For possibly the first time ever in India, a woman from Tamil Nadu has secured a certificate that indicates she has no caste or religion.
On February 5, Sneha, 35, an advocate and resident of Tirupattur, officially received the certificate from tehsildar T S Sathiyamoorthy.
Why did she want this document?
Sneha tells the Hindu that she was raised in a family that did not believe in these concepts; however, she had to get a self-affidavit to that effect, she adds.
“All my certificates, including birth and school, have ‘nil’ or are blank in the ‘caste’ and ‘religion’ columns. They mention me as an Indian. However, I started to realise that every application form I filled invariably mandated enclosure of a community certificate,” she explains.
Challenging the tradition, she then asked for a legal accommodation as someone who does not identify with society’s prevailing structures and labels. “When people who believe in caste and religion have certificates, why not issue certificates to people like us?” she tells the Hindu.
Sneha and her husband, Parthiba Raja, also left the caste and religion fields blank on their daughers’ school application forms.
Process of acquiring the certificate
Sneha began her quest in 2010 but was met with rejection at every turn; it was the lack of a precedent for such a certificate that kept thwarting her. Despite constant following up, no official was ready to certify her request.
However, her last application submitted in 2017 came to fruition. “It was in 2017 that I began to stand my ground and explained [my stand] to officials. I justified it, saying they should look into my request because I had availed no government schemes or reservation,” she tells the Hindu.
Although Tirupattur sub-collector Priyanka Pankajam did not specify under which rule the certificate was issued, she said that after a thorough verification of Sneha’s lifestyle, family background, and previous documents, the tehsildar agreed to issue her the certificate.
Sneha tells the Times of India that her career as a lawyer encouraged her to persevere. “Being an advocate, I wanted to break this barrier. As a result of my nine-year struggle and regular follow-up on the last application submitted in May 2017, the government has now issued the no-caste-no-religion certificate.”
Is this the way forward?
While people applauded Sneha’s decision, some said the way forward is not by shunning labels, but by reclaiming them. Over the years, people have equated not “seeing” colour, caste, and religion as erasure of the unique experiences of people from marginalised groups.
Now that activism has moved online, initiatives like Round Table India, The Blue Dawn, Genderlog, Dalit Camera, and the Queer Muslim Project redefine what it means to be a member of a marginalised community in contemporary India.
These groups and others use their platforms to promote the unlearning of conditioning that perpetuates systems of oppression and discrimination in society.
Moreover, activists and groups dedicated to the upliftment of marginalised communities have said that educating oneself about the complex intersections of caste, class, religion, sexuality, race, and gender is paramount because they prevail in society, whether we choose to pay attention or not.
However, doing away with her caste and religion labels in life and legal documentation may have the effect Sneha is hoping for–fair and equal treatment that has nothing to do with her background.
Many people seemed to agree and congratulated Sneha on her decision.
Filmmaker Kamal Haasan said, “Dear Sneha, You have actuated a long dormant desire among Indians. Let’s discard what never belonged to us. Let’s caste away Caste. From this point, a better tomorrow will be more accessible. Bravo daughter. Lead India forward.”
UNESCO Chairman Ashok Swain and TV Anchor and Analyst Sumanth Raman also expressed their congratulations and support for Sneha.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius.