Casteless at the Top
Posted on Oct 29, 2012 / Author: Aziza Mohammed / Tags: Politics, Policy and Diplomacy, Human Rights and Development, Education, Culture and Communities, brahmin, caste, dalit, India, jodhpur, unicef
Having been born and raised in Canada, I had always been casteless. That was one social hierarchy that was completely irrelevant to my daily life. However, this would soon unexpectedly change. In 2011, I was offered the chance to work in India for UNICEF. It would be the opportunity of a lifetime where I would not only have the chance to help vulnerable groups recover from natural and anthropogenic disasters, but I could try to find and connect to my roots. It didn’t quite work out that way.
When I arrived at Indira Gandhi International Airport, I found that my rudimentary language skills were enough to get me into a cab and to my hostel. I was ecstatic. I was soon walking past the blue iron gates of UNICEF to hear about my upcoming assignments in the deserts of Rajasthan, the flood plains of Bihar, and the tsunami beaten shores of Tamil Nadu. This inspired a feverish optimism, that would be broken over the coming days, weeks, and months.
My Hindi skills were indeed rudimentary and it was not long before I found myself communicating primarily with sign language. The isolation would not stop there. For all my academic training and field experience, I would still run into obstacles because of my gender and my age. By the time I was deployed to Rajasthan, I was completely dejected. I no longer felt that emotional tie to India that I had carried with me all my life. Only my work kept me going, and even that was stalling.
After a week of visiting remote dalit villages to conduct field interviews, I had two days leave to spend in Jodhpur - the ‘Blue City.’ At the top of an impressive cliff stands the Umaid Bhavan Palace. In front of its lush emerald lawns was an oasis of a garden, complete with its own snack bar. Conspicuously foreign, I chatted about my work with the kind, elderly bartender. During our conversation, he asked me about the names of my grandfathers. Still new to the country, I didn’t quite understand what he was ‘really’ asking for. When I told him their names, he gasped and exclaimed, “You’re a Brahmin and you want to help poor people?!” I smiled and said yes.
It struck me for the first time since I had come, that I had a tie to this land. No matter what anyone said, even that bartender could see that a part of me had a place here. I looked out at the shimmering wave of Brahmin blue buildings that flowed across the golden sand. The meaning of that colour, Brahmin blue, washed over me and I was filled with the feeling of belonging. I was no longer casteless.
Caste would be a tool that I would deploy in the months that followed in order to not only have more than just a seat at the table, but also an authoritative voice. Caste made up for the disadvantages of my age, gender and youth. And I could cast off my caste, whenever I wished.
But very few have this privilege.
Those at the bottom rungs of the social order through varna (colour) or by jati (occupation) were never casteless. Over time, I grasped that caste was an ever-fixed mark for those without the money and training to compensate for their social standing. The different mannerisms of upper versus lower caste, though subtle, were unmistakeable and passed down from generation to generation. There were even biological markers among impoverished dalits. Certain nutrient deficiencies expressed themselves physically, making an individual’s poverty impossible to conceal. Even certain facial features were fairly consistent in dalit communities. There was something intangible that made identifying low-caste individuals easy as well. I asked Sister Sudha Varghese, the founder of Nari Gunjan, about this. She replied, “Yes, just look for the most unhappy, unfortunate people you can see and you have found the dalits.”
The Government of India has of course tried to break down this social hierarchy. It not only outlawed discrimination based on caste, but also built a system of affirmative action to help lower castes better their lives. From reserving positions in government, to economic assistance, to guaranteeing access to coveted spots in good schools, there is a bonus for being part of the ‘backward’ castes. While these policies have had many positive effects, they also continue to contribute to the institutionalization of caste.
The dalits and ‘backward’ castes cannot effortlessly adopt and shed their caste identities on a whim the way I’m ashamed to admit that I did. They cannot escape the socially constructed destiny of their birth. Until they can, social hierarchy and the daily indignities of its imposition on people will remain as rigid as ever in India. For the moment, you can only be casteless at the top, and that is the barrier to meaningful change in the lives of so many.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.