The case of caste oppression in India is unique and complicated. Caste is the social stratification responsible for blatant discrimination and exclusion of Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi (DBA) communities from all kinds of resources. However, there exists a section of society aloof from this caste reality, fostering ideas such as ‘caste is a thing of the past’. Juggling these two realities side by side, caste puts forth a curious case of hypervisibility and invisibility at the same time.
It is interesting to look at reservations in government institutions, which are the government’s primary mode of redressal to DBA (Dalit, Bahujan, Adivasi) communities in cognizance of the years of mistreatment and oppression. The reserved categories are Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes, and the unreserved category is referred to as the General category, and this terminology is extremely important. Firstly, the term ‘general’ is misleading – it implies that the majority population lies within this category. However, the majority population actually belongs to SC/ST/OBC communities – together they account for around 70% of India’s population. Secondly, as a consequence of the generalisation of the minority upper caste, DBA communities are explicitly bound to their caste identities as SCs, STs, or OBCs while Upper Castes need no explicit association with their caste.
This disparity between the casteless and the hypervisible nature of the general category and the SC/ST/OBC category has led Upper Castes to dissociate with their caste identities, or at least disassociate with the privileges they have acquired over generations due to lower caste oppression. They no longer need to invoke their higher caste status to claim their superiority – after acquiring generational capital, wealth, education and other resources, they have new, less direct means to do so. With decreased dependence on their identity, they have even formed ‘casteless’ identities, living in the bubble of a caste-free society. In fact, there is a common saying along the same lines – ‘If you do not know your caste, you are probably an Upper Caste’.
The reason is that caste identity is extremely crucial for the DBA community. Beyond the fact that one’s social treatment and acceptance is dictated greatly by their DBA identity, one’s caste identity might also be an important resource through which they stand to improve their living conditions. Deliberately excluded from access to resources, wealth, education and even a dignified life for generations, affirmative actions like reservations become an important stepping-stone to undo the damage and help them gain the same resources and opportunities as the privileged castes. Resultantly, caste may override all their other identities, including their occupation and skills. The identities of SC/ST/OBCs become hypervisible, overshadowing everything else, while the Upper Castes bear no such dilemma, coming from the general, ‘casteless’ category.
Ironically, even after this intensification of OBC, SC, and ST caste identities, they largely remain invisible in public discourse and discussions. Take the census for example. After independence, the Indian National Congress chose to discontinue the practice of including caste data in the census, in line with moving towards a more developed and secular nation. It was and is still argued that collecting caste data in the census will ‘fix’ caste identities and increase the social divide, instead of decreasing it.
Thus, the Indian state followed a formal policy of caste-blindness as a measure to abolish caste. The result was a delusional society where formal attempts to abolish caste were displayed, but no serious attempts to annul the disparities pertaining to caste hierarchy were made. This has only fostered the divide between Upper Castes, which believe in a constitutionally guaranteed caste-free society, and the oppressed castes, still relegated to the fringes of society.
Recent discussion and pressure have compelled the government to record and make available important demographic data of the SC/ST/OBC population. While detailed data on caste was not collected, the 2001 census did collect information on SCs and STs, and so did the 2011 census. However, neither collected information on OBCs. In fact, even today, we do not have reliable data on the proportion of the OBC population to the total population. According to the Mandal Commission or Socially and Educationally Backward Classes Commission (SEBC), OBCs constitute 52% of the population, based on which they are granted 27% reservation – but that data was published in 1983. A more recent survey by the National Sample Survey reported their percentage to be 41% in 2003 – 4. Yet, that information is only based on a sample survey and is not hard data.
The datedness and unreliability of the currently available information have raised widespread demand for the inclusion of OBC data in the census which has been repeatedly deflected, even for the approaching 2021 census. The proportion of OBC population also determines their reservation, and some suspect the OBC numbers to be higher than recorded. Their repeated exclusion from the census indicates an implicit desire to maintain this ambiguity because, without hard data, it is convenient to ignore their demands and silently maintain the caste hierarchy. This silence and invisibilisation emanate to all spheres of public life, some of which we will briefly discuss.
Invisibility in Cinema
There is pathetically low representation of the DBA community in mainstream Bollywood movies both on-screen and off-screen. Similar to the census of India, there are barely any data or studies available on representation in Bollywood. A comparison with Hollywood might give an apt idea of why this missing data is seriously concerning.
