You can’t know caste until you’ve known a Dalit
-By Shamuel Tharu
Bhangi! As a child who loved to swear, the word had caught my imagination. I still do not know where I picked up the word but I used it for all of two days. Then I used it in front of my parents’ friend. I still do not know what I was told, but I remember feeling terrible that I used the word. I was still too young and too middle class and too Christian to understand what caste meant. Like the sindhi shop in our locality was, to my mind, named after the man who ran it.
I am by birth a Mar Thoma Christian, what is otherwise known as a Syrian Christian. There was not much space for caste in the family that I grew up in, religion defined who we were. I stopped going to Sunday school early so even religion was not too defining a characteristic.
As a child growing up on an academic campus, I played with children of different kinds of parents (Class I to Class IV employees of the institute). Caste was too complicated to enter into our discourse. Even our abuse was not caste-based, though in Hyderabad it is rare to find caste based abuse (people usually abuse your family). The categories of differentiation were age, color to a certain extent and more prominently class. My school too, had people of many castes, though looking back now I realize that they were mostly dikus. It was common for a student to bring duck, or rabbit or a wild bird in their lunch box. Only one boy, who I now realize was an OBC, would not touch our food if we had eaten meat. He used to bring excellently cooked root, which we all used to hanker after and we all had to stand in line and he would drop a small piece in our plates without touching our plates or letting us touch his food. It was quite a ceremony. But being in India, the vegetarian non-vegetarian divide is so inculcated into you that one knew that brahmins did not eat meat. Brahmins were not a caste. They were a community.
It is difficult to explain how as a child I understood these categories. Brahmins were not brahmins in relation to anyone else. They were just brahmins and we were christians. No connection as such.
The school I did my Plus 2 in, was far more of a mixed bag. It had a policy of giving scholarships to poor rural students, mostly OBCs who lived in the hostels. The diku students like me were mostly day scholars. It was strange because the hostellers were better athletes, hard workers, made more friends than the day scholars. So there was more a looking up to rather than any other kind of discrimination, although even in 11th and 12th I had no conception of caste.
As a child I was not quite tuned into what was going on in the world around me and lived very much in my head so the reservation debates in the 1990s just passed me by completely.
When I passed out of school and had to apply to colleges, the question of reservation never came up. It was not part of the discourse in my school and I applied in the general quota without giving it any thought, I think. I had even missed my law school admission by two ranks and I don’t remember thinking I was cheated out of it by the quotas.
College was similar, I made friends across the board. It was much later, in university, that I realized their castes. Caste was not a consideration. Secularism, issues of class and the like were what passed off as political thought in my head.
I come from a rather enlightened family and my mother was involved in the anti-caste movement of Andhra Pradesh. By the time I was twenty I knew what a Dalit was, I had a vague idea about the discourse surrounding the anti-caste movement, I knew the rationale for reservations. It was, however, constructed in such extreme terms that I could never actually place it in any real context. It was only while I worked closely on the thesis of a friend of mine on the conflict between Marx and Ambedkar, did I get my first real introduction to what caste means. I had read Kancha Ilaiah’s book, Why I am Not A Hindu, but I had not placed its significance. While thinking about Marx and Ambedkar with my friend in relation to cultural politics, much of Ilaiah’s work came back in a new light.
My family context also gave me an inroad into talking about the caste question. Dalit students of my mother accepted me as a friend, who could talk to them about caste, who they could share experiences with. Caste was just another issue, that I had understood and that was of national importance.
Since then it is difficult not to see caste operating everywhere. I still do not know the names or caste occupations of more than 20 castes, but it still boggles the mind. Economics, culture religion, politics, are all beginning to make a real sort of meaning when addressed with an awareness of the functioning of caste. Looking back at my life it is possible to see who are the friends I had, who I kept in touch with, what sorts of people I approached, all reflecting various levels of exclusion of those from “lower” caste backgrounds. Even as I write this of my memory, I constantly say, I didn’t know what caste was when I was a child. But I did know, I practiced it, although far less than most I should say, it determined who my friends were, it determined how I thought of the world. And it made me realize who cleaned my toilets at home.
Since I joined Insight, my views on what caste is and how it functions has changed immensely. The most important difference that I have understood is that of difference between Dalits of various castes and differences between ways in which the movement decides to go forward. This may seem obvious to most, but for me it helped to demystify the category Dalit, as someone with a defined identity, a particular politics etc. I think I can tentatively say that today I can interact with my friends, not as Dalits who are friends, but as friends who are Dalits among various other things.
I am still however, different. I am not an honorary Dalit. For the first time in my life I have found that I cannot co-opt someone else experience with a similar narrative (however true or false) of my own. I must say here, that being with the movement in small ways has taught me at least one invaluable lesson. That we make meaning from experience. Earlier, I used to live my life on the basis of what I ought to do and feel guilty about what I didn’t do. But now there is a certain validity to what I did, right or wrong, that is real and is empowering and allows me to participate in what I consider progressive politics and to make real relationships.
I still do not know what to make of caste. My own community used to keep slaves till until two generations ago. According to myth we were born from the marriages of Syrians who came with St Thomas to India and Brahmin men and women from Kerala. When I introduced myself to VT Rajashekar, he said “Oh! A Syrian Christian, I better be careful, you are from a community of vipers.” I don’t know how true this is, I doubt it is, but I would not be surprised if it was.
I think I have come a long way now from being criminally ignorant to feeling apologetic about my caste(?) to becoming aware of how it functions. Not fully aware of course, but neither do I feel silenced by my privilege any longer.