Experiences of someone who belongs to a lower caste
The dilution of the Atrocities Act is an indication that casteism is alive and kicking.
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When people talk of how caste does not matter any more, I really do not know what to say to them apart from the fact that they don’t know what happens in the real world.
I’d like to share an experience from the time I was a student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai. As part of my curriculum, I was posted in Uttar Pradesh's Muzaffarnagar for rehabilitation work in 2014, following the communal carnage the region had witnessed.
One day, as I was checking on some school students, I saw many of the Muslim students returning home during the mid-day meal recess. I wondered why they were going home as they were provided lunch at the school under the mid-day meal scheme. I tried to probe, but none of the children would tell me why.
I decided to follow them as they walked back home. Upon reaching one of the camps where the children were staying, I asked their parents/mothers the same question. When I persisted, one of the children mustered up the courage to speak after seeing his mother and told me that the chamar (a lower caste) women cooked the food and so they could not have the meals.
It was deeply hurtful to hear this as I belong to the same lower caste and I had been working for them for weeks. I was angry and spoke to one of the older men at the camp, asking him why the community taught such things to their children. He said: "Kabhi chidiya aur kaoue ka mel ho sakta hai? Jab khud Hindu unko apne paas nahi rakhte to hum to Muslaman hai hum kaise unke haath ka khaaye? (Can a sparrow and a crow ever be friends? If Hindus themselves do not keep them (the lower caste) near, how can we - Muslims - eat the meal cooked by them?)"
If Hindus themselves do not keep them (the lower caste) near, how can we - Muslims - eat the meal cooked by them?
Apart from his feigning ignorance about the caste system practised by Muslims themselves - of which I am sure he was well aware - it was shocking to see that a Muslim would internalise this discrimination practised by Hindus. When I probed further, I came to know that at one of the schools, a woman from the same chamar community was terminated from work because none of the students would eat the meals cooked by her.
I had similar experiences at the start of my career in 2015, when I was posted in Gujarat for a project under National Institute of Epidemiology of The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). I was responsible for taking qualitative interviews and during one of my visits to a household, the family members asked me about my caste; I had to lie that I am an upper caste Maratha from Maharashtra for only then did they allow me to enter their house.
Two more experiences followed. I used to have tea from one of the local shops every day. My frequent visits led to my building a rapport with the owner. One day, after we had had a good, long conversation, he wanted to know what caste I belonged to.
I was a bit afraid of telling him the truth, so I said I belong to an upper caste of Maharashtra. Upon hearing this, he opened up: "Hamare taraf agar lower caste IAS officer bhi aata hai to woh hamare saath baithne ki koshish nahi karta. Woh hamesha neeche baith ta hai aur hum usse apne saath apne barabari me nahi baithne dete (even if there is an IAS officer, if he is lower caste, he will not try and sit with us... we would not let him sit at the same level with us...)"
I had a similar encounter at a local dhokla shop; its owner and I shared a good rapport. On one occasion, when I was asking him about dhokla recipes, he said, "Sir, aap jaise log dhokle ka taste samajh sakte hai. Niche jaatiyo ke logo ko to pata bhi nahi ki dhokle ka taste kya hota hai (Sir, people like you can understand the taste of a good dhokla. Lower caste people don’t even know the taste of a dhokla)."
I did not reveal my caste to him, but as I was working with the government, he did not think that I belonged to a lower caste and, hence, openly expressed his disgusting opinions.
We have a long way to go before caste goes away. The dilution of the SC/ST Atrocities Act is an indication that casteism is alive and kicking.