The news that a recent survey has established that 27 percent of Indians still practice caste untouchability is not, in many ways, news at all. Most Indians have grown up in an India where we have seen such behavior, though the kind of people who read English-language op-eds probably think of it as something that happens in rural, backward villages rather than urban India.
But this survey also packs a few other surprises. It shows almost every third Hindu (30 percent) admitted to the practice. That is, they refused to allow Dalits, the former "untouchables," into their kitchen or to use their utensils. But bizarrely enough, data from the survey showed that untouchability was also practiced by Sikhs (23 percent), Muslims (18 percent) and Christians (5 percent). These are faiths that pride themselves on their enshrining of equality and the brotherhood of faith. Dr. Amit Thorat, the survey's lead researcher, at the National Council of Applied Economic Research, was quoted by the Indian Express as saying, "These findings indicate that conversion has not led to a change in mindsets. Caste identity is sticky baggage, difficult to dislodge in social settings."
These findings -- confirming the persistence of the iniquitous practice of caste discrimination across India's religious communities -- came on the heels of the outrage that greeted a prominent journalist, Rajdeep Sardesai, on social media when he tweeted his joy that two members of his caste of Goud Saraswat Brahmins (GSBs) had been elevated to the Cabinet in the latest government reshuffle.
Part of the reason for the controversy, undoubtedly, was surprise that a sentiment one might associate with, and therefore more easily accept from, someone more traditional and perhaps rural emerged from an English-educated urban professional and certified liberal. People of Saredesai's ilk tend to disavow caste loyalties as unworthy relics of a more unequal pre-independence past. As intellectual heirs of a freedom movement that explicitly rejected caste and outlawed caste discrimination, we aren't supposed to admit to caste feeling even if, in some cases, it lurks somewhere beneath the surface.
Any elitism Sardesai acquired at the elite educational institutions he attended (Campion and Cathedral Schools in Bombay, followed by Oxford University) would normally be assumed to be an elitism of merit, of respect for education and cosmopolitan values. Caste pride sits oddly with such a background.
Or does it? I am conscious of my own bias in the opposite direction. The son of a Keralite newspaper executive who dropped his caste name (Nair) at college in response to Mahatma Gandhi's exhortations to do so, moved to London and brought his children up in Westernized Bombay, I am a product of a nationalist generation that was consciously raised to be oblivious of caste.
"We aren't supposed to admit to caste feeling even if, in some cases, it lurks somewhere beneath the surface."
I still remember my own discovery of caste. I was a ten-year-old representing the 6th Standard in an inter-class theatrical event at which the 8th Standard's sketch featured "Chintu" (Rishi) Kapoor, younger son of the matinee idol and producer Raj Kapoor, later to become a successful screen heartthrob in his own right. I had acted, elocuted a humorous poem and MCed my class's efforts to generous applause, and the younger Kapoor was either intrigued or disconcerted, for he sought me out the next morning at school.
"Tharoor," he asked me at the head of the steps near the toilet, "what caste are you?"
I blinked my nervousness at the Great Man. "I - - I don't know," I stammered. My father, who never mentioned anyone's religion, let alone caste, had not bothered to enlighten me on such matters.
"You don't know?" the actor's son demanded in astonishment. "What do you mean, you don't know? Everybody knows their own caste."
I shamefacedly confessed I didn't.
"You mean you're not a Brahmin or something?"
I couldn't even avow I was a something. Chintu Kapoor never spoke to me again in school. But I went home that evening and extracted an explanation from my parents, whose eclectic liberality had left me in such ignorance. They told me, in simplified terms, about the Nairs; and so it is to Rishi Kapoor, celluloid hero of the future, that I owe my first lesson about my genealogical past.
So I grew up thinking of caste as an irrelevance, married outside my caste, and brought up two children to be utterly indifferent to caste, indeed largely unconscious of it. Even after I entered the hothouse world of Indian politics, I did not consciously seek to find out the caste of anyone I met or worked with. I hired a cook without asking his caste (the same with my remaining domestic staff) and have entertained all manner of people in my home without the thought of caste affinity even crossing my mind.
"I grew up thinking of caste as an irrelevance, married outside my caste and brought up two children to be utterly indifferent to caste."
India is a land of multiple identities, and one of the key identities, inescapably, is caste. To some, it's an instrument of political mobilization. As the "backward caste" Yadav ascendancy in north Indian politics has repeatedly demonstrated, when many Indians cast their vote, they vote their caste. English-speaking urban Indians may scorn such behavior, even while accepting it as part of India's political reality. After all, none of us would object if a Dalit leader advertised her pride in being a Dalit or called for Dalit solidarity. It would be the Indian equivalent of America's "Black is beautiful" slogan or black pride campaigns. But the outrage at Sardesai is, of course, because the journalist's not a member of an oppressed community celebrating its achievements. He is someone at the top of the heap, not merely a Brahmin but a Goud Saraswat Brahmin at that -- the member of a tiny elite. And he's thrilled about members of this privileged tribe acquiring even more power and prominence.
But could it be that his attitude reflects not so much casteism as an admission of its diminished appeal as a badge of identity? Had Sardesai celebrated the elevation of two Campionites, or even two Oxonians, in the same spirit, no one would have objected (except maybe people who went to rival educational institutions). But isn't it possible that his unreflective celebration of two GSBs suggests that his attitude to caste is so casual that he thinks of it as nothing more than the equivalent of any one of the other labels he can also claim?
"India is a land of multiple identities, and one of the key identities, inescapably, is caste."
Had the journalist thought consciously that his tweet would be interpreted as casteist, he surely would not have issued it. Instead, perhaps, there's an element of post-modernism about the entire fiasco. He said what he did not because his caste matters so much to him but precisely because it doesn't. He doesn't base his friendships, his hiring decisions or his political preferences on the basis of caste, and so he unselfconsciously applauded his fellow GSBs the way he might have applauded two members of the same cricket team, the same journalistic fraternity or the same social club as himself. GSB is just another type of identity he shares with others.
At least, that's what I choose to believe. I haven't asked him myself. But I don't need to. Caste won't disappear from the Indian landscape. Too many political and administrative benefits (and disadvantages) derive from your caste affiliation for that to happen. For many Indians, as the NCAER survey demonstrates yet again, it still matters greatly that they inter-marry with, dine with and admit into their homes only people of analogous castes. For someone like Sardesai, who married outside his caste, abhors caste prejudice and thrives in an eclectic social environment, caste doesn't matter in quite the same way. To upbraid him for casteism is like calling India's first prime minister, the secular atheist Jawaharlal Nehru, casteist for allowing people to refer to him as "Pandit" Nehru.
In other words, caste will always be there but, as this episode unconsciously reveals, for many of us it doesn't pack the same punch it used to. If it becomes more and more one of many interchangeable, mutable forms of identity -- one fraternity of many that an Indian can lay claim to -- it can cease to matter so much. The majority of Indians aren't there yet, which is why the offending Sardesai tweet was greeted with such shock. But if we can't escape being conscious of caste, let's be conscious of it like him as the equivalent of an old school tie -- nothing more, nothing less. That will remove its sting.
And then maybe more people will let Dalits into their kitchens when the next survey rolls around a few years from now.