In one of the most pivotal scenes of the play Romeo and Juliet, Romeo says “What’s in a name?” William Shakespeare wrote this play in the late 16th century in England. Had he written it in 16th century India, the conversation between Romeo and Juliet would have probably gone down like this:
“Pehla naam?” “Juliet.”
“Main bhi! Chalo, bhag chale!”
Caste in India is omnipresent, pervasive, and rigid. It’s the same with names. They are an indicator of one’s community, one’s culture, and the language one speaks. They are also a reminder of one’s caste.
The thought that I should drop my surname first came to me when I started learning about caste in college. My father’s family, and by extension me, belong to the Kokanasta Chitpavan Brahmin caste. We’re really high up in the caste hierarchy. My immediate family does not attach any importance to their caste. They do not consider it to be a matter of pride. I have not used my caste to my advantage and I have never discriminated against others on the basis of their caste. And yet I feel a sense of guilt.
My surname bothers me because it is a reminder of the fact that I am a product of Brahmin supremacy. This supremacy allowed them to brand Dalits as untouchables, to ban them from temples and using water bodies, to rape their women, and to murder those who dared to dissent and question their power.
I experienced this first-hand at work a few months ago. We decided that we should review Rohith Vemula’s online diary Caste is Not a Rumour. I was picked to write about it because books and literature is one of the beats I cover. At first, I was excited to review it, but later, I felt hesitant. There is no way that I could comment on aspects such as authenticity or the emotions that were expressed, because I will never know what it is like to be Dalit. In fact, it is ironic that a Brahmin should review such a diary.
I decided to ask someone else from the team to write about it. I looked around the room to find that six of my colleagues are Brahmins too. That’s the thing about caste in cities like Mumbai. It manifests itself in less obvious ways, such as this one. My editor-in-chief did not consider the caste of his employees when he hired them. And yet, more than 60% of our team consisted of people who belong to the upper caste.
An upper caste status brings with it social, financial, and educational privileges. In fact, the stigma attached to lower castes is so strong that not being Dalit is an advantage in itself. For years, the upper castes have had a larger, freer access to opportunities and the lower castes have been systematically excluded from them. Does it come as a surprise then that the proportion of Brahmins far exceeds that of the lower castes at workplaces?
This is why I find Brahmin-only groups and pages on Facebook and other social media platforms problematic. The issue with the ones that discuss the greatness of their caste and spew hate about other castes is obvious. But even the more seemingly harmless ones which aim at “educating the next generation”, such as Brahmin Culture and Tradition, are propagating a culture that stems from the oppression of the majority by a minority. The sole purpose of such pages is to assert one’s identity, and in the process, they end up normalising upper caste privilege.
Dropping my surname is a really small change; so small that it may seem like it hardly matters even on the micro level. Some people have pointed out it won’t really change anything, that I should rather focus on working towards the welfare and upliftment of the lower castes and help to reduce discrimination. But I believe that in a country such as ours, the personal is political. Each of our individual choices defines the political fabric of society. Every time a Brahmin abandons their status, they weaken the power structures that allow the upper castes to exploit the lower castes. Giving up my surname is my own personal form of protest against the caste system.