“Turn in any direction you like, Caste is a monster that crosses your path. You cannot have political reform; you cannot have economic reform, unless you kill this monster”
– Dr B.R. Ambedkar
Eight years ago, I was absolutely ecstatic to find out that I would be studying at one of India’s finest law schools – NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. I thought the experience would change me forever.
And it did.
It made me a much more learned person, socially aware and empathetic toward the oppressed and I remain ever grateful to the legal education I received there.
When I joined law school, I realised that people were allotted rooms based on the marks they got in the Common Law Admission test (CLAT).
Students belonging to Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe/domicile category were given rooms on the upper floors of the hostel, while those belonging to the general category were given rooms on the ground floor for the first two years; the rationale being rooms allotted on the basis of marks.
However, it essentially also meant the ghettoisation of those who had gotten admission through reservation.
Due to this, many students from the upper floor could not mingle freely with people on the ground floors, nor could they build good friendships due to the segregation that was so visible for those on the upper floors and mostly invisible for those on the ground.
Over the next few months, the segregation developed into fragmentation within the batch – various groups were formed. There were casual statements passed from students on ground floor of the hostels, like: “Tum log padhte kyun nahi ho (Why don’t you people study)?”
They also made fun of others’ English without giving due recognition to the fact that the person might not have had access to a good education for various reasons – be it poverty, exclusion or the absence of privilege.
They made lists of people who would never date in college or are just incapable of dating anyone at all in the university. And, invariably, the list consisted of names exclusively belonging to students form the upper floors.
There was one incident in particular that shook me.
I was invited to a birthday party on the ground floor. We all ate our hearts out that day, but perhaps that did not go down well with the birthday boy, who casually said: “Khaao bhangi saalon”.
I didn’t know what the word “bhangi” meant at that point of time since I am not a native Hindi speaker. I went back to the hostel and asked my friend in the next room about what the word bhangi meant. He said that it was a pejorative term used for “bathroom cleaners”.
That seriously affected me and I didn’t know what to do.
I wanted to complain, but I was also fearful of any possible ostracisation within the hostel or students alleging that the incident never happened.
I was numb for a few days and didn’t know how to react to such a pejorative term bandied about so casually.
Moreover, there was an inherent classism which often coincided with casteism within students in hostels. Students on the upper floor were perceived as poor since they mostly come from families availing reservations. They were also perceived as those who may not speak English as well as others.
In the girl’s hostels, many from the reserved categories were ridiculed for their fashion sense or for pronouncing a few words in English incorrectly.
It was humiliating to endure all this, albeit these incidents did not happen on a daily basis. But they did occur quite often, affecting the psyche of the people enduring it. It would lead to people doubting themselves, their ability to compete with the rest and their ability to speak English as well just as others do.
Subsequently, two of my friends and I made a representation to the vice-chancellor of our university in January 2013, explaining our plight and the ghettoisation.
He was kind enough to understand our problems and was shocked that such a system existed in the first place. He promised us that the system of allotting rooms on the basis of marks would be done away with. Keeping his promise, the next batch (which joined in June 2013) were allotted rooms randomly.
Thankfully, we had an administration that acted immediately to end this ordeal. But many still do not have this privilege.
There are many institutions in our country that have a system where rooms or roll numbers are allotted on the basis of marks. And students casually pass casteist remarks and get away with it because the university administration doesn’t provide any support to those facing discrimination.
Today, when I talk about the casteism I had endured, some people show support and acknowledge their privilege. On the other hand, some continue to deny that the caste system exists in the first place and say that it is a thing of the past, justifying it with statements like, “Look, I am friends with you, I have been friends with you without knowing your caste, so there is no caste system, it’s a thing of the past!”
It is very similar to saying, “Since, I have not seen a single soul dying of hunger, there is no hunger in the world.”
Another obnoxious statement I have heard a lot of times is: “Your family owns a car, you are a middle-class person, you cannot face any casteism.”
But we must understand that caste and class are absolutely different things: caste is a social concept, while class is an economic concept.
Caste, as an institution, ensures its survival on notions of purity and exclusion, something that doesn’t go away even if someone attains an upper class status.
That taunt, “Tum log padhte kyun nahi ho?” stayed with me for a long time; it motivated me to study harder.
After graduating from the university, I bagged a well-paying corporate job in Hyderabad.
Soon enough, however, my caste identity came into focus.
When I started to look for houses to rent near my workplace, I found a colleague of mine, who was willing to reside with me.
We had a double disability while searching for houses because he was a Muslim and I was a Dalit. We were denied housing in the cosmopolitan city of Hyderabad by at least six to seven people who said things like, “We do not give our houses on rent to Dalits” or “we do not like to give our houses on rent to Muslims.”
It was absolutely humiliating to be denied lodging just because of our social identity. Clearly, our ability to pay rent on time did not matter. Finally, a kind Dalit allowed us to rent his house.
It is this continuous denial of the caste system and prejudices against lower castes that results in the continuance of oppression of many around us. Some of the oppressed willingly talk about it, while others remain absolutely reluctant to talk about it and the possible ramifications emanating from it. And others are scared to even reveal their identity as Dalits because openly calling yourself a Dalit also means possible stigmatisation and humiliation.
The caste system is a monster that enables oppression and we need to counter this by first acknowledging that it is very much alive and that it will thrive until we address the elephant in the room; until we stand up for the oppressed and until we don’t think about maintaining the purity of our families by marrying within the caste. The institution of endogamy, I believe, ensures the survival of caste system in a big way and that must be countered, too.
Irrespective of caste or religion, we are humans first.
Ideally, it should be humanity that must trump prejudices against lower caste communities or minorities.
Yet we revel in creating divisions and ensuring its continuance amongst us.
Bendukuri Maurya Tej is a lawyer who graduated from NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad and is currently based in Hyderabad.
Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty