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Reflections (of an Urban, English-educated, OBC woman) on Growing up in a Caste Society

All of us grow up and are formed through the systems that shape our thoughts, actions, our choices, and our morals. They influence the spaces we occupy, the education we receive, and even the food we eat. These systems can be barriers for our thinking, and can also compel us to question them. As a 28 year old, OBC (Other Backward Classes) woman, I reflect on how some of these institutions and spaces have shaped my ideas and have also taught me to question distortions they produce.

I was born in a shepherd community (Halu Kuruba) but being a second-generation learner, material well-being was not an issue. My parents had been pushed to take up social responsibilities at a very young age, compelling them to drop out of school before they finished class ten. Their medium of instruction had been Kannada, and so they wanted my sister and me, who were born in the 90’s, to be educated in an English medium school. So along with one of our neighbour’s children, who also belonged to the same community, we were put in an English medium school. Our neighbour had two daughters like my parents, but had no job at hand. My father told this neighbour uncle to start driving an auto, and pick and drop the four of us to and from school. This uncle’s income was solely dependent on driving us to school. In this manner social caste-based networks had been put to best use during my growing up years.

Experiences of caste and religion were always talked about at home, instilling in us a sense of both relative superiority (based on the progress we had made as a community) and inferiority (based on our historical caste position), as one expects of OBC communities. With the privilege of attending an English medium school that few from my community had the opportunity to attend, my parents, especially my mother, bore the responsibility of ensuring that we studied well (as per the social dictums of gendered division of labour). Being herself not very well educated, this meant that we were made to join tuitions right from kindergarten itself, up until Class 9. This tuition teacher was the only Muslim woman in our neighbourhood, who had successfully finished with a Bachelors in Arts, with English as her medium of instruction. I continue to believe that this environment in the tuition class taught me life lessons, including some on class, secularism and definitely exposed me to the potentials of Bahujan-Muslim solidarity based on shared experiences in a majoritarian Hindu society. This tuition teacher whom I continue to address as ‘Miss’ tells me even today to believe in humanism, if that exist at all.

Shaped in this manner by these early experiences, my knowledge on caste started within the institutions of the family and the neighbourhood, but it was definitely still superficial. It was limited in those years to caste certificates that I was supposed to produce to accrue certain ‘benefits’. However, the real meaning of these caste certificates and their importance as a policy tool introduced to counter years of historical oppression and correct for that historical injustice was learnt through my experience at Hyderabad Central University (HCU) as a graduate student. Central universities, such as HCU, although elitist, are also the sole places for pursuing higher education for the Bahujan masses, and also provide space for moulding young people’s thoughts. I entered HCU on a general category seat by personal choice although I grapple with this decision even today. One can certainly find me defending reservations in an intellectual argument or in public spaces, but in my mind, thoughts flow about personal use of it and it scares me. Was I doing because I was aware of my privilege as an urban, English-educated OBC woman? Or was it because I was not okay (and maybe still am not) with the way conversations flow among Savarnas about reserved category students as lesser beings, and the subsequent pressure that comes of proving oneself as worthy enough. Prior to HCU I had been part of another public institution, the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), where I occupied the position of a reserved category student, and had experienced subtle forms of discrimination. (For example, hostel spaces for us had been intentionally or unintentionally reserved on a different floor from other students, and at other times our capabilities were dismissed in many ways).

Experiences among my peers similarly also made me realise how reserved category students have to undergo discrimination. This takes me to the constant discussion or rather the battle that takes place, in rather hushed tones, between Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) and Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship (RGNF)/Maulana Azad National Fellowship (MANF) students on higher education campuses.[1] I would like to narrate an incident that took place with a senior friend of mine concerning the same. This friend belonged to a Dalit community and even after repeated attempts failed to get the JRF. Knowing this, I suggested that he apply for the RGNF simultaneously. He refused it very sternly, and when probed, explained that in his institution, a reputed ICSSR institute, Savarnas belittle RGNF scholarship students. The usual taunt directed towards RGNF scholars is that it is easy for ‘them’ but for ‘us’ Savarna students hard work and competition is extreme. Alongside this, RGNF students are also told about how they dress very well and spend the RGNF money on bettering their material life rather than spending it on their education. The constant taunts and harassment directed towards ‘beneficiaries’ made my friend not even consider applying for RGNF, and so his JRF struggle continues.

