The existing mainstream narratives about caste in Kerala either express shock and surprise at the continuing persistence of caste in India, or were mostly produced by savarna men and women who were well-aware of the marketability of caste in academia and activism. These most often end up reinforcing the savarna hegemony by appropriating voices of the underprivileged. It is in this context that the internet and social media gave a scope for breaking away from such narratives and became influential in making heard multiple voices which were otherwise kept away from mainstream discourses. The avarna narratives, largely excluded earlier have gathered momentum and much more visibility since.
It is in this background of a mainstream discourse about Kerala where ‘caste does not exist’ that I write about Soumya Devi, another young Dalit woman who has been subjected to discrimination at her workplace, Technolodge, Kerala’s first rural IT park under Kerala State Information Technology Infrastructure Ltd (KSITIL). Soumya hails from a humble family background. Her mother, a nurse, is a retired government employee while father who was engaged in several casual jobs and petty businesses had to stop working due to his chronic health condition. After finishing MBA in Human Resources from Kerala, she went to University of Northampton, UK for Masters in Human Resources, where she studied and worked for almost 5 years. As a competent young woman, she showed the courage to pursue what she dreamed of. Under normal circumstances, a full-time master’s degree from a recognized university in the UK opens up ample employment opportunities in India. Soumya also assumed the same and returned home with high hopes.
She had been asked for an interview in a leading financial institution in Kerala where she was more or less assured of a position as Branch Manager. She had the work experience, qualifications and was recommended by an important person. She talked about her experience, “They communicated to me about everything, the salary, perks and so on… I was told that I would be in charge of the Ernakulum Branch. They wanted to meet me. But when I went there, things seemed to have changed and they seemed quite uninterested in taking me. I have no idea why. May be they did not like me. May be they did not find my appearance suitable enough to head a Branch.”
I ask her why she thought that her appearance was a reason for not being offered the role. She says that that she finds no other reason at all, and hence assumes that she was rejected because she was not ‘beautiful’ and ‘presentable’ as they might have expected. Then she adds that the interviewer said, “I can’t believe that you went to the UK for higher studies. You should not have gone to study in UK. There are good colleges and universities in Kerala. I would have rather studied in one of them than gone abroad.” It was an ironic comment in a society where emigration for education and livelihood is highly regarded. In Soumya’s case, instead of her qualifications (especially her degree from abroad) adding to her value, it seemed to have depreciated her worth in a very unusual way.
In another instance she mentioned that she was an active member of the Technolodge community. She played a major role in its activities and public relations programme. But there seems to be no record of her contributions. There has been a deliberate invisibilization of her presence and activities. In her own words “all media attention that Technolodge got was focussed on a few start-ups although I was the one who spoke to several people and convinced them to start their offices in Technolodge. To the media, they spoke of their gender-focussed efforts to encourage women entrepreneurs, but that was never the case in practice.” She recollects instances in meetings where suggestions made by her were promptly ignored, but the same suggestions when made by different people who were part of prominent start-ups were accepted and duly granted. She feels that many of her ideas were presented and executed as someone else’s idea, and that she was never allowed to occupy the front row for functions or events. She adds, “from my School days onwards I am active in extracurricular activities. I am not a person with inferior view of myself and who holds myself back. But the society always reminds me that people like me are not fit for the front row.”
This reminds me of something that happened in the recent past: the media coverage of the Kiss of Love (KoL) campaign. In an eminent university campus where the protest was organized as part of KoL, women were all dressed up wearing bright shades of lipstick and make-up (interestingly only women were wearing the lipstick). Among the organizers, there was a dark skinned girl who seemed to be an active and important member of the group of protesters. Every news telecast of the protest showed just a quick-peek of her and quickly changed the camera elsewhere when she came into the frame; the camera was more focused on the fairer girls with similar make up although all of them were dressed similarly. Quite interestingly, when the dark girl was speaking, it was just a voice-over while the visuals were of fairer women. Despite being well-read and well-aware both these women seemed to be ‘stuck’ with bodies that do not quite ‘belong’ to the spaces which they are part of.
The Stereotypical Bodies
An individual could be understood as a socialized body; the body in which the basics of culture, value systems and practical taxonomies of the society in which one lives. (Jenkins 1992 :76) The ‘socialized body’ is conditioned to stand with the society by accepting and internalizing its power structure than opposing or resisting it. Pierre Bourdieu conceptualizes habitus as ‘an acquired system of generative schemes objectively adjusted to the particular conditions in which it is constituted’ (Bourdieu 1977:95) Therefore in a sense, our habitus shapes our social world and external social structures shape our habitus. ‘The socialized body (which one calls the individual or person) does not stand in opposition to society; it is one of its forms of existence’ (Bourdieu 1980:29). It could be said that in the Indian context habitus is something that is shaped or conditioned by the caste system. It is caste system that disciplines and socializes bodies. Thus the different stereotypes for bodies for ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ caste people. Traditionally these bodies were bound by their assigned jobs which are considered to be their duties. When the boundaries are transgressed, when they are visible in spaces which are otherwise meant to be for ‘upper’ castes, violence is not always explicitly physical but rather perpetuated through symbols and actions that would assert the authority of ‘upper’ castes by constantly humiliating the ‘lower’ castes. This maintains the existing status-quo and power structure of caste. This is done by distinguishing US from THEM; ‘upper castes’ from ‘lower castes’ through various symbols, of which body and skin tone is an important one.
