Caste and the City

“If you are not considered human, human rights do not apply to you” – Hanns Heinrich Schumacher, German Ambassadorr at the International Network for Dalit Solidarity.

A scientist in Pune recently filed a complaint against her cook for lying about her caste to get a job which was open to only Brahmins. The scientist wished to employ household help to cook and serve on religious festivals and pujas. The cook, desperate for employment, claimed a Brahmin surname and was hired. A few months later, a priest declared that she was not a Brahmin which lead to an investigation by the scientist about the cook’s family. Upon discovering that the cook was of a lower caste, she was deposed by the scientist who then proceeded to question her about her caste. The scientist believed that her God had been defiled. In response, the scientist claims that she was “abused”.

It is a myth that caste discrimination does not permeate to the educated and/or urbanised section of society. Permeation connotes that caste-discrimination is external, but the idea of caste is deeply embedded in the way individuals act because it is an inseparable part of one’s identity. The cook in question was accused of breaching sections 419 (cheating by personation), 352 (punishment for assault or criminal force) and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) of the Indian Penal Code. A surname that you inherit (or in this case, steal) can potentially be a predictor of your position of privilege, your location in the social hierarchy, your life partner, and your career. It will also determine whether you will ever be considered ‘clean’ in a context that is defined by its sanitised Brahmin identity.

In 1707, Balaji Bhat (of the Konkanastha Brahmin caste) moved to Pune. The then emperor Shahu Maharaj, pleased with his efficiency, appointed him as ‘Peshwa’ or the supreme position in the administration. This was followed by a large-scale migration of his family and fellow konkanastha brahmins from Konkan to Pune. Pune became their stronghold and they reinforced untouchability on the Mahars. As a result, the latter joined the British army and defeated the Peshwas in the Battle of Koregaon. The descendants of Bhat and his relatives still occupy Pune.

However, the city remains the epicentre of caste conflict. In the early 20th century, Bal Gangadhar Tilak lent his support to the Brahmins who had refused to perform the “Vedokta” (Veda-based) rituals to crown Chhatrapati Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur because of his lineage. Shahu Maharaj then pioneered the quota system in 1902, by reserving half of the administrative positions for non-Brahmin communities.

On September 11, 2016, lakhs of Marathas demonstrated on the streets of Pune, rendering the city dysfunctional. They had two demands. The first was a demand to repeal the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and the second a demand for a greater share in the reservation.

And then, in 2017, when the furore over the scientist’s overt caste discrimination broke out, the Akhil Bhartiya Brahmin Mahasabha supported the scientist. It soon changed its stand, suggesting the resolution of the issue through “mutual understanding” and blaming the government and reservations for the existence of caste discrimination. Anand Dave of the Mahasabha told The Wire, “I employ people without asking their castes or surnames both at my office and home, but it is our government that keeps the caste system alive. There are quotas and reservations everywhere. The upper castes should not be blamed; instead, the government must change the system. I am sure Dr Khole must be feeling cheated as her family tradition goes back 80 years.”

As tragic as breaking a long-preserved tradition of caste-discrimination might have been, the tradition points to deep-rooted ideas of what cleanliness and purity comprise. A cultural gulf was created between castes due to the enforcement of different standards and laws of morality and conduct for different castes. A constructed gap cannot be an indicator of innate virtues. Even today, only upper caste cooks are employed and the lower caste individuals must become cleaners or sanitation workers. It is ‘politically incorrect’ to discriminate on the basis of caste so the discrimination assumes a covert form. By not talking about caste we are merely rendering it invisible. Toddlers beyond 7 months of age know that just because something is out of sight, it does not mean that it has ceased to exist. We must acknowledge the elephant (hint: political party symbols) in our own context. Our social media activism must not remain decontextualized; it is time we address the issues that we are a part of and strive to understand them and thereby begin to resolve them.

Author: Sharvari Karandikar


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