These experiences within higher education spaces constantly put one in a bickering mode although I believe these are essential for one’s own evolution. They say lived experience is the best teacher. This is true to a large extent at least in my case as one who has had access to money without laboring much for it, though sometimes I have had to lie to my parents to get this. However, I have witnessed how these scholarships are so essential for material survival for so many students. During my HCU days I have seen how marginalised women in my hostel would run to grab some leftover food from the mess after official dinner timings, since they had no money to pay the mess fee, unlike myself, who could spend on eating outside at least for ten days in a month. I do realise the layers of privilege that exist within our castiest society, but material deprivation is a reality, period.

Further to add to these experiences, I was there to witness the unfortunate incident of Rohit Vemula’s suicide that caused an uproar in the country, and rekindled within students’ political movement and the country and society at large, debates about these elite spaces and their composition, leading them to be castiest, exclusive and discriminatory. What I learnt through this experience was that in the context of large material deprivations, suicide as resistance is what DBA (Dalit Bahujan Adivasi) students resort to, in a country where resistance to Brahminism itself can lead to death.[2] I learnt how state institutions (and by extension the state) weighs its own citizens differently. The state itself being brahminical in much of its administrative composition, it is definitely in the interest of the state to do so. However, it is also compelled by the constitution to offer the DBA masses dignity and a right to survival, and resisting the cultural hegemony of the everyday state and calling upon its moral principle to ensure material resources through counter cultural practices (e.g., celebration of beef festivals on university practices), or even protesting until death, is the only solution we can think of.

Resistance to any form of power, in any small way, is essential to break the chain of injustice that has currently captured our knowledge systems, social institutions (for instance, marriage) and economic resources (caste-occupation nexus). For instance, growing up in a conservative household, I had been raised in such a way that I had accepted the fact that I should continue to live in an abusive relationship rather than leave the relationship, because if I left, my mother would be questioned for my upbringing. It is only recently that I have been able to resist certain norms and not be obedient, because of the relative security that I have now due to access to various forms of resources- intellectual, economic and institutional. However, it is difficult for many other women to leave abusive relationships for lack of supportive institutions and exercise their agency that would benefit them within the context that they live in.

Writing, I’ve realised, itself can be a form of resistance and at the same time a privilege. It may commodify experiences but at the same time offers the opportunity to tell what is necessary to be told and confronted, so as to generate engagement with important topics. Oral histories that was the primary mode of communicating knowledge across generations among Bahujan masses, are now being recorded in writing and transferred through teaching, and have found their place, within the curriculum in the form of works of anti-caste thinkers.

The neighbourhood that I have lived throughout my life has been a space that has made me witness all forms of injustice, gender, class and caste, but at the same time has made me understand the importance of recognising, celebrating and accepting difference (for instance, in food habits and local festivals). These initial learnings have further been nourished by the centres of learning that I attended, where identities have been central to everything I saw and experienced. These institutions, one may say, polarises us, but are also essential to instill in us a sense of fraternity that the casteist society fails to do. However, to end this note, I would like to say that ally-ship, solidarity, and acknowledgement of one’s privilege is necessary; but should our concerns end there? This is the central question that I would like to leave here for us now to ponder about.

Acknowledgements: I’d like to thank Akhila Kumaran, Sujatha Subramanian and R. Maithreyi for their comments and edits that were helpful in finalising the blog.

[1] While the Junior Research Fellow (JRF) Scholarship is provided to all students to take up PhD admissions in state and central universities, the Rajiv Gandhi National Fellowship (RGNF) and Maulana Azad National Fellowship are reserved for SC/ST/OBC and minority students only. [2] One among five students who was suspended by the University along with Rohit was forced to take up farming in his village as he was not able to get any job in any University across India despite completing doctoral studies.

Apurva K H works works currently at the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. She has a double masters in Economics and has recently received a JRF.

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