I am Ramkumar, pursuing PhD at Tata Institute of Social Sciences. One day after a discussion on Rohith Vemula’s institutional murder, one of my friends asked me, what kind of discrimination have you experienced? Without even thinking a minute I replied to her: no, I don’t think I have faced any direct discrimination. The instant reaction of my friend to my answer, raised a few questions in my head. How is it that I haven’t experienced it? Or was I in ignorance? Haven’t I experienced any discrimination based on caste? Or did I not realise the experience as such? If so, what kind of caste-based discrimination had I come across in my life? Such questions were going through my mind. It helped me to reflect on my life since childhood, on the question of caste. What I found is both sad and interesting.
I was born and grew up in a village, Elavadai, located in Dharmapuri district, Tamil Nadu. Different caste groups such as Vellala Goundar, Chettiyar, Kuravar, Navithar, Paraiyar and Vannar (Both Paraiyar and Vannar are Dalit castes), and a few Muslim families are living in the village. Around fifty percent of the population consists of Dalits, the rest consist of remaining castes. Spatially, the different castes are located separately in the village. There are clear boundaries between oor which consists of caste Hindus and colony, which consists of Dalit castes.
I grew up in my grandpa’s brother’s home till my fifth standard as my parents and grandfather migrated to Bangalore for work. Our house was small, with a roof that was half-covered with tiles and rest with coconut and palm leaves; with mud walls and without electricity. Most of the Dalit houses in my village were like that during my childhood; there were a few tiled houses and one or two pakka houses with cement floor. In our small house, eight members lived. There was no toilet facility, everyone had to go to lake side which is on the outskirts of the village, or some waste land. There was a veranda (empty space) beside the house where we used to stitch coconut leaves to sell and at night we used to sleep there. Back of the veranda there was a street lamp where I used to study in the evening, or do my homework during school days. Those were happy days.
I went to school from 1st std to 8th std in our village itself. My reflection on life made me realise that caste experiences were part of our everyday life since my childhood. Early morning, being youngest person in my grandfather’s brother’s family, many times I had been sent to buy tea for home. Tea shops were located in a caste Hindu place. The tea shop has two compartments, one is inside the shop where the tea making place and beside that there is a place to sit where only the caste Hindu people could sit. Others had to sit in the outer compartment. Mostly Dalit elders sat outside. Also, I observed a two tumbler system: glass tumblers for Dalits and steel tumblers for caste Hindu people. I used to think that it is normal in every place. To get tea I give the shopkeeper a big vessel, and keep money on the glass bottle which he takes, sometimes sprinkling water over the money I give.
Like the teashop, discrimination is very much visible in the village in different public spheres such as the temple. Till now Dalits in my village are not allowed inside temples located in the caste Hindu hamlet. Similarly, they are not allowed to participate in the festival celebrations too. Every year in village, on the last day of the Pongal celebration, they organise games and cultural programmes for the children, young people which is called padivettai. There are two kinds of programmes happening, one is oor padivettai (village celebration) which is celebrated by the caste Hindu area, and padivettai which is celebrated in the Dalit hamlet. Both happens on different days, first would be oor padivettai and then padivettai in the Dalit hamlet. Most importantly, Dalit people are not allowed to partake in the celebration in the caste Hindu padivettai.
Then, another place where caste is more prevalent is in schools. Whenever, free books, uniforms, come to school for Dalit students, the circular to collect those will come to the classrooms. Teachers openly ask us to raise our hands who are SC (Scheduled Caste) students. Sometimes we even stood up. Those times I happily raised my hand, happier to get books, uniform etc. without understanding the stigma. During lunch time, we used to sit near the classroom, where our teachers sit. Once they finish their meal, they gave remaining food to us. We take that food, eat and wash their tiffin boxes. Mostly, Dalit students only eat mid-day meal provided in schools. Others brought food from home. While having food also, we Dalit students sit with other Dalit students, while others sit with their caste friends. I could literally see I do not remember any incident of sharing a meal with friends from other castes (non-Dalit). Most of my Dalit friends have similar experiences. We never visited their homes. Apart from that, since my school days till now, I could hear the taunts of the students about Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe students regarding their scholarships/fellowships. Even in Tata Institute of Social Sciences students speak like that: ‘we are paying our fees, there are some students who don’t pay anything.’
Since my childhood, though I have encountered caste on an everyday basis, I have not realised it as caste-based discrimination. I felt it is normal, happening in my village and nearby villages. I was in ignorance. I have psychologically normalised the relation between them (Caste Hindus) and us (Dalits). I used to think they are different from us; we cannot go to their homes. Those kinds of differentiation became normal to me. I have never questioned it. In all my schooling, my close friends were from Dalit castes. There was always distance, when I spoke with other caste classmates, though I have not consciously maintained the distance. However, it does not mean that I have felt inferior to others.
Apart from this discrimination, our village people were more assertive. That is the reason, our village has not witnessed any worst form of caste violence. Interesting part in our village is that we used to have a procession on every Babasaheb Ambedkar birth anniversary by carrying the portrait of Babasaheb Ambedkar in our (Dalit) hamlet. Every year, on April 14th that procession would take place. I used to go with the youths who carried Babasaheb’s portrait. They used to distribute sweets. It starts in the evening, and goes around with Theeppantham (kerosene lamp). There was a pole and a blue flag with Ashoka Chakra in the centre at the entrance of our hamlet.
Though, I have not faced any violent or more physical kind of caste-based discrimination, I have always experienced other forms of caste discrimination through my life. However, the realisation of such forms took so long. Though I am aware of case violence, humiliation and discrimination faced by fellow Dalit people around me, it took very long for me to realise my experience. During my graduation, though I studied Mathematics as a main subject, I always had interest in reading about caste atrocities, reading about society etc. One of my friends and I were planning to prepare for UPSC exam. He used to discuss about society, caste, and the importance of becoming a civil servant.
I am not sharing this because my experience is unique or I faced worst kinds of discrimination. I am writingabout my experience to tell others how caste works psychologically, and how it works in people’s minds such as what I have felt: that I never experienced caste discrimination. I used to be a religious child who went to the temple, did pooja at home in absence of my father or grandfather. During village festivals, I used to circle in and around the temple. It has all started changing after I started reading Babasaheb’s writings and discussions with my friends.
As I began to read Babasaheb, I realised that our existence is a form of protest against Hinduism and oppression. Our life is the evidence of the history of struggles against caste oppression. Our presence in the education spaces creates unrest among the casteist people. Till I was in Hinduism I could not think independently. Once, I move away and decided to walk in the path of Babasaheb, this society, and my being make sense. Realising that brings more power to assert our rights and stand for equality, fraternity. It took twenty-seven years for me. Then I realised how important it is to take Babasaheb Ambedkar and his ideology to every single house in the Dalit hamlet. That will bring real change, not only among Dalits, but also in whole society.
Ramkumar Govindan is a Doctoral Scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.