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They Ask Me, “Do You Face Caste Discrimination?”


Shivani Waldekar

Shivani WaldekarBefore starting to write my words I want to give one disclaimer here that whatever I am writing comes from my personal lived experience, so if anyone is hurt because of that, I apologise. If you are unable to digest the facts and thoughts I hereby state, please feel free to build your critique against the Indian social structure that has made my experiences such. However, I do welcome all your suggestions and criticisms.

“Brahmin is born from Mouth
Kshatriya from the Arms
Vaishya from the chest and
Shudra from the feet”
-Rigveda

In the society where I happen to be born, Hindu scriptures like Dharmashastras and Smritis talk about the origin and structure of the varna system which has defined the social framework of our society since centuries. The Rigveda is the oldest one which tells us that all the four Varnas Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra have originated from the different parts of the almighty. But, I fail to locate myself within this social structure; I, an Atishudra, am out of this so called Varna system. If the society is already divided like that by its very structure, where the caste hierarchies are followed by its very design, then asking questions like “do you face caste discrimination?” is itself a sign of neglect on the part of those non-dalits who have thrown it in my face directly and indirectly, multiple times. Shouldn’t I rather be asked, “How have you faced caste discrimination?” Asking the former question is in itself wrong considering that India has had a long history of caste based discrimination; only a person who has never experienced caste can ask such a question. Those of us who’ve already faced caste discrimination would never ask this question because they know how we feel when anyone asks this question.

When a stranger or even a friend asks us if we’ve faced discrimination, they are at the same time reminding us how we differ from them; they make us remember our state as the victims of the casteist structures they build and maintain. The people who ask us like that they’ve probably never able to identify caste discrimination (even if it happens right in front of them) - which doesn’t fail to surprise me, or they might just be making a mockery out of it. Those of us, who have faced the same discrimination, don’t ask if it was experienced, but in what ways it was experienced by each of us. I am writing this on the behalf of all the Dalit women understanding their pain and grief. I know that human births are accidents; it’s not their choice or fault. So if I was born to a particular community, how is it my fault?

I am not going to talk about the history of Dalits here. They consider that Dalits never had a history of their own. When any one ask me if I faced any caste discrimination, I don’t understand how to react or reply to them. The moment they ask me this question, I feel discriminated because they don't ask this question to everyone or anyone and also it’s not a common question. When I was being asked about the same thing earlier when everything looked good, when probably I was living in a pseudo-reality, I was not much affected by it. But now that I am more aware of the whole social construct of where one comes from, the question suddenly hits me in the face, making me feel vulnerable. When they already know our identity as the victims of the Indian caste based society belonging to the community which is lowest in caste hierarchy, couldn’t they rather ask us how it make us feel? They don’t realise how the question itself comes out as a tool of domination. They don’t realise the grief that we have experienced. But maybe it’s not their fault, maybe they are not able to comprehend the stark reality.

I belong to Bhandara district in Maharashtra. You may already have heard this name since twelve years back on 29 September 2006, Khairlanji Massacre happened at Bhandara where four members of one family belonging to a Scheduled Caste were brutally murdered in a small village called Khairlanji. All four members including the women of the family, Surekha and Priyanka, were paraded naked in public and tortured before being murdered. I think I was in 5th class when the protests against the killing erupted in various parts of Maharashtra. We all know this issue now and we know how a politically, socially dominant caste group exploited Dalit people. For a very long time, no in-depth media coverage was given to this massacre. To hide such issues from coming out in the public is another form of discrimination that we face. There is no follow up or justice in cases of violence against Dalit women. Dalits face multiple oppression because of caste and poverty and Dalit women face more issues due to added issues of gender injustice. And they simply ask me “Have you faced caste discrimination?”

In my childhood days I did not realise that I’m being discriminated against. But today when I look back, I realize how in those small-small incidents I was facing discrimination without having any realisation about it. Today when I know very well what is caste and I am aware how the discrimination on the basis of caste is ingrained in social practices, I realise even my childhood wasn’t all that flowery. They ask me “Oh! You are a Dalit (you are S.C.) but you don’t look like one!”. I can never figure out what is expected of us in terms of appearance as a Dalit? If we don’t eat meat they tell us “oh you are a kalank in the name of Dalit”. If we eat meat then they comment “Oh, the best people to learn eating meat from are Dalits”. I don’t understand what and why they expect from us, why such narrow expectations in the first place? When I listen to similar narratives I feel ashamed of their thoughts, they have no idea of the hurt caused by the way they frame their questions and remarks. They tell us we don’t have knowledge or intellect, that we are getting positions in any sphere only on the basis of reservation. I want to tell them, Oh! Man, do you have a count of how many days you people kept us out of education? And yet, we haven’t stopped working hard for knowledge and performing well in all fields. Our people today are achieving better ranks than you and that’s why your small minded hatred makes you react like that. And your small thoughts don’t make me angry, but it makes me feel miserable because it is us who have had the experience of caste discrimination and your negligence of our sorrow and pain when you ask us that question, breaks our heart, again and again.

