Manitham, dalits and differences

I struggled a lot to articulate my thoughts post my visit to Manitham, an NGO run by a dear friend in Manamadurai district of Tamil Nadu. This is my third attempt.

I visited Manitham in early May and only recently have I come to accept that it was my blissful ignorance combined with the absence of any form of marginalization in my life that led me to feel overwhelmed with my observations of the caste system and its manifestations in the everyday lives of people, those who are afflicted by it and those who afflict it too. A few months ago I argued with my sister who wrote an article on the caste system in India because I felt she painted a picture which was more negative than what it may be. When I went to Manamadurai, the idea was to understand the workings of Manitham, an organization which provides after school support to children from dalit communities (in Maths, English and Tamil specifically and also helps them complete their home work while engaging them in fun and play too). This is done through a community mentorship model, where young adults (called mentors) from the same villages as the children are selected, receive weekly training and in turn, teach the children on a daily basis for a small stipend. It was in the process of understanding Manitham’s systems that we had a chance to travel to the villages, engage with many children and their parents, community mentors, writers, local leaders, auditors and volunteers for the government’s livelihood program MGNREGA and school teachers.

On the second day, two hours into an in-depth conversation with the mentors about improving their existing skill set, one girl brought up the challenge of addressing the negative effects some of her mentees undergo due to the caste bias they face. Is it a very big problem I asked? The response was tempered with one person mildly retorting that yes it is a problem but it is age old and widely accepted and hence not necessarily an urgent or pressing problem. Rohith Vemula’s death and the subsequent media frenzy were only a few weeks old, along with my sister’s voice in my head, and hence I pressed on with my questions. Having warmed up to each other already, the 12-15 people sitting in a closed circle proceeded to share their stories about the reality that is caste.

On the first day of school, a child is made to wear a coloured band one person said. They come in shades of red, green, yellow, saffron and more. The colour denotes caste. An article from The Telegraph, UK, goes on to mention how it extends to other apparel too. It says “although there was no suggestion in the Indian Express report that teachers were encouraging the system, one local school headmaster told the newspaper that the coloured vests come in handy during a game of basketball to draw up teams based on caste lines”. The mentors went on to explain that in spite of this constant reminder of identity, the children study and play together, but yes in the event of a fight, they very quickly form groups by colour. Children are too small to understand the meaning of differentiation, but during the initial days, a peon casually walks into the room and calls out for all the dalit children to stand up. They have to go and collect their special certificate. Neither does the child from the dalit community, nor does the child from the upper castes understand why a sense of resentment develops towards those who received “reservation”. Come to think of it, every village we visited was situated near a grave yard or away from the main market. In earlier days, untouchables and dalits were not meant to cross into the areas of those from higher castes. So when another story was shared, about a lady who walked into the dhobi walla’s village by mistake, consequent reactions leading to a local fight, the deeply rooted existence of the caste system started becoming plausible in my mind. An old lady from a higher caste village fell down in front of me but refused to take my helping hand, said one mentor. In another meeting, a person closely associated with MGNREGA said that we would be surprised to learn that out of 18% reservation in government jobs in Tamil Nadu, 2-4% has been filled each year for the last 20 years. The remaining quota, inspite of adequate availability of talent, was purposefully kept vacant. Progress of the backward classes may not work in favour of the government’s vote bank strategy. Job offers in the private sector for many students, with degrees in civil engineering or physics are yet governed by the caste of the firm’s owner. This reminds me of an evening conversation with a young girl who got divorced early into her marriage and faced many problems thereafter. A young man, also Tamilian and from the same caste, recently professed his love for her and inspite of her desire to be with him, her parents were unrelenting about her chance at a brighter future because within the same caste, he comes from a lower tier. Vana, Manitham’s founder showed me wedding cards which have the photo of the bride and groom alongside picture of their local community leader. These and many more noteworthy but shameful incidents and truths unfolded in the conversation about caste and in the following days in Manamadurai. So startled was I on hearing about the colour bands that I made sure to record on video the conversation that was to follow. Over 60 minutes of footage will remain my reminder of the things I choose not to see or understand further and even turn a blind eye towards.

With respect to the last point, I have walked away also realizing that caste is a synonym for other forms of inequality, of community, communal and class. I live in lovely suburb of Mumbai in a building which is very charming, but I am ashamed as well of this place which is home because we have two lifts. One is for those who look rich and one is for those who look poor. It has always bothered me but I have let it by, because I see it in many buildings (hence we allow ourselves to become accustomed to evils which should not be) and I’m afraid of the struggles I will have to endure and the disappointment I will feel when somebody contests this change. A few months ago an old man, outwardly poor, came to deliver food to me. On his way out he called for the wrong lift. The lift man did not take him in and told him to call for the other lift. I watched this unfold as I was closing my door and ofcourse I could have changed this particular situation, but it was the realization of how this ghastly act unfurls, and its perpetuation on a daily basis in a building inhabited by urban and educated people, that froze me in my tracks, heart and mind. I remember this old man very often, and I saw his face many times during my time with Manitham. So here’s the point of this write-up. Caste is an entrenched phenomenon. There will be many more debates on the topic of reservation and many more consequences we all will hear about and face, because of this out-dated (never should have been) system. But, if you find yourself in a situation where someone else may feel the bane of his identity, do something or then don’t partake in it. It is my objective now to change the system of two lifts in our building because I can’t go all the way to Tamil Nadu and not improve the situation in my very home.