Identity is a fundamental part of our being. We have many simultaneous identities. Some are circumstances of birth or life, others are conferred by something we do, still others fall somewhere in between.
These identities indicate similarities among certain groups of people and are broad stereotypes that help us understand and relate better. For example, it would be absurd to ask a vegetarian if he eats chicken, and then separately for fish, beef, eggs and more. We understand the stereotype “vegetarian” to mean that this person we have just met will not eat any kind of meat. There are exceptions, which are notable for not following the pattern, but the patterns help us function amid the diversity of people and their circumstances and habits in the world we inhabit.
An identity in itself is merely a description of traits. The problem arises when some identities are treated unfairly by or in comparison with other identities. These identities are not just caste. Woman, child, leper, homeless, beggar are examples of identities that often face a default disadvantage in terms of social power. Other identities face a deficit of trust – politician, lawyer or money lender, for example.
Social identities we get from birth are not a choice. You aren’t a Brahmin because you chose to be one, any more than you are a dalit because you chose to be one. It is a descriptor of how you are seen by those around you.
It is fashionable these days for people from upper castes to pretend to not know their caste or “abdicate” it. The problem with this is that it means nothing. I speak from experience. I am atheist. I have denied being a Brahmin many times. NOTHING changed in how I was treated. I stopped denying my caste, because I realized that all it achieved was for me to pretend that I don’t profit from privilege, when in reality, I do.
Our centuries of conditioning of caste is such that the minute you open your mouth, accent and diction brings instant recognition. A surname completes the picture. Entire cultures and communities revolve around castes and sub-castes. There are a thousand subtle behavioral markers that make it instantly evident to one who values caste and many who don’t realize how much they unconsciously register. To stop “being a Brahmin” with any real difference in how I was treated would take un-knowing many things Brahmins grow up conditioned with. It would take eating food differently, speaking differently, forgetting countless Sanskrit verses I grew up hearing. It would take going back and refusing all the various opportunities I received – would the new girl me have to struggle to get an opportunity to learn?
Would I even be the me I am now, if I hadn’t grown up with that sheltered ignorance of dangers to girls that did not see an unsurmountable challenge in a young, single girl living as a nomad in remote rural India? Would I have been able to pull it off safely and have a profound, life changing experience if my speech, behavior and presence itself didn’t save my reckless butt with the proclamation that I wasn’t a category of person you could fuck with without consequence? Perhaps I would. Perhaps not. Perhaps, I wouldn’t have grown with the foolish belief that no one would harm me that led me as a girl barely out of teenage into thinking that living in the Himalaya and being a nomad on my own would be feasible. What does it mean to deny caste without also giving up every unequal advantage you continue to enjoy because of it?
I remember my horror to discover for the first time that “Shastra puja” actually involves ritual worship of weapons – as in swords and such – among warrior castes. In our household, my father used to worship his electronics tools, and I worshipped my books!!! Till then, the fact that “shastra” means weapon or instrument (at its most benign interpretation) had completely escaped me. Naive? Definitely, but I had the luxury of having a functional world without learning practices of others because I lived at the top of the social food chain of what is acceptable. I suppose the world also needs some people naive enough to worship books as weapons :p
I had once, briefly stayed as a paying guest in the home of a Muslim. It ended rather abruptly when I praised ham sandwiches and invited their daughter to try one and worse, when asked not to do it, argued that it was delicious and that they should try it instead of just refusing without having ever tasted. I had never heard of a taboo about pork and thought it was their family eccentricity. I was Hindu Brahmin, studied in a convent, had some Muslim friends, I thought I knew religious diversity. (No, they didn’t kill me, merely asked me to find another place to live when my ignorance and argumentative nature simply wouldn’t accept a taboo.) It took me over a decade to understand the full magnitude of the offense I had unwittingly rendered.
I once had a kunbi maid. One of the sweetest persons and willing workers I have ever met. I had asked her to churn the dahi to extract the butter. She just stirred it a bit and brought it back. So I sent her back to churn it properly. Again, the same. Eventually I got angry at her “laziness”. Why not just churn the damn thing till she could see the butter instead of trying to escape the task? Turned out, she wasn’t trying to escape the task. She had no idea how butter was made. She was fifty years old without ever having made butter at home. They didn’t even have milk daily. I learned how butter was made in early childhood. It was a routine process in the household.