Then there are those who live in the delusion of knowing Babasaheb Ambedkar, flaunting their knowledge by calling him “Baba”. Maybe they have read several parts of his literature but they fail to understand the thoughts of Ambedkar. One of my brothers often says how some of us don’t understand Ambedkar because we fail to internalize his ideology within us.

You say you are not casteist, but I ask them then why do you continue to dominate us on the basis of caste and why do you always behave like you are superior and we who don’t have any power and authority are inferior. I have met people who have been victims of oppression to the extent that it has made them lose many friends. Maybe those friends were already conscious about our caste identities in the beginning of the friendship, but somehow their subconscious mind does not permit them to continue the friendship for long. Even while being friends, they very frankly point out the stereotypes they hold about us while feeding their own curiosities about us without realising how they discriminate even when spending time with us. They might flaunt their support for “humanity”, claiming they are not casteists, but I beg to point it out to them, how they are only lying to their own selves. Let me introduce you to some of the expressions of your casteist mind :

You are casteist if you say, “you don’t look like a Dalit.”
You are casteist if you say, “why do you bring caste angle in everything.”
You are casteist if you say, “oh, you don’t need to study, you anyway have the
reservation.”
You are casteist if you say, “you speak such good English , you don’t seem to be a
Dalit.”
You are casteist if you say, “reverse discrimination horaha hai mere saath”
You are casteist if you say, “they do identity politics to gain votes and sympathy.
You are casteist if you say, “I don’t believe in caste though I am Hindu and not giving
up on that surname.”
You are casteist if you give the leftover food to your maid.

And so many various narratives they use for us and we calmly listen to all these things because we have a very long experience of the Indian caste system which teach us how to tolerate all these things. So the people who ask us such questions I request them even if they continue to ask these questions, they must come out of the illusion of being anti-castiest or projecting India as a caste-less society. You don’t get to call yourself an Ambedkarite because you didn’t contribute anything to eradicate caste. You probably never understood Babasaheb.

During my field work, I see the misery of Dalit women who belong to Valmiki community and majorly engaged in sanitation work. They tell us their lived experiences and say we don’t like to do this work but we have no other alternative livelihood option. The caste based traditional work is part of social exclusion and oppression. Every Dalit is not manual scavenger but every manual scavenger is a Dalit. I see how Dalit women face exploitation in their homes and community as well as outside their communities. I have come to realize that if our people want to come out of the oppression, then the only medicine is knowledge and education. Knowledge is healing us. So our people need to work hard and study ten times more than others. We need to always remember the advice which Dr B.R. Ambedkar, our father, gave us, “Educate, Agitate and Organise” and if any one asks such a question, “Do you face caste discrimination?”, then we need to reply frankly - yes, whenever people like you are present in this society and ask us this type of questions, we do face discrimination. We shouldn't care if they consider us arrogant for that. We must learn to utilise this anger in a positive manner when we answer them, but do give them answers and always sustain your self-respect and dignity.

Here’s a poem which I attempted while trying to channel my own feelings of grief and vulnerability, I hope it helps you too:

They fear if we get Education, we'll break the chains of caste;
They fear if we get Higher Education, we'll raise new questions;
They fear if we know our rights, we'll stop tolerating their violence;
They fear if we study in Central Universities, they'd be unable to sustain their
authority;
They fear our blue color, it'll pollute their bhagwa flag;
They fear our blue flag, they're scared of the fate of their Saffron brigade;
When we raise voices against caste, they call it identity politics;
They dream to win by suppressing our voices, But sorry we'll fight.
We'll fight for our rights, take our knowledge beyond the binaries;
When the Ambedkarites and comrades are together in solidarity, we'll make India
caste free.
They find it right to victimize us, to get their praise in the market;
They think they can hide the Truth, but we're at the roots of it;
But sorry we now know the one way to realise our dreams,
But sorry we now know how to Educate, Agitate and Organize.

It’s only the beginning of my realization of a Dalit girl’s daily sufferings, but I have dared to write about my own experiences. I might burst into tears if I write more about this injustice. But it doesn’t mean I am weak. I am as strong as you, but I believe it’s my own choice and I also have the right to express my emotions - be it tears or my writing. I wonder if I enabled you to relate to our pain and sufferings. I started with the question you people asked me; I will end this article with my simple question - why have you never faced the atrocities inflicted upon us by caste? Can you even understand our experience and relate to it without victimising and showing pity?

~~~

 

 Shivani Waldekar is pursuing her Masters in Social Work in Livelihood and Social Entrepreneurship at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai

 

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