October 25, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

Certain kinds of people

In the dusty village of Ramaniya, 25km south of Bhuj, in a compound where several damaged buildings lie abandoned after last year's earthquake, we find a double row of tents. Two dozen in all. These are all Muslim families who used to live in mud huts on land belonging to a landlord in the village. They had a bhadut arrangement with him; that is, they didn't own the huts, but paid him rent for them. When the quake destroyed the huts, an NGO distributed these tents and they moved into them.

So far, an entirely ordinary quake story, one that was repeated hundreds of times across Kutch last year. But then we meet 17-year-old Shehnazbai Adamkhan Osman, who used to work at the papad factory next door. She asks us: "Where will we go from here?"

A good question. Because the critical factor in their quake experience is not that they lost their homes, but that they did not own them. Therefore, they are not entitled to any of the money the government hands out as compensation for houses damaged or destroyed by the quake. The landlord gets it. For whatever reason, he does not want them back in the huts once he rebuilds them. The NGO that is working here, building 400 new homes for victims in the village, has no plans for these 50 families. The government has no plans or policy to rehouse them either.

In effect, bhadut people have fallen through the cracks of a quake rehabilitation effort that has no place for them. Where will they go, indeed! So, as far as she can tell, Shehnazbai will live out her life in these already fraying tents.

Most victims' lives were utterly transformed that day, but Shehnazbai's transformation is in a league by itself: she sees no escape from her quake-wrought plight.

Yet there's one more ingredient in this cocktail, one final nail in this dingy coffin. Arvindbhai Maheshwari, who runs a tiny stall on the roadside across from the tents, explains over a chai. A Jain businessman based in the USA, he tells me, has offered to pay to build houses for bhadut people. Very generous of him. But he will help only those bhaduts who are Jain. Later, the NGO staff confirm this.

"Lower-caste bhaduts like these", says Arvindbhai, sweeping the Muslim families like Shehnazbai's up into that "lower-caste" umbrella, "cannot find anyone to help them. Do you think this is OK? Will you please write about it?"

No, I say. Yes, I say.

That little episode on a roadside, like others in my limited experience, affirmed a small truth for me. We may have our religious differences, economic differences, all that; but in India, our ultimate reality is caste. No doubt about it. Obvious, you say? But worth revisiting, nevertheless. Because how we feel about caste invariably defines how things happen, often explains otherwise inexplicable phenomena.

In the rest of this article, three more episodes that got me thinking about caste attitudes.

Immediately after the quake, I spent some days working in a village called Toraniya. Also based in the village was a team from the Marble Traders' Association of Delhi, which had decided to give the villagers free food for a week. All they had to do was wander over to the Traders' tent, sit down in a line and eat the piping-hot puri-bhaji the Delhi men cooked and served them. You'd think it would be a natural thing to do.

Yet at every mealtime, there were urgent arguments around the village. The various village castes couldn't bring themselves to sit with each other to eat. Not even this free food. They resented being asked to do so.

The quake had destroyed indiscriminately: everyone had suffered. Practically every home was reduced to rubble; electricity had gone, so they could not raise water from their borewells; the school building was irretrievably damaged. And here were these well-meaning folks from Delhi cooking food for all. Even so, caste feelings just would not go away.

Some years before that, I spent an evening with a lower-caste Hindi teacher in his one-room home in a Bombay chawl. We talked of many things. What I remember most clearly is when he said quietly, yet with startling passion: "They send bricks from all over the world to build that temple in Ayodhya. But will they ever help us dalits? Will they ever send bricks to build houses for us?"

I didn't have an answer. There in his dingy room, this Hindi teacher made me understand the realities caste held for him, every day of his life. It's not as if anyone prevents him entering temples, or drinking water from a well. "But when we see this brick campaign happening," he said, "we know what effect caste still has on our lives today."

And it's that spirit that explains the phenomenon we call Mayawati. Why is she such a messiah? "We all know she's corrupt," said the teacher. "But she's one of us. We're tired of being told who's good for us and who isn't. Now we'll choose for ourselves. Even if we choose the wrong people, it's our choice. Those other leaders, they only talk about temples."

I haven't been back to that room to ask the man what he thinks of Mayawati's latest political bedfellows. Still, that day I began to understand the shape caste takes for a man like this. Subtler than being pushed away from a well, but hardly less annoying.

On my travels through Namibia in 1991, I ran into an Indian trade delegation. It wasn't a meeting I remember with affection. In fact, seldom have I felt as angry as I did then. Most of them were doing very little that looked like work. They were along for the fun, enjoying themselves thoroughly on their taxpayer-paid foreign junket. They spoke casually of their last trip to Frankfurt, an earlier one to Zurich, an upcoming one to Tokyo.

At a dinner party we all attended, conversation turned to reservations and the Mandal report, which had only recently dominated the Indian news. All the trade fair dudes, without exception, spoke contemptuously and angrily of V P Singh, who as prime minister had tried to implement the Mandal report's guidelines about reservations. Lip curling in distaste, one pronounced that VP wanted to give "certain kinds of people" college admissions and jobs even if they had no qualifications.

Neither VP nor Mandal had said anything of the kind, but I let that pass: I was struck instead by his use of that phrase "certain kinds of people". No prizes for guessing whom he meant. No mistaking the disgust he felt for the prospect of those "certain kinds of people" actually getting jobs. "What will happen to our country," he asked almost plaintively, "if we don't pay attention to merit?"

He might have found the best answer to that in a mirror; I had to restrain myself from holding one up for him. Here was this shabby slob, lolling about in a fancy Namibian hotel at my taxpaying expense, claiming to be on Government of India business; a man who, if merit had truly meant anything, would be given a swift kick in the behind and flung into the street; and this fellow had the gall to moan about ignoring merit. To make insinuations about "certain kinds of people".

Yes, perhaps you think it's not about temples and wells so much any more. But it is about a thousand different things --- incidents, insinuations, inferences --- that "certain kinds of people" experience daily. It is about being lynched because you skinned a cow; it underlies murders in Bihar; it even decides the way people look at you. Caste is in our blood, in our every living moment. Without understanding that, we don't understand this country.

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