Har Cheez Mein Caste Mat dekho

by | Apr 8, 2022

TW: Mentions of casteism

एतद् देशप्रसूतस्य सकाशादग्रजन्मनः । स्वं स्वं चरित्रं शिक्षेरन् पृथिव्यां सर्वमानवाः ll139ll {2.20}

From a first-born (i.e. a Brahmana), born in that country Let all men on earth learn their respective duties.

(Chapter 1, page 73, Manusmriti)

The Sudra was created by the self-created one solely to do slave labour for the Brahmin. Even when he is released by his master, a Sudra is not freed from his slave status for that is innate in him; and who can remove it from him?

(Chapter 8, shlokas 413, 414, Manusmriti)

“Even a capable Sudra must not accumulate wealth; for when a Sudra becomes wealthy, he harasses Brahmins.”

(Chapter 8, shloka 129, Manusmriti)

The progenitor of mankind and one who codified the caste system for the first time continues to stand tall right in front of the Rajasthan High Court, even after years of protest against the statue. If that is not symbolic to our justice system, maybe the actual statistical figures should be!

The statue of Manu inside the compound of the Rajasthan High Court in Jaipur.
Express photo by Rohit Jain Paras 25.10.2018

One of the oldest, existing social stratification systems in the world – caste identity has followed Indians for centuries and beyond geographies. The generational access (and denial) of resources have a direct relation to current social, economic and political power held by a minority group.

The British also left no chance to further the existing divide. They notified millions of nomadic and semi-nomadic communities as hereditary habitual offenders to be put under state surveillance. Hill Tribes from North Eastern regions led to the growth of tea estates, many reported to be kidnapped to work as labourers.

Migration by Indian indentured labourers in plantation colonies also provides a unique insight into the ‘stigma’ of losing caste status for going abroad. As this study observes, despite a provision for subsidized return passage, individuals from the lowest castes seldom returned back to India as their lives in the plantation economies did not allow the reproduction of caste hierarchies.

Development On The Backs Of Oppressed Continued Post-Independence

Who gained from the agricultural boom of the Green Revolution? It is also a question embedded in caste. The cultivating, landowning caste prospered at the expense of labouring Dalits. The urban labour market may provide greater mobility and a false sense of security. But overall, as Ashwini Deshpande sums up in The Grammar of CasteThe diversification brought by post-reform development has not broken the association, across states, of upper castes with higher-status professions and Dalits with manual and casual labour.

From the 100% ‘Upper caste’ reservations in corporates to college campuses, residential segregations- neoliberal structures have followed the hierarchies of the villages.

As a 2008 study stated – for urban Dalits, post-primary education “confers almost a disadvantage” bettering the chances of neither salaried work (beyond the small number and now enclaved low-end jobs in the reserved formal sector) nor self-employment, while increasing their likelihood of opting out of the labour force.

From the 100% ‘Upper caste’ reservations in corporates to college campuses have followed caste hierarchies. Representational image.

There is persisting caste-based disparity in earnings (upwards of 15%) for equivalent levels of education, greater in the private than the public sector, and compounded for Dalit women by gender disparities. Hence, why Dalits earn less is more than just the question of wages but discrimination at every step from education, to recruitment to career growth.

We’ll take a look at two very different regions to understand the complexities both at source and destination.

In South Rajasthan’s Gogunda

Let us travel to tribal-dominated South Rajasthan’s Gogunda block.

With a rural literacy rate at 46% and sparse land holding, almost 60% of income for most, particularly the ST and SC communities, come through remittances by workers.

Interestingly, while most communities migrate at some point in their lives, the entry point for each differs based on caste.

The historical access and networks led to the migration of Bania and Jain communities first who set up hotels, shops and industries, while general castes like Rajputs act as the middlemen- the contractors who bring labourers. Adivasi and SC communities end up as the workers- all from the same region.

For example, when a Brahmin worker is employed he is immediately the ‘maharaj’ in the kitchen who supervises the final work or is in sales in the powerloom industry. Or assisting the owners but never the one who cleans dishes, not the one in godowns in cutting/folding.

The ‘lowest’ or most hazardous jobs seem to be ‘reserved’ for the oppressed castes.

The ‘lowest’ or most hazardous jobs seem to be ‘reserved’ for the oppressed castes. Photo: Borgen Maga

As Saloni Mundra from Aajeevika Bureau in Rajasthan explains, this is how the market attracts cheap labour through them. Another example is statue making in temples that is predominantly done by certain caste groups like Sompura community, even at the risk of dying through silicosis. These are the same temples that often deny them entry.

