The Creed of Caste: Ending Casteism Through Feminism
Pravartika Wankhede (India)
Back in middle school, kids in my class first began to realize the concepts of religion and caste and the normative narrative of society. They flashed sacred bands on their wrists in the afterglow of sacred rituals and showed off the vermillion marks on their foreheads; we were clearly dying to belong. So, when we realized that we were born into a community by virtue of our birth, we clung to that community with all of our heart and set about imitating the practices of the adults around us. Consequently, a girl in my class decided that it was okay to tell other kids not to touch or share water with me because I “ate meat and would contaminate them.” I can only assume that it was the people she lived with who inspired this bold move. I assumed it was a cliché “mean-girl” move and moved on.
A year later, however, when I read Dr. Ambedkar's The Untouchables, I realized that what I was subjected to was caste-based discrimination. Caste is a system that originated through Hinduism and it divides people based on karma and dharma (duty) or the spiritual principle of cause and effect. Over time, this solidified not as something you became or could achieve through actions, but an unchangeable and unwanted birth. Imagine if you were told upon birth that a bricklayer is all you could be, and all that your children and their children could be. Reminiscent of slavery? That is the basis of caste.
There are, broadly, four castes: Bramhins (scholars), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants) and Shudras (menial labourers). The Shudras are Untouchables; historically, they lived on the outskirts of civilization, weren’t permitted to own anything, and were forced into menial labour. Picture this: A bare-torsoed man, eyes lowered, hands joined, a pot around his neck to spit in (for spitting anywhere else would contaminate the ground), and peacock feathers around his back to wipe off his unholy footprints. Imagine him cleaning your house, collecting your waste, washing your clothes, growing grain for you to eat, oppressed by the holy scriptures that you wrote specifically to oppress him.
Voila- slavery 2.0!
To understand how bad this is, you need to know that hate exists, and that it stems from this horrible, intense need to dominate. The amount of hatred that this need generates is incomprehensible. Casteism, or discrimination on the basis of caste, is—yes—absolutely illegal. Yet it exists and blooms in this favourable environment of hate.
In and around 1992, there was a shocking and unexpected surge in caste-based atrocities in India according to a national census conducted by Chandrabhaan Prasad. Behind a census, there is often another overlooked census, and here it was: This census showed that a massive number of lower-caste youth had migrated to booming cities looking for employment and a better life. The upper-castes were obviously chagrined seeing communities that they looked down upon rising to their levels, sitting at their tables, voting and living their lives. Soon, members of the upper castes assaulted members of the lower castes in horrifying and crude ways, and the conversation rapidly shifted towards consumption of beef by the lower-castes.
Beef has been a key staple in lower-caste cuisines, because when those communities are forced to clean cow carcasses and are not allowed access to any other food, there’s only so much that can happen. There were public lynchings, floggings, and murders of lower-caste people for their consumption of beef, perpetuated by a Gandhian vegetarian ideal that was never before permitted to, but became pushed upon, lower caste communities.
Lower-caste men were killed for: eating in front of an upper-caste man; for loving someone; for sporting a mustache; for wearing jeans and chains; for sitting cross legged; for entering a temple; for riding a horse at their own wedding; and for swimming in a well. Like how the Ku Klux Klan butchered African-Americans after the Emancipation for having rights, for existing.
Who is the typical upper caste man? He's been fattened with propaganda since the day he crawled out of the womb. He is imbibed with a great sense of pride in his Hindu religion and taught to hate anything and anyone who defers from his exacting and false standards of morality. He is an oppressor. He is lacking in logic but is armed with violence. He is a common sight in the top positions of society, and while he claims to be anti-caste, he is a cultural suicide-bomber who sets afire anything that might prove superior to him. He is not incomparable to your everyday privileged white man.
There is much debate about the path to end caste, as well as various answers. Over the course of intense interactions with various people within the Dalit community, I've found that the only viable and beneficial option in the long run is feminism. Casteism was never built to benefit women; women are a means of production for men’s legacy, and to control the product, you have to control the manufacturers. To this day, I remember as a roaringly hilarious anecdote the time when Twitter founder Jack Dorsey held up a placard that said, "Smash Brahminical Patriarchy." The backlash was horrible, and it was almost as if Dorsey had committed a sacrilege. It may not be intuitive, given the extent of conditioning that many people must consciously undo, but it can at least be learned. This unlearning should be as vital as the green recycling symbol, as ubiquitous as the new rupee sign, as catchy as the ‘Horn Ok Please’ phrase painted on vehicles in India (1).
On September 14, 2020, a brutal act of sexual violence happened to a 19-year-old lower caste girl by four Thakur upper-caste men in Hathras, North India. The country was on fire. People were speaking, they were agitating, they understood that it was a hate crime, that caste isn’t for women, that people belonging to the caste the girl belonged to have historically had the designated job of cleaning excrement. She wanted to study and have a good life, and the men didn’t want that to happen.
Funny how Gandhi called lower-caste people Harijans (God's people), the state called them Bahujans, but they could never just be jans, just people, so that in the Jan Gan Man, in our national anthem they might be counted, too (2).
The last thing that the Hathras perpetrators did was cut the victim's tongue off as the final symbolic act of silencing her forever. There is pressure on us from this dictatorship; they are betting on us to lose; they are gambling on our impending infighting, so the only way we can win is to fight.
In haunted prairies for the grieving dead
In the haunting visions of her last days
Through the riveting stories that in memories fade
Through fighting for them and rallying our cries.
And then: Our voices will rise, rise and swell
Into the bold bugle of battle—Unafraid!