This post is also available in: Spanish
One seldom hears any of the persons..saying, “Let us do something to change the Touchable Hindu.”- Dr. B. R Ambedkar.
“Frankly Prashant, if I weren’t an exceptional student, I would have committed suicide long ago.”
His statement chilled my bones; having been known him for years, I knew he was not given to exaggeration or needless drama. He was serious. As I shivered, I realized two things- that I myself was unexceptional and that even in that state, I played a role in his immiseration. I had to know more.
Tanmay and I had been chatting over lunch and the words were flowing. I had asked him to tell me about his background; he obliged me with elegance and passion. No books, lectures, or documentaries could have prepared me to understand Tanmay and what he represented. For others, we were just two Indian immigrants chatting over lunch but our chat was a statistical and moral improbability– the differences in our background were deep, wide, and invidious. After all I am an upper caste Hindu and Tanmay is a Dalit. How we got to this point of convergence- as “successful” employees of Microsoft– is a tale of deep deprivation and extraordinary strength on Tanmay’s side and privilege and mediocrity on mine, an object lesson in the inequality of endowments and circumstances wrought by the Caste System.
How I got to be interested in Tanmay’s story is a lesson in itself. The recent discourse in my adopted home about Race had me thinking of an analogy to my own upbringing in India. As I came to understand White Privilege, it become increasingly difficult to comment or act on issues of racial justice without first confessing my own version of privilege.
The privilege I was born into and facilitated who I am today came from the same system that hampered Tanmay at every stage from becoming who he is today. People have of course heard of the “Caste System”- a complex system of hereditary and occupation-based segregation that has been an organizing principle of much of Indian society for Millennia. While most people know of it, few understand both its persistence and its cruelty for the hundreds of millions of people it designates as undesirable. To understand this is to enter the Heart of Darkness.
A Personal Journey
I was lucky enough to be born into a family in which almost all members graduated University. Though still beset with traditional gender-roles, our family had done well- the adult males found stable jobs that afforded us middle-class luxuries. In a country recovering from colonial destitution and characterized by great inequality, this achievement was rare and important. Though my ancestors were largely small businessmen and traders, both of my grandfathers found their path in education and assumed professional roles in the growing and newly independent country. By the time my generation came, the basic existential needs of life were taken care of; in that sense my childhood and adolescence were easy and filled with the joys of privilege.
Tanmay was not so fortunate. Caught in the punishing cycle of Caste, his birthright was not education and privilege but difficulty. While the working adults in my family were professionals, in his they were involved in the skinning of dead animals. For literally thousands of years, generations of his family were locked into this thankless, dangerous and “God-ordained” profession. Those who attempted to break out of this vicious cycle were dealt with harshly. By the time of Independence- 1947- both his grandfathers were skinning these animals in largely rural India; They were part of a large group – numbering 200 million today- called Dalits (or “Untouchables” in the common English translation.)
This extreme lack of occupational diversity and related deprivation in his community was not simply a matter of happenstance- it was the determined product of a carefully planned and enforced system of slavery. Not only was this a synthetic or man-made system but it was “sold” to the Indian population as part and parcel of their religion.
I recall hearing first about Caste when i was eight. My mother told me in passing that our last name meant we were “Baniyas,” or members of a particular caste. Though I understood very little, I later learnt from Indian mythology that Baniyas were a sub-caste of “Vaishyas” which implied that we were tradesman by profession. I learned about the other “upper” castes at that time too- Brahmins and Kshatriyas. Taken as a group, these members of upper castes are called “Savarnas.”
For most of my childhood, I didn’t think much of Caste; in some sense I was lucky- I grew up in a cosmopolitan neighborhood defined by diversity and what we thought at that time to be a “modern” outlook. As i grew up, I remember specifically thinking that we had transcended “isms” and had achieved a universal outlook. As I reflect now, I realize how wrong I was- I cannot recall a single Dalit friend or family associate from my childhood. While we felt that we had achieved universality, we lived in the heart of segregation. But at that time, I reveled in our “modernity.”
With my idealistic naiveté, I thought that despite its power in history, the caste system had lost its strength. Sure, people married within their caste and faced social opprobrium if they sought a partner from outside, but for the most part, as I thought, the more damning parts of the caste system had dissipated. I thought of my own family in which my own father was no longer a petty trader but was, instead, a scientist working on innovative and new things. India was a modernizing country with a progressive constitution and a well-developed idea of citizenship, so even if there were remnants of the caste system, they were benign. Sure, there was the notion of “untouchability,” but that was an excrescence, not a persistent feature of society. Interestingly, many learned people shared this position. The past was the past; the present and the future were bright.
