I was traveling a few years ago, reading a book. The family seated opposite me began to eat. They offered to share their food with me, and I declined. But the young wife was rather insistent.
After I’d said ‘no’ twice, she said: “It’s okay. We’re not from a low caste. We’re upper caste.”
I suddenly felt weary. This was a literate woman, trying to be friendly with a stranger on a train. Why did she think I was more worried about caste than being drugged and robbed? What made her assume I was ‘upper’ caste and therefore she could, and should, let me touch her food? And if she thought I was the sort of person who wouldn’t eat her food because of my caste, why did she want to talk to me at all?
I am thinking of her now because of the Washington Post survey that claims India is among the most racist nations in the world. And now begin the disclaimers – people are stepping up to assure us (or themselves) that while we are indeed bigoted and casteist, we are not more ‘racist’. Which, of course, bring us to – what’s the difference?
Traditionally, the western view has been that racism is about discrimination based on racial (genetic, physiological) differences. The colour of your skin or eyes, the texture of your hair, the shape of your nose – this betrays your genetic history. There are far too many people in the world who believe their noses make them worthier and that your nose and hair must condemn you to an eternity of less – less food, less water, less comfort, less education, less property, less cultural space. They also believe that people who carry different genetic histories should not marry.
Sounds a lot like casteism, no?
In fact, caste is covered by the UN’s Race Convention, although it’s not much discussed. Besides, a quick dip into India’s ancient history will tell you that the roots of casteism are racist. The Aryans and Dravidians were from different races, with different cultures and social norms. One dominated and began to crush the other. Over centuries, there were a lot of conversions across caste and religion, a lot of up- or downwardly mobile marriages, a lot of migration, and breaks away from caste-dominated religious practices. That complicated things. Which is why Indians are no longer able to judge caste just by looking at your face. Which is why that woman on the train felt the need to clarify that she was not from a lower caste.
I suspect we want to believe that casteism is somehow softer, less dangerous than racism. But there’s no difference between killing a black man who flirts with a white girl, and killing a lower caste boy who wants to marry your daughter. One look at Indian matrimonial websites should tell us how racist we are.
Are we ‘the most’ racist? Well, I don’t want to believe it but I will say that India is far too tolerant of every intolerance, including racism. Sample Shaadi.com’s decision to give a prize to a woman who tweeted that she did not want ‘black’ kids. Other friends have been regaling me with descriptions of Shaadi.com ‘melas’ where casteism is borne aloft like a pennant. There is not even a token attempt to pressure the company into taking a stand on the caste issue.
If a website in the USA actively encouraged people to marry within ethnic groups, and allowed a platform for race-insensitive remarks, there might have been some outrage. In India, there’s mainly relief that such platforms exist. And I think that does make us more racist.
First published here