Social media had recently torn to pieces a Malayali family's act of naming a pet cat Chunchu Nair and inserting a death anniversary advert in that same name. That ad with that name was a specimen of the ways in which caste pride works in society. At first glance of the criticisms against that advert, one may breathe a sigh of relief that our society is vigilant about false caste pride. But that is only optics.
The truth is that within its self, Indian society still carries the stink and stench of caste prejudice. In a shocking incident, that had sparked quite a stir in campuses, Rohit Vemula, a brilliant Dalit student of Hyderabad Central University, who had nurtured ambitions of becoming a science writer like Carl Sagan – the astronomer who had fallen in love with stars - had written a note that his birth itself was his tragedy before ending his life.
That was an incident which proved the extent of casteist prejudice ruling our higher education scene. The protests and the political narrative generated by the Vemula incident, were expected to free at least our campuses from the scourge of caste. But Payal Tadvi's death tell us that it has not happened.
Payal Tadvi was a PG Gynaecology student in BYL Nair Government Medical College in Mumbai. She belonged to the Tadvi community, a sub-caste of the scheduled tribe Bhil. Payal was perhaps the first from that community to undergo medical post-graduation, and as such her family and community were in high hopes about her future. But on 22 May, that female student, holding big promises, was found hanging on a rope in her hostel room. The reason: unbearable caste-based torment.
Payal decided to commit suicide because she could not bear the persistent discrimination and ridicule by her fellow students, teachers and the college authorities. She was called by her caste in the presence of other doctors and patients, and was mocked as one who sneaked into the college with no merit and solely based on reservation. She would have naturally decided that it was better to die than to live without honour.
Authorities were initially in a hurry to write off Payal's demise as a natural death. But her husband and family, friends and Dalit-Muslim organizations actively intervened in the matter, which forced the police to investigate and file a case. At the time of writing this, her three colleagues have been arrested. One of the many acts of discrimination they indulged in against her was to use Payal's bedsheet to wipe clean their feet. That is a manifestation of a peculiar mind-set, which is that her bed sheet was only fit to clear the dirt on their feet. They could see Payal only as a representative of a futile birth that was not fit to be born out of even the feet of Brahma.
Our society abounds in 'progressive' people who may ask in wonderment whether caste still exists. They are convinced that in a land where renaissance and left values have ploughed the field, caste cannot exist. But it is in the same land where the only government corporation chairman enjoying cabinet rank, is of the one formed for the welfare of the forward castes. The rationale may be that the chairman of a corporation to look after the welfare of 'forward' caste has to be treated as special. And then, even those who admit that caste discrimination does exist, may be consoling themselves that it is something that exists only in some remote villages of illiterates.
But Rohit Vemula ended his life in noose, within the hostel room of a central university, and Payal Tadvi in a reputed medical college. That means, it is not about modern education or progress. The caste prejudice is still there in its essence within. Ours is a country where castes and hierarchical social structure have a theological backing. Until that theological approach is fundamentally challenged, caste-based prejudice will be here to stay. As long as the truth that all human beings are brothers does not enter their inner self, high/low caste mind-set will not end its sway over them.