The ‘jaati’ system (or the caste system, as colonialists called it) has defined the structure of Indian society for many generations before its gradual weakening over the past century.
At its most rigid, the system dictated what people did for a living, who they married and what all they could possess.
Today, 70 years after any form of caste discrimination was made illegal by founders of an independent India, the system’s hold on these matters has loosened significantly.
The postcolonial Indian Constitution gave caste groups at the bottom rung of the system — often called Dalits, now numbering more than 20 crores — reservations in higher education and government jobs.
The society at large, too, has been making continuous progress towards the goal of an India free of any birth-based discrimination.
The progress is faster in urban cities compared to rural areas where about 67 per cent of the Indian population lives and where segregation is a defining feature of life.
BR Ambedkar famously encouraged Dalits to leave villages and movie to cities to escape the shackles of caste.
“What is a village but a sink of localism, a den of ignorance, narrow-mindedness and communalism?” he said in a speech.
Efforts for reform, however, have long been afoot in villages even if change is slow.
Advocates of social reform and a wipe-out of the caste order such as Savarkar actively promoted inter-dining and temple entry for all in villages.
India has come a long way since the 1940s when Babasaheb made that speech.
Today, it’s not unusual for villages to not only gather for inter-dining, but also allow inter-caste marriages; Babasaheb advocated the latter as the “real remedy for breaking caste”.
“There are many castes which allow inter-dining. But it is a common experience that inter-dining has not succeeded in killing the spirit of caste and the consciousness of caste. I am convinced that the real remedy is intermarriage. Fusion of blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin, and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount, the separatist feeling — the feeling of being aliens —created by caste will not vanish,” Ambedkar said in his seminal but unspoken speech, ‘Annihilation of Caste’.
This article, however, will restrict itself to an inter-dining initiative in a village in Bihar that is regularly held with the singular purpose of breaking caste order.
The motivation behind this documentation are a few cases that were reported from various parts of the country during the recent lockdown, where people refused food prepared by Dalit cooks in government-run quarantine centres.
The cases were widely reported in the media (read Swarajya’s coverage of two such cases here and here), but some publications went a little too far as they used the cases to dismiss all gains made by Indian society.
One publication called casteism “the worst virus” based on a lone case where, incidentally, the person who refused Dalit-cooked food turned out to be a Muslim.
The case study I present is of Fatehpur village near Phulwaria in Vaishali district of Bihar.
The village has a Ram-Janaki Math, which is a popular venue for religious gatherings. Residents say they have been holding a bi-monthly community feast or ‘bhandaara’ for over a decade, where all castes come together, cook together and eat together.