“We so-called untouchables are outcastes. People who are outcastes are waging a war against caste. The caste people have the privilege to forget about caste, but I cannot forget. Even for one second if I forget about my caste, society reminds me that I am an untouchable… everywhere.”
That’s what Bezwada Wilson, the 2016 Magsaysay award winner, said as we sat together for an interview in Manilla. Wilson is the founder of the Safai Karmachari Andolan and has been working to eradicate the inhuman practice of manual scavenging—cleaning of human excrement from dry toilets by Dalits using bare hands.
Many of us have come across similar thoughts from people who work to improve Dalits’ lives. But when I heard Wilson say this with such stark factuality, something stirred in me. I began to wonder whether I, too, am reminded of my caste often. For a moment I convinced myself that I don’t think of my caste—that consciousness is never triggered. But then I realised that was far from the truth.
I am, in fact, proud of my caste and have subconsciously always held on to that identity. I am empowered by its history. Every conversation about my ancestors and their lives is entrenched with their—and consequently, my—caste identity.
I celebrate this connection and there is no doubt that it fortifies me. My education, a sense of titular prominence, intellectual ownership, cultural power, and social predominance are deeply ingrained in me. They make me who I am. I am born with this wealth of self-worth and to negotiate the complex terrain of civilisation is that much easier.
In spite of all my intellectual understanding of the need to annihilate caste, it lives in everything I do. This natural sense of belonging and entitlement in almost every space that I occupy comes from my caste. I am certainly privileged, not only inside the sanctum sanctorum when I know that the priest has recognised me. It also happens in many supposed secular places such as shops, offices, police stations, and hospitals.
It is important to realise that I may not receive preferential treatment but the fact that the other person knows where I come from is enough. I am perceived as cultured, as opposed to the rest, and whether I admit it or not I am happy that I am known. When I walk into any place I gravitate towards my ilk and I do not see anything wrong with that. I am inherently conscious of the so-called others and, hence, those interactions are contractual, nothing more. The foundation of caste is not economic; caste is a cultural and religious discriminator, implicitly and explicitly dividing human beings, and that results in economic backwardness.
Hidden in my caste is also a creature that places a halo of sorts over my head—charity. This is no gentle thing. It is actually violent. Charity is not a soft reflection of compassion but a violent expression of pity. It does, of course, have short-term economic benefits for many but its primary function is to cement gaps in the pyramid of inequality. The thinking goes: “I am upper-caste, but I am not casteist—I help everyone.” Charity makes sure that the hand of the giver is stronger and the receiver remains forever beholden to the charitable.
Whenever upper-caste people think along these lines, it is dismissed as self-flagellation. “We cannot be blamed for the mistakes of our ancestors,” they say. But this is not about the past—it is only a call for introspection and self-awareness.
Can we, the so-called higher caste, deny the privilege that accidental birth has bestowed on us? Can we, for one moment, remember that all the things we take for granted are gifts of enforced inequality? And I am not referring to just weighty material acquisitions but to the intangibles: deference, respect, dignity, and privilege. These cannot be quantified and, hence, go unnoticed. These are a huge convenience. These social indicators make me who I am and, even if I am not wealthy, they give me strength.
A poor person of higher caste is the wretch whom misfortune has overtaken; the low-caste poor is the wretch who was meant to be a wretch. That’s how society explains it to itself.
Those who fight caste oppression are told: “Don’t ignore the economically backward among the forward castes.” While there is no doubt that everyone has the right to support and help, irrespective of caste, gender or class, must this be pegged as a counter to the fight against casteism?
In making such an argument, the empowered are only further establishing their inability to accept caste as a living reality. And soon, condescension enters the fray, which tells us: “We have done enough for them.” Interestingly, this is the very line Hindus use in the context of Muslim minorities.
Somewhere deep inside, the mindset that thinks of this nation as Hindu also thinks of it—in fact, venerates it—as culturally upper-caste Hindu. Can we miss the Sanskritic bell-metal tone in Bharat and, even more so, in Mahaan Bharat? This is the very reason why all non-Brahminical interpretations of mythology and scriptures practiced by many subaltern communities are considered aberrations, vulgar, or derogatory.
But this is not a Brahmin vs non-Brahmin debate. I believe one of the problems of the discourse has been this polarised dualism. This reductionist approach allows for caste to slither its way out. For the forward caste, the rest are one bloc of people—and all caste problems exist beyond the forward caste group, in between those non-Brahmins. Once I admit anyone from outside, I have rid myself of caste and, by default, my kind is caste-less.
We never try to understand the struggles of aspiration that force changes in the individuals seeking acceptance. Non-Brahmins see the Brahminised as cultural models and as they climb the ladder, they may unconsciously and consciously sacrifice their self for status. This may mean erasing their own social past and, as a result, even people from their lives. Cultural aspiration is an emotional offence that society has forced upon its people.
The greatest tragedy is the emotional state of those who occupy the rock-bottom platform in society’s vertical differentiator. On them, we perpetrate the worst kind of offences. The cumulative discrimination, beginning from the top, falls entirely on them, crushing them under its weight.
Every caste group fights the subtle and overt attacks by the ones on the higher stage. But they are equally generous in inflicting wounds on the ones below. This continues to add up as we step down the ladder until we reach a point where life is emotionally, psychologically, and economically un-liveable—and that’s the place occupied by Dalits and tribals in Indian society.
This top-down cultural model gives the privileged the best seat in the house. We remain the ideal. Over time, some of the superficial aspects may have changed, but the essence is the same. Therefore, I feel the onus falls equally on those who occupy this seat to demolish this structure. This requires courage, humility, and constant self-enquiry.
Bezwada Wilson has redrafted the paradigm in the battle against manual scavenging. But he also reminds us that caste is an ugliness that he is never allowed to forget. Unfortunately, it is this very ugliness that we wear on our sleeves with aplomb and refer to as culture.