India at 70: In the next seven decades caste discrimination will be history

Upper castes rue ‘losing’ the Dalits. The upper castes in the countryside are a disempowered lot today, they are the ‘victims’ of the Constitution, of democracy, and of a market economy. At this rate, in another 70 years, caste may turn into a relic, much like Purana Qila is today

IndependenceDay2017 Updated: Aug 15, 2017 22:28 IST
Caste,Dalits,upper caste
History books will record that in the past 70 years India has undergone a social revolution (Representative Photo)(AP)

If ‘1947’ meant freedom for India, it was a loss for the British. Since 1947, the Indian narrative contains multiple interesting accounts. India has made progress, and this has been possible only because caste supremacy has shown a steady downslide.

A few experiences in life deserve mention because they capture how society has changed over time.

It was the summer of 1971. I was at a wedding of an upper caste woman in my village. A UP Roadways bus carrying the baratis got wedged at the entrance to the village. The entourage had a bus, jeep and a fiat car.

“Paturia hai…” yelled a man pushing the bus as he spotted a woman and two men at the back of the bus behaving inappropriately. The news spread quick and wide. In east Uttar Pradesh, a paturia is a ‘nautch girl’ — an unfair term, and it could mean much more.

That evening the bride’s side threw a feast for the villagers, one adult from each family. However, we children sneaked in. There were separate queues and I picked my plate and stood in the one for Dalits. The plates for non-Dalits were picked by their servants. The realisation and pains of untouchability came early in life.

After the feast, we went to the orchards where the barat had settled in. People were milling around a shamiana because the paturia would spell her magic there.

In the shamiana, seating was in a hierarchical order. The west side with the cushions was meant for the baratis, the east for the bride’s side and fellow caste members, the north for the Dalits and the south was a pathway. The well in front was reserved for the paturia and her band.

The shamiana sprung to life as the nautch girl stepped in. The youth from the groom’s side cheered and jeered. The Dalits clapped. After a few songs, well-behaved members from the groom’s party began waving currency notes towards the girl. A man with twirled moustache waved a Rs 100 note and that pushed her into his lap. “Adhi raat ke baad vah gayab ho jayegi,” a man from a lower caste whispered.

The next morning a friend and I headed to the mango orchards to see a horse that was injured during the race the previous evening.

It was a sort of custom at upper caste weddings for the groom’s side to bring elephants and horses for races. In 1973, an upper caste man brought 28 elephants to his son’s wedding. A friend, VB Singh of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), recalls a Thakur wedding in Azamgarh where the groom’s side reached the bride’s house with 75 elephants and innumerable horses.

It is not to argue that all upper caste weddings involved paturias, elephants, horses, or all upper caste brides rode palkis. But, only they did it, and not the Dalits. “These were symbols of upper caste pride,” said Thakur Suresh Singh. “Puturias danced for upper castes only,” added Pandit Kamlesh from a nearby village.

All rules have exceptions, and so, sometime in the late sixties, in Hardoi, a Dalit who was a dreaded gangster in the area, had a paturia dance at his son’s wedding.

My village had three large mango orchards. Post a storm, the Dalits would gather on the boundary of these mango orchards and eagerly look at mangoes lying on the ground. Once the upper caste owners permitted, the Dalits would collect the mangoes and praise the owner sky high — ‘Ye bhagwan ke roop hain’.

“What kind of Thakur were you if you didn’t possess a mango orchard”, recalls Suresh Singh of Naya Gaon, a Thakur-dominated village in Sitapur district that my scholar colleague D Shyam Babu of the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) and I were studying.

Back to my village. After 1990, no paturia has danced at an upper caste wedding, elephants and horses have not raced, the mango orchards have vanished and the palkis are not found only in museums. “It is all over”, adds Kamlesh.

More so, the upper castes have lost the Dalits who once used to collect the leftover food. With a tinge of nostalgia, an upper caste man recollects: “Along with the buffaloes, cows, bullocks, we have also lost hal-wahas, char-wahas, duvarihas”.

“With exceptions here and there, Dalit women have stopped working in upper caste farmlands”, says Thakur Suresh Singh.

“Not that the upper castes have fallen below the Dalits, it’s just that they are losing control over the Dalits”, cautions Babu.

I toured Shaharanpur early this month, and the story repeats here as well — upper castes rue ‘losing’ the Dalits. The upper castes in the countryside are a disempowered lot today, they are the ‘victims’ of the Constitution, of democracy, and of a market economy. At this rate, in another 70 years, caste may turn into a relic, much like Purana Qila is today.

History books will record that in the past 70 years India has undergone a social revolution.

Chandra Bhan Prasad is a Dalit ideologue

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 15, 2017 16:01 IST