Let’s turn the table

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rohit-vemula---hyderabad-university

My father works as a sanitary worker with Kotagiri Town Panchayat in Tamil Nadu. To be accurate, my father is a sanitary worker because the occupation was predetermined by his caste and not because he was applied for it to become one. Similarly, my mother was predetermined to be a sweeper and she sweeps at St Mary’s Home School in Kotagiri.

With modernity and industrialisation, some caste-related occupations got blurred but the ‘sanitation job’ remained exclusive to Chakkiliyar/Bhangi. Thus, my parents’ ‘choice’ of livelihood opportunity was not their choice but forced by the Brahmanical hegemony in the Hindu religion; then sustained by privileged caste groups; practised by the democratic State through approved public policies and normalised by almost everyone.

My parents have told me, since my childhood, we ‘live’ as untouchable (Thotti/Bhangi) because we ‘are’ untouchable. Both believed that Hindu society (and other societies) had nothing to do with it and blamed their – and our – fate for the burden. However, they believed in the power of education as it presents an opportunity to choose one’s occupation, though the subordination is congenital due to caste identity. They made it clear that it is up to me to blend into the society.

My parents made me feel that I cannot blame the society for my suffering. It was, therefore, difficult for me — when studying with caste Hindu students in school — to discuss my feelings with my parents when faced with humiliation, forced subordination and various forms of discrimination. As a result, I took part in the collective suffering of my family but my very own exposures to humiliation and other suffering remained my personal experience.

Later in my life, I would come to realise that my parents have done the same; they, too, have hidden the suffering and humiliation to themselves as the caste system presented no hope in their lives. In fact, they expected us to normalise humiliation and suffering.

Ravichandran Bathran | Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, and Founder, Dalit Camera
Ravichandran Bathran | Fellow, Indian Institute of Advanced Studies, Shimla, and Founder, Dalit Camera

This is where education is critical in one’s life as it presents hope through literature, politics, critical analysis and, importantly, by questioning traditions. Despite huge limitations, mass media continue to play a critical role in deliberating caste-related injustice. Sometimes, shameless display of power and casteism by media corporations can and do reveal how caste has come to be institutionalised. But then, the mainstream media’s portrayal of Dalits is often derogatory: they are protesters, trouble makers and benefit scroungers; often a burden to the society and a drain on the public spending system.

This dominant articulation has a modern and urban face that is contrary to the free market narrative where everyone appears to have equal choices and opportunities. India’s ‘free market’ economic capital is inextricably linked to caste networks. The State that regulates and facilitates this economic capital is also, therefore, dependent on caste capital. Growing privatisation of education should be seen as an extended space for social and market capital. As a result of these, Dalit students experience systematic humiliation and alienation not only in universities but also in politics and the market.

A person who is conscious of and sensitive about caste discrimination is certain to become alienated in every psychological, emotional, social and political sense in today’s campuses that breed free-market-loving, reservation hating students who benefit from caste-intensive social networks. This is why the Dalit and anti-caste students’ movement is crucial in democratising our campuses. These outfits question the present, past and future of the society we live in. They may be few in number and not always successful, but their actions are solely committed to the welfare of Dalit students as they have no other support system in our campuses. I am proud to say that many like me are the product of such movements in the universities.