On Realising My Inherent Casteism at an Art Collective

I work at Nagpur-based art collective along with 30 to 35 young people. We organise community programmes like spoken-word poetry and activities related to art and craft, aiming to fight the stigma around mental health issues.

However, the very organisation that fights stigma indulges in subtle casteism on a daily basis.

As I was part of the same group, I, too, got carried away – until recently when I realised how wrong it was.

Last year, a day after one of our events, I was sitting at a chai tapri with two of my colleagues, both Brahmins. One of them offered to buy chocolates for the team, to which I said, in Marathi, “Chaara ela (feed us)” – a phrase commonly used by people from lower-caste categories.

He laughed and started mocking me, saying, “Arre tu SC hai kya? Ese kyu baat kar rahi hai? (Hey, are you an SC? Why are you talking like that?)”

“No!” I replied, and started laughing along.

Tujhe pata hai kaise log is tarah baat karte hain? Jai Bheem wale? (Do you even know who talks like that? People who shout the slogan: ‘Jai Bheem’)”

They continued to mock me with the slogan, but I didn’t fight back.

However, it hit me hard when I went home that day.

I was angry at them, but more so myself.

As part of an art collective, my colleagues pretend to be quite open-minded but, apparently, they don’t practice what they preach. Most of the members in the collective are upper-caste Brahmins and make sure that they keep reiterating their caste.

For instance, if we are all sitting together and feasting, they would say something like, “Mujhe aake paros, Brahmin ko parosne se punya milta hai (Serve me, it will benefit you.)”

One doesn’t realise how wrong this is until exiting such a space. I, too, didn’t realise. However, as more of such conversations surfaced, I watched my words and became observant. But, I still couldn’t refrain.

I remember, it was New Year’s Eve, we were just talking and – out of the blue – a guy asked everyone: “What is your caste?” The conversation then went on to telling each other what happens in each other’s caste.

My friend, who comes from a lower-caste community, kept mum the whole time. She is very confident otherwise but stayed silent throughout.

I saw everything happen in front of my eyes, but I never dared to call these men out. I thought they’d ostracise me if I go against them. I kept quiet and let it all happen.

Since I was mostly surrounded by Brahmins, I couldn’t think beyond that bubble. Up until recently, I thought we don’t need caste-based reservations.

It’s easy to turn a blind eye to casteism if you don’t see anything wrong with what’s happening around you. All my friends from SC and ST categories were from well-to-do families. Hence, I thought caste-based discrimination is a thing of past.

But my opinions changed when I started working as a journalist at a local newspaper. I would come across numerous stories on caste-based violence on a daily basis. I realised that it was always there, but that I just never noticed. We never did.

Perhaps that’s just how I was raised.

My orthodox family never allowed me to be friends with people from different communities. In my locality, there was one girl belonging to the SC category and my parents would say, “She is a bad company. Don’t be with her, chhoti jaati se hai (She is from a lower-caste group.)”

My friends, too, believed the same.

A girl from the Brahmin community would say, “Dude you can’t hang out with some SC chick kyuki tu bigad jayegi, tu kharab ho jayega (Dude, you can’t hang out with that SC girl, she will spoil you.)”

Back then, as a kid, I couldn’t understand how she was bad for me, but those words stayed and had an impact later.

Recently, when we were talking about Dr Payal Tadvi’s suicide, she was there too, but didn’t speak a word. I could sense her discomfort. She couldn’t be herself and couldn’t even talk in front of her closest friends. That’s how bad the situation is. And this needs to be addressed.

Caste-based discrimination is normalised to the extent that even those who are affected, like my friend, don’t talk about it. Perhaps they think that’s how it is supposed to be and that there’s nothing wrong about it.

I think this can be changed through discussions on as many platforms as possible. I feel, if the conversation can change the perspective of even one person, that’s more than enough.

But change needs to start at home and at school.

And as someone who comes from an upper caste family, I don’t think I deserve accolades or medals to acknowledge the prevalent casteism. Treating a human-being like one is normal and that’s how it should be.

That’s what needs to be normalised.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty

As told to LiveWire