It’s about time we address the elephant in the room we call India—caste and comfort have never gone hand in hand. While matters have progressed since the country gained independence, with the Constitution laying the ground for equality and social activism propelling its ethos forward, we still have to ask each other the question: Have we truly helped individuals from oppressed backgrounds rise up? Have they been able to change their mentality, which has been ingrained in them through society?
The answer to both these questions is no. Even today, over seven decades after independence, individuals are not comfortable with their caste—and why is that so? Being an 18-year-old Dalit in the 21st century, I have myself experienced and heard stories of people from oppressed castes being hesitant in accepting their caste, avoiding conversations related to caste and identity, lying about their caste.
Why does this happen in this day and age, even as we call ourselves progressive individuals, believing ourselves to be modern and moving towards the future with a very broadminded outlook. But is that really true? The reason why individuals from the vulnerable and oppressed caste feel this way is based on their past experience of being judged, of being marginalised and excluded. It is so frustrating and cacophonous in nature as caste can never be removed, the discussion about caste can never be avoided. Ingrained, conservative, bitter ideas about people from the oppressed castes cannot be easily eradicated with a few conversations and Acts.
Till date it is assumed that people from oppressed castes cannot be rich and in the creamy layer. Members of these castes themselves often believe this to be true. I had a gardener come to my house one day, and when he mentioned his name and surname, I understood that we belonged to the same caste. Curious to know her hometown, I asked her if she was from the oppressed caste. She lied to me about her caste, and I wondered why she did that. She likely assumed that I belonged to the upper caste, possibly because of where I was living. If I was actually an individual from the upper caste, did she do the right thing by hiding her caste? From her point of view, yes, as they are treated in a different way because of the work they do. Moreover, vessels and other such objects are kept separately for them. Perhaps she lied about her caste because she did not wish to be subjected to such behaviour. For once, she wanted to be treated as a simple human being.
In another case, while having a conversation with a person who is a Dalit but is privileged enough to live a luxurious life, she told me that her friends in school assumed that she belonged to an upper caste family because of her lifestyle. Their assumption led them to have multiple conversations in her presence bashing the vulnerable community. This is where comfort comes in—why did she not tell them her caste? Because she was made to feel uncomfortable. Comfort here works both ways: One is to feel comfortable and two is to be made to feel comfortable.
The only way to ensure this is to create an environment which is safe and comfortable, which makes people believe that no matter which caste they belong to, they will never be subjected to exclusionary and marginalising behavior which stems from stigmatisation. But this sounds like an idyllic scenario given the reality we live in. To ensure that this does not remain a fantasy, we must take every step possible—no matter how small—to bring about change and, most importantly, spark a conversation which compels people to undergo the process of learning and unlearning concepts and ideas, which will help us become a country that does justice to its Constitution. While this conversation is not new nor alien, yet it has been brought up multiple times over the years, and it still remains relevant and of vital importance for all.
The Constitution of India will always remain a beautifully curated vision for India. As I end this article, I would like to share a quote by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar: “Will history repeat itself? It is this thought which fills me with anxiety. This anxiety is deepened by the realisation of the fact that in addition to our old enemies in the form of castes and creeds, we are going to have many political parties with diverse and opposing political creeds. Will Indians place the country above their creed or will they place creed above country? I do not know. But this much is certain that if the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever. This eventuality we must all resolutely guard against. We must be determined to defend our independence with the last drop of our blood.”
Prerana is a law student at NMIMS School of Law, Bangalore. She is a social activist and an active speaker for the oppressed community and social issues.