Renu Singh was 19 when she had to undergo an abortion, all alone in the city of Nagpur with nobody to take care of her. Away from home, Renu lived in a rented house with other women, but couldn’t confide in them. They were all from “higher” castes. She had suffered a traumatizing betrayal: her partner, a high-caste Brahmin, had left her after finding out that she belonged to the Shudra caste.
“I never knew caste mattered in an intimate relationship. I had been living a casteless life back at home in Ranchi (in the eastern Jharkhand state). Even though caste discrimination was rampant there, my parents hid the reality of caste from us,” said Renu (not her real name) who met me in the campus of Ambedkar University in New Delhi. “I never had any close friends, perhaps because our family was the only Shudra family living in a colony of Brahmins and Kshatriyas. We would be invited very late to social gatherings, if at all. We used different surnames, like Choudhury, Sinha, or Singh to hide our caste,” she adds.
India’s history is smeared with brutalities against lower-caste people by those higher up on the caste ladder.
The code of Manu (Manusmriti), a Hindu religious text, divided the Indo-Aryan people into four castes based on their occupation. The Shudras, who did menial jobs, served the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas, and the Vaishyas. The Shudras were not allowed to read or listen to the Hindu scriptures of the Vedas, or light sacred fire or bear sacred thread, the prerogatives of high-caste people.
Apart from the four castes, the Dalits were the “untouchables,” the people who were “outcaste.” They were made to do jobs, including working with carcasses or cleaning toilets, that the caste Hindus considered impure or profane. In May, a 23-year-old student at a Mumbai-based hospital ended her life after alleged harassment based on her Dalit identity.
Renu is not a Dalit, but from the Other Backward Class (OBC), the government’s classification of educationally or socially disadvantaged castes apart from the Scheduled Castes (SCs), an official classification that includes Dalits. While newspapers report on some incidents of discrimination and violence against Dalits, the suffering of OBCs remain underreported. What we read in newspapers about OBCs is all about attempts made by politicians to mobilize them for votes. After all, the OBC communities make up around 40 percent of India’s population, according to a 2006 survey by India’s National Sample Survey Office – although some believe they represent more than half of the country’s population of over 1.3 billion.
At least 1,170 students from SC, OBC, and tribal (aboriginal) backgrounds have dropped out of India’s premier Indian Institutes of Technology schools over the last two years, the Ministry of Human Resource Development shared in Parliament in July. For many Indians, it’s not difficult to guess why.
For Renu, discrimination began with a break-up.
“My partner and I were sitting in a café,” she recalls. “It was 2010, and we had been dating for a year. I didn’t know his caste, neither had I deemed it necessary to tell him mine. Suddenly, the question of caste popped up. I told him that I was a Shudra, officially an OBC, and that I came from a community called Kurmis in Bihar. On hearing this, his face instantly changed color. I looked at him as he sat there silently, as if in a state of shock.” Renu’s partner, Ravi Tripathi, broke all ties with her after knowing her caste. He told her that his Brahmin family would not allow this relationship, that his family would not agree to even come anywhere near her family.
He left her alone that evening, as she cried on the sidewalk beside the café. “After around a month, I came to know that I was pregnant. I called Ravi over the phone. What he said shook me completely. He told me that he wasn’t ashamed. He said that if I, being a woman, had done it, there was nothing he had to be ashamed of. After that he hung up and never received any of my calls.” Renu was 19 at the time.
“I had some money on me, but not enough for an abortion. I sold my laptop in Nagpur city (where she was attending a Fashion Designing school). I went to a gynecologist who shamed me for hours for being a lowly woman who went around having premarital sex with men. She gave me two pills that I had to take to abort the baby,” Renu takes a break here and draws a deep breath. “I remember sitting on the toilet seat, blood gushing out of me, a razor blade in my hand, contemplating self-harm. I did not have any idea how to deal with it. The pain was unbearable, and I felt heartbroken, betrayed, and spurned.”
Renu left her course and returned to Ranchi, depressed. It took her more than two years to restart her life, only to witness more discrimination.
She enrolled in a bachelor’s course in history at a college in Ranchi. She was a bright student, but, as she recollects, “Caste did not leave me anywhere. My Bahujan, OBC identity followed me everywhere. A professor stopped helping me with studies when she came to know that I had got admission through an OBC quota.”
Renu then went to Jadavpur University in Kolkata for her master’s. There, she was allegedly told by the head of the Department of History that she came from the jungle and she should return there. “Brahmins made friends with Brahmins only, and likewise with every caste identity. Many students from lower castes in our class started withdrawing their admissions.” And so did Renu.
Back home yet again, she took admission at Ranchi University.
She tells me that social media came to her rescue. “Around the time I was doing my master’s, I started posting a lot on social media. I made a lot of friends on Facebook. I compensated myself with outpourings on Facebook… I got in touch with the BAMCEF (The Backward and Minority Communities Employees Federation) founded by Kanshi Ram (a politician and an activist for equality). Through that, I got in touch with the Ambedkarite ideology. I read texts written by (jurist, politician and social reformer) Babasaheb Ambedkar, (politician and social activist) Periyar (E.V. Ramasamy), and (thinker and anti-caste social reformer) Jyotiba Phule.
“I found my healing in education,” she adds. “I follow Babasaheb Ambedkar’s words: Educate, Agitate, Organize. Reading helped me understand my oppression, it helped me understand that I was not at fault, that I was not taking admission on someone else’s seat, and that it was my right… His writings have taken me out from the cesspool of victimization and helped me find strength in my identity.”
Renu went on to do a master’s in gender studies from Ambedkar University. She joined the DBAC (Dalit Bahujan Adivasi Collective), which is a collective of marginalized students. “Here, I found people I could identify with. It made Ambedkar University a space that I liked, a space that felt safe.”
Renu is now preparing for an M.Phil., and aspires to work for her community. “The OBC community is stuck in-between (Dalits and Brahmins),” she says. “They are imitating the Brahmins with the hope that they will improve their caste status.
“However, the ultimate aim is to annihilate caste.” Until then, Renu is ready to face more atrocities, though now with a renewed courage and determination.
Tapasya is an Indian journalist.