The Shadow of Caste

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“Who is the team leader of your group?”, an official in an urban administrative office asked our team who was on field during our district immersion in Satna, Madhya Pradesh.
I said, “My name is Nitisha”.
“What is your full name?” he questioned looking perplexed.
“Nitisha”, I said again.
He insisted, “You would have a full name, wouldn’t you?” I remarked that I didn’t have any, but since the team had begun feeling uncomfortable we gave someone else’s name from the team and ended our meeting.

This wasn’t my first encounter with someone on field who was supremely concerned with what my surname was. If you still haven’t understood, this is the shadow of caste which has been following me everywhere like a ghost, refusing to go away anytime soon. During the district immersion course at ISDM called Realizing India, I realized the privilege of my surname ‘Pandey’ which denoted that I come from the so called upper caste.

Most high level officials I met was a Dubey, Jha, Mishra, Tiwari, Upadhyay, Chaturvedi, Dwivedi and their likes. How have I been so unaware of this reality until now? Why was it so starkly evident in this district/state of my country? This focus on caste and the feudal practices were recurrent in my visits to villages, administrative offices and conversations with people throughout the district immersion. I had too many questions and no answers.

Among other disturbing experiences was a conversation with a man who works for tribal welfare in a block of Satna on the increasing number of children dying of malnutrition. He spoke about how if people die in other parts of the country (Mumbai, Delhi) there is so much coverage by the media. However, no organization came forward to help when thousands of children died. Are the lives of these kids from the so called backward communities less important to garner the attention of the government, media and the country?

In a session of Harsh Mander when I first heard ‘legitimization of prejudice’ I didn’t quite understand what it meant. He shared a documentary movie named ‘India Untouched’ on the existing caste biases in India shook me to the core. Growing up, I had been aware of the economically unequal status of people in my society. I have been raised in a culture of ingrained class and gender biases which are prevalent in our homes, schools, colleges and even extend to workplaces. But I failed to notice this shadow of caste which normalized inequality and indifference.

When I sat and thought of my childhood, I remember my mom serving our maid food and water in a different set of utensils. I can recall a friend from school being bullied and mocked for getting higher marks in class because he belonged to the so called lower caste. I was disheartened for not having received interview calls from reputed institutions even after scoring higher than a few friends as I belonged to the General category. I have been ignorant of the world around me and detached from compassion for a very long time. The time is now, to care.

How can we even begin to think of development, when Dalit children are made to sit on the floor and discriminated against in schools? When the girls from Dalit communities are made to clean toilets in schools, when you can feel the palpable differences in certain areas of the village as you move, when Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes comprising 25% of India’s population (According to the 2011 census) struggle acutely to meet even the basic necessities like food and water – how are we aiming to transform people’s lives through technology as our Prime Minister claims?  Even after institutional safeguards and affirmative action, these people haven’t been able to take the benefit of these provisions.

In the recent years there has been this buzzword in India around growth and development of our nation. India is the world’s 6th largest economy with a GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth of 6.7% according to IMF in 2017 and is expected to rise to 7.5% in 2018 according to a recent report in The Hindu. India also ranks 100th among 119 countries on the Global Hunger Index and 131st among 188 nations on the Human Development Index (HDI). Is this the development we are talking about? When we have failed to recognize the existing disparities in our own societies with respect to caste and class, it is going to be an enormous task to overpower these internalized norms and override the century old systems of the exploiting class.

Even as educated individuals we give out accusations for the reservation that exists for the upliftment of households that have suffered through generations of violence, poverty and indignation. We argue for merit and equality, all the while ignoring the socially constructed differences which we are living every single day. I guess, this culture of insensitivity is the prerogative of the entitlement which the so called upper class operates with.  One may argue that this may also be due to lack of awareness and knowledge of what is right, but that doesn’t dilute the fact that the ownership to do the right thing doesn’t exist in most individuals.

We can have social advancement only when the individuals today decide to become humble and responsible citizens of the country. It is on us now to build equitable and inclusive societies that understand their role in the development of the country and work towards changing mind-sets for a truly progressive India – one where all children in schools will be treated fairly, where all of us can eat at each other’s side from the same plate, where my surname will no longer be my identity.

And even if everything else gets too difficult, let us all in the least, care. 

Signing off,

Realizing India is the district immersion program which is a part of the Development Leadership course at Indian School of Development Management. I am presently a student in the program and fortunately had the opportunity to visit the district of Satna in Madhya Pradesh for two weeks. 


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