Caste discrimination

Casteism and social apartheid the norm in Uttar Pradesh

Print edition : November 06, 2020

Police personnel stand guard outside the residence of the 19-year-old Dalit woman who died after being allegedly gang-raped, at Bulgadi village in Hathras on October 6. Photo: PTI

Police personnel trying to stop Bhim Army president Chandrashekhar Azad Ravan and party workers from going to meet the rape victim’s family members, at Sasni road in Hathras on October 4. Photo: PTI

In Uttar Pradesh, caste-based graded inequality has always been the lived reality. What is different now is the attempt by forces of the ruling dispensation to manoeuvre the divisions within society for its political advantage even at the cost of social equilibrium.

In Hathras, shortly after the 19-year-old victim of an alleged gang rape by four Thakurs was cremated at night against the wishes of her parents, her family was put under surveillance. Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure was imposed in the town, and her family members were allegedly not allowed to meet members of the press. Her brother, who had earlier spoken to this correspondent, had to switch off his mobile phone. The family was confined indoors. Meanwhile, some members of the Thakur clan were allowed to hold a public protest in the same town. Bare-chested young men raised provocative slogans and virtually issued warnings to the victim’s family and to leaders such as Chandrashekhar Ravan who had visited them. The victim’s family cowered in fear; even before the police surveillance, the women of the family had told this correspondent that they felt unsafe going out after 5 p.m. Members of the Thakur clan roamed around freely, fearlessly.

Hathras, as one discovered, is a caste-ridden township. A large part of it is “reserved” for upper castes, largely Kshatriyas with a sprinkling of Brahmins and Vaisyas; the downtown area, near the town’s open drain, is where Valmikis reside. Besides being sanitary workers, they often work as unorganised labourers sowing and harvesting crops in the fields of Thakurs. When the need arises for their skills, Thakurs send a message through an intermediary as it is considered beneath their dignity to approach a Dalit house and request its members to work for them. When Dalits procure something from the market or when they participate in social functions, they are the last to be served. Shopkeepers were giving them their purchases from a distance much before the term “social distancing” came into vogue because of the pandemic. At weddings, Dalit women are expected to sit on the floor and wait to be fed after the upper castes have enjoyed the feast.

Although this is disturbing, Hathras is not an exception. In Uttar Pradesh, caste-based graded inequality is the norm. In town after town, district after district, there is social apartheid. If the Muslim community has its walled cities or ghettoes, the upper castes have the main town squares, the Dalit community has its own living areas by rivers or open drains, almost always to the south of a town or village. In many cases, there are clear social dos and don’ts: for example, when a Dalit groom was asked to disembark from his horse during his wedding procession or when a Dalit man was asked to walk with his slippers on his head when going past a Thakur house. Dalits can enter an upper-caste colony if they have to but are required to maintain a social distance and subordinate themselves to caste norms. There is no inter-caste dialogue, no social cohesion.

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The noted sociologist Prof. Vivek Kumar of Jawaharlal Nehru University says: “In the Hindu caste hierarchy, Dalits were always excluded. Today, they work on the fields owned by upper castes but are not allowed to come near them. Their livestock is not allowed to graze in the fields of upper castes. For morning ablution, they have to go to far-off areas. They cannot live in the east or west of the village. They live only in the south of the village. It is because of the wind direction. We have westerlies and easterlies in this part of the world. It is believed the Dalits will pollute the entire village if their domain comes in the path of these winds.”

The renowned sociologist Prof. Avijit Pathak gives it a different spin, arguing that it is the forces of establishment that are often used against the poor, the minorities and those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy. “Whether you are a Muslim or a Dalit, the establishment is ranged against you. Despite apparent symbols of modernity, Indian society has become increasingly regressive over the past few years. There is tremendous glorification of consumerism and all sorts of regressive ideas. Religion has become louder and more uninhibited. Living in a highly stratified caste structure in a village in U.P. is particularly challenging. We see caste prejudices and forces of a patriarchal society well entrenched in towns and villages of U.P. The dominant castes are backed by political representatives. They are very aggressive, hyper masculine and becoming more and more intolerant and insensitive to issues related to equality. It is in tune with the political philosophy prevalent in the State. From Unnao to Hathras, we have seen the recurrence of violence, the glorification of brute masculinity. U.P. is a particularly bad case of caste prejudice.”

Prejudice with official backing

According to Prof. Pathak, the way the Hathras cremation was handled followed by the family being put into virtual house arrest is a glaring example of caste prejudice backed by the official apparatus. “There was complete marginalisation of the weak and the poor. The way administrative machinery behaved in Hathras, the language they spoke, the way they reacted to journalists and civil society activists was disdainful. No wonder the court pulled them up. They would not have done the same had an upper-caste girl been violated by lower-caste men. It is a society that is extremely hierarchical and it encourages extreme inequality.”

Prof. Kumar believes it has always been this way and has only come to the media spotlight after the Hathras tragedy. “It does seem that the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh] always backed the Kshatriyas, right from the early days of the Jana Sangh. They trust Kshatriyas. After Partition, the Kshatriyas were always with the Jana Sangh. Today, with the BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] in power, they act like the ruling caste. As a sociologist I see, today, the BJP has excluded Muslims and Brahmins (incidentally, the backbone of the Congress in its heyday in U.P.) and chosen a few of the Dalit castes who were not with the Bahujan Samaj Party [BSP] to weave together their social coalition. They are building a new alliance with backward castes, starting from Mauryas, Mallas and on to Pasis. The Lodhs had been with them since the days of Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti. They are trying to create religious fervour around them. Like Mallas often circulate the story of their association with Lord Ram, the Pasis talk of having originated from the paseena [sweat] of Parsuram. On the one hand, the BJP in U.P. today has Thakurs who make up some 9 per cent of the electorate. Then, they have others from the most backward and other backward castes who make up 32 per cent of the electorate. They even tried to project the Prime Minister as a backward caste. Two hundred small meetings were held on caste lines in the run-up to the 2017 Vidhan Sabha elections. Today, caste calculations are so intense that not only policemen in positions of authority or district magistrates, even in COVID restoration centres, you see predominance of people from these social groups. This is a new equation in Uttar Pradesh.” This 41 per cent seems to be the dominant force in the State.

