Casting Caste Away
It was late in evening, later than what our sessions lasts each Sunday. We had watched “India Untouched”, a documentary on the status of caste-based inequalities in contemporary India, in a post lunch session. The class was very quite after the movie. Well for a group of teenagers it is quite understandable if they were bored of watching such an intense movie, that scene after scene cried out just one message – India is still strong on Caste.
I asked them to take some time to think, write and share their experiences around caste. When it came to sharing, the class went silent. Again, totally understandable. It’s not easy to share our experiences around caste. One, we, at times, don’t really understand if what we experience was because of our caste. Two, if we understand we are mostly embarrassed about it. I told the class, “If you don’t want to share, its fine. We shall end today’s class here. However, remember that if we don’t stand up and speak now, I am not sure who else will. And then we all will suffer our own miseries of this issue… Let’s go home.” I started packing my bags. One of the students raised her hand and said, “bhaiya, I want to share.” I looked up and gestured her to speak on.
Some two weeks back, when I was planning my session on caste, I wasn’t very sure on the conduct of the session. I wondered – Should I play it low or hit it strong? Should it be done through a movie or an external facilitator? What all should be the content of discussion? Should I really be talking about it to a class of teenagers where I have a mix of students from the “upper caste” and “lower caste” (in quotes because I am feeling short of right words to use, and hence borrowing these words from the general usage)?
In my exploration, I kept going back to Dr. Manish Jain, my faculty for History of Education and our discussions around caste in the class. Like my students, I too was kind of ignorant about the pathos of caste before we had discussed it in his class; this despite experiencing it myself at many occasions in my own life.
It was 10:30 AM, Sunday morning, as the students started walking in, I felt a little nervous. I was going to facilitate a session on caste for the first time. I have participated in discussions on this topic with my friends, colleagues, peers and professors. But a bunch of sixteen-seventeen year olds are different people. So we finished some routines of classroom administration before they finally settled in for the session.
We started the class in similar way as Manish sir had done with us. I walked around the class with my shoes on my head and asked my students, “how does it feel?” The class was numb.
“In certain part of the rural India, there are people who still have to walk this way if they have to cross through the lanes upper caste people,” I asked again, “how does it feel?” And here we started our discussion on what is caste, explored the idea of Varna, does it all make sense, what’s its history, what work has been done, what’s the political stand on this and related ideas.
Studying caste and Ambedkar is kind of synonymous. However, the question for me was how do I introduce Ambedkar to a group of students who may have read Shivaji in detail but had very little clue on what an Ambedkar or Phule mean to Maharashtra’s and further, India’s landscape of political and social movements.
Vivek, a friend, introduced me to Bhimayana and Gardener in the Wasteland – Jotiba Phule’s struggle for Liberty. I found these picture books reader friendly and a good departure from how I have indulged in the matters of caste in the heavy readings of Sociology. I think, looking at the state of political and social apathy in India and alienation of leaders like Phules, Ambedkar and the likes from the social conscience and deposition of their ideas in the custody either the academia or the politicians who, I think is not so useful brigade of people, who have simply been claiming ownership to the knowledge base and assume no responsibility for making it accessible to the junta, these pictures books makes so much sense. All of a sudden history becomes more approachable.
The most important question for me when I plan my lesson is – whether my students are being indoctrinated with my ideas or those presented in the material used in the classroom or are they able to dabble through various perspectives in an attempt to form their own views?
I think both the books do a fabulous job of making Ambedkar, Savitribai and Jotiba accessible to “common man and woman”. However, I realized speaking about them in the class presents one view on caste. Despite the voice of the lower caste being unheard or misheard for many years, its still was not fair for me as a facilitator to not include the voices of the upper caste. So I had the “lower caste” representation in my content. However, what are the views of the “upper caste” people? More importantly, the leaders? For that I read through a couple of other ideas some inclusive, others totally insane. I needed a strong but a sane viewholder from the other space. That’s when I brought in Gandhi. I think, Gandhi and Ambedkar, both wanted social equality for people. However, their understanding on how caste should be dealt was very different. And what intrigued me more was how their interactions influenced Gandhi to change his understanding and further his standpoint on the subject. In that regard I happened to read “Changes in Mahatma Gandhi’s Views On Caste And Intermarriage” by Mark Lindley. I thought that would be neat to use in the class as opposing and yet evolving view point. So I created a reading material based on the text, interspersing it with some contemporary newspaper articles on atrocities against Dalits in different parts of India.
