Tuesday, Jul 05, 2022
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Need Of The Hour: An Education In Empathy

In this personal essay, an upper caste boy questions discriminatory rituals by giving instances of othering in lower castes.

Ending caste-based discrimination begins at home
Ending caste-based discrimination begins at home Shutterstock

“Don’t go to that house, bhangis (sweepers) live in it.” I heard my friend Neeraj’s voice from the bushes, advising me. He was a Brahmin, the uppermost caste in the caste hierarchy and knew that touching a bhangi—a lower caste—would pollute him, for which he would have to take bath. Bhangi is a derogatory term for members of the lower caste Balmiki community, whose main occupation, as per caste hierarchy, is sweeping. Upper caste Hindus believe bhangis do 'polluting' work, which makes them untouchables.

Having a toilet was a privilege like having a balcony. Only a few families in my village had toilets and a balcony—my family was one of those. A house with no toilet means lesser marriage prospects. Probably worried about their sons in this arena, so they built one. But as a kid, I had a fascination to go out like other villagers. This was the adventure I wanted to explore at the age of 10, when we used to visit our village during our summer holidays and festivals. People with a small container of water would go to faraway fields to relieve themselves, and as a young kid, I was not allowed to go because we had our toilet in our home. 

So, one fine day I was determined to go and insisted my parents let me go with Neeraj. Seeing my determination to explore a phenomenon that was so widely accepted, my parents saw no harm in holding on to their reservation, and allowed me to go and defecate under the open sky. Unlike Neeraj, I was shy and did not want to be naked under the open sky, so I chose thickest bush to hide. Also, the morning breeze mixed with the putrid smell of shit was not reachable there.

While going about 'my business', I kept thinking about what Neeraj had told me, and so I asked him, “why are we not allowed to touch bhangis?" It was a perennial question, one that had disturbed me for a long time, especially since my family members never replied to it despite my repeated asking. “They domesticate pigs,” Neeraj replied, and “pigs eat human excreta, so touching bhangis makes you impure." 

That answer did not convince me, as the lower caste family that lived in the house had never domesticated pigs. Instead, they played drums for function, which I loved. I also thought about Ramu, who lived in that house Neeraj had warned me not to visit. His torn white shirt had become yellowish with dirt. Ramu would dangle drums from his neck and beat them with sticks to create a rhythm, and I would go near him and dance. It was so good that I had fashioned my own drum with mud and paper, and would try to copy Ramu.

When we got done with 'our business' in the bushes and were walking back home, we passed by Ramu’s house and spotted two drums in the premises. I couldn't take my eyes off them, and told Neeraj that we should go and see the drums, and "we can take a bath after reaching home". He immediately retorted: “No! I won’t”. He also did not allow me to go there. When we reached his home, Neeraj complained to his mother that I had passed by the untouchable’s house. She stared at me in shock, and soon after filled a small container with water, dipped her gold earrings in water and sprinkled the water on me (as if warding off bad omen), and instructed I must bathe right away.

That incident was not my first encounter with the caste system—a form of social stratification among Hindus that decides customary interaction of communities called jati, and exclusion based on that. The labourers in our field had different cups and plates, whenever they visited our home, food and tea would be served to them in these utensils.

I had doubts about the caste system, and would keep arguing with my mother about it. “We are Jains, not Hindus. Why do we follow the caste system, and where do we fall in the caste ladder?” My mother would say, we are upper caste. This answer was not enough for me to feel proud of my birth. As I grew older, doubts over the caste system became more troubling. Jains are proponents of vegetarianism, a phenomenon associated with upper caste Hindus, and we were treated at par with them. Now while I had accepted that we are upper caste, I couldn't comprehend what was the need to feel proud about it?

Another thing I learnt was that the caste system has become part of every organised religion in India. Muslims, Jains, Hindus, Sikhs all follow some form of caste, and the stories of caste discrimination are not an uncommon phenomenon in these religions. It manifests in various forms which often go unnoticed. A complex and less explored territory, but phenomenally important.

***

I was fond of Sarwan uncle, a lower caste musician. Once, he visited my home, for a musical gathering. I got to know about his impressive story, how he broke all boundaries to learn music and performed at religious gatherings despite being chamar, a lower caste. But he still faced discrimination, even when he elevated his status in my village.

When I came to Delhi for my higher studies, I was fairly disillusioned by the caste system, in terms of the 'reservation debate' that Indians indulge in so often. The Indian government provides some reservation in government jobs, education for scheduled caste, schedule tribes and other backward castes as per the government’s affirmative action policies. These reservations in jobs infuriate some sections of the upper castes who believe that Reservation compromise merits.

I was fed with this debate by my peers and started believing in a narrative driven by the theory 'Politics of Humiliation' by philosopher Michael Sandal in his book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good. I thought that we are meritorious, while those who took advantage of reservation are not deserving. I did not realise that I am adding to the humiliation of those coming from marginalised sections by stigmatising them for availing affirmative action. The prominent argument put forth is that some lower caste people are availing the benefit of reservation, despite being economically well off. While those who are economically weak from upper caste backgrounds, can’t avail of these benefits.

Soon, I was disillusioned with this argument, as unlike my friends from lower caste communities, my family or I never faced the same humiliation they faced. In fact, I was praised for doing well despite my family and I having a tough time financially. This was enough for me to get convinced with illiberal upper caste narratives. It has taken me years to reform myself, which makes it quite obvious that it takes time to undo this well-entrenched discriminative psychology.

***

Two years ago, an upper caste man killed two lower caste kids out of anger in my hometown after they had allegedly defecated in his field. This incident created a huge uproar all over India, the culprit was arrested, compensation was given to the family, but what changed? Nothing. 

Various states have reported numerous cases of caste violence. The most populous state of India, Uttar Pradesh, witnessed a gruesome rape and murder of a Dalit girl from Hathras district last year. The family is still waiting for justice. A nine-year-old Dalit girl was raped and murdered by temple priest in the capital city. These are a few examples where caste was the main factor behind the committed violence.

Caste violence is a daily occurence, and many of related cases go unreported despite several constitutional provisions. I want to give an example from fiction. Manu Bhandari, a Hindi author wrote a riveting novel published in 1982 about the realistic depiction of crime and politics. The novel revolves around murder of a lower caste man and the political appropriation of it. It talked about the apathy of the political class, an enabler of caste violence.

Bhandari lucidly explains how politics marginalises lower caste communities. However, I am not qualified enough to comment about Dalit leadership and politics, which is very complex in every aspect. But one thing has dawned me—not enough has been done to annihilate caste, and that we all are responsible for it.

To weed out caste-based violence and create an equal society, we need an education in empathy. Neeraj and I may not appear as perpetrators of any violence, but society could have made us into enablers of caste violence.

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