Race against discrimination

By Pratik Kanjilal

The English are girding their loins to make war on caste discrimination. They have noticed that the dastardly Asians have imported it to their shores along with chicken tikka masala, cheap phone cards, internet aarti darshan and Patak’s pickles. They had learned to respect caste when they began to rule India and then they had learned to use it, dividing their sepoys on religious and caste lines to prevent a reprise of 1857. Now they have learned to despise it, like everyone else. And so Westminster has commissioned a needle-sharp probe into the morass of caste. On the basis of its findings, it plans to wipe out caste discrimination in Albion.

What a hope! We Asians, who invented caste, have been fighting it for over half a century, armed with a Constitution drafted by a Dalit, and we are still baffled by its cockroach-like endurance. Caste discrimination is alive and well and meanwhile its doppelganger, lower caste assertion, is raising steam. Uttar Pradesh is ruled by a caste-based party which is righting historical wrongs through monumental statuary. The upper castes are richly represented in national imagery while Dalits have had to make do with the rustic statues of Ambedkar you see from the train window, pink-faced and clad in a piercingly blue jacket. Now, one caste imagery is competing with the other, though Ambedkar would have wanted neither to exist.

Pursuing our commitment to erasing caste, we have banned the very utterance of caste names, which are sometimes used as obscenities. But it’s no use. People of the abused castes freely use those very names as a badge of identity. Caste is the obscenity that dares to speak its name. And it speaks it so casually and familiarly that you forget it’s illegal.

I can’t get over the embarrassment I once suffered while covering an election in Haryana. For days I had wandered far from the highways, and then I had filed a story from a one-fax, two-dog, three-lathel village. The only reason I didn’t get busted to rookie reporter when I returned to Delhi was that my editor of that time was a hard-bitten veteran, not easily rattled. All he asked me was: “Did you want to get me arrested, then?”

I had written that Clan Devi Lal would face surprise reversals in its strongholds because it was being opposed by the community of cha… There I go again. Now, I’m trying to get the editor of this paper arrested. My only excuse for having spelled out a derogatory caste name in a newspaper was that for days on end in the villages, I had heard the word being used by everyone. Not as a term of abuse, as city people use it, but as a commonplace descriptive, like ‘Darjeeling’, or ‘banana’.

Action against caste in Britain will put the heat on India by intensifying the 2001 UN initiative to equate caste discrimination with racism. But the English, I fear, will discover that caste is like the human appendix. No one knows what it’s for any more but it remains deeply embedded in our psyche. Its nuisance value is easily remedied by surgery. But patients usually resist treatment, for it would mean cutting away a part of their selves.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine



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