The call for articles on the theme “What Ambedkar Means to Me” made me look back at my life, and reflect upon what Babasaheb Ambedkar meant to me. In modern India, it is widely believed that the caste system does not exist anymore. The ‘progressive’ society that I lived in took me into its confidence and I believed that despite being a Dalit, I will not be treated as one. However, I was made to realize gradually by the same society that after all, I am a Dalit and caste is my undeniable and unchangeable identity. Although I was unaware of the conventional caste practices of rural India, there were three major incidents over the years in my life which made me aware about the modern forms and practices of caste and made me re-think.
When I was in 8th standard, in the ‘History of India’ lesson, we were taught one day about the ‘ancient’ practice of the caste system along with the mythological explanation, about the various parts of Brahma’s body from where each caste was born. During lunch break, that became the topic of discussion amongst us students. A friend started asking others about the castes they belonged to. Some proudly said ‘We are Brahmins,’ with utmost gratification, some said ‘We are Kshatriyas’ and some said ‘We are Vaishya’. When my turn came, I was stunned and speechless. I did not know how and what to reply. Before I could gather my strength to say I am a Dalit, my good friend said, “Oh you cannot be a Shudra, Shudras are untouchables, you must be a Vaishya?” I was scared to death with the thought of revealing my identity. If I revealed my caste, what would they think of me and how will they treat me from the next day? Will they accept me as their friend? Will they continue to share their lunch box with me? Will they give me their notes? Will I be the butt of their jokes? I just nodded my head.
Years later, When I was in the first year of my graduation, one of my dearest friends committed suicide. She was in her early twenties, a Dalit woman from a very well-to-do family, who was in a relationship with an upper caste man who made her believe that her caste did not matter to him. Even so, this man later refused to marry her and said his mother will commit suicide if he married her. By this time, the societal policing had begun and my friend was branded a woman of bad character. Even her parents did not provide any moral support and courage and accused her of bringing bad name to the family. Consequently, she decided to leave this world which looked down on her identity of being a dalit woman. Due to the fear of ostracism from the society, her parents could not take any action against the upper caste man.
The third incident exposed me to the reality of caste practices in academia. When I joined for Masters in a top university in Odisha as a candidate in the general category, I was asked by an upper caste female classmate how, despite belonging to the SC category, I managed to secure such high marks in the entrance examination. Some of my classmates even told me that they cannot believe that I belong to SC category! When I cleared the National Eligibility Test (NET) in the very first attempt, I was made to feel that I did not deserve the success. One classmate, an upper caste female, believed that I could crack NET only because of reservation and that I lacked the merit to crack NET in my first attempt. This classmate still holds the same view, even after I got admission in a top institute in India for my M.Phil/Phd program.
When I joined my current institute, I did not know much about the Ambedkarite discourse. I was happy to study in such a reputed place. Here, some of my Ambedkarite friends helped me understand Ambedkar’s work and ideas on social justice, and to critically view the brahminic hegemony. My understanding of caste was very narrow until I met these friends. My notion of caste exclusion was restricted to the act of beef-eating but gradually I learned that it is much more than that. The experiences of other dalit-bahujan students were varied and different from what I had experienced but we shared the same pain.
Like many others, I never used to challenge the hierarchical division of people based on caste. By reading Babasaheb’s Annihilation of Caste, I understood that the caste system is an unfair and inhumane practice by the upper castes to subjugate few sections and exploit as much as they can. Like most Hindus, I used to celebrate all Hindu festivals, thinking that the celebration is in the spirit of unity and brotherhood. Later, various readings and discussions with my Ambedkarite friends enabled me to be critical of the Hindu culture. Then I started following articles on Round Table India. These helped me understand that despite reservations, dalit-bahujan students are denied their right to education as well as a life of dignity in the name of merit in many educational institutions. Moreover, I felt attached to the people who penned down their experiences regarding the institutional spaces.
Later, the Bahujan Discourse group formed by some dalit-bahujan students at the institute was another eye opener to my way of thinking and approach. We discuss about caste atrocities, caste-class, Ambedkar’s writings, and intersectionality of caste with gender and other social structures. Due to these deliberations, I have realized the importance of Ambedkar’s ideas for the empowerment of Dalit women. Being a Dalit woman, besides caste, patriarchy is something which I struggle with and fight against in my daily life. However, the hope of self-transformation through constant and continuous engagement keeps me going. So, with Ambedkar’s vision in my mind and his ideas in my heart, I walk with my fellow students towards social justice.
Suravee Nayak is currently pursuing PhD at Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum and is interested in political economy, dispossession, gender and caste.
This is the sixth essay in our ‘What Babasaheb Ambedkar Means to Me‘ series.