Balancing the Apple Cart

About forty women squatted in small clusters on the floor in the room. They had assembled for a special meeting of the self-help groups that would be led by their supervisor. The poor women, whose husbands were marginal farmers, depended on the loans they could secure from the banks through their groups.

The meeting concluded as Mangala, the supervisor and project coordinator of Bhoruka Charities, thanked the participants. As Mahadeva Swamy, her assistant, rose to distribute tea and biscuits, a group of women excused themselves and left, without having any refreshments.

The women, who were either Vokkaligas, Lingayats, Kurubas or Gollas, considered themselves too "superior" to accept food or drinks offered by Swamy, who belonged to a Scheduled Caste.

The people of Madapura, a village in the T.Narsipur taluk near Mysore in the Karnataka State of India, are no different from their counterparts elsewhere in the country. People don't wear the castes on their sleeves; yet it's there on everybody's mind all the time.

The departure of the upper class women set the stage rolling for some lively discussion on the discrimination of people based on caste.

"If we distribute the food packets, they will not accept. That's why madam (Mangala) normally asks somebody from the upper caste to distribute them," Kantamani laughed derisively, "then they accept and it does not occur to them that some of us might have prepared them."

Even the government schools in the villages did not practise equality. For the government-sponsored midday meals, only cooks belonging to the upper caste are employed. "My son has grown big. He now refuses to eat in school, since they seat the students in different rows based on their castes," complained Lakshmi.

Parvati said if she had to hand over something to those from the upper caste, she had to keep it on the ground. They had to stand at a safe distance while talking to them. If she collected water from the bore well first, the upper castes cleaned the 'defiled' place with cow dung, before proceeding to draw water. "The water comes from the same earth. How does it matter?" she queried defiantly. Mangala consoled, "They are the ignorant class. Not you."

"If we ever asked water, they won't give it in a glass. We will be asked to cup our hands and they will pour water into it," Lakshmi said.

"When we travel in buses, they may be forced to sit next to us. Sometimes they remain standing to avoid sitting near us. If they unknowingly sit close to us, some of them go home and take a bath," Puttalakshmi said, "that's why we never reveal our castes, if a stranger asks us."

"We can go to the temple, but not inside the sanctum sanctorum like them," Puttalakshmi continued, "People from other villages can enter inside even if they belong to Scheduled Caste, as nobody knows who they are."

I suggest she too should be bold and enter, but Puttalaksmi says the temple authorities threatened them with fines. People from other villages did not perhaps know their customs; but she did, so she should not breach the rules purposefully, the priests would reason.

Santamma, quiet all along, said thoughtfully,"It's all our karma. If we started breaking rules, however small, we will end up in a group clash. Except shedding some blood, what use will it bring?"

Her fear was justified. Vokkaligas or Lingayats were generally landowners and possessed too menacing a political clout for the scheduled caste labourer they employed to protest.

There is another reason why they don't protest. They don't see anything wrong with it, except when affronted. They believe that each caste has its own 'shastra' or code of conduct and upper caste people are just following their 'shastra'. They also believe that their present station in life is dictated by deeds done in their previous birth.

One of the interesting comments came from Puttalakshmi who said she would not consider sitting with a woman from Jadumali or Madiga, the caste to which the scavengers belonged. She belonged to a higher caste and would never associate with them. In fact the half-a-dozen self-help groups in the room did not have a single member of these 'outcastes'. Mangala said the 'untouchables' formed their own groups.

The groups had never discussed caste discriminations earlier. Mangala, who had been apprehensive that her job as a project coordinator should not come under a cloud for "inciting" clash, reminded the group they should "wipe out" from their mind whatever had been discussed in the meeting.

Unless social reforms keep pace with the legal provisions, caste discriminations will continue to live. The media does not care, unless a sensational story captures its attention. Even social welfare organizations wink at it; for who wants to tilt a carefully stacked apple cart?

The biases that go back to at least 3,000 years cannot be wiped easily. Especially when it is sanctified by religion, glorified by tradition, and stoked by politicians to get votes.

Uma Shankari is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist, passionate about developmental issues.

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