My current maid is Malwani with a dialect that is simply enchanting. You want her to make the fish curry and not me. My balcony garden would not have been half as thriving as it is without another kunbi maid’s years of practical experience working crops. “You don’t need to do anything, just thin the seedlings. They need space.” when I was googling up fertilizers for why my damn plants wouldn’t grow as advertized.
Every culture, every caste, every lifestyle comes with a wisdom and experience of its own distilled into houshold practices, heirditary professions, rituals, methods, arts, heroes, reformers, philosophers and more. The problem is that we have reduced our understanding of caste to the “caste hierarchy” and discrimination or agreement or disagreement with reservations. Our efforts to combat it attempt to wipe out everyone’s roots and render them into anonymous people that will be vaguely “same”. I don’t see this as either useful or respectful. What we are saying is that underprivileged people are too shameful to be respected for who they are and we have to somehow hide it. It may be well meaning, but it is an insult. We do it with many things, not just caste. We blur faces of rape victims – in effect saying, “If people knew who you are, they wouldn’t respect you.” It is not empowerment, it is not respect. It is a declaration of inferiority that says respect can only happen if you hide who you are.
I’d rather respect the diversity of cultures without seeing them or me as superior or inferior. Possibly because love taught me to respect the wisdom of many castes and tribes. The home that felt more home than the one of my birth were Buddhist tribal nomads. I lived as a tribal nomad for seven years. I saw the wisdom in their ways, though it took a while for my naive entitlement to register it initially. I would not wipe out that learning by pretending there was nothing special about them and we were same. I do not see the need to anonymize centuries of experience, traditions and knowledge and wipe them out in an effort to pretend that discrimination is not my problem just because I have abdicated it.
Identity is not always a choice, but actions are a choice. I can choose not to discriminate. I can choose not to rank individuals higher or lower on the basis of identity.
I oppose discrimination on the basis of identity. I KNOW I have enjoyed disproportionate favor, but I will not perpetuate it. I may not follow Brahmin practices or beliefs, but having still enjoyed the privilege, I will also use my identity as a Brahmin to acknowledge that it was unfair and ensure that THIS Brahmin does not allow discrimination. It is not enough for Brahmin voices to say the wrong thing or fall silent. The need is for Brahmin voices to say the RIGHT thing instead of falling silent.
At the same time, I don’t see how it is useful to sneer at Brahmins for existing, if sneering at dalits for existing is evil. I see this in a lot of people who fight caste discrimination. This monolith Brahmin who can only be evil and unless you want to be known as evil, stop calling yourself Brahmin. Counter-prejudice is not noble either. Fight discrimination, fight injustice – that is where the war is. Attacking an entire identity of people just because you associate them with oppression makes you no better than those you object to. A default of hate for Brahmins makes about as much sense as a default of hate for shudras.
The struggle needs to be for dignity and inclusion of all. Today, it is “upper” castes that define popular culture. This needs to change. A shared space needs to be created. If being called a man or woman is not an insult, being called a dalit or Brahmin ought not to be. It is merely identity. It is actions that merit contempt or respect, regardless of identity. We need to create social acceptance for self determination of caste and speak up against impunity to caste crimes. We enjoy the power, we must bear the responsibility for setting matters right within our spheres of influence as well.
What the caste system needs is not Brahmins with a sense of fairness quitting caste and leaving it the sole domain of those who discriminate, but Brahmins who are aware of injustices and change the living culture into one that refuses to discriminate. There is no rule that states that Brahmins must perpetually be inhuman and if you are humane, you must pretend to not be one. If enough Brahmins oppose discrimination, it may just become possible to have Brahmins offering society what they are good at, instead of seeking their status in pushing others down. Which many do, but they abdicate their caste, leaving the caste stereotype still mired in primitive injustices and perpetuating them. What we need is “entitled” castes who don’t subscribe to discrimination to oppose the practice and refuse to include it in their social norms. Then perhaps we will finally have generations that see diversity as enrichment instead of threat.
Many may batter at gates demanding access to wells of dignity, the ones on the inside who believe it is wrong that the gates are closed must throw them open instead of pretending they don’t exist.
Note: In this post, Brahmin can be substituted by any caste that does not suffer social discrimination and dalit can be substituted by one that does. My use of the words merely reflects the caste that I was born to and the identity most mentioned when these questions come up in discussions.