An interesting system is the cycle of debt through informal financial mechanisms. Moneylenders who always belong to the privileged caste are also the contractors for the workers. The wages are not paid regularly and sometimes takes 4-5 months so the workers and their families again go to the same moneylender/contractor who in turn continues to accrue interest and this cycle never seems to end.

This was narrated by a young Bhil migrant working in the construction industry in Ahmedabad. He said, “Humare gaav se kaafi log ek hi Contractor saheb se aaye hai. Paisa humesha late deta hai vo, hum jaise log ko ek din bhi paise nahi mile to ghar pe kitni takleef hoti hai. Ghar ke kharche ke liye hum paise mangne bhi unhi ke pass jana padta hai, aur kon paise dega hume? (Many people from my village have come through the same contractor. He always gives us wages late, for people like us even one day of wage delay becomes a problem at home. So for household expenses, we borrow from him only, apart from him who will give us a loan?)

Caste persists in the age of the market because of its advantages – its discriminations allow opportunity hoarding for others; and the threat of the advancement of subordinated groups provokes humiliating violence against them, which is why there is a need to ensure its proper place in global development policy debate.

In Kerala’s Perumbavoor

Let’s now travel all the way to ‘migrant city’ Perumbavoor in the middle of Ernakulam district of Kerala. The state initially known for out-migration to the Gulf has now an estimated 3.5 million migrants from districts of Tamil, Nadu, Assam, West Bengal, Odisha, Jharkhand, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, etc. In most industries the Contractors have a paramount place, the high level of dependency on them ensures the maintenance of a clear power structure.

Further, they also have the absolute authority to determine the skill/role suitability which is where the caste location of the worker defines their job. Taking the example of one of the most exploitative industries, the brick kilns only have workers from the minority or disadvantaged communities. As a study in Punjab, Chhattisgarh, and Uttar Pradesh points out, the figure was at 100%!

Migrants who usually travel with families, and live near the worksite, are paid per number of bricks and not hours- which often leads to never-ending working hours and even child labour. Most also take ‘advance’ from contractors and the constant stress over the loan forces them to break their backs and work to pay it off.

A labourer throws mud on bricks kept for drying at a kiln in Karjat, India, March 10, 2016. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

I asked one worker from West Bengal who has worked at the same kiln for years and her son has also joined her now. Main jitni jaldi ho sake yaha se chali jaungi” “Kyu?” “Kaam nahi accha lagta hai, par karz khatam nahi hua hai abhi. (“I want to leave this place as early as possible.” “Why?” “I do not like the work but my debt is still unpaid”).

When I prodded how much is the loan she seemed to fumble not knowing the exact amount and said, “Par abhi kaafi baaki hai, pichle saal ladki ki shaadi ke liye bhi liya tha.” (But there is quite some debt left, last year I also took out a loan for my daughter’s wedding).

In a market experiment study by Suanna Oh, many general caste workers refused to take up ‘lower caste’ jobs even if they were paid 10x wages regardless of the anonymity offered. How the market is segregated and roles allocated to continue to have a clear caste bias that continues beyond the historical marginalization.

Indians are unable to leave their caste(ism) behind even if they go abroad. Recently, when California State University added caste as a ‘protected category’ against discrimination, many upper-caste Indians lamented over how it would unconstitutionally single out Indian origin faculties.

Multiple studies of the Indian diaspora in Singapore have also noted the impact of caste at play in the socio-economic spheres. What these stories portray is the understanding of issues in far depth while we are still stuck at even acknowledging caste linkages.

Only when we look at the apparent identities of who are the majority workers can we attempt to work on ‘their issues’. “Har cheez mein caste mat dekho? Lekin har cheez mein caste hai.” (‘Don’t look at caste in everything? But caste is everywhere’)

When Babasaheb Ambedkar said, Caste is not merely a division of labour but also a division of labourers, this was what he meant. Years later his statement continues to hold true.

(I want to thank all my friends and colleagues for stories from across India. I particularly want to extend my gratitude to Saloni Mundra at Aajeevika Bureau for her insights from South Rajasthan.)

Featured image is for representational purposes only.

This article was originally published on Youth Ki Aawaz as a part of the Justice-Makers Writer’s Training Program.

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