Do you think that the caste system is fading away? Then read Gauri’s* story.
This 42-year-old resident of Kananthampoondi in Thiruvannamalai first came to the village 23 years ago, when she married Shiva*. Today, she works as a caregiver to a person with disability in a school in Kananthampoondi.
But while Kananthampoondi is her home, she is treated as an untouchable in the village every single day.
Gauri is a Dalit woman and the only breadwinner for her family. Her husband has not been able to work for the past 10 years because of health issues. She has to provide for her three children and also for the treatment for her husband.
There are 150 Dalit families and about 250 caste Hindu families living in the village. The caste Hindus include Gounders, Nadars and Mudaliyars, and the communities are the most dominant in Kananthampoondi.
Like almost every village in Tamil Nadu, Kananthampoondi is also organised around caste lines. And from ration shops to water tanks, everything is situated near the caste Hindu houses, says Gauri.
“When we go to get monthly ration from there, we have two different queues and we are not supposed to touch them. They even tell the shopkeeper to give different stocks for caste Hindu people and us,” she says.
And if by mistake any Dalit person touches a caste Hindu, it immediately leads to a fight. Gauri, who has three children, never sends them to buy groceries because she is afraid of this.
Walking into ‘caste Hindu streets’ without a ‘reason’ is also frowned upon. “In the 1990s, we were not supposed to go to their village, or even take our cycles through their village, but now things have changed a bit. Yet, they question us if we are there for long,” says Gauri.
The Dalits are not allowed to take water from ‘their’ wells if there is a shortage either. “If we go there and try taking water from their wells, they will starting arguing with us. Their houses get water supply everyday but we get only once in a week,” she says.
Gauri recalls that even the water supply that they do have did not come without protests. In the 1990s, the Dalits in the village protested repeatedly to get water connections. “The government provided water supply to their houses and we were not provided. So, we protested for days and at last, the collector provided us with water connections. It had become a big caste issue then,” she says.
If the stories of everyday discrimination aren’t shocking enough, the Dalits in the village aren’t allowed to represent themselves in a democratic manner either. During election time, Gauri claims, only people from higher castes are allowed to stand as candidates.
“Our people are not even allowed to stand for elections and when voting time comes, they come to us and say vote for us, do not let an outsider become a leader in the village. The panchayat also only consists of people from their community, even though we have quota for our people,” she says.
Even government welfare schemes don’t reach the Dalits first. “Recently the government had a scheme through which we could build free toilets. But toilets are only being built in their village with the money provided by the government. When we question them, they say that no money has been sanctioned for your area. So we are building toilets with our own money,” Gauri says.
Caste and class are closely interlinked, and that means hardly anyone questions the caste Hindus or calls them out for discrimination. “Most of the Dalits work as daily wage labourers on the lands owned by caste Hindu people. Then how can they raise their voices against them?” Gauri asks.
“I cannot leave this place and go. We have about five cents land and a house in this place. If we go somewhere else, we have to pay rent and start work all over again,” she says.
Gauri is saddened by the fact that even her children have to go through this struggle. There is only one government school till Class 5, and the caste Hindu parents ask their kids to keep a distance from Dalit children in the class, Gauri says.
“The caste Hindu people even mock us for educating our children but one day, my children will be able to bring a change in this system,” she says.
(*Names changed on request)