When caste politics took a break in India

Updated: 09 August, 2020 08:07 IST | Prutha Bhosle | Mumbai

A group of students and researchers surveyed migrants travelling from Indian metros back to Bihar and UP and realised that caste discrimination takes a back seat when survival is priority

Migrant workers protect themselves from the sun as they wait outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus to return to their hometowns after the government eased the nationwide lockdown, on May 19. Pic/ AFP
Migrant workers protect themselves from the sun as they wait outside the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Terminus to return to their hometowns after the government eased the nationwide lockdown, on May 19. Pic/ AFP

WHEN the 21-day nationwide lockdown was imposed on March 24, I could no longer sell fruits in the city. The police would beat me up, even if I opened the thela for a minute. As weeks went by, all of us lost hope of resuming business," says Shyam, a 39-year-old migrant worker living in Chedda Nagar, Ghatkopar, requesting that we not publish his second name. Across this dense shanty town, where thousands of migrant labourers from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra villages reside—several of them Dalit like Shyam—the exodus began in early April. "With no income, we were desperate to go home and started raising money together for our journeys. The alleyways in Chedda Nagar are demarcated according to the caste of its residents, but the pandemic had broken the social barriers and people accepted help from all avenues." Days before he thought he would put a padlock on his unsteady door and start the journey home, Shyam started experiencing mild symptoms of cough and cold. "While those from my own community helped look after me, the upper caste neighbours raised an alarm. They made a complaint to the BMC. These were the same people who had offered us monetary help just a few weeks ago. Sahi kehte hain ki musibat mein apne biradari ke log hi kaam aate hain," he remembers.

Caste is deeply ingrained in India's social system. But an emergency like the Coronavirus-led pandemic challenged it, it seems. Badri Narayan, a social historian and director of the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute (GBPSSI) in Prayagraj, has conducted a study to understand how the lockdown has influenced caste dynamics. "Along with a group of students and researchers, our team of eight started studying the behaviour patterns of migrant workers in mid-May. The team interviewed 215 migrants from the Dalit, OBC and upper castes, who had returned from Mumbai, Delhi, Surat and Pune to UP and Bihar. Our research lasted for 25 days," Narayan informs.

Badri Narayan

The observations were surprising. "The pandemic displaced caste from our social discourse and pushed it to a secondary level. A Brahmin accepted food cooked by a Dalit; an OBC member offered water to poor and vulnerable upper caste migrants on a Shramik train. Water, food and goods were moving hand to hand without anyone thinking about caste. These were times of desperation, and the only priority was survival. Although temporarily, the pandemic did challenge one of India's strongest social identity markers," adds the author and scholar.

Narayan said that as per the 2011 Census, there are 453.6 million Indians who live and work in other parts of the country as daily wagers mostly. Based on the 2011 Census, it is estimated that UP accounts for nearly 25 per cent (over 56.4 million) and Bihar for 14 per cent (over 20.4 million) interstate migration. "So it made sense to conduct our research here. We organised both telephonic and face-to-face interviews with migrants lodged in six quarantine centres across UP and Bihar, to document their life after job loss and their painful journey home," Narayan explains.

Manish Jha, professor of social work, TISS,  on casteism resurfacing once the migrants reached home
Manish Jha, professor of social work, TISS, on casteism resurfacing once the migrants reached home

Manish Jha, a professor of social work at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), is also studying migration patterns during the pandemic. He says that casteism resurfaced once the migrants reached their hometowns. "I have been studying migrants travelling from Maharashtra and Delhi to Bihar and UP. I realised that labourers, who were influential in their villages or panchayats, managed to skip the quarantine period. They stayed put in their homes despite government norms. Members belonging to the lower rungs had to mandatorily go into quarantine. So basically there were many relaxations for an upper caste migrant. Even if they were in quarantine, in a clandestine manner they were allowed to slip into their homes at night. In conclusion, the solidarity we saw at the time of exit and at the time of travel turned out to be momentary."

This pattern, Jha thinks, is convenient. "My work and experience during disasters reveals that at the time of immediate relief and at the time of eviction, you try to get support from people, and help each other. But if the misery is prolonged, the exclusion goes deeper. This is because the resources are limited and you are then competing with each other. It actually gets aggravated with time. So now that these unemployed migrants have reached home, caste-based discrimination is again widespread," Jha explains.

Rujuta Dave, a cultural anthropologist, agrees that the dilution of caste hierarchies is not permanent. She explains, "Historically, we have seen an outbreak of the bubonic plague in India. At that time too, mass movement of migrant workers was seen. But that did not destabalise caste hierarchies. It didn't happen even during Partition."

Rujuta Date

Long before the Coronavirus outbreak, a more pernicious form of social distancing was widespread across India. Outside of the four main groups that make up the caste system—Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras—stand the Dalits, also known as the "untouchables". "But the roles are now reversed. For instance, a Brahmin youth from Mumbai returned to his village in Bundelkhand and was treated as an untouchable. His wife was prevented from drawing water from the well. People even called him 'Corona' as he came from a city worst hit by the outbreak," Narayan adds. Coronavirus, Narayan says, produced two new castes in most villages—prawasi (outsider) and niwasi (insider).

But Date calls this othering and separates it from untouchability. "Othering is not the same as untouchability. We cannot make a conflation. Just because some people are being excluded from their own caste for now doesn't point to a long-standing impact. We are only seeing distancing due to the fear of infection," Date says.

She believes that times like a pandemic are a good time to study how people of a community cope or cooperate, but the observations are not representative of any real shift in caste dynamics. "People will continue to discriminate once the pandemic is over."

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First Published: 09 August, 2020 07:45 IST

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