Abul Kalam Azad
“Caste is not just a division of labour, it is a division of labourers” ~ B. R. Ambedkar
Recently, a big revelation penetrated the national media with considerable sensationalism – according to the results of the India Human Development Survey (IHDS-2), the largest pan-Indian non-government household survey, which involved surveyors asking respondents, “Does anyone in your family practise untouchability?” and, in case the answer was “No”, asked a second question: “Would it be okay for a Scheduled Caste person to enter your kitchen or use your utensils?”
Across India, 27 per cent respondents agreed that they did practise untouchability in some form. The practice was most prevalent among Brahmin respondents (52 per cent).
Unless one exhibits a special inclination towards masochism, there is not really anything here to sweep one’s soul into bouts of shame, for any serious and critical/self-critical observer of Indian society. If there is one thing that defines our society, it is caste- sometimes, it rages before our eyes in all its grotesqueness, and other times, it is so normalized and mundane that we hardly acknowledge (or pretend not to) the silent violence we commit by being complicit in this heinous and morbidly ingenious hierarchical segregation of society.
And still more unsurprisingly, reactions of Savarna Hindu liberals tumbled out from social media, like dead bodies from a stinking closet, like dirty laundry from an abandoned cupboard. I was angry reading them. A discomfort surged across my skull – the kind when someone abuses you viciously. This article is an attempt to deconstruct my anger and give my rage a coherent shape before it gets relegated to the sulking portion of my subconscious memory which has no more space for unspent wrath.
Let’s get the basics out of the way: “nothing to do with caste….basic hygiene” (Twitter feed, Rupa Subramanya), “It is not about the people, their caste or where they come from anymore”. (“Caste and the Kitchen”, Aanteladda blog)
Yup, you heard it right. Caste has nothing do with who cleans our utensils, who cooks our food, who cleans our shit….In other words, caste does not exist.
One is forced to wonder, how many brahmins are engaged in manual scavenging? Or why 1.3 million dalits in india are still swacch-ing our shit?
I will focus on this particular piece “Caste and the Kitchen”, which, in my opinion, is highly pernicious. The rot of the argument lies cushioned under all the subtleties and self-confessional maneuvering, an impeccable skill cultivated by upper caste liberals (might be inherited from their ancestors).
Who cooks our food? Who cleans our shit?
The author begins the piece by declaring that she never came into contact with prejudices related to caste and religion during her growing years, owing to her sheltered existence. Never does she attempt to reflect or lament the naivety of this flawed perception. She fails to understand that caste is present in its absence, that caste persists through its invisibilization- her denial itself is a proof of the privilege that her caste has conferred upon her.
This, it seems to me, is very dangerous as it is a very stubborn refusal to acknowledge an epidemic that pervades every conceivable space, which is quite discernible by the people who are at the receiving end of this cruel unjust system.
The way we ponder over our past shapes our perceptions in the present- it is because she does not discern caste in her childhood interactions, she could now write something like this, “Even now I do not know the caste, or even religion of the help who cooks, cleans the house, looks after me and my family”.
She also notes, with a hidden pride, that “In our lives people from all castes cooked for us, sat next to us on the train or bus and came to school with us”. While I would hate to question the credibility of this subjective experience, I would still like to ask, how many of those ‘people’ belonged to the same caste as her? What was the nature of interactions with these people? Is any of them a child of the person who cleaned her toilet, or her maid who swept her house, or engaged in any menial task? The answer to this would be, I shall venture to presume, not many. This is unity in diversity. A united nation with diverse people performed pre-ordained, diverse and distinct tasks. And more so, a nation that celebrates this and refuses to see any issue with it.
Pragmatics of Caste
And the most problematic and the vicious fulcrum around which this article revolves is thus stated:
I asked a friend’s grandmother why all the traditional cooks were brahmins, why not others?
Her answer was simple – brahmins were trained to be clean.
That simple. Skills. ….It’s not really about the caste. It is about the assumption of skills. That’s where we are stuck.
And more pearls pierced my eyes, as i read on:
Something that would rationally explain the myth of untouchability? Is it possible that in passing it down the generations only the rigid shell of the rules remained and we forgot it was about rules of living to fulfil professional goals? […] Can one not include simple sanitary processes regardless of caste? Duh. Of course one can. What would I tell the friend’s mother who would not let the same person clean the toilets and cook in the kitchen?
Speechless, I was, when i read this for the first time, for it seemed to me like a twisted justification of caste system. The very fact that she is trying to find a rational explanation for untouchability (or worse, its myth) sickens me to the core. What can one expect from the grand lineage of Manu? An explanation and a justification for caste. The answer, of course, is hideously predictable: cleanliness, inherited purity and skills. A dubious attempt is being made to delink caste from notions of sanitation and purity.
Caste is couched comfortably in the veneer of pragmatics: the necessity of hygiene inside the twice-born homes. This makes it easier to shift the limelight from the Savarna brotherhood to the dirty Shudras, ati-Shudras ( it is really amusing how not once did the author mention the castes that lay outside the varna fold even while writing about people cleaning here toilets) and minoritiies. The solution to untouchability, hence, does not lie in the annihilation of caste (how can you annihilate something that does not exist? Priniciple of energy conservation, my Physics professor reminds me in my mind), but in purifying these unhygienic people, training them to acquire the skills of cleanliness which the Brahmin has long mastered, thus making them worthy enough to enter the unpolluted kitchens of Savarna households.
Of course, caste is pragmatic. it is pragmatic to not worry about who collects our garbage, it is pragmatic to not care why “a crime is committed against a Dalit person every 18 minutes”, it is pragmatic to not know the caste of your maid, your cook etc, it is pragmatic to marry a person from the same caste, it is pragmatic to deny caste, cocooned in our ‘sheltered’ lives while reaping the benefits of its existence, it is pragmatic to be apathetic, it is pragmatic to be a casteist upholding the standards of purity set by their not-so-different ancestors.
The grandsons and granddaughters of Manu no longer use religion as the preferred metaphor for caste, they have moved on to more eloquent idioms of prejudice like hygiene.
My new year resolution: to clean my body of the stench that comes with being born as a BC (E) muslim and to climb, step by step, on the ladder (as Ambedkar puts it, ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt) that extends from the sewage to the Savarna kitchen. I hope to die one day savoring the hygienic purity of Savarna existence.
Wish me luck!
Abul Kalam Azad is a student at IIT Madras.