I became aware of caste for the first time in my primary school. Some students sat in a row, separate from the rest of us. We would all squat on the floor. But the difference between them and us was that they had no tat (a jute strip) beneath them. A classmate told me that they were achchut (untouchable). They kept to themselves. So did we from the upper caste.
Then I came to understand why the female sweeper in our house could not go to the kitchen. She was an untouchable. I saw her separate utensils tucked in a corner. The whole thing was so much part of the routine that it was not even noticed. When I asked my mother, her reply was "they are dirty."
I was too small to probe further to know "why." But as I grew up, I never saw the society to which I belonged doing anything to treat them as human beings. Nor did anyone feel that the treatment meted out to the untouchables was reprehensible. The upper caste believed that they were a cursed lot which was undergoing the punishment for the sins they had committed in their previous janam (birth). I did not accept the explanation but did nothing to challenge it.
It was as if I had accepted the discrimination practised around me. It was a daily occurrence. It was like two worlds, one for the upper and the other for the lower. They seldom came into contact with one another socially or otherwise. Both travelled different paths from birth to death.
I felt appalled but did not know how to battle against society whose integral part I was. It looked a long, impossible fight even if I were to join it. I was young in journalism when I read a book, 'A Gentleman's Agreement', which described how a non-Jew journalist feigned to be a Jew and wrote about the anti-Semitism he had to face.
I too wanted to write a similar book, based on my experiences as an "untouchable." I grew a beard and tried through a friend to live in a Mumbai slum. But my contact gave out my identity within the first hour of my reaching the slum. I was taken in for a spy and before I was beaten up I declared my antecedents.
I have talked to many in the lowest caste, the dalits since, read books and gone through the speeches and writings of Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the tallest among the dalits. A dalit friend in the US has given me the perspective which I lacked earlier. Still, when the chips are down, I am the upper caste. I cannot put myself in the shoes of a dalit because I have never faced the hate and humiliation he goes through every day. I have never felt the searing glance of arrogance of the upper castes.
I have begun to understand why a dalit finds the word, Harijan, patronizing. The Hindu upper caste society feels as if the mere title will atone for the sins which they have committed for centuries. Reservations, an affirmative action of sorts, are mere crutches which Ambedkar did not want in the first place but agreed to them only for 10 years. Mere reservations cannot unshackle the dalits.
But what annoys me is the patience and stamina of dalits who have stayed part of the Hindu society in spite of the cruelties they have undergone for untold years. Ambedkar aptly described the situation by borrowing a phrase from Shakespeare: "It may be your interest to be our masters but how can it be ours, to be your slaves?"
Is it because the politics of votes has become ingrained in the dalits? Their leaders, belonging mostly to the creamy layer, have come to enjoy the spoils of office, without articulating the cause of the lowest in real terms. While piloting the Indian constitution, Ambedkar was able to incorporate in it the numerous safeguards for the untouchables.
Untouchability is also banned. But this has made Indian society no better in its treatment of the untouchable. The Hindu society has not changed, neither in its attitude of hidebound superiority nor in its refusal to admit the dalits in the social structure. Caste is denounced but not the caste system.
I was happy when the UN announced to hold a convention against racism at Durban. At least the outcastes all over the world would get a chance to ventilate their grievances, if not redress, I thought. I never imagined that the Indian government would try to block any discussion on caste on the plea that it was not racism. True, in technical terms, it is not. But how does it matter when the end-product of caste and racism is the same: discrimination and degradation?
Even the National Human Rights Commission, otherwise tilting towards the government, has said that the nomenclature is of little importance when casteism and racism do not treat men and women as human beings. New Delhi may have won a point by not allowing caste to be discussed at Durban. But it has lost an opportunity to admit before the world that despite its legal efforts, it has failed to remove untouchability and that it wants the international community to discuss its case and suggest remedies. It would have been New Delhi's moral success.
It is an absurd argument that the discussion of caste at a UN forum is not in the national interest. The oppressive caste system that has developed in the country has not changed at all in spite of discussion within India. There is also a need to include caste in the UN Human Rights Charter which talks about oppression emanating from race, religion, language, gender but not caste.
I was amused to hear a minister in parliament say during the last session that the lot of the dalit was improving day by day. The where and how of this may be impressive on paper but the reality is that they continue to live in separate habitations, draw water from separate wells and get the worst chastisement if they ever dare raise their head. They are hanged if they marry out of caste. Official figures show that one dalit woman is raped every six hours and one dalit killed every three days.
It was at Durban that Mahatma Gandhi embarked on his agitation against racism and intolerance. It is at Durban that the government of the country for whose freedom he fought has shut out from discussion caste which was one of the targets of his agitation. New Delhi is happy with its victory and feels elated that even UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan refused to include caste on the agenda when NGOs from India accosted him. But it is a pyrrhic victory. The world expects something better from the land of Gandhi.
No democratic system should be ashamed of discussing at any forum its practices which disable its own people. A free society owes its existence to the tenets of freedom. The dalits have never had a breath of freedom in the suffocating Hindu society. They are a wounded people, battered and broken. India is strong enough democratically to admit that it has failed somewhere, despite all the guarantees in the constitution, to provide the same glow of freedom which the upper castes enjoy. Somebody should have taken New Delhi to task for not implementing the anti-discrimination laws in letter and spirit. New Delhi would have served the country's cause better by allowing at Durban an open discussion on the caste system which continues to be a social stigma.
This article was published in Pakistan Newspaper Dawn.