Caste in the City

What do the city’s youngsters think of caste? We find out

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Yesterday on December 6, like every year, thousands of Dalits from across the state thronged to Dadar to pay homage to Dr B.R. Ambedkar at Chaitya Bhoomi where he was buried. Officially known as Mahaparinirvan Diwas, this day commemorates the death anniversary of Ambedkar, a politician, jurist, social reformer, and the creator of the first draft of the Indian Constitution.

A few of us, this writer included, were introduced to Ambedkar primarily as the architect of the Indian Constitution. The enormity of his influence over and significance for a certain section of Indian society blithely escaped us.

But in an age that has witnessed the suicide of a Dalit student, Rohith Vemula, at Hyderabad Central University, what do young, urban people think about the caste system? In an otherwise casteist society, where films like Sairat and Fandry do well across the country – films in which the reality of caste is emphasised in all its raw brutality – what do youngsters from various backgrounds living in the city, think about inter-caste love?

What does caste, in short, mean to them?

To urban, privileged youngsters, caste realities may not seem to manifest themselves as violently as they do in small towns and rural areas. But cities still hire manual scavengers, most of who are Dalits or belong to the lower castes, to manually clean out hazardous, poisonous sewers, where they dive in without being provided protective gear.

Caste discrimination may not be too evident in the city. The city brings along a certain anonymity with it. The caste of a stranger is not first confirmed before sitting next to them on the bus, for instance. It does not feature while making friends on the first day of college. But as an institution deeply enmeshed within the fabric of Indian society, it keeps surfacing in other ways.

It surfaces in the form of misplaced resentment at the reservation system. Or perhaps when talk of marriage comes up.

Reservation is in fact the first thing that comes to 20-year-old Aditya Kumbhare’s mind, when he hears the word caste. He refers to how someone’s caste (or religion) is determined by their surname. For him, “Caste means a predetermined social identity of an individual. It can be an advantage for some, like in the case of reservations, who inherit exclusive privileges.”

Curiously, this resentment for reservation seems to pervade the consciousness of the youth today. Unsurprisingly, of course, since that is really the one aspect in which being privileged comes in the way of acquiring some more privilege!

That is not to say that the youth are not aware of the existence of caste. “Only the elite say that casteism doesn’t manifest itself in cities. Take a look at the educational institutions, you’ll know what I mean,” says Rucha Bedekar, 19. Aditya, who studies Computer Engineering, also tells me that he does discuss caste with his friends. “The topic of casteism and caste discrimination has come up in my discussions with friends and family as well. Be it after watching a short film or a movie, or a general brainstorming session when we sit to write a script for street plays, we do talk about it,” he says. Moreover, Sanika Govekar, 18, student at NMIMS, emphasises on how it is “important to understand that why even in developed cities we hear of the cases like Rohit Vemula”.

But on the other hand, for Shannon Manjrekar, 24, caste doesn’t mean anything, except that it is “unnecessarily created”. While growing up, Shannon didn’t know what caste meant. For those of us who grew up in homogenous communities, this is especially relatable. Caste was something that we learned by and by, beginning with the reservation system and how and why it came to be.

For Rohan Kulkarni, a 21-year-old pharmacy student studying in Pune, caste stands for “just a differentiation between individuals, nothing more”. But it is also a sensitive issue that he would rather avoid discussing to not hurt anyone’s sentiments. If there is a discussion, says Rohan, he would prefer to take a step back to the safer side rather than risk hurting someone’s feelings.

Young urbanites, then, are willing to discuss caste. For them, caste does not feature as an important element in their day-to-day lives, except when talk of reservation flares up. But what when it comes to love?

For most of the students we spoke to, caste didn’t matter when it came to falling in love, or when considering marriage. But they seemed to relent at the thought of their parents and their expectations, which is something that this article also talks about. Twenty-year-old BMM student Mihir Shinde echoes the same sentiment. “Parents usually want their kids to get married into the same caste because of the fear of the society. Caste plays a major role when it comes to marriage,” he says.

Rohan says, “Yes, I do take caste into consideration, but not for my own self. If my parents are against it, I cannot help it.” For his own sake, Aditya also does not mind caste. “But by doing so,” he says, “I may no longer be an adarsh balak.” Youngsters in love don’t care about caste.