Casteism still Thrives in Kerala, yet we Blindly ask, “Does Caste Discrimination Still Exist?”

“My birth is my fatal accident”, Rohith Vemula’s last words could not be more appropriate when read in the context of casteism prevalent in our society. In light of the recent allegations regarding the abuse of a Dalit community member for winning a Sabarimala tender, we are exploring the caste system and discrimination in Kerala. With a literacy rate of 94%, which is far greater than the national average, Keralites often take pride in being ‘progressive’. However, we often tend to belittle the looming significance of caste-based issues reported in our state and indulge in whataboutery to save our ‘progressive’ status. So, let’s set our ‘progressive’ status aside for the time being and look at how casteism is still prevalent in Kerala.

Why should we discuss it now? 

It is important to mention how caste-based crimes and intolerance have increased. Let’s have a look at the statistics. Crime in India 2021 report by National Crime Records Bureau reveals an increase in the crime rate against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in India. This is based on the number of reported crimes; therefore, the actual rates could be even higher considering the possibility of unreported crimes. In other words, our intolerance towards our fellow beings has been increasing because they belong to a different caste. This intolerance has taken a violent turn, with cases of lynching being reported in the state (Madhu in 2018, Rajesh Manjhi and Viswanathan in 2023 were the victims of lynching in Kerala). The most recent incident in this regard is the alleged abuse of a Dalit community member by upper caste members for winning a tender invited by the Travancore Devaswom Board for preparing unniyappam at Sabarimala temple.

Where is this intolerance coming from?

A major factor could be social conditioning and the false pride that comes with caste identity. This conditioning is then passed down to the younger generations wherein the caste they belong to is fondly referred to as ‘us’ and all other castes as ‘them’, a distant ‘other’. The idea of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is thus inculcated in children from a very young age. One is trained within this social setup to take pride in their caste identity, particularly if they belong to an upper caste. This manifests in various forms, from using casteist surnames to Instagram bios proudly proclaiming their upper caste identity. When someone takes pride in their caste identity, the by-product of a repressive system, and uses it as a proud means of introducing themselves, how progressive can we be as a society? Also, how deep-rooted these caste and religious divisions must be!

Caste and honour

The undue emphasis on caste in our society makes it an integral part of a person’s social standing. This sense of belonging to a particular caste comes with a sense of duty to preserve their caste status. Thus, preserving the ‘purity’ of their caste often becomes an issue of their honour and prestige. To add fuel to the fire, our society’s social and cultural context associates a family’s reputation with their adherence to the conventional framework of the caste system. This familial involvement makes the caste system even harder to break. If anybody tries to break away from the caste system (say, by marrying from outside their caste), they are often met with extreme measures, including ostracization and even honour killing by their own family members. The infamous murder of Kevin P. Joseph in the Kottayam District of Kerala was a case of honour killing (as observed by the Judiciary). It is important to note here how caste, a social construct, interferes and dominates over basic humane feelings. 

Caste and rights

The caste system denies basic human rights to many sections of the society. This includes the right to education as well. Education was considered the monopoly of the upper castes in the past and was denied to the lower castes. In the present day, the situation remains more or less unchanged, with the lower castes still facing discrimination in accessing education and equal opportunities. Serious allegations of caste-based discrimination in K.R. Narayanan National Institute of Visual Science and Arts at Thekkumthala in Kottayam should be read in this regard. The fact that even Central Universities, the top-tier educational institutions of the country, are not free from casteism highlights how caste continues to corrupt possibly every aspect of our lives. 

Caste and reservation

Having set the background for addressing the caste system, it is imperative to discuss the importance of reservation in a caste-based society. Reservation in post-independence India was introduced to rectify the historical injustices meted out to the backward castes in India by ensuring adequate representation of all castes. Reservation, therefore, aims to ensure better access to resources and opportunities. 

However, despite several decades of reservation policy, the numbers are still lagging. What does this imply? It hints at the serious nature of injustices and damage done to certain sections of society. In ‘Annihilation of Caste’, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar clearly points out several instances of caste-based discrimination wherein the upper castes denied even the most basic rights to the members of lower castes. If you think it was all in the past, let me invite your attention to Rohith Vemula, Kevin P. Joseph, Madhu, Viswanathan and many more recent victims of casteism. Despite reservation and several other legislations, Dalits remain at society’s lowest rungs. In a society divided by caste hierarchy, assisting sections occupying the lower strata is important to ensure social justice.