In 1969, the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission reported that people of colour and other minorities constituted only 3 percent of the film industry’s workforce. According to a 2020 Hollywood Diversity Report published by UCLA however, among the top-grossing films of 2019, 32.7 percent of the total actors, 14.4% of all directors and 13.9% writers were people of color. Although still underrepresented (people of color account for over 40% of America’s population), we can see a significant increase in the representation of minorities through the years.
The disinterest in conducting such research on the Bollywood industry indicates the unwillingness to even acknowledge the problem of underrepresentation. How can an industry even hope to grow more inclusive without information of where it stands right now? Even so, according to a small study conducted by The Hindu in 2015, only 6 out of 300 movies released in 2013 and 2014 had a lead character from a backward caste, which is a mere 2%, while the SC/ST/OBC population accounts for almost 70% of India’s population.
Bollywood, however, need not go far west to find more inclusive industries – South Indian film industries are far ahead of it in this regard. According to the same study by The Hindu, in 2013, out of the 16 top movies, 7 likely had backward caste lead characters. While there is still a long way to go, the Tamil industry leads the way in terms of representation.
Even when Bollywood has the opportunity to portray the characters and experiences of DBA communities, it simply chooses not to. For instance, Karan Johar turned a Dalit-Upper Caste couple into an Upper Caste-Upper Caste couple while adapting Nagraj Majule’s Sairat to Dhadak. More exasperatingly, even when Bollywood does represent these communities, it fails to do so respectfully. The only dalit character in Lagaan, for example, was called Kachra (garbage), which is extremely degrading and stereotypical. In other instances, caste-atrocities are primarily set in rural settings (example – Article 15), advertently or inadvertently helping the audience visualise and contain caste oppression exclusively within rural settings. This facilitates the illusion that such practices are only present in rural areas and not urban spaces. They also give caste discrimination a very specific and crude face, making it difficult for the audience to recognise or acknowledge it in their own surroundings, which may be schools, universities, workplaces and even their own homes.
Invisibility in Feminism
Much like the film industry and almost any other sphere, DBA voices in mainstream Indian feminism have been constantly sidelined and invisibilised. The historical invisibilisation of DBA women has even led us to grossly misunderstand their situation and further alienate them from mainstream feminism. For instance, many believe that women of lower castes are relatively more liberated than savarna women because of lesser social constraints. As advocated by Joanne Liddle and Rama Joshi, DBA women were historically not burdened with the expectation of Sati, divorce is not disgraceful for them and even widowhood is less restricting – essentially, they are supposedly less plagued by the issues savarna women face. Thus even though financially worse off, DBA women have been popularly considered sexually and otherwise more liberated.
While the social norms savarna and DBA women are subjected to are indeed different, the above perspective speaks greatly of the caste divide in Indian feminism. It is based on the idea of a universal female experience, as if all women experience patriarchy, sexism and oppression in the same manner, overlooking all cultural, caste or economic differences. With a dire lack of DBA voices and leadership, thus, there is no consideration of their realities and testimonies, and savarna experiences automatically become the universal female experience. DBA women are in fact are more vulnerable to caste atrocities, rape threats and physical violence in public, yet, their experiences are invisibilised because they differ from the savarna ones.
This also reflects in the goals and achievements of the movement. Cynthia Stephen highlights that there has been active work against domestic violence and property laws, which is commendable, but it has sidelined propertyless women who majorly belong to the DBA communities. Their struggles and requirements are constantly ignored – even in popular movements like the Indian #MeToo movement. One must note that although a highly influential and landmark movement, it remained constricted to urban and upper-caste circles, unable to integrate the illiterate, impoverished and those without access to the internet.
Caste is smoothly overlooked in every aspect of our lives, political or personal, from entertainment to social movements. Savarna perspectives and struggles have been the default, caste-free centers of most public discourses, contingent on the delusion of the casteless society of the savarna, while DBA struggles, demands and voices are constantly reduced to their caste locations. Thus exist lower caste communities in a paradoxical situation of invisibility and hypervisibility
Riyosha Sharma is a 2nd year undergraduate student at Ashoka University.