In response to a student suicide in India, The Stanford Center for South Asia hosted a second installment of its teach-in series on “Why Caste Matters” on Feb. 29. The death of Rohith Vemula, a Ph.D. student at the University of Hyderabad in India, has reopened the conversation about the caste system’s prevalence in India since ancient times, a conversation that has now reached Stanford. The teach-in’s panelists included Linda Hess, senior lecturer in the department of religious studies, along with graduate students Anubha Anushree (history) and Vivek Narayan (theater and performance studies).
The Indian caste system, a structure of social stratification based on birth, traces its origin to the pre-modern ages. Thomas Hansen, a professor of South Asian studies and the host for the session, said, “[The caste system] didn’t become a system until the British arrived armed with empirical sciences, counting, enumerating… everything they found.
“It then became a system that people started to inhabit in a more systematic way.”
The speakers emphasized that the division of a people into “castes” led to grave discrimination and continues to remain an important ingredient of the contemporary Indian society, albeit in unapparent ways.
Hess, a specialist in Hinduism, commenced the session by presenting two videos shot in Maharashtra, India before the audience. Both the videos included individuals using art and music as mediums to display their displeasure at the discriminatory practices against women and members of lower castes.
“My presentation stems from deep discomfort and displeasure from the way caste in recent time has been portrayed in contemporary India,” Anushree followed.
She claimed that teenagers living in urban spaces in India and the Indian diaspora may suppose that the system of caste-based marginalization doesn’t exist anymore; however, she stated this notion is far from the truth.
Narayan also attested to this idea but asserted that after the recent events in Hyderabad, the view of caste being a pre-modern concept is withering away.
“Caste is always somewhere else – either in another time or in another space,” he said, reiterating the general notion shared by people in India.
“Its invisibility does not signify its nonexistence… Sometimes, some structures are invisible, and that is precisely why they may exist in a more brutal way,” Anushree added.
This occurs because there is no social mechanism to keep a check on the discrimination and injustices that ensue, she reasoned.
According to Anushree, as India’s cities become more cosmopolitan, one might be led to believe that caste issues are no longer relevant. However, upon closer scrutiny, the nuances of caste in modern society become perceptible.
“When I grew up, I realized that there were some people who were not allowed to enter my own house,” she said, admitting to the occurrence of casteism even in her household. “My parents too were not absolutely accepting of everyone.”
“There wouldn’t be such a repeated coincidence between poverty and the deprived castes,” Anushree added, refuting the notion that the caste system was no longer prevalent.
In her presentation, Anushree emphasized on two principle features of caste: its materiality and its mutability.
“Caste is woven around material, everyday things,” she said. “It is performed in the material reality and everyday experiences… It is reinforced through practice.”
“The clothes you wear [or] whether you drink coffee or tea is also determined by caste,” she added.
The immutability of caste comes about from the fact that birth is the primary criteria for determining one’s caste.
“Like gender and race, there is the biological logic of caste, but it exists through social performance… One can’t transcend the biological factuality of one’s birth,” Anushree said.
Using Rohith Vemula’s example, Narayan elaborated on this explanation of caste rigidity.
“[Vemula] was facing harassment in the university but he was not a reserved student,” Narayan explained.
Vemula, whose father was from the Vadera caste, grew up with his mother’s family members, who were Dalits. He got admission into the university in the general category and not through India’s affirmative action system for people of lower castes.
“But that made no difference to the way he was treated,” he said.
Caste often comes with geographic demarcations, but this notion has been diluted over the years.
“Rohith was not stuck in one place; he travelled all over Andhra, but caste travelled with him,” Narayan said.
Giving an insight into another aspect of the Indian caste system, Anushree went on to describe the process of untouchability, a concept that denies an individual the right to his or her own body.
“To deny some the right to touch or be touched denies them the right of a physical, tactical existence,” she affirmed.
According to Anushree, even though many would outright reject the presence of this hoary concept, this practice is still observed in Hindu temples, courtrooms, holy rivers and other places. When people from the lower castes enter these places, upper-caste individuals even today feel obligated to undergo a ritual of purification to rid themselves of social contamination.
“The constitution, through many provisions, has mandated its unequivocal support to alleviate the erstwhile untouchables,” she stated.
However, she added, this very discourse that deems the constitution to hold sole accountability for caste prejudices ignores the ethical and moral responsibilities of individuals.
Narayan agreed with this notion and said, “The understanding of the caste ideology is completely dropped when we talk about reservations… Historical reparations are forgotten and what we have is the logic of entitlement.”
Solely relying on the system of reservation to combat the problem of casteism leads to what Anushree calls “moral impoverishment,” asserting that it stops individuals from bearing any personal responsibility towards society. In order to combat a structure as complex as this, she suggested, a “concerted, collective and radical effort” is required.
Narayan also discussed the politics surrounding Rohith Vemula’s death and the connection to the current uproar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
In Rohith Vemula’s case, he was protesting the execution of Yakub Memon, a terrorist convicted for the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts.
“The claim wasn’t whether he should be killed or not, but whether the state had the right to take life,” Narayan said.
What followed was his suspension from the university and eventual suicide, attributed to persecution for his political activism and social ostracizing because of his caste.
Narayan went on to describe three forms of violence that have historically plagued India, and how their implications played out in relation to Vemula’s suicide: “bureaucratic” violence, in which the government renders illegitimate certain political actions; “lumpen” violence, in which mobs come down to physically express displeasure; and “discursive” violence, in which spoken and written words are used instead of physicality.
“Today, the interests of these three forms of violence are aligning very closely,” he said. “I like to think of this as an entrepreneurship model of violence in India… where you have this brand ideology of Hindutva and then you have these lumpen goons setting up franchise stalls articulating and selling their wares of violence using the ideology of Hindutva.”
This short session provided the audience with a cursory glance at the Indian caste system. Sangeeta Mediratta, the associate director at the Center of South Asia, claimed that the teach-in was specially organized to consider the interests of the undergraduate population.
“We were not engaging enough undergraduates with our other events,” she said. “We wanted to address more contemporary and topical issues that are interesting to the undergraduates.”
Through these classroom-like sessions, the Center for South Asia hopes to interest students in the classes offered in the department as well as raise awareness about its ongoing events.
In its next teach-in, it hopes to engage students in the conversation over India and Pakistan’s embittered relationship, and explore how two nations that were cut from the same geographic, cultural and ethnic cloth still exhibit such grave animosity.
Contact Simar Malhotra at simar ’at’ stanford.edu.