Time to redefine caste

Last week, the case of Rohith Vemula took another turn.

Published: 21st February 2017 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th February 2017 11:10 PM   |  A+A-

Last week, the case of Rohith Vemula took another turn. Over a year after the Dalit scholar of University of Hyderabad committed suicide, the Guntur (his home town) collector’s office filed a report saying his mother, Radhika, brother and sister were not Dalit as stated in their caste certificates but instead they belonged to the caste of Rohith’s father, which comes under the OBC category. This development is significant as one of the cases filed after Rohith’s death was under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against the University’s Vice Chancellor, a Union Minister and others. Another case is of abetment of suicide.

The police investigating the cases had so far claimed no progress as the Guntur officials hadn’t resorted back on Rohith’s caste status. Now, the officials have not only denied the Vemulas their Dalit identity but have also charged them with obtaining false caste certificates to attain benefits and gave them 15 days to respond to the notice. This development has generated anger amongst the supporters of the family. For one, the imposition of the  father’s caste identity on his children despite the family’s socio-cultural reality—they lived among other Dalits—reflects a patriarchal world view. But further, it raises the question of what caste is.

Is it an aspect of birth as inalienable as one’s blood type or is it both ‘heritable’ as well as reinforced by social experience? Experts say the law indicates that in inter-caste marriages, the child may choose his or her caste. Yet, the Guntur district’s move smacks not only of insensitivity and willful ignorance of how caste is practiced in our society but also of an insidious convenience for the powers that be. There is a narrative that dismisses the distress of Rohith through a misdirection by questioning his caste. The Guntur collector’s report has only strengthened that narrative in the process, ensuring that marginalised communities trust the system meant to guarantee social justice a little less.

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