Ten years ago, a student at a workshop I conducted at the University of Hyderabad worked on a film about his life experiences.
His parents sent him away to the city, following an anti-Dalit massacre in his village. He did well at school and applied for a course in communications. When he checked the admission list he found a star next to his name. “The star indicated my admission was in the SC/ST quota, assumed on the basis of my identity, when actually I had got in through the ‘regular’ entrance criteria. I felt intensely conflicted,” the young man explained. On the one hand the perception that a Dalit student could only get admission via quotas made him indignant. On the other, saying “I got in on merit” felt like a betrayal of the intellectual, emotional and political history tied to his identity, which he valued. He did not want to erase his Dalit identity, but rather to define it as he saw it rather than be constricted by another’s definition. To be both — where he had come from and where he was going to. Not just star or dust, but stardust as Rohith Vemula wrote in his suicide note.
Caste is at the centre of national discussion after a long time and my first cynical thought was, it took a death. But actually there is no shortage of ghastly deaths, dismemberments, rapes and caste-related atrocities. They appear in those tiny items in newspaper margins, where an eye can pass casually over them. Why doesn’t this eye want to dwell on this shocking event? Because to really think of caste, is to think of structures we all inhabit, to recognise oneself as one string in an intertwined social DNA.
A colleague once got very upset when I mentioned caste in some context. “Isn’t caste dead?” he said, aghast. When I was aghast in my turn, he responded with elaborate descriptions of how good he was to his domestic help, oblivious to the irony. At one level, acknowledging caste (even if barely) in terms of the violent event makes it easier to believe it does not exist in the everyday and personal. It’s like men saying their friend’s domestic violence is due to stress, not gender.
A journalist once interviewed me about my film on toilets and was also puzzled about my references to caste. “There is no manual scavenging except in backward places,” she said, as if that was the only way caste manifests. “Why then do buildings have separate toilets and people have different drinking cups for domestic help?’ I asked. “Isn’t it just reformatted untouchability?” “I let my maid use the toilet in my house!” declared the journalist. “Just as long as she makes sure to clean it after.” When, I asked “Would you ask me to make sure I left it clean?” she saw this as a mean aggression. How could I suggest, she, a good person, was casteist?
The idea of one’s own goodness as proof that casteism does not exist, is willfully false innocence. We would like to believe caste is dead because then we wouldn’t have to think that caste is alive not only in the Dalit, but in us too, who are not Dalit, but another upper caste, who inhabit upper class environments thus not needing to mention caste.
Is it possible to be good people who are yet part of a bad system? Privileged, yet working hard for what we have? If we want that humanity for ourselves, we will have to learn to grant it to others too, recognise their condition as we do our own, and stop pretending some truths don’t exist.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com