But you don’t look like scheduled caste!” the boy behind me remarked.
Our fifth-grade class teacher had just asked the SC/ST students in the class to raise their hands. It was probably for some 15 per cent reduction in fees or something else, which I don’t remember right now (clearly my Dalit memory cells don’t work as well as Savarna ones) but the kid behind me could not get over how “scheduled caste people” looked like me. Fair and rather ordinary, instead of like maybe Kachra from Lagaan. But with the latest Nikes.
This expectation to look “lower class” stuck to me for life. Even now when someone realises that a globetrotter like me belongs to the SC category, they find it impossible to believe.
I grew up in Mumbai’s urban sprawl no different from anyone else. We didn’t have vegetarian-only societies back then, which means every community and caste lived together in harmony, except for days when the tanker arrived during a water cut.
I didn’t really have a caste growing up, but now I do. From FB pages which openly favour upper-caste hegemony to people who start sentences with “I don’t believe in caste system but…” – it is everywhere, especially in cities. From not letting the maids touch utensils in the kitchen to jokes about reservations, the grip of caste is tightening around the neck of urban India.
A plumber came to our house to fix our leaking kitchen sink. He saw the garlanded picture of Dr Ambedkar on our wall. His eyes lit up and said that he’s never seen Ambedkar’s picture on the walls of an upper-middle-class home. He was Dalit too and complained that several neo-Buddhists often hid pictures of Ambedkar or Buddha to blend in without raising any suspicions. Was he good at his work? I don’t know; I was busy with my PS3 blissfully unaware of my privilege. But the mirage of that privilege was shattered when our building watchman refused to eat food from our housewarming party, when he spotted the same picture of Ambedkar on our living room wall.
We’ve donned the mantle of education and awareness and professionalism especially at the workplace but that’s costume. “Are you Brahmin?” my boss asked a new joinee at lunch. When she nodded in agreement, he nonchalantly replied “Good!” Now I’m not the kind of guy who talks about reservation at workplaces (because people still don’t understand what “affirmative action” means) but this isn’t a one-off incident.
Casteism at supposedly progressive workplaces is so prevalent that no one even blinks at a casual off-hand remark. From dropping gems like “Surnames are the best way to know about people’s occupation” and “Who here belongs to the reserved category” at a work meeting to making fun of my Marathi accent because it’s not as polished in the traditional Brahminical way, workplaces remain one of the biggest perpetrators of the caste system in urban India. Don’t believe me? Take a look at your office and find out how many belong to SC/ST. Almost no one. This, despite the fact that SC and ST people together make up more than 25 per cent of the total population.
There’s a story my Dad tells me. From a family of illiterate farmers in a very small village, he is the only one who not only managed to complete high school, but also graduated with a major in English literature. He says he lived away from home, often went hungry, and managed this only because of almost-free education scheme for SC/STs. He was never interested in farming and took many state government exams as the only shot to get out of his village.
Like every government employee he worked in one department his entire life, rising through the ranks and retiring as Deputy Secretary for the Government of Maharashtra. Even now when I visit our village, it has improved a lot and there’s practically no casteism. Except for the invisible line which separates the upper-caste homes which dominate the village and slightly away on the border of the village there are houses like my father’s: A reminder that even though we are economically equal, we aren’t yet fully equals.
My father built us a life based on the benefits of reservation even if I have consciously tried to stay away from it. I did however get a 200-rupee refund on my fees once, after filling out tons of forms at the insistence of my parents, and that too after a year. I’m lucky I don’t need the reservation system anymore but getting into the reservation debate is a perfect way to learn about how ad hominem attacks work. Especially online, it quickly slips into “You people want everything for free”-level barbs.
The key to winning a reservation debate is not getting into one, internalising and suppressing your thoughts to avoid getting an angry reaction to your Facebook posts. But that’s only half the battle won. People can get pretty vile, pretty fast behind the veil of anonymity and the debates can get (da)lit AF very quickly. And if it’s one of your friends, expect a thinly veiled status update about the debate in the next hour or so.
I’m only the second generation of my family who’s educated and the first whose identity doesn’t depend on caste. Being a Dalit may not be a curse for some of us anymore but make no mistake, Dalit is still a card. The politics of caste that have been on display in our Presidential elections will never let us be a nation free of caste identity. Fair or not, I’m marked as a Dalit either way. I won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.
Vaibhav Wankhede is a writer based in Mumbai
This article was originally published on Arre
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