Tuesday June 25, 2024

Fifth column: Cast in faith

By Murtaza Shibli
September 16, 2017

L`ast week, Dr Medha Vinayak Khole, a senior scientist and a deputy director general at the India Meteorological Department (IMD), Pune in Maharashtra, filed a complaint with the police that her cook, Nirmala Dattatraya Yadav, hid her caste and marital status to secure the job.

Khole alleged that she explicitly wanted a Brahmin and a suvasini – a married woman whose husband is alive – to prepare food at her house for various religious events. According to Khole, a priest informed her that Yadav was not a Brahmin and “hurt her religious sentiments”. As a result, she lodged an FIR against Yadav under various sections of the Indian Penal Code that deal with cheating by impersonation, intentional insult with the intent to provoke breach of peace and punishment for assault or criminal force other than on grave provocation.

Yadav dismissed the allegations and lodged a counter-complaint with the police, claiming that the weather scientist had told her that “her God had been desecrated” because of her caste and marital status as a widow. 

Despite an impressive record of progress in education, scientific discovery, knowledge and wealth generation after Independence, the caste system continues to perpetuate violence and disadvantages for a large majority of Indians. Regardless of the intellectual advancements and a booming economy, caste remains a prevalent and powerful marker of Indian culture and society and forms the important basis of individual and group identity that also shapes the respective worldview.

Although India has enacted several progressive laws to ban the practice and has even introduced legally sanctioned quotas in jobs and education to create a level-playing field for the disadvantaged, the discrimination is lurking everywhere – from the job markets to real estate, education institutions to service provisions and religious functions and rituals to places of worship. It even governs the rituals of death and matter involving the disposal of the dead.

Although the caste influences in urban centres have become moderate due to the consistent and necessary public interactions for want of space and the fluid nature of people’s movement in the constricted metropolitan geographies, the prejudices based on faith beliefs and practices continue to inform the larger interface as the intimate considerations of purity remain essential in the ossified caste hierarchies. 

It is not uncanny to notice that such discrimination and prejudices become salient in the institutions of higher learning. According to a witness statement by a group of academics submitted to the court, lower-caste students face “administrative indifference, hostile regulations, insults, social and academic stigmatisation; and rejection” in their diurnal interactions with upper caste students, teachers and administrators.

Last year in January, Rohith Vemula – a PhD student at the University of Hyderabad, India and author of the book, ‘Caste is Not a Rumour’ – committed suicide after facing continued harassment following his activism under the banner of the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA), a Dalit rights group. Vemula’s suicide sparked outrage and provoked protests across India to highlight what was described as caste-based discrimination against the students of lower castes.

Pushed by unwholesome circumstances, Dalit students find it hard to cope as caste discrimination is seen as a norm that is deeply entrenched in the educational institutions. As a result, there has been an alarming increase in suicide deaths by students belonging to these groups. An academic analysis of 25 cases of suicides among the students of higher education in several Indian institutions of higher learning found that 23 of these students were Dalits.

The official response is often couched in denial or obfuscation based on technical nuances that attribute the suicides to specific incidents. This might be true to some extent and may apply to specific cases. But this cannot discount the institutional violence that caste discrimination propagates. The government commission established to investigate Vemula’s death concluded that the suicide was “wholly a decision of his own” and that “no one is responsible for his death”.

The report that was tabled in the Indian parliament last month also questioned Vemula’s identity as a Dalit, as touted by the media and rights activists, and revealed that he “belonged to the other backward classes (OBC) rather than being a scheduled caste” – a disclosure that hardly has any bearing on the institutionalised discrimination of the lower castes.  

Several academic studies challenge the official assessment and support the widely held belief of widespread discrimination, exclusion and humiliation against students of a lower caste as the predominant reasons for these suicides. The problem is worse in elite institutions where Dalit students face sly insinuations and innuendos on a continual basis as they are seen as rank outsiders who are not worthy of placements in these establishments.

A media report quoted Anoop Singh, an academic who studied several of these suicides, saying that caste discrimination has played a significant role in the suicides of Dalit students. He observes that “elite professional institutions are the places where caste prejudice is so firmly entrenched that it has become normal”.

The institution of caste has not only survived the political revolutions and economic transformations of over three millennia, it has also thrived in the new lands, allowing the hierarchy and segmentation to seep into the Indian diaspora in the West. The Dalit Solidarity Network (DSN), a Dalit advocacy group, has been campaigning for over a decade to safeguard Dalits from the caste discrimination in the UK. The group was instrumental in persuading the British parliament to recognise caste-based discrimination and a promise to ban it. The pledge has since then been diluted by the ruling Tory government for fear of upsetting the influential upper-caste Hindus.

The US-based Dalit groups are also lobbying to challenge such discrimination, bringing them into confrontation with the Hindutva-supported groups who are forcefully trying to befuddle the reality by altering the past through palatable reinterpretations. Like their counterparts in India, Dalits in the West face several challenges as the socio-cultural associations that represent ‘Indians’ or the ‘Indian culture’ are often dominated by the upper-caste elites who actively promote a religious and cultural discourse based on upper caste values, which often means refusing to acknowledge caste discrimination and whitewashing the violence that it engenders.


Twitter: @murtaza_shibli