Why the 'urban elite' wants to know Hima Das's caste

Well-educated Twitter-types like to claim they don't discriminate on the basis of caste. Yet they perpetrate its biases.

 |  5-minute read |   16-07-2018
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The Indian caste system is neither democratic, nor ordained, nor is it contrary to popular belief, nor an unorganised industry. It is a thriving, "organised sector" and all Indians are equal collaborators — that's why we call it a system. And will continue to do so.

When Hima Das made history by becoming the country's first track athlete to become a world champion at any level after winning the women's 400m at the U-20 World Championships in Tampere, Finland on July 12,  Indians went ballistic with praises and suggestions for Das. 

hima-body_071618053603.jpgA true champion: Hima Das made India proud

The obscure athlete literally hit the social media sphere like a bolt from the blue. It didn't matter that Indians had not heard of Das before (even though a commentator in Tampere went on to say "Das is a huge star back in her country"). The truth is, Das was no star until July 12, nobody knew her. So everyone started looking for Hima Das on Google. Who she was, what she did, where she came from and how she managed to come this far, are the usual questions one would imagine people would want to know about the just-arrived sensation.

But curiously enough, it was Das's caste that mattered more to people.

Soon after she bagged the gold, people on social media got busy searching for "Hima Das caste".

hima-caste_071618052903.jpgThe phrase 'Hima Das caste' promptly appears as a search suggestion as soon as one types her name in the Google search bar. [Screenshot]

According to this web report, "The Google search on Hima Das, particularly her caste, saw a spike after she won the gold."

This is not the first time that a champion is being seen from the prism of caste.

Earlier, Google searches on badminton champion PV Sindhu's caste raced up after she won silver at the Rio Olympics.

But young Sindhu, and an even younger Das, are not the only ones whose caste matter so much to their modern countrymen. Because it's not Sindu and Das or talented youngsters like them who are intrinsic to the idea of India, but the much-embedded caste system which is inseparable from Indian identity — both its social and political psychology.

The question is not why their caste is important or the trappings of the Indian mindset, but who is making "caste" an inseparable part of our system. Who is responsible for continuing the centuries-old caste hierarchy? 

This system is surely not a hangover from the past, because hangovers don't last so long.

Truth be told, this discrimination is part of our social administration, and like all other institutions, this is run under organised supervision. It is not even a rustic reverence based on ignorance and lack of education that has kept the system alive. It has often been argued in fact that a severe lack of public education and awareness are responsible for caste discrimination enduring in India. The country and its policy-makers initially believed that caste-based reservation would help contain the scourge, closing the gap between "upper and lower castes" — bringing the underprivileged on a par with the more privileged, correcting historical wrongs. But instead of closing the gap, caste-based reservation has seemingly highlighted the chasm. 

In a country with limited public resources, long-term reservations raised large-scale disgruntlement among various "upper caste" Indians who suddenly found themselves on the other side of the scale in terms of social, economic and political opportunities. As the reservation policy kept expanding — adding new categories and sub-categories — more because of political compulsions, and less economic considerations, the resentment too kept increasing. 

As a result, caste-based discrimination is still very much a part of our lives in India. If anything, the hierarchy of caste in its modern avatar looks more menacing, with highly educated, empowered Indians resorting to malicious displays of casteism and frequently justifying this.

A very real danger to Dalit/SC/ST/OBC communities is not from proposed laws or dilution of policies, but from the belligerent display of casteism by educated "upper castes" on social media. Elite India wraps its revulsion for the "lower" caste in dangerously distasteful WhatsApp forwards, Twitter and Facebook posts — messages that make it clear why such elites feel compelled to Google Das's caste.

Do we need more proof of who is more bothered about Hima Das's caste? It's not the "rural, illiterate" bunch whose lack of awareness is often blamed for the continuing caste system. In fact, it is the urban drawing rooms and high-tech smartphones from where such caste consciousness arises. It is the urbane mindset which likes to claim it doesn't discriminate between people on the basis of caste — yet perpetrates harsh caste prejudices and stereotypes all too often.

There is a strange ignorance of such elite minds.

Beneath their well-informed, erudite facade lies the dangerous lack of awareness that even they don't seem to be aware of. For instance, some well-informed people could connect with Hima instantly based on her surname, which in India works mostly as a caste identifier.

Such display of "fellow feeling" in all likelihood is "well-meaning", but only encourages our dependence on caste, creed and religion — the homogeneity that we seek to feel part of one society, one country, one India.

Also read: Flogging of Dalit man in Rajkot raises questions on Supreme Court diluting the SC/ST Atrocities Act

Writer

Sanghamitra Baruah Sanghamitra Baruah

Works at DailyO.

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