Tanmay’s childhood perception was the polar opposite of mine; his own caste position – as a Dalit and not a Savarna- gave him a rude shock from the beginning. First, it was evident to him that everyone around him were engaged in professions that viscerally repulsed him. Second, he was victim to scores of incidents in which he was singled out due to his caste, including by a teacher who, when Tanmay was only 8 years old, declared to the class that the child was “not even touchable not to mention teachable.”
A system I thought had largely disappeared was simultaneously destroying Tanmay’s aspirations. For me, it was a theoretical construct, part of our past; for him, it was real, present, and inescapable. As I learned later on– after decades of life- 75% of Dalit students drop out before completing high school, unable to manage either economically or survive the harassment leveled by teachers, students, and public figures alike. This childhood was very different than mine, which was filled with clear encouragement from my teachers, peers and others in my social graph. In addition to this, if social networking is a thing (and it is a billion dollar industry) I had success written all over my forehead.
For Tanmay, the deprivations and insults continued. Not only his direct relations but also all the people who lived in his vicinity shared the fate of having filthy, menial jobs, scraping the very bottom of the economic barrel, and being treated by others as untouchable. Amongst them were manual scavengers, janitors, animal rearers, and corpse handlers. The perception of these jobs is best described by the fact that the titles of these occupations are actually slur words in the common lexicon. Not only did Tanmay have to bear such insults, he was not only bereft of any amenities but also was intimidated by the powerful castes around him. He grew up feeling dejected, helpless and looked down upon.
Book Knowledge Versus Reality
It’s not that notions of untouchability were unknown to me growing up, just that they seemed to be things of the past. We knew that for thousands of years, Tanmay’s ancestors were not even allowed in public spaces, in some places they were not only “untouchable” but also “unseeable.” If they tried to educate themselves even by listening, religious texts called for molten lead to be poured into their eyes. In every corner of the country, Dalits were assaulted and subjugated. With unrelenting harshness and unrelenting predictability, these life-killing practices became part of culture and tradition, accepted by the Savarnas.
Though there were countless uprisings through history, when colonial India entered the 20th century, untouchability was alive and well. With the ferment of the Independence struggle and the leadership of Dr. BR Ambedkar– Tanmay’s hero and prime architect of Free India’s constitution, Dalits did gain Civil Rights including the benefits of the world’s largest affirmative action program- called Reservations. But as with so many such situations, these rights were de jure and less commonly de facto.
For a Savarna like me, busy with my own studies and obligations, I had little idea of the difference between my idealistic picture and Tanmay’s lived reality. For me, Dalits were abstractions, metaphors for India’s progress. Untouchability, in my experience, was only invoked on history exams or through people who did all the menial work that makes my life possible but who are “invisibled” by the rest of society.
To illustrate how “legitimate” reasons are propounded in order to justify the divisions of society into “touchables” and “untouchables.” Take for instance the fact that the professions often occupied by Dalits are considered “unclean” (like those who deal with human excrement, corpses, slaughtered animals, etc.) People in my echelon of society were told not to play with their kids for reasons of hygiene. The label of “impurity” given by religious sanction was converted into a “modern” and “scientific” epithet having to do with hygiene. Forget of course, the provision of proper sanitary services– rich society had other priorities.
My bookish and idealistic view of Caste belied the painful reality on the ground. This “blindness” stems from privilege, just as theoretical notions of Race and Racism in the US belie the lived reality of the minorities who suffer.
There is of course more to the system than “personal contempt,” which of course exists. Sure, Dalits are questioned all the time- for their intelligence, integrity, and even humanity. But there are also the structural impediments- having to do with economics and social currency– that hobble their lives at every turn.
I had the privilege of not knowing; Tanmay had the opposite- the burden of being oppressed at worst and condescended to at best. That he fought his way through is a testament to his strength of personality.
The particular situation with regard to higher studies further divides Savarnas and Dalits. I myself succumbed to the mainstream propaganda, but not for reasons of contempt or religious fundamentalism. No, the highly competitive nature of Indian University admissions- coupled with the unremitting narrative of the powerful classes and castes- create a propagandistic environment in which the systems of Affirmative Action create even more hatred and divisiveness. While this is true in the US University and even in the workplace (via Affirmative Action and Diversity programs), the scale in India dwarfs what is seen in the US.