The Phules, Ambedkar and Gandhi formed the three reading groups for the book reading and presentation section of the class. Students had to read through the material in given time and present their learning through a performance that should highlight the key learnings that group had as part of their internal discussions while reading.
Later we watched ‘India Untouched’ together, post which we discussed our own experiences around caste. The discussion logically flew into a discussion around reservation, where interestingly my class stood equally divided. What I found more interesting was, some the SC students said reservation should not be there. “Bhaiya, what’s the use. The upper caste people pay money and get a SC certificate made and get the reservation. The SC people who don’t have money to pay can’t get the certificate and so can’t use the reservation. So what is the point of having it?”
The other SC student said, “but if we don’t have it, even those who could get some little benefit will also not get it.”
And the class went on to discuss the idea of merit – “reservation will make the quality of people in different positions bad. Good quality people will not get jobs”, the way people teased some of the SC students in their schools and they used to shrink in to their own zones – “they used to call me Ghati and I would simply be quiet”, why an upper caste but poor person suffer – “does he/she not need reservation?”, why the majority of BMC cleaning staff is from Dalit community – “why certain brahmins even though they are poor will not take up a cleaning job?” and so on. Our discussions ended with government of India’s schemes for Dalits, their implementations, the laws and their course of action.
When I asked key learning from the group who had read Gardener in the Wasteland, one of the students responded, “I think, this discrimination is never going to end. It just changes its name. Sometimes it’s called caste, at other times an inheritance of money (economic class). And now its marks we score. So if I score low marks I am labelled in a certain way in the school and for all my life I remain there. Basically it doesn’t really go away.” To understand this comment, it’s important to know where my students come from. I work with a bunch of teenage students from urban slum communities of Mumbai. Most of my students went through Municipal or low fee private schools and are now pursuing their junior college (XI grade). The reading not only gave them an understanding of caste issues in the times of the Phules but helped them reflect upon their own lives, contextualize their own social positioning and dilemmas they face and word them.
The group that read Gandhi summed up their act by a question posed at us all – Gandhi, despite magnanimity of his persona, changed his views and accepted these changes in public. When are we going to do that? Why is it so hard for us?
I think it’s time we all should deliberate on this question – why is to so hard for us? Why the power that we get as part of our inheritance of caste, economic wealth, gender or whatsoever becomes as if it’s innate? Why can’t we part with such a non-achieved thing to create something that we rightfully can call our own? And to guess my own answers, I feel it’s the weak that rely on such an inheritance because they know that by virtue of their own merit they can never achieve what they has got by the virtue of their birth. And thus they create social structures that solidify, legitimize and validate their inheritance. To separate ourselves from where we come is so intricate that it becomes difficult for people to even realize that such a separation is actually possible and more so is desirable for us to create an equitable society.
The problem with the idea of social equality is that those who have the power always feel threatened that they may have to give up something and those who don’t have it always blame it on those who have it… that is if they realize their position.
Is it possible to replace the idea of power over others with power within self? And before I ask that, I think it would be important to understand “power with respect to whom?” is desirable for a more sane human existence.
One of my students narrated a situation from his class the other day, when I asked who his best friends in new college are and what do their parents do, “Bhaiya one of their father is a shoe maker, other one’s is a BMC worker.” I asked him, “why not others?”
“Others are rich, bhaiya. And they have lots of attitude. They rarely attend classes and tease me all the time.”
“What do you do when they tease you?”
“Sometimes I tease back. Sometimes I just ignore.” I can’t really narrate the expressions on his face in my limited vocabulary. But I had felt uncomfortable. What should one do in such a space, where on one side he is seen at an equal platform as others (after all he is attending the same college as the other students) on the other he suffers as an effect of his identity that appears misfit in the scheme of things?
I think these teenagers have raised some important questions; some very uncomfortable questions. I am not sure if we are still in a position to answer them, yes, even after sixty years of independence. I only hope that my students strive for and find their own answers. Amen!
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