Skin colour, English-speaking ability, articulation skills, attire etc. are some of the markers of caste. Since many communities in Kerala do not keep caste surnames along with their names, identifying one’s caste becomes an inferential game based on the caste stereotype. One can still go wrong in doing so, because across communities in Kerala had all kinds of these markers. If one is from an ‘upper caste’ community and still dark skinned, she is still considered ugly, not because she is dark-skinned, but her dark-skin represents a lower caste identity. Popular culture and media reinforce these stereotypes, naturalize the power relations and hegemony resulting in the symbolic violence, through what Bourdieu says as “dehistoricisation and universalization”. The symbolic violence would seem natural even to those who suffer from it, as it denies the history and social context of such violence, and these naturalized inequalities would be treated as inevitable facts of life. A major part of this dehistoricisation and universalisation in Kerala happened through communist movements; juxtaposing class on to caste and hence negating the existence of caste itself, and thus appropriating the voices to speak about exploitation of the underprivileged, homogenising them underneath class identity.
Soumya’s story sounds familiar to me. Many English-speaking, educated, left-leaning Dalit Bahujan Adivasi women (men too) try to live the dream of a casteless Kerala. They act like caste was phenomenon of the past; they know caste just as much as they know of reservation and discrimination never existed in their reality. Until one fine day when something unusual and unexpected happens to wake them from this dream. For Soumya it was when the CEO of the organization asked her, “Why has a Pulaya with no money come to do business? Why don’t you go for some other job?” Even though Soumya and her Consultancy firm Be Positive Management was forcefully moved out of Technolodge due to defaulting on rent payment, several others who owed higher amounts were allowed to continue without any warning or termination and got enough time for payment. Her laptop and other belongings were confiscated by Technolodge. Soon after, some socially active groups and well-wishers offered to pay her rent but the CEO of Technolodge took the stand that even if they close down Technolodge, they will not accommodate Soumya. She is now contemplating legal proceedings against the concerned people.
Many spaces which appear modern are sites of violence and exclusion; it constantly tries to expel those who do not belong there. In Malls, IT parks, or in educational institutes, most of the Blue-collar workers are lower castes as if it is quite a ‘natural’ phenomenon for them to be there; while an Entrepreneur in an IT park such as Technolodge being a lower-caste, that too a woman is quite ‘out of place’. It is not surprising that the ‘solidarities’ extended to those ‘in place’ would be more than those extended for those ‘out of place’.
The Voices of Resistance
It is important to talk about Soumya as a Dalit Woman because the mainstream discourses do not have a vocabulary to speak about her experience. Many of us internalize the society’s savarna violence and try to fit in without being able to effectively address the segregations based on caste. Many of us assume, quite wrongly, that our education, qualifications and achievements are merits that rise above caste divisions. They fail to understand that their merit is ‘lower caste’ merit, which is never the same as the merit of ‘upper’ castes; for the merit of the savarna is a birth right and privilege which avarna people cannot snatch away or earn. Soumya could have slipped away from this had she not been confirming with the stereotypes of a ‘lower caste woman’ being dark-skinned; this is possibly why she repeatedly refers to her skin tone. Since she was easily identified as one, she was side-lined. Hers is a fight which every avarna woman has to go through in varied degrees. They deal with multiple paradoxes; everyday becomes a struggle to survive and fit in. In this struggle to fit in the person has to adjust, hide, adopt and imitate. Make herself acceptable. Her intelligence and qualifications do not seem to matter here but her appearance is the indicator of her ancestral caste and thus ‘merit’. Soumya’s case was no different. There are many out there, struggling, fighting, subverting, resisting their everyday violence. It is this fight because of which they belong; otherwise, they would all be space-less, timeless and caste-less!
Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline Theory of Practice, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
Bourdieu, P. (1990) Logic of practice, Stanford University Press: California
Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: social critique of the judgement and taste, Routledge & Kegan Paul
Bourdieu, P. (1980) Questions de Sociologie; Paris. Editions de Minuit; cited in Jenkins, R Pierre Bourdieu
Jenkins, R. (1992) Pierre Bourdieu, Routledge: USA
The Author is a researcher from Mumbai who writes under the pen-name Meenu.