Interview: Is there a denial of caste discrimination in India?

Since researching caste studies and sharing those findings on my social media pages I have learnt much about the experiences of my followers through online interactions. Initially I experienced a strong reluctance from people in the diaspora when opening a dialogue on caste discrimination. With time this gradually changed. I now find myself reading comments and messages from followers online, the more you address the issue the more confident people become with sharing their own experiences of caste discrimination and caste bias with you. It is interesting to see how many of the people that I have interviewed on my blog thus far belong to upper caste communities. Some people from dalit or ex-untouchable caste communities still refrain from talking publicly about caste and this in itself is very telling. I also find myself receiving messages and tweets from my critics too, perhaps that more so than anything else, and will aim to write about this in some detail in an upcoming blog.

As a writer on Caste and Race Studies it was interesting to engage with one of my followers Dr Ayushi Thakur. Ayushi frequently witnesses the denial of caste discrimination in India and pens down her views on caste discrimination as a woman with upper-caste privilege whilst also talking about the ways she benefits from her caste status in a society that struggles to accept that casteism still exists.

It was interesting interviewing Ayushi as a savarna woman who has observed casteism in India. From addressing micro-aggressions, caste bias, to the outright casteist, Ayushi notes that the diaspora carries a ‘hint’ of the discrimination found in Indian society. However, as I have found in my own work on caste, there is more than a hint of reservation among Indians and Pakistanis in the diaspora where caste discrimination is concerned. Granted that we do not find cases of extreme violence in the name of caste discrimination in the diaspora in the way that one does in India, and granted that yes, we do have growing examples of inter-caste marriages among British Indians but how many of those couples have fought against an age old mentality when caste came into question? Many of us still hear of stories about inter-caste relationships falling apart because of their difference in caste. Social media is also an indicator. There have been numerous casteist jokescirculated on Twitter and Instagram too – recently there was a video of two female students from Aston University in Birmingham referring to chamars in a derogatory manner whilst laughing as one of them said ‘we’re not chams like you’ on their live Instagram feed in response to a comment where someone had asked them why they were drinking alcohol through a straw.

This is just one example of many that can be found online where young Punjabis in the diaspora communicate. Much can be said about the dialogue on caste in the diaspora – what’s interesting as a researcher on caste studies is the similarities in the way we debate and deny the issue of caste discrimination as Indians, as Pakistanis living in the diaspora.

The Interview 

Tell us about yourself and why the debate on caste and caste discrimination interests you?

I’m a 24 year old Indian Doctor and Writer currently working in central India. I grew up in Madhya Pradesh. The only way I came to learn about the caste system was through textbooks as I was growing up. I would ask my parents about the caste system but their answers were always bleak. Our barren textbooks had the history but somehow weren’t enough. When I grew up I realized how easy it has always been for me. There was a clear inequality of privilege which apparently wasn’t pronounced openly. In a volunteer medical camp I once worked in I came across communities who were deprived of even the basic amenities. The deprivation was not only because of their economic situation. It was also because of their caste. The females of these oppressed tribes and castes were at the harsher end of the deal. Their issues ranged from unsanitary home deliveries, lack of access to clean resources, a lack of health checkups and access to medication resulting in poor medical care to a curtailed social image and consequently being subjected to violence. When I discussed this issue with people around me they simply linked it to poverty and lack of information, seldom did someone agree that caste values and prejudice have affected the way people socialise.

What can you tell us about the way caste is debated in India today?

It’s sad that in 2019, we still have to debate the mere existence of caste as a problem. People reluctantly accept that caste disparities continue to be fueled from our own society. Whether this comes from our parents generation or ours, people still debate over why caste lineage is of relevance and important to debate.

Many Indians will argue that casteism is a colonialist construct from the times of imperialism and therefore not inherently Indian. Do you agree?

How can it be a colonialist construct when it is seemingly mentioned in the Hindu ‘Rig Vedas’?

Apparently the caste system came from the ‘varnas’ which was a social classification of society. With the reign of the Aryans and others, it kept on grounding deeper and deeper till date.

Are you familiar with any cases of caste discrimination in your own friend and family circles?

Though it’s not as marked as in the older times when the practice of untouchability was pretty blunt, things are still conspicuous and the evidence is everywhere. I see it all around me. Like the way my relatives feel fortunate enough to be born in to an upper caste community and take pride in being a Rajput. As per their initial opinion they also wish that their children would marry in to Rajput families. Worst case scenario – some other upper caste. Inter-caste marriages are a nightmare for most brown parents. They still believe in the purity of bloodlines and all that lineage guff. Another hoax is the correlation of skin color with caste. There is a belief among some relatives that skin fairness is closely associated with being higher caste and hence they prefer a fair skinned bride.

In many families, the household helps are mostly from the oppressed class and therefore treated differently. I mean they’re served in different utensils and are not allowed to use the same washrooms. Another example from around me (if you ever check out random social media accounts) people actually add “proud Jatt” , “proud Rajput” or “proud Brahmin” in their bios claiming their superiority. There’s also a very common practice where the so called “educated” people still use names like “Chamar” and “Bhangi” jokingly as slurs without realizing that it is offensive. And these people think that they’re advancing and are not in any way being casteist?

In making these comments  they perpetuate an age old practice which was designed exclusively to abuse and humiliate a certain class and caste of people in the past. Making these “jokes” is not progression.

