Urban spaces and Caste-based Disenfranchisement: My Personal Experiences of Education, Romance and Merit
In popular discourse in India, caste is an issue and phenomenon that exists in rural areas marked by practices of untouchability, physical and mental harassment, feelings of isolation, etc. Here, the rural space reflects the power dynamics based on the caste system in Indian society. In contrast, it is either argued that caste does not exist in urban areas or caste as an issue in urban areas is ignored even though urban areas have a clear divide based on caste.
In this essay, I draw upon my personal experiences about caste, which revolve around caste-based issues observed in urban areas. The discrimination here exists both covertly and overtly.
Hiding one’s caste identity
Tracing back to my school days, I have always tried to ignore issues related to caste. Being surrounded by a group of dominant caste individuals in the school environment, I have always tried to hide my caste identity. A large number of them belonged to dominant caste Brahmin families. They were always boasting about their families, wealth, social status and they were so confident in their outlook and voiced opinions. I have never witnessed caste-based discrimination as it is in rural areas because my grandfather migrated to the city from the village in search of work. My father, a first-generation learner, got a government job after struggling a lot in his life. This is how we have always been pushed and supported by him to study hard to achieve social mobility and higher status.
But amid this narrative, the whole story of representing ourselves by our first name only is a perfect example of hiding caste identity after migrating to cities for the individuals belonging to marginalized communities. In my case, ‘Koli’ is a scheduled caste, originally ‘Kori’, i.e., the weaver community. All those who ask me my full name automatically change “Koli” to “Kohli” (which is a Punjabi surname). Unlike Kohli, Koli is not widely listened to as a surname. I was in second grade when my class teacher first corrected my surname on my name slip from Koli to Kohli assuming I made a spelling mistake. I was in second grade and didn’t know the politics of naming. As soon as I got home I showed that to my father who told me “it is Koli only, kindly tell your teacher the same”. But we don’t use surnames anywhere and that incident alone made me understand that there is something wrong with my surname. It was so normalised that I never thought of it in this light. We have used our first name in all the documents, to escape the ordeal of explaining to everyone why it is Koli and not the Punjabi upper-caste surname Kohli. I hide my caste to not reveal that I belong to a Scheduled Caste, and it came as a threat to me for if I reveal my caste identity I will be judged my whole life on the same lines.
Other practices of caste erasure include the Sanskritised way of living life where Dalits try to be like the dominant castes. Affirmative policies like the reservation system in India have made modest improvements in the educational and economical background of Dalits. Dalits who come in this belt belong to middle-class categories due to which they can share the spaces that are mostly owned by dominant castes. Hence, wearing clothes to learning and speaking fluent English as their dominant caste counterparts do is very much part of this phenomenon of hiding one’s caste identity.
Question of Merit
Back in my school days, I wasn't quite conscious of my social status and identity but now when I recall those experiences, I can reflect on the clear differences between castes. One of the vivid incidents I remember is related to the scholarships that are meant for SC/ST students. The scholarships provided by the government that are meant for meritorious scheduled caste students are received by the school authorities first and then they are to be distributed among the deserving SC students. It is an irony to note that the aim and purpose behind providing these scholarships is to alleviate the marginalized groups but the method of awarding these students was really problematic as the teachers often used to call out their names aloud in the classroom. To avoid the matter and being targets of any kind of exclusion, students preferred to refuse the scholarships, including me. I am not even sure if any of my friends back then who used to boast a lot about their caste backgrounds knew my identity at all.
Caste-based issues if at all, are only talked about and discussed regarding the concept of ‘merit’ in urban India. It is the most heated and contested one as time and again the caste system in urban areas is narrowed down to reservation debates. It is important to note that Dalits come to the academic spaces especially in higher education from varied backgrounds and most of us are either first- or second-generation learners. We have completely different environments at home, struggling to make it through situations that life throws at us, hardly any role models to encourage us to move forward. Due to this, a very low percentage of Dalits manage to enter higher education through reservations that are meant to alleviate and protect them against caste-based discrimination in institutions as well as workplaces. It is ironic to note that reservations are the only reason that this percentage lower down to almost none from marginalized communities because the upper caste individuals already own these spaces and there is not a single day when Dalits are not humiliated to avail the same. This happens with the deliberate asking of questions about one’s marks to certainly know one's merit or about one’s rank if they enter through entrance exams. The lists of the admissions are publicly announced but the ‘upper castes’ still use these tactics to make Dalits ashamed of their ranks. I always feel underconfident under such circumstances, never able to ask questions in the classroom spaces freely, not discussing any of my assignment ideas with any of my peers, always fidgety while giving the presentations. There has been no intervention by any of the academicians to address these problems faced by a specific group of students even those with progressive and alternative pedagogies. We become non-existent to the teachers without influencing the teaching-learning environment in any way and the reality is nobody cares because they always ‘homogenize’ all the categories and eventually declare ‘us’ as ‘shy.’
All of the above-discussed issues around the concept of merit render the students from marginalized communities helpless. They deal with different problems at home and in the academic environment as well which only alienates them from academic spaces. Though they don’t drop out, most of us sail through these spaces by leading double lives, one at home where they have to face their real identities and the other in the wider society where they put on masks and become meek and submissive identities.