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Incidentally, social stratification has always been the lived reality in Uttar Pradesh. What is different now is the attempt by forces of the ruling dispensation to manoeuvre the divisions for its political advantage even at the cost of social equilibrium. Says Prof. Kumar: “They are trying to manoeuvre the division within the caste. It was not considered feasible in the past because the stratification system in U.P. is continuous. We get seven to eight layers of groupings of community in the hierarchy. In the south, we have a minuscule minority of Brahmins, then we have the great masses of non-Brahmins. Here, we have Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, then we have intermediary castes like Jats, then we have most backward classes, then we have the Scheduled Castes. We have 59 castes among the backwards, seven to eight among them may be mobile, the rest are most backward. Among the Scheduled Castes, we have 66 castes in Uttar Pradesh, including the Jatavas and Chamars.”

According to him, the caste dynamics are changing. There was a time in the 1980s when Thakurs and Mallas were ranged against each other. Phoolan Devi, the well-known bandit queen-turned politician, was said to have killed Thakurs to avenge caste violence. In turn, the brother of V.P. Singh, who was a Prime Minister of India, was killed even as he vowed to eliminate all dacoits. Prof. Kumar says: “Those were the times when the backward and other backward castes and Thakurs were at loggerheads. Now, they are forming a new type of alliance where they are actually saying, ‘Exclude Muslims. Exclude the main Dalit castes and exclude Brahmins.’ Now, we have the backward [castes] and Thakurs together, a very new type of alliance.”

It is an exclusion that is in consonance with the argument of those who feel that most of the encounter killings in the State since 2017 have involved the elimination of men hailing from the Dalit and Muslim communities. “Hathras is a microcosm of U.P. We must keep in mind the fact that Hathras is close to Delhi. So, whatever the BJP does in Hathras will have a spillover effect on Delhi and Rajasthan. Now, the elections are coming up in Bihar. So, U.P. caste politics will have a bearing there too,” says Prof. Kumar.

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One sees this inequality and heightened awareness of class and caste among the middle classes too. Says: Prof. Pathak: “It something which worries me. A man like Arnab Goswami. He does not speak Bhojpuri. He speaks good English. He is consumed by people in Vasant Vihar, Noida, Malabar Hills, Lucknow, Kolkata and other places. There is a class working in multinational corporations and consuming his kind of journalism. So much insensitivity. We saw it during the crisis of migrant workers, the way middle-class gated communities behaved. They were only concerned whether they got their Amazon packages of food, fish and chicken. We saw the worst form of untouchability, whether maids could take the lift, whether the vegetable vendors could enter the colony. And to think in some cases, it was BJP legislators humiliating the vendors, asking for their Aadhaar card. U.P. is a particularly segmented society today.”

The caste fissures have only increased over last few years. Not just the usual caste hierarchy, even within Dalit society there is a rigid hierarchy. Everything is calculated according to one’s political constituency. The ruling dispensation ever so gently stokes the caste and sub-caste identity fire to make sure that all non-Dwijas do not align with the BSP, or even the Samajwadi Party. “Now, if there is a division between Valmikis and others or if the lower castes are corrupted, then it becomes exceedingly difficult to have a united social struggle against the dominant caste,” says Pathak, adding, “The time has come to think of the consequences. The language used by the Yogi [Adityanath] government is being replicated in non-BJP politics; the same pandering to majoritarian sentiment can be seen in the Mamata Banerjee government’s decision to grant doles to puja committees in Bengal.”

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What is needed is an agenda of social reconstruction, a time when development is prioritised over everything else. Says Inamur Rehman, a retired academic turned social worker from Bareilly: “We are living in times when a crime is judged on the basis of who has done it. If it is a Dalit or a Muslim girl who is violated, the media and many departments of the administration try to deflect attention from the crime. When a Rajput hero commits suicide in Mumbai, the U.P. channels talk of it non-stop, but when three Dalit sisters are attacked with acid in Gonda district, it is not news for them. In Hathras, they are trying to prove it was a case of honour killing. In other places, aspersions are cast on the integrity of the girl. Tell me, is it not a rape even if a sex worker is assaulted? Today, we seem to have given certain elements in the State a free run. There are a different set of rules for them.”

Majoritarianism and masculinity

Adds Prof. Pathak: “The insensitivity of Hathras, Unnao and other places is disturbing. It is a naked manifestation of power. All symbolism is about brute majoritarianism and masculinity. It is full of aggression. We will need many years to undo the damage done to society, [to get rid of] the toxicity there and the walls of separation that have been built. The mind that has been [made] hierarchical and toxic and violent. That is a great damage to Indian culture. It will take a long time to heal it. All of us, be it journalists, civil society activists, the saner voices in society have to work hard to overcome it. We need to fight this social cancer as we are confronted by the reality of yesterday’s friends becoming today’s foes in this march of Hindutva. Things do change. History shows us that. But we cannot wait passively for history to do that miracle. We all have to do our best to fight this poison in U.P. and elsewhere. We have to make a beginning somewhere.”

Caste annihilation may not be a bad beginning. In fact, as Rehman says: “It is an idea that should be strongly considered. To begin with though, justice for the Hathras victim should be the priority. That is the acid test of the Yogi government, whether caste fault lines will be overcome or accentuated.”

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