Merit vs reservation

Another argument in this regard pertains to the ‘merit/reservation’ controversy. Arundhati Roy in ‘The Doctor and The Saint’ answers this controversy. She points out how the advocates of ‘merit’ conveniently forget the crippling effect of the caste system that denied knowledge to the less privileged sections and kept them at bay for thousands of years. Here, merit is considered to exist in an ahistorical social vacuum. It completely disregards the advantages of privileged-caste social networking and the establishment’s entrenched hostility towards the subordinated castes. She argues that all these factors deserve consideration when addressing this controversy and observes that ‘merit’ has become a euphemism for nepotism.

One of the most popular demands raised in this context is that reservation should be based on economic status, not caste. The demanders believe that caste-based discrimination is a thing of the past and is no longer relevant in our present society. But is that so? Let’s take the example of the Sabarimala tender issue. The tender was won fair and square. What, then, was the problem there? What spurred violence and abuse?

The problem lies in the caste identities of the people who participated in the tender. A Dalit community member won the tender, and this is said to have enraged the accused upper caste members, who then unleashed violence against the victim. So, how could anybody say that caste is irrelevant today when caste-based crimes continue to take place every now and then? It is important to emphasise here that these crimes are taking place in a society that has adopted several measures, including reservation and legal provisions, to support and protect the lower castes. So, what would have been the situation if there were none? 

The relative nature of caste-based discrimination/ When the victim becomes the perpetrator

Caste-based discrimination does not necessarily require the involved parties to belong to the two extremes of the spectrum. It just requires two castes with unequal standing in the caste hierarchy to spark caste-based discrimination and intolerance. In 2022, Sangeetha, a member of the Pulaya caste (Dalit community), committed suicide owing to caste-based discrimination by her in-laws, who are members of the Ezhava community (OBC). This shows how every caste tries to proclaim their superiority over castes that fall under them in the caste hierarchy. In other words, despite being the victims of caste-based discrimination, each caste tends to be the perpetrator of the same discrimination if given a chance. 

Casteist ‘compliments’, remarks and insults

If you still believe that caste is a myth, look around you. The all-pervading nature of the caste system is clearly discernible in our everyday lives. Observe, and you’ll find casteist remarks disguised as compliments, casteist slurs, and many more. To give you an idea, here are some common casteist ‘compliments’, remarks and insults we encounter daily. 

People from this particular caste usually don’t cook this well, but your food tastes yummy / You look too beautiful to be from this caste / I hate people from backward castes just because of the policy of reservation / It is typical of people from that caste to behave this way / I can’t believe you’re from this caste, you’re so well-mannered/ People from this caste have a habit of flocking together for the smallest of reasons.

How to do away with the caste system? Is there a solution?

Dr. B.R. Ambedkar has an answer to this question. According to him, intermarriage is the real remedy for breaking the watertight compartments of the caste system. But how far is this possible in our society? This should be analysed considering the immense importance of marriage in our society. 

Marriage continues to be an institution that strictly adheres to caste and religious divisions. Some of us might have come across ‘the progressive modern family’ advice: “We don’t have a problem with love marriage if he/she is from the same caste and religion”. Also, think of the numerous separate matrimonial sites that exist for each caste! 

Breaking this endogamous nature of the caste system is possible only through intermarriage, but this might not be as easy as it sounds. The connections between caste and ‘family honour’ make the situation even more challenging. Intercaste marriage could be a tough call, particularly when choosing between their family and their own happiness. Many government schemes encourage intercaste marriages and offer financial assistance. For instance, the Government provides one-time financial assistance of Rs 30,000 to all eligible intercaste married couples in Kerala. Though significant progress is visible on this front, we still have a long way to go.

Meanwhile, here are a few questions to ask ourselves. Why does caste continue to downplay a person’s worth? Why can’t one’s personality be the ultimate yardstick for assessing their worth? How far are we from attaining this? If a person’s caste interferes with our opinion of them, how could ours be a progressive society? When caste continues to dominate almost all aspects of our lives, why do we conveniently turn a blind eye towards it? Last but most importantly, if a person’s caste and surname tend to have an impact – positive or negative, big or small – on you, don’t you think that needs to change?

Parvathy Shylajan
In pursuit of the horizon where thoughts meet words!

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