Friendships and Romantic relationships
Dalit individuals are often made to feel that since they are present in a specific group they are accepted which is only because of their privileged educational and economical background. The dominant discourse in urban areas goes around and focuses on the narrative of “not asking one's identity these days”. Hence, privileged Dalit individuals easily acquire the ‘dominant lifestyle’ that they can easily hide their real identities to ‘belong’ and to be ‘accepted’. But caste identities are roots of the Indian society and hence when I come out as Dalit to my ‘upper caste’ friends I have often been told “Oh! You don’t look like one”. My immediate reaction to such remarks is always, “what should I do to look like one?” From this day onward Dalits are looked down on as ‘quota students’ even by their close friends. My sister's close friends in their final year of graduation while applying for post-graduation (PG), commented on her social status of being an SC. They started grouping themselves to study and apply for PG entrance exams with one’s own caste friends and left her alone because they believed that reservation is anyway going to benefit her and she will get admission without even studying. This way most of the friendships either end or become formal in nature. The individuals end up being friends with their own caste friends.
When it comes to love and romantic relationships a reverse case scenario is observed. Dalits from upwardly mobile backgrounds prefer to reveal their identities before committing to any type of relationship because inter-caste relationships are again a troublesome load and it is of no surprise that at times Dalits are right away rejected due to this reason alone in the urban cities as well. In rare cases, the committed partners after revealing each other’s identities get caught up in the web of individuals’ family sides who are unwilling to accept a member from lower caste groups for their children. If they somehow tie the knots then they end up getting divorced because situations become really complicated afterward. A non-Dalit woman in such cases has to be brave enough to take a stand for herself and she is eventually abandoned by her own family members. A Dalit woman from a mobile and privileged background if married in an inter-caste relationship, finds herself either adjusting by making compromises in the spouse's family, constantly listening to their in-laws taunts about being from a Dalit background, or end up getting separated. Thus, liberal-modern India ‘accommodates’ the individuals from marginalized backgrounds in a cracked manner where individuals from Dalit backgrounds are constantly struggling to ‘fit in’.
Reservation based admission processes in higher education
During her post-graduation admissions, my elder sister faced caste discrimination and a lot of humiliation even after her selection through the merit-based on the category-wise distribution of seats. She was denied admission and some other candidate was given admission on her seat to which she showed the list to the administration and thought it was some mistake. My mother and sister who were on fast that day roamed all the way from the South campus to the North Campus of Delhi University two times in one day. They were only tossing them like coins from here to there. My sister lost all the patience and cried. My mother on seeing her daughter cry screamed a little bit at the administration in frustration about the insensitive behavior of the administration. It felt like a deliberate move when the dean of the department made a casteist comment on them and said “mai hi yhan ka dean hu aur ab dekhta hu tumhe kaise admission milta hai”(I am the dean of the department, now I will see how you will get the admission). The behaviour of the administration was covert discrimination but we understood what it was all about. My father applied for RTI for the same afterward but my sister didn’t get the admission anyway.
We faced a similar incident during my younger sister’s admission to the MBA program at Ambedkar University, Delhi. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar University, Delhi (AUD) provides a 100% tuition fee exemption to SC/ST/PwD students. This was why my sister applied to the program this year at AUD. The fee waiver policy was clearly mentioned at the time of application on the university website and on the MBA Leaflet 2020 as well. My sister took the entrance for the same and got selected under the same category as mentioned in the First MBA Provisional list. However, students belonging to SC/ST/PWD could not avail full fee waiver this session and have to now provide an income certificate to avail the same. There was no written notice anywhere for the same. The last date to submit the fee passed during all this process of inquiry and we were denied admission for the same reason. I was not ready to move an inch back this time and continue to revolt. When the news made it to the headlines, it came out that there is no such notice for the same and the decision is under review but fee exemption is staying this year. At last, the university again released a list clearly mentioning 100% fee exemption notice and finally she got admitted.
Reservation policies, scholarships, fee waivers, etc., are only the tip of the iceberg. We have to fight to even get admissions as it is clear from the above anecdotes and after the admissions when we become part of the university spaces we are always struggling to fit in hiding our identities, debating with our peers on the concept of merits, to find the emotional vent with friends or lovers. This has now become so much a normal part of our lives that we have now become immune to such realities and it is understood that once you are born to a ‘lower’ caste group you have to find the strategies to fit in or to fight back for your rights.
The world of liberal arts and social sciences has moved way forward from such blatant discrimination and surely looks at things from a larger perspective but then it creates niches and divides among academicians too. A very small part of academics and intellectuals can comprehend the intricacies of these issues creating a bubble of their own while the larger concern and the reality outside is very different from this. In urban areas, caste operates in a very subtle manner under the veil of modernity because the fear of talking about one’s own identity specifically in the ‘modern’ urban spaces is attached to the notions of prejudices and judgments. Such ideas not only subjugate the marginalized but also create a ‘difference’ and ‘othering’ towards their group, leading to feelings of isolation. The point is, urban areas as they are assumed to be, are not so ‘liberal’. It is often said that in urban, modern, and liberal India maybe the forms have changed but caste oppression is still an issue one faces and that is why only the individuals tend to suffer and struggle on their own. I assert it is only this feeling of isolation that is taking forward the practice of untouchability from rural India and has inserted itself in urban India significantly.
Preeti Koli is a PhD Scholar in Education Studies at Dr. B.R. Ambedkar University, Delhi. She writes about political issues from a Dalit feminist point of view.