Vol – XLVII No. 52, December 29, 2012 | Anjali Rajoria , EPW

An impassioned plea by a Dalit woman professional for acknowledging the prejudices and obstacles even “privileged” people like her face when confronted with the structure of caste. This personal experience underlines the context for the Constitutional amendment bill on allow reservations for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in promotions.

Anjali Rajoria is a medical doctor from Delhi.

“A slave cannot be freed save he free himself. Neither can you enslave a free man, the most you can do is kill him.”

Robert A. Heinlein

In case you are wondering what a ‘Brahmin Dalit’ means, let me clarify at the very outset, I claim to be a Brahmin Dalit because I was born with the label “lower caste”. (In fact that label is given even before one is born, but lets keep that aside for a while.) However, today I am a relatively well off, educated and an accomplished dalit, hence the epithet, ‘Brahmin Dalit’.  Do you think that I am trying to gain your sympathy by deliberately posing as a victim of the evil caste system despite being in a much better position than the majority of my fellow dalit brethren?

The answer is a clear, unequivocal No! My purpose here is only to help people understand what it really means to be a dalit and how it is so difficult for us to get rid of our caste identity, even in this time and age. I writhe in agony as I give myself the title of ‘Brahmin Dalit’. When I realised that it is my religion that is impelling me to live life with a degraded status forever, I decided to renounced my religion. I am no longer a Hindu. When I look back, I feel so proud of having taken that decision a few years back.

But the stark reality is, even if a dalit turns into a non-Hindu in her quest for liberation, her caste status continues to haunt her. Her identity continues to be shaped by her caste and she continues to grapple with it every single day. Her society forces her to bear the burden of bondage. It is this bondage that we wish to break. We wish to be freed from slavery.

Perhaps the title ‘Brahmin Dalit’ is not appropriate. Because a dalit Hindu can convert to Islam, Christianity or to Buddhism, but she can never turn into a Brahmin. “Dalit” rigid label for life. It refuses to erode. It is a label that reminds us constantly of who we are. We stand at the end of centuries of injustice and oppression. And even today we are treated as second class humans. We are presumed to be unequal in possibly all aspects – less intelligent, less capable, less hygienic, less civilised and what not. The inequality meted out to us is justified on these counts.

So even if a dalit accomplishes something in his life, he is secretly dismissed as an exception. He is not granted his place of respect. Very few people realise how much he would have struggled to achieve what he has. Very few people take the pain to empathise with him. Yet, publicly his example is used to criticise the positive discrimination extended by the government to the dalits. It is not uncommon to see such hypocritical attitude of casteists around.

True, urbanisation and modernisation have diluted the occupational rigidities and economic disabilities to some extent. Dalits can now aspire to occupy the highest echelons in terms of occupational status. But does that mean that we have got rid of this hydra-headed monster of caste? Definitely not. For those who are still wondering in disbelief, my suggestion would be to take a closer look at the whole picture. If you think that caste no longer holds relevance in urban India, go and personally talk to any of the backward category students studying in any of the elite institutions of this country. Ask her how many times she has been disgraced by her teachers and fellow students. Ask her how many times she has been forced to hide her identity from her professors for fear of being castigated only because she is a dalit. Ask her how painful and tormenting it is for her to live under the shadow of untouchability in a free country.

Thorat Committee Report clearly points towards the continued discrimination and segregation of students belonging to dalit and tribal communities in premier institutions of this country like All India Institute of Medical Sciences and Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. For how long will we turn a Nelson’s eye towards the plight and anguish of these young and bright minds? How many more Eklavya-like sacrifices do we need to get rid of Dronacharyas who deliberately fail even deserving students belonging to backward communities.

It does not need rocket science to grasp the reality that caste stigmatisation exists even today, a fact that no well-reasoned person can brush off. A look at the website of National Commission for Scheduled Castes and National Commission for Scheduled Tribes would easily give you an insight into the horrendous levels of continuing maltreatment dalits are being subjected to. It probably would require an encyclopedia-sized tomb to mention all the atrocities that have been perpetrated and continue to be perpetrated in the name of caste.

Let the dead past bury the dead. We do not hold grievances against injustices of the past because what has happened cannot be undone. But even in the present times, 90 percent of the so called menial jobs are performed by dalits. Those living in the hinterland are forced to reside in ghettos or slums. Government schools and offices continue to witness segregation of dalits. The occupation of priesthood is still monopolised by Brahmins. We still have Hindu temples that continue to deny entry to dalits. Inter-caste marriages are the exception rather than the norm. Honour killings of those who dare to defy the diktats of their elders by marrying people of “lower castes” are commonplace. In fact, caste is such a pervasive reality that almost no group of people (including non-Hindus and even non-resident Indians) and no part of India is untouched by its immense influence.

I have nothing against the Brahmins. Being born to the upper caste (or lower caste) is not a matter of choice. I hate the Brahminical system, not Brahmins. Vices of the Brahminical system may be found in dalits and non-dalits alike. The ultimate panacea for all such ills has to be ‘Annihilation of the Caste System’. Its time for us to come out of our comfort zones, accept the harsh realities and collectively try to heal the near-permanent wounds of dalits. It is time for us to open our hearts and minds to embrace those as equals who have been disgraced and denied a dignified life for far too long.

I am very hopeful that a time will come when caste will lose its raison d’etre, when people will be treated only as humans and when we will redefine our identity in terms of secular credentials alone. Babasaheb Ambedkar had once remarked, “We are all Indians, firstly and lastly.” To realise this dream, we must ensure that caste is stripped off of all the functions that it performs for Indian society. We must take collective action to dismantle this evil structure. There are many well-intentioned people who are sincere about the goal of eradication of caste hierarchy. It is these people who continue to give us hope – hope of ushering in a new era – a caste-less and classless society.

Numerous measures can be taken to efface bigoted caste identities, at governmental and societal levels. Strict enforcement of legal provisions to proscribe all forms of expressions, rituals and social practices associated with the caste system is the need of the hour. Alongside these steps, we also need to ban the use of caste names to prevent targeting of caste groups and instead replace surnames with the names of either the father or the mother. (Former union health minister Ambudani Ramadoss had given a worthwhile suggestion in this regard). Inter–caste marriages should be freely promoted and incentives should be provided for those who decide to inter-marry. Government and social agencies should make inroads into dalit areas to provide equal and universal access to education, social equality and employment to all. Upper-caste-dominated occupations, especially in the private sector and media need to be accessible to people from the backward sections. Most importantly, we need to infuse the spirit of confidence and self-worth in our dalit brethren.

Martin Luther King Jr. had famously observed, “A person who cannot die for a cause is not fit to live.” To my dalit brothers and sisters, this is my message: We are not alone in our fight against tyranny. There are many others outside our net who empathise with us. But we have to be the prime movers and torchbearers in our struggle. We are ‘chosen’ to fight and we will keep fighting. This is our only option.

Brothers and sisters, it is time for a revolution. A revolution that will begin in our hearts and minds. Liberation of the self from internalised oppression does not happen quickly or easily. The tiniest bit of self-liberation needs to be nourished and treasured and consciously grown. We have come very far, but there is still a long way to go. We will shape a better tomorrow and we will leave behind footprints for others to follow