Caste, indeed, is a personal matter : The Tribune India

Mahabir S Jaglan

The Bishnoi community has carved out an eco-sensitive niche in the harsh environment of the Thar desert. It has left a distinct imprint on the fragile landscape by providing social sanction to natural vegetation and wildlife protection. It was in 2018 that I visited Jodhpur to explore the socio-ecological milieu of this community through a survey by MSc geography students of Kurukshetra University. The village selected, Rudkali, is 6 km from the historical site of Khejarali village, where 363 women are said to have disobeyed Jodhpur king Abhai Singh and sacrificed their lives to save khejari tree groves in 1730.

The village presents a serene picture. The settlement is surrounded by common land, studded with thorny bushes supporting wildlife. The agricultural land is diligently separated from the wildlife habitats by robust fencing. Such is the dominance of the socio-ecological ethos of the Bishnoi community that all communities ensure space and safety for wildlife and trees in the village.

But surprisingly, the treatment of humans is not on the same footing. It’s a society with strong caste hierarchy and discernible economic inequality. The students faced a volley of counter queries about their caste affiliation. Most upper and dominant caste houses have entry and access demarcations for different castes. The doorstep is the limit for the lower castes and they are served water in earthen or aluminum utensils. The students reported that they were provided conditional entry for interaction. Their seating arrangement was often in accordance with their caste hierarchy.

We, the supervising staff, also had a chance to witness social discrimination. We entered a fenced farmstead and requested an educated girl of the family to pluck seasonal fruits for us. She was courteous enough to ask us to be seated on a charpoy and offered matira (local watermelon). Meanwhile, our students also arrived for the survey. The girl made arrangements for their seating too and started interacting with them. Minutes later, her grandfather arrived. He had a probing eye and asked about our caste identity. Luckily, we had with us a teacher belonging to his community who assured him that there was nothing amiss in our occupancy of the charpoy. Then he enquired about the caste background of our students and showed displeasure about their interaction with his granddaughter.

During a discussion on the pervasive social segregation in the rural area, Rajender Parihar of Jai Narain Vyas University, Jodhpur, pointed out that the young generation of lower castes had developed ways to counter this menace. He said, ‘When someone sharing public space or a seat in a bus asks them their caste identity, pat comes the query: “What is your bank account number?” The man is taken aback and says it is a personal matter. Then comes the counter reply: “My caste is my private issue”.’