What’s the extent of denial towards caste discrimination in modern India?

I think it varies. Most upper caste Indians aren’t aware of the confirmation bias. They tend to ignore the problem as long as it doesn’t concern them. Today most upper caste people refuse to accept the existence of discrimination based on caste because all their lives they’ve been treated in a certain way, and never experienced what the other (scheduled caste/ex-untouchable) castes did. The lack of representation of the oppressed castes in the media, academia, politics and entertainment etc is the reason why the upper castes believe that casteism is not a problem anymore. They argue about caste reservations being groundless, because according to them ‘the caste system doesn’t exist anymore and it was all in the past so why these measures now?’

Young upper caste people would mostly whine about how caste reservation has only snatched opportunities away from them and passed those opportunities onto the undeserved. The upper castes cringe upon headlines where the word ‘dalit’ is suffixed claiming ‘why is the victim’s caste important if we’re living in an era where (apparently) we practice equality’. Many also argue that dalits are benefiting from this political card. They will even ask ‘how has this caste system affected you personally??’ just to shut you up.

As an Indian woman have you noticed a difference in the way feminism is approached on the lines of caste? We hear about Savarna (upper-caste) and Dalit feminism in India – a split in the Indian feminist debate. What’s your perspective?

As a woman living in India, the problems I face in society are very different from the problems other woman from another background will face, let alone a dalit woman – lack of basic amenities, disregard in the health sector, social affront and what not. Even the crimes and violence that dalit women face are at higher rates, but these voices are very easily reined in. The victims often do not know/are not informed about their rights. How can we assume that a feminist revolution can be started with the privileged? The savarna feminists selectively display the issues and crimes against women. Often the most heinous incidences that strike on the underprivileged communities are neglected by mainstream Indian feminists because they see all women under a same spotlight and therefore having the same problems, which isn’t logical. There’s always a need for inter-sectionalism in feminism, a buried awareness of what each group lacks and coerces. Hence, Dalit Feminism. Similarly without knowing dalit history and the unique, isolated issues that they face, how can we expect to provide equality and justice to people facing oppression based on very incomplete ideas of equality itself.

Eighteen year-old student Meet Kumar Chavda from Gujarat Patan, was tied to a tree and beaten by two men on 18th March 2019. He was on his way to his English board exams when he was attacked. In an online news article WIRE reported the following:

“When he (Meet Kumar) asked them [the attackers] the reason, they abused him and said that he should not study and take his exams but do labour work instead.”

How widely was this news reported in India and how many cases similar to this do you think go under-reported in the news and why?

I remember watching this particular event in the news, but it obviously didn’t make the uproar in the media as it should have. This proves how dreadful caste domination is among Indian media. There are dozens of dalit lynching cases, police violence on dalit women , innumerable rape cases that go unreported and unnoticed. Every year crimes against dalits increase, but do we see the media coverage of caste atrocities increase too? I personally don’t think so. We see so many sting videos of cases on social media but do we see them in mainstream media? And the news coverage on caste atrocities is really just the tip of an iceberg. Mainstream media tend to leave this side of news reporting to the vernacular media which is extremely sad and just doesn’t make sense.

Have you noticed any comparisons or differences in the way Indians in the diaspora talk about caste paralleled to Indians?

Its very subtle how they do it. Just because they don’t live in India anymore doesn’t mean they’re not indulged. I’ve heard people who live in the UK and Canada say how they’d only marry in upper caste communities and how everything in the Punjabi dominant societies is ‘Jatt’ favoured. These families would return to India to search for suitable ‘upper caste fair-skinned bride’s’.

There are so many instances where people change their surnames after going away from India just to avert casteism. Of course it has embossed in Indians more severely because of the constant airing of casteism around them in the country but the non-residential Indians still have a hint of discrimination no matter how liberal they tend to sound.

What relationship does caste share with patriarchy in India?

In India, caste and patriarchy go hand in hand. Caste itself is patriarchal in nature. And like every facet, the first category affected by this caste based oppression are obviously women, i.e dalit women who face inequity in almost every way – caste, class and gender. Especially the women who belong to poor social economic backgrounds. We only ever blame the past generations for the communities ignorance, but how is our generation not bound too? When I look around, and when I talk to people about real world issues, only a few are willing to address them. We are selectively ‘woke’ to the concerns around us. Caste structures don’t exist in isolation. And it’s high time we accept and understand the presence of caste discrimination.

 
Since conducting this interview with Ayushi there have been other cases of caste discrimination. Newlyweds Rukmini and Mangesh were set on fire by Rukmini’s family in April because she chose to marry outside of her caste. Rukmini died from her injuries and was just two months pregnant at the time with Mangesh left fighting for his life in hospital.

In another incident a 23-year-old dalit man was beaten to death by upper-caste men at a wedding in May. Enraged at seeing Jitendra sitting on a chair whilst eating in front of them the men kicked his plate, kicked him off the chair, shouted casteist slurs & then beat him. In a more recent case Dr Payal Tadvi from the Bhil Muslim community committed suicide by hanging herself on Wednesday 22nd May after facing caste discrimination from three other doctors. Dr Payals complaints were ignored by Nair Hospital and her parents and husband Dr Salman are now fighting for justice. 

 

Featured image via Google

Follow Dr Ayushi Thakur on Instagram 

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