose to preface their annual festivity of talks, dance and music Malhar — a landmark in the cultural calendar of the metropolis — with a meditative discussion on caste, I was happy to accept their invitation.
And yet, as we sat before a packed hall of students on the morning of August 14, 2014, the mood was sombre. The ABVP, the student wing of the BJP, had threatened to ‘close down Malhar’ in ‘national interest’ if the students’ invitation to radical cultural activist Sheetal Sathe was not withdrawn. They also blackened the faces of other panel speakers in the festival posters. Sathe gracefully pulled out from the festival because, as she put it, she ‘treasures the love and respect’ of the students, and chose not to allow them ‘to be exposed to the ugly threats of disruption’ in case she spoke and sang at the college.
Her message, read out by filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, urged students ‘to understand the real reason why groups like the ABVP hate groups like the Kabir Kala Manch’ to which she belongs. It ‘believes in a pluralistic India where caste, religion and race is replaced by the recognition that we are all human beings first who deserve justice, peace and true democracy. The ideologues of Hindutva, no matter how big a national flag they wrap around themselves, have always had a completely different agenda…’ She denounced their ‘divisive, communal and casteist politics’ and ‘abiding faith in the Manusmriti, an ancient Brahminic law code that deprived Dalits and women of their most basic human rights and permitted untold atrocities upon all those who challenged it’.
In the panel, Anand Teltumbde, IIT professor, said that caste was like a virus. Many assume that caste is a rural phenomenon. But urban slums are organised around caste. The near absence of Dalits in private sector employment is an expression of caste. Caste means that Indians are incapable of speaking to their interlocutors as equals: they are either superiors or inferiors. The Constitution itself bans untouchability but not caste (and in this Teltumbde sees the influence of Gandhi) and so untouchability is both visible and culpable but not its foundational underpinnings in caste.
Anti-caste activist and scholar Kancha Ilaiah declared that the process of invisibilising caste began much earlier, indeed with the coinage of the word ‘Hindu’ by Arab polymath Al Biruni. Scholars like he described people living east of river Sindhu as Hindu. Before that this land was called Aryasthan, and its religion Varna dharma or Arya dharma, all of which admit to centrality of caste in faith systems and social arrangements of the people. He underlined the irony that Arab Muslim scholarship enabled the hiding of caste, and offered ideological moorings to contemporary Hindutva. He also illuminated the dilemmas of Shudras, now called OBCs, who produced and serviced people’s needs — from knives to ploughs, barbers to washerfolk — are not untouchable, but suffer from caste oppression and exclusions.
S. Anand, publisher and writer, illustrated ways in which caste is omnipresent around us. He began with a clip from popular American TV serial, Big Bang Theory , in which the only Indian character nonchalantly speaks of how he loves to be surrounded by ‘lackeys… untouchables’. A mobile safety application launched by popular actress Kareena Kapoor shows her in danger in Ambedkar Nagar, and all the men she reaches out to have clearly upper-caste names. Anand spoke of the popular opposition to job reservations, but pointed out that there was no outrage against the much older social reservation of humiliating professions like manual scavenging for Dalits.
I said that the basic idea of caste is the social and religious sanction of inequality. The belief that a child’s birth should legitimately determine whether and where she can study, the limits to her wealth, her social status, and which livelihoods are opened and barred to her. You only have to look at contemporary India to see how much the accident of a child’s origins continues to determine her destiny.
Indeed, the marker of our times is our absence of outrage and opposition to this unchanging reality. India will transform, and caste will end, only when all children — regardless of their parents’ social standing and wealth — can access the same quality education, in mixed and egalitarian classrooms. When the mettle of her character and intellect — not her parents’ caste — will determine a child’s future.
That the oppression of caste was briefly made visible in a conversation initiated by students in an elite Mumbai college, refusing to be silenced by threats of hate and disruption, is a tiny but hopeful moment.