Speaking of Caste

In chapters and at annual conferences, volunteers of AID have discussed forms of injustice stemming from various social identities such as gender, patriarchy, and sexual orientation and our own role in questioning the injustice and understanding how we take part in perpetuating them.  Two years ago discussions on gender identity and sexual orientation led to a conference session as well as an amendment to the volunteer code of conduct.  While amending the code volunteers included caste as a basis of prejudice to be eradicated.

 The sentence in the code of conduct, paragraph II.4, reads as follows;

Respect equality of all people regardless of race, ethnicity, caste, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, and refrain from any actions or statements that constitute prejudice. Incorporate this in choosing partners in India and the US.

While most volunteers understand that caste discrimination perpetuates poverty and injustice in India, and support efforts to address those injustices, few have understood the role that we play in perpetuating caste and the privileges tied to it at a personal level.  Here “we” refers to those who inhabit a society that supposes itself free of caste, owing to its situation in modern,  metropolitan or diasporic India, the society that shapes the global image of India, and from which most AID volunteers come.

In 2014 the Executive Board of AID appointed a Freedom from Harassment Committee in accordance with the Freedom from Harassment Policy approved in 2013.  One of the first things the committee did was to conduct a survey about the climate in AID and how volunteers felt included or excluded in the organization.  One of the questions asked whether there was “adequate representation of different social groups in AID along lines of gender, sexual orientation, caste/tribe, religion, etc.”  One volunteer responded that he did not know the caste, class or religious status of other volunteers. “They are all like-minded people working together for a cause. I am not sure if anyone bothers to find out what caste or religion the other volunteers belong to.”

This probably reflects how many of us feel about our participation in AID.  Why would we bring up caste, especially when we are working towards a caste-free society?

Or could it be that without confronting the issue of caste and the privileges rendered invisible by the hierarchy of caste, we cannot move towards the goal of a caste-free society?

Considering the latter, several volunteers facilitated a session at the AID conference to bring up the topic of caste and privilege.  They started by saying that they would raise some open questions to which people could respond.

How have you experienced caste as part of your identity?

Do you feel that caste is a cultural concept or a form of privilege?

Sessin on Caste and Privilege.  Austin 2015

Session on Caste and Privilege. Austin 2015

Over the 90 minute session, people shared their thoughts in turn.

“My last name denotes a caste.”

“I was admitted to college because of a caste-based reservation.”

“I grew up without having any idea of caste, but that itself was a privilege.”

“I can’t escape my caste.  It is obvious in the way I talk or even make a cup of tea.”

“Caste never came up in our family until I wanted to marry someone who, I was informed, was of a different caste.”

“At family gatherings we joke about our own caste.”

Some were disappointed that the discussion was tame, again reflecting our position of privilege and the silencing of the more confrontational voices among and within ourselves.  But that we had a discussion at all, that in a gathering not defined by caste (like for example a meeting of agricultural workers or potters), we heard diverse voices and views about caste and its role in our lives was a step that could lead to further study and struggle. 

In the poster session I brought up the intersection of caste with gender and that what was defined as upper-caste in patriarchal terms could be experienced not as privilege but as exactly the opposite, namely untouchability, as it was specifically manifested in menstrual untouchability.   As the caste hierarchy differentiated some segment of the population as untouchable, within a caste, especially as the caste moved upwards, women had to be regarded as untouchable and their bodies polluting.

One could have also talked about the intersection of caste with any number of other angles of privilege including language, visa, degree, income, and more.  Some of these topics did come up though somewhat tangentially.  Given the allotted time and format we could not have expected more.

In facilitating this discussion, volunteers led by Asti Bhatt, Srikanth Jandhyala & Nimish Sane helped AID as an organization take another step, however small it was, and help break the path for more to follow.  As Cesar Chavez said,

Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.

Facilitators closed the session by urging everyone to read Annihilation of Caste by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.



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