Why Are We Obsessed With Hima Das’ and PV Sindhu’s Caste?

The moment you type Hima Das on Google, the second search recommendation is ‘Hima Das caste’, followed by ‘Hima Das athlete’, ‘Hima Das interview’, ‘Hima Das 400 final’ and ‘Hima Das gold’. Since Google is an automated search engine, it offers recommendations based on frequently searched keywords. What the order of search recommendations shows is that people are very keen to know Hima Das’ caste affiliation over and above what she has achieved as an athlete. What matters the most is her caste. Her achievements presumably will be celebrated accordingly.

Just out of curiosity, I typed PT Usha on Google. I was shocked to notice a similar pattern. People are still searching for her caste years after she retired.

As a star athlete, Usha narrowly missed the bronze medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics by one hundredth of a second in the 400 m hurdles race. We came across similar behaviour of netizens when PV Sindhu won the silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Her caste affiliation surprisingly turned out to be the second most searched item on the World Wide Web.

Also Read: Hima Das the new poster girl of Indian athletics

Google Trend showing a spike in the search result: Hima Das caste.

Roti Obsession is Nothing But Advocacy of Caste System

Since the Internet is a relatively private medium (the information on what I search is supposedly restricted to myself), what is frequently searched is a true reflection of what I am curious about. If people are searching caste, it means a majority of them use it as a reference to judge anyone’s performance. But what explains this obsession despite tall claims of exorcising the demons of caste long ago? Does the new right-wing assertion with vigorous pursuit of controlling roti-beti (food and daughter) have anything to do with the renewed obsession with caste affiliations?

Caste system, as we know, is based on the twin principles of roti-beti and graded pollution-purity structure. What to eat and whom to dine with defines the purity of a caste. The group at the top of the caste hierarchy (Brahmins) is very selective about what its members eat. Are recent dictates on celebrating vegetarianism and controlling food habits of some communities (read: self-proclaimed Gau Rakshaks) aimed at restoring the good old caste system of food-defined caste hierarchy?

Also Read: Odisha hikes incentives for inter-caste marriage

‘Protecting’ Beti is the Core of Caste System

The core of the caste system has been controlling the marriage of daughters, the beti aspect of the system. What has been generally accepted, not as a rule but only as an exception in some cases, is the incidence of sons marrying women of relatively “impure” castes.

What is strict now, in the traditional scheme of things, is the phenomenon of daughters showing any inclination to marry someone from outside the caste boundary. Marrying outside the community is nothing but blasphemy. The purity therefore remains intact as long as marriages take place inside the small endogamous group.

No wonder, despite waves of urbanisation and modernisation, inter-caste marriage is still an exception and inter-faith marriage a rarity. Analysing data of National Family Health Survey, four researchers have observed that “about 10 percent of the total marriages in India takes place between different castes while only 2.1 percent marriages are inter-religious”.

The researchers have clarified that in only 50 percent of all inter-caste marriages, grooms from lower castes have been accepted. The states with higher incidence of inter-caste marriages include Punjab, Goa, Kerala and Meghalaya. And no prize for guessing who the laggards are: Bihar, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The laggards are the ones where caste identities are fiercely protected.

Also Read: 4 Upper Caste Men Booked for Attacking Barber Who Cut Dalits’ Hair

Hindus Carry Their Caste System Wherever They Go

The beti obsession has been so ingrained that caste Hindus have carried their obsession wherever they have gone. According to a 2015 Pew Research Centre study, while the general trend in the US has been marrying outside the faith more now than was the case earlier, Hindus are the least likely to do so.

"The survey also shows that members of certain religious groups are more likely than others to be with someone of their faith, whether they are married or living together in a romantic relationship. " - Pew Research Centre

For example, more than three-quarters of US Hindus (91%), Mormons (82%) and Muslims (79%) who are married or living with a partner are with someone of the same religion. This is somewhat less common among Jews (65%), mainline Protestants (59%) and religiously unaffiliated people (56%).

You now know why the opposition to inter-faith marriage (also given a name like Love Jihad as if there is a global conspiracy) is so vicious.

The point I am trying to make is very simple. Proponents of the pernicious caste system cannot get over their roti-beti obsession, some consciously and many others without knowing the consequences. The moment the roti-beti obsession goes – which can only happen with increasing frequency of inter-caste and inter-faith marital alliances – the oppressive caste system will collapse.

Next time you hear elaborate instructions on what to eat and how to keep religious purity intact by not marrying outside of your religious affiliation or caste, think about the caste system and how oppressive it has been for a vast majority of our country.

Let me conclude with an honest confession though. Despite claiming to know how oppressive the caste system has been and how it has sustained all these years, I am a strict follower of the roti aspect of it. About my beti, I don’t know how I will react if she decides to break the tradition.

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