You are an urban, modern, not-particularly religious parent. You are secular – you burst crackers for Diwali, eat biryani for Id, and dress up as Santa Claus for Christmas. Caste, in your life, is irrelevant. Indeed, you might have even had an inter-caste or inter-religious marriage and don’t practice any caste-related rituals. Given that caste plays no role in your life, should you speak to your child about it?
My answer is…yes. I grew up in an atheistic household and let alone caste; even religion was immaterial to me. But then, we were born Hindu, the majority religion of this country, and I could afford to find it irrelevant. I’m also from an upper-caste family, growing up in a metropolitan city, so there was nobody to put me in my place or point out that I was inferior in any way. Not overtly. The only time I thought about my caste seriously was during my college admissions when being ‘FC’ was such a downer. I resented the BC/SC/ST students for whom (I imagined) college admissions were a breeze though their grades were much lower than mine. Indeed, when the course began, I couldn’t understand how some students had even been given seats - they were so woefully behind.
I prided myself on being free of religious and caste prejudice. But I was completely blind to the cultural capital and privilege that I had been born with. I couldn’t understand why someone was so terrified of making a PowerPoint presentation or why only a few of us always voiced our views confidently in a group. I didn’t stop to think why it was only a select few who got to decide things on behalf of the class – or the fact that this select few was composed of upper class, upper caste students always. I never viewed this through the caste angle because I was so smug in my assumption that I was a pure, unbiased soul. I’m ashamed of my insensitivity now. And this is why I will talk to my daughter about caste. Because whether we like it or not, caste is all around us and within us. And it’s only if we have this awareness can we dismantle it.
1. Address the elephant in the room: Children understand inequality. They also have an inherent sense of justice and fairness. Instead of pretending that the world is full of unicorns and rainbows, talk to them about the real world, if you want to bring up a sensitive child. This is not to say that you have to depress the child – but it’s never too early to point out that not everyone has everything.
2. Make them understand what privilege is: Whether it’s caste, class, religion or gender, belonging to a certain identity comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages. We take all of these for granted on an everyday basis – but this is why we’re oblivious to discrimination when it happens to others. It’s a good idea for all of us to know who we are and where we come from. The family tree is a good place to start this digging.
3. Practice respect and let them emulate you: Children learn through observation. If you have a separate glass for your domestic help or you stay away from the puja room when on your period or you don’t eat non-veg on ‘good’ days, they will grow up thinking these caste practices, these notions of ‘purity’, are normal. Be willing to do some unlearning yourself. Also, do not confuse sympathy for respect.
4. Teach them confidence: To stand up for themselves when they are put down by others for who they are and to stand up for others when they see that something unjust is going on. It’s not necessary to be on the popular side always. Tell them about people who have gone on to change the world for the better by refusing to follow ‘tradition’.
5. Introduce diversity: Expose them to different cultures, communities, and ways of thinking and living. Most children from privileged sections grow up thinking the world is homogenous and that discrimination and differences exist on some other planet, not their own backyard. It’s the parent’s job to show them that this isn’t true.
6. Encourage original thinking: Be open to bringing up a child with a questioning mind – someone who might even question you and your actions. Obedience is overrated in our culture.
Discrimination does not go away by pretending that it doesn’t exist. Caste isn’t limited to the ‘clever brahmin’ folk-tales that your child reads. It is something they will have to confront as they grow up – and if they’re to deal with it sensitively and sensibly, it’s a good idea to take the bull by its horns when they are still young.