The incident is distasteful, but note that it is not a prejudice that the society or state is colluding in. Also, contrast even such a regressive mindset with an earlier age. For instance, ask those who have been to an institution like Banaras Hindu University in the 50s and 60s and they will usually have a story of witnessing a Dalit student not being served food by waiters in the canteen. There is a difference between an ‘upper caste’ man not eating food served by a Dalit in a public place and an ‘upper caste’ man not serving food to a Dalit in a public place. It is the distance that India has travelled in its journey of eradicating untouchability.
That is one reason to not get carried away on reading a recent edition of The Indian Express which ran a story with the headline, ‘Biggest caste survey: One in four Indians admit to practising untouchability’. The survey was conducted by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and University of Maryland, US, after interviews with 42,000 households. According to the Express report, ‘Surveyors asked respondents, “Does anyone in your family practise untouchability?” and, in case the answer was “No”, asked a second question: “Would it be okay for a Scheduled Caste person to enter your kitchen or use your utensils?” Across India, 27 per cent respondents agreed that they did practise untouchability in some form.’ Brahmins lead the pack, but curiously, even 15 per cent of Scheduled Castes and 22 per cent of Scheduled Tribes were found to practise it.
The question, as it is framed, was always going to be contentious. No one likes strangers entering their kitchens, toilets and bedrooms and you don’t need to be a Brahmin to refuse this access. A simpler question would be: ‘Would you touch a Dalit?’ because that, literally and unambiguously, is untouchability on test. But instinctively we know that the answer to that question is rarely going to be a ‘No’. And no one would be lying because in an urbanised world you often can’t know who is a Dalit and also because exhibiting such behaviour gets serious social disapproval. Even if someone considers another person an untouchable, he knows there is shame in announcing his mindset.
Caste has multiple nasty dimensions to it. Untouchability is its very extreme but it can’t be an umbrella term to denote everything. It denotes, and we associate it with incredibly cruel practices; not allowing someone into one’s own kitchen in 2014 is really not in that category.