I Was Told Alwar Was Free Of Caste Inequality. My Experience Showed The Opposite

December 14, 2017

(Here, Arpit shares his experiences and reflections from his district immersion in Alwar, Rajasthan, as part of the ‘Realising India’ programme.)

I have seen women face opposition for being assertive, outspoken or blunt. I have also seen them beinfg casually asked to tone down (whereas the same qualities in a man may be judged as conviction and strength). Britain’s Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon obviously defy this expectation – and in return, their ‘legs’ are put on display for a ‘best-leg’ vote.

Subtle discrimination normalised by society’s description of women is so insidious that even women find it hard to identify it. As part of a rural immersion programme in Alwar district, I spent two weeks trying to deepen my understanding of social constructs like gender, caste, class and religion.

The women in the villages wake up early in the morning, fetch water, look after all the household activities, and work (often more than men) in the fields. In many instances, I saw young girls and ladies walk away whenever an elder person entered the room. Women often did not enjoy any decision-making rights, let alone living with equal dignity and respect.

Thanaghazi, a village in Alwar, has a dominant population from the Meena tribe. On my bus-ride to this village, several people told me that the Meenas from Alwar were very affluent and occupied several prominent positions in the legislature and the executive. They claimed that caste-based inequality was pretty much absent in Alwar.

However, on reached the village, we were completely aghast by the contradiction between what we were informed and what we saw. We figured out that this affluence was more localised to only a few households of the village. Some of the villages, which had adequate infrastructure and good connectivity, had lifted themselves out of poverty. The others which were far away from the highways and roads, had very poor accessibility to water, health and education services.

A poor Meena from Thanaghazi told us how tired he was of making new cards and linking them to avail governmental services. He did not have a below poverty line (BPL) card yet, and mentioned how corrupt the system to avail a BPL card is. Often, people from the middle and the lower middle classes and impoverished people don’t have this card, as their poverty renders them incapable of paying a ‘fee’ to the surveyor. Caste and class often have a strong correlation – and the Meenas are far from being prosperous legislators and executives only.

I was walking down the many streets of Revali, a village in the industrial region of Alwar district. Both the Dalits and the members of the village’s upper castes told us that they lived in utmost peace and harmony. But, they also said that the Dalits never ate or drank with the members of the upper castes. The Dalits even went on to express their discomfort with the very idea of eating with an upper-caste member of the village.

While trying to map Revali, we found that there was a definitive spatial caste-based divide. There is a separate area for the Dalits called the ‘Harijan basti‘. There, I saw open drains, flies, unclothed kids playing in very unhygienic conditions, open defecation and poorly-constructed pucca houses. This caste-based divide was visible in all the villages of Alwar that I visited over two weeks. For me, these experiences spoke immensely about the normalisation and internalisation of discrimination.

The Muslims of Alampur (a Muslim-majority village in Alwar) derive their major source of income from cattle rearing. I saw chicken, goats and buffaloes in one of the household yards. I asked the family elder why there were no cows. He said that cows give less milk, and are also valued at a lower price than buffaloes. On being asked if any household at Alampur had cows, the elder just responded by saying – “Why would anyone take a risk when there are so many other animals to get milk from?” Clearly, monetary preference was not the only reason this Alampur household had only buffaloes.

Franklin Roosevelt spoke about the four freedoms of an ideal nation state – freedom of worship, expression, freedom from want, and from fear. Clearly, a systemic and a cultural shift is necessary to climb the developmental ladders, especially when it comes to social constructs like caste, class, gender and religion.

Most of the times, these subtle differences and normalised methods of discrimination exist in the society. The legitimisation of such socially-perpetrated norms and values can sometimes become larger concerns than the more overt forms of discrimination, because they can travel generations.

Freedom of choice and expression are often the ‘defences’ used by people to demand ‘respect’ for their private (often bigoted) beliefs or feelings. This allows them to discriminate against whoever they want. They might even argue that to deny them the right to act like bigots is itself bigoted. However, it should be noted that a law that prohibits people from discriminating against others, based on religion, sexual orientation or caste, does not prevent the perpetrators from holding their bigoted views.

Workplace scientists advise managers that one way of limiting subtle biases is to label ‘covert’ discrimination as ‘overt’. Although discrimination is often accepted as ‘normal’ (for whatever reason), the Constitution does not sanction it. Shouldn’t we work within our value systems and guard ourselves against parts of the Constitution continually being used to justify direct and indirect discrimination?

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