Kancha Iliah is a Dalit Bahujan activist. During a lecture in Chennai, he challenged everything I considered normal. This is a conversation that made me rethink about my roots that are firmly planted in this city and its culture .
“Exceptions cannot be history”, started off Kancha Iliah – a man known for his radical opposition to caste hierarchy. His views on the futility of high caste communities can be downright offensive. His take on most issues is highly contended and his struggle for an equal society can turn the world around.
India is a very regional society. Despite all the liberal thinking and doing, a Tamilian, Bengali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Kannadiga and all the other multitudes will always put region, language and state first. With this strong regionalism – religion and casteism are inevitable. And the farther away one is from their roots, the more vigourous this obsession is. No, I am not talking in sociological terms; it is merely a distinction that we all draw in our heads.
A Brahmin is acutely aware of the ‘superiority’ that the caste system has ‘gifted’ him. Like a popular joke goes, a Brahmin is so proud of his prosperous belly; his sight fails to go beyond!
I am a ‘tambrahm’, as we are classified. It is a broad and misleading stereotype that labels us all as prosperous, brainy and even snobbish. My parents however have given me the most liberal childhood. In fact, they never introduced the concept of caste to me – That I am a Brahmin, and that my caste gives me ‘super-rights’, was never told to me. Even my name doesn’t have the slightest indication of my caste or region. I have never had such a distinction in my head. People were just people.
Then we were taught the caste system in school, the historic role of each of the four varnas. When I found out my caste, I was proud of being at the top of the ladder. Wasn’t school supposed to educate and not corrupt? But, learning had to be accepted blindly.
So when Kancha Iliah challenged high caste attitudes, rituals or even habits like vegetarianism, my rigid mind resisted. How dare he? This is my religion, my rituals. Who is he to comment on them? Well, he is exactly who should comment on them, for he wasn’t offered basic rights like education on a silver platter as I was.
When he supported the removal of the controversial Ambedkar cartoon from school textbooks, I disagreed. I felt students in class 11 and 12 were old enough to be given such a perspective, that they should be allowed to construct their own opinions. While I ideologically disagreed with Mr. Iliah’s speech, I was amazed at his ability to make me think.
For once, I stopped being a tambrahm, proud of my rasam and filter coffee and began looking at a world where rice was a luxury. True, I have not grown up in a caste-rigid atmosphere, but that does not give me the right to be blissfully oblivious of the lives and struggles of other men and women my age.
We can love the man or hate him, resist his thoughts and detest his ideas. But we cannot do any of this without thinking about what he said. For more than just a fleeting moment there, my caste makes me guilty.