HomeIndiaBroken pitchers, 100 years apart

Broken pitchers, 100 years apart

In 1922, in Ara Town School in Bihar, two pitchers of water were kept in the courtyard — one, for upper-caste, “savarna” Hindus, pure and noble, the other for the so-called “untouchables”, victims of the greatest social betrayal in human history. My grandfather, Babu Jagjivan Ram, an ace student of the school, one day smashed the prohibited pitcher and told the principal to keep only one for all students. There was outrage, blows, and boycott, but the young Jagjivan Ram was insistent. He somehow survived the rebellion — my mother, Meira Kumar, says that it was a “miracle” that he didn’t end up dead — and went on to fight many more such battles throughout his political life. They can never be enough.

A hundred years later — after freedom, democracy, and a million pledges to equity — Indra Meghwal, a nine-year-old boy from Jalore, Rajasthan, got killed, allegedly for that very reason. Witnesses say he was also viciously abused as he was being beaten, as his ears were being torn and his eyes crushed. Death wasn’t immediate, it made him linger for 14 days more. Indra had dared to drink from the pitcher of Chail Singh, the upper-caste principal of the school, a man so driven by caste entitlement and hatred that it was only death, a hate-filled sacrifice, that could keep the tradition alive. To give a Dalit boy access to education, the historical preserve of the “dwija” or the “twice-born”, was bad enough; to have him break the boundaries of food and drink was a cardinal transgression. The principal has been arrested, and FIRs lodged under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act but like my grandfather used to say, “You can legislate laws, but how do you legislate on mindsets?”

In the early days of Babu Jagjivan Ram, the Dalits had to carry a spittoon around their neck so that the streets were not soiled by their indiscretion, and a broom tied on their back to automatically sweep the polluted pathway as they walked. Their shadow was a curse, not just in terms of a demonic presence, but like something truly repugnant. My grandfather was banished from his hostel at Banares Hindu University and was told to cook food separately; ultimately he had to move out, not only from the hostel, but from the city itself, completing his graduation from Calcutta. But many years later, in 1978, when he returned to Banares as the Deputy Prime Minister to garland the statue of former UP CM Sampurnanand, it appeared that little had changed. The statue was later purified with gangajal by angry, abusive students, calling out the audacity of breaching the cast trenches.

There has been improvement in the past 75 years since Independence with constitutional rights and laws, social reform, capitalism and political confidence. But one can also argue that despite the empowerment, the “mindset” has not changed. Meira Kumar argues that the caste system is about “voice”, since “the system filters those whose voices should be heard and those who should remain voiceless. At the moment, the Dalit voices are too feeble to be heard, too mild to be registered.” So political power may not necessarily lead to social emancipation. For example, there is the story of a Dalit MLA from Madhya Pradesh, some years back, who carried his own steel glass to avoid soiling utensils in upper-caste homes, a habit that won him much approval from the latter. Meira Kumar also remembers a woman MLA from a northern state who lost the support of upper castes the moment she decided to take independent, sovereign decisions on appointments and funds distribution. And then there are the pitiful stories of many other Dalit lawmakers who routinely touch the feet of upper-caste men and women, young and old, to reassure their fragile self-image that caste still thrives at the heart of Indian modernity. Even here, actual physical contact is avoided, the gestural buckling of the Dalit to the greater social order is enough.

Caste longevity could have survived due to a system of Karmic psycho-tyranny, where historically, many Dalits become complicit in their own subjugation. Karma insists on a foreshadowing of fate, where reward and punishment in the next life, or placement in the caste hierarchy, are determined by “good behaviour” in this life. In other words, Dalits are told to embrace their doom, stick to the rules and never break them. Jagjivan Ram’s book, Caste Challenge in India, details this metaphysical perversity. In my own experience, I remember a member of our staff, a middle-aged Dalit woman from Bihar, who thought poorly of a Brahmin guest because he had accepted water and food from her “impure” hands.

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This vulnerability of caste, as an immutable social space, can be explained through the logic of pure-impure, arguably the central axis of the caste structure. By this logic, the customary privileges of upper castes, their purity and social purpose, can only be legitimised and maintained by their very denial at its opposite end. A suvarna can only exist if an avarna does. One wonders as we read about more and more instances of such atrocities if the old order is not fighting back, empowering itself through the sacrifice of those who are karmically condemned. How many more nine-year-olds have to be killed before the “mindset changes”? This is the caste system, India’s grisly offering to humanity.

The writer is National Spokesperson, Indian National Congress

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