Admissions, especially to the few prestigious institutions in India, are highly competitive. With the system of Reservations, the “scores” required for Dalit students to get in are less than for Savarnas. This is exactly how Affirmative Action should work- it factors in the variety of obstacles that Dalits and others face along the way and attempts to counter this with slightly loosened standards for admission. Even with these programs, the Dalit representation in these institutions is tiny; after all with economic deprivation, unrelenting humiliation, and other societal obstacles, very few Dalits make it this far in the first place.
But for a hard-working young person like myself, with only a bookish understanding of Caste, the idea of reservations seemed to be a blow against equality. If we want equality, shouldn’t all standards be equal? This narrative of conservatism afflicted me- it seemed fair and logical. It’s an indication of great privilege to invoke equality only when it serves oneself and to be blind to struggles for fairness and justice- equality itself- and to maintain silence when it serves others.
With these perceptions of unfairness and with the social baggage we grew up with, University life was characterized by a clear boundary between Savarnas and Dalits. I remember with great regret referring to Dalit students with derogatory terms because of the perceived injustice that my own friends were unable to get into the university while less qualified Dalits were given “an easy route in. “ No doubt there were Dalits from well-to-do families who were able to avail of the Reservation system to get in, but what large social system doesn’t have such cases? The rich and privileged use “the system” to their advantage every day but when someone else uses the very system in the very same way, we blanch and invoke morality! In a curious inversion, we declared ourselves victims!
The bias and animus against Dalits was not limited to fellow students but also characterized those with power- the faculty and administration. When these people spread ideas of Dalits being like Reagan’s “Welfare Queen,” they unleashed a terrible reality on Dalits- segregation, unfair insults, unfair grading, harassment, and a variety of other tortures.
Dalit students, who have fought tooth and nail, to get a glimpse of the decent life via education, often are broken; many commit suicide. The media often relate these suicides to the lack of ability to cope with the academic pressure, but all data suggests that the vast majority of these suicides are connected to mistreatment and harassment. In fact, this is a known phenomenon called “Death of Merit”. The more talented ones, the ones who dreamt of being able to breakthrough, cannot bear with the harassments and constant pressure and turn to suicide.
After understanding this, Tanmay’s invocation of suicide made sense to me; that he marched through all the difficulties and is now a celebrated Engineer in Seattle is amazing and rare. He credits his mother a great deal. She was adamant about educating herself and her children. He found his courage through her and through the fact that he was an exceptional student. The system of Reservation gave him the confidence that if he excelled, he’s be able to get into a good institution.
Despite his success, his struggle did not end there. Even in studies beyond his Bachelor’s Degree, he faced enormous discrimination. Via the serendipity of a benefactor, he was able to afford a Master’s Degree and to find the inner strength to endure the continued humiliations.
He finally made it to the US and to a fantastic job at a dynamic company. He points out that for many, these great jobs are a ticket to riches but to him they were a path out of a shackled life.
There is no doubt that I too worked hard and faced some challenges to get where I got but for the most part, my life has been one of privilege. Talking to Tanmay made me understand just how true this is and much others suffer to enjoy even basic privileges. There are of course many Savarnas who have to overcome obstacles to succeed but for Dalits, the effects of multiple oppressions are that much harder to overcome.
The analogy in my adopted home is clear, especially in an era of open Racism. The Caste division in India is like the Race division in the US, even without adding in the effects of misogyny, bias against people’s sexual choices, and other prejudices. In fact, I was able to learn about myself- and Savarna privilege- by understanding White Privilege.
In the end, the difficulty of life as a Dalit is palpable and real. Humiliations are common. Lives are destroyed. And most of us are either ignorant or callous. Even a cursory search for information yields a vast reservoir of knowledge and documentation indicating just how bad it is for Dalits; ignorance is therefore a privilege.
Tanmay taught me about myself and about the society I thought I understood. He and I are now connected; I wish I had recognized a Tanmay in my life when i was younger. I hope this story helps more Prashants and more Tanmays to find each other and through empathy, listening, and action reduce Caste oppression to a thing of the Past. It is my hope that listening will turn to acknowledgment, which then will turn into partnership and eventually a solution!
Tanmay and Prashant are software engineers based in Seattle. Romi Mahajan and Lornet Turnbull also contributed to the writing of this article. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org