‘Article 15’: Have I Unintentionally Contributed to Casteism?
What ‘Article 15’ teaches us about casteism and our contribution to it.
“Move aside, let him go inside to clean the toilet.”
I don’t remember how many times I have heard my mother say this and not said anything. It never occurred to me way back in school and in college, that the remark was directed at a person from a lower caste. I remember when I was about fourteen or fifteen, my next-door neighbour slapped her two-year-old son when he playfully touched the toilet cleaner’s thighs. I witnessed the incident but said nothing. I heard my friend’s mother ask the maid what caste she belonged to before hiring her, and yet, I said nothing.
A few months previously, my aunt, very proudly, told me her housing society has a separate lift for house help. When she showed me the lift, I decided it was time to finally speak out. I told her that it was discriminatory and should not be practiced. She defended herself saying, “This is safe. I don’t want to travel with cleaners in the lift.” To that, I once again said nothing.
Watching ‘Article 15’ was like having these instances fall in place, leaving me wondering why I hadn’t said anything or done anything earlier. I was angry at myself, not for having partaken in discriminating against someone but for not having done enough to stop the same from happening.
Thankfully my parents had never sat me down and lectured me about caste or religion. Growing up in Kolkata, the only distinction I knew to exist was between Bengalis and non-Bengalis.
While watching the film, I constantly drew parallels between Ayushmann Khurrana and myself, with respect to our professional experiences. Khurrana is an IPS officer in the film, whose first posting is in a small UP town. While he is obviously aware of the caste system, he only sees it up close while on duty.
I too witnessed the caste system when I moved to Delhi for work.
Delhi taught me what caste is, how it does, or ‘should’ matter. A popular Delhi saying goes, “Delhi ka apna koi nahi, sab bahar ke hain.” (Translation: Nobody is native to Delhi, everyone (in the city) is a migrant.)
Kaha Se Hain Aap?
My run-in with the police as a rookie reporter working with NDTV brought home the ground reality of caste:
Cop: “Ayiye madam, kya naam hai aapka? (Come, madam. What’s your name?)
Cop: “Poonam, kahan se hain aap?” (Where are you from?)
Me: “NDTV se, sir. Reporter hun.” (I am from NDTV, sir. I am a reporter.)
Cop: “Wo toh pata hai, constable ne bataya. Lekin, kahan se hain aap?” (I am aware, the constable informed me. But, where are you from?
Me: “Sir, yahin se. Delhi. Lajpat Nagar me ghar hai.” (Sir, here, Delhi. I live in Lajpat Nagar.)
By this time, the cop was pretty certain I was a fool who didn’t understand the question: “Kahan se hain aap?”
Cop: “Accha. Kya bataya aapne apna poora naam... Poonam kya?” (Okay. What did you say your full name was... Poonam what?
Me: “Poonam Agarwal, sir.”
Cop: “Accha toh aap baniya hai... Rajasthan se?” (Alright, you’re a baniya, then. Are you from Rajasthan?)
Me: “Mein toh Kolkata se hun. Forefathers honge.” ( I am from Kolkata. My forefathers could be from Rajasthan.)
I faced a few similar incidents and discussed them with my friends who are also journalists. One of them said, “They wanted to know your caste so they could know who they were talking to.” Another said, “If the officer or bureaucrat realises you’re from their community, city or state, they will instantly be more comfortable while talking to you and even share information with you, which otherwise would take a while to find sources for.”
Like Ayushmann Khurrana in ‘Article 15’ when he was lectured about caste by his juniors, I shouted, shocked: “What the f**k?”
A few years later, during a meeting with a senior CBI officer who was from Rajasthan:
CBI officer: “Kahan se ho?” (Where are you from?)
Me: “Sir, my surname is Agarwal.”
CBI officer: “Okay. So you’re from Rajasthan?”
Me: “Sir, it is slightly complicated.... I grew up in Kolkata so I am partially Bengali and can speak Bengali better than Bengalis in Delhi do. My father was born in Varanasi so I am from UP as well. My nani was from Baliya which is on the UP-Bihar border, so thoda Bihar hain. But my grandfather’s father was from Jaipur in Rajasthan. Sir, as you know, all Agarwals are originally from Hisar in Haryana. But now, sir, I am more or less a Dilliwala.”
(If you thought an answer as lengthy as this would have satisfied the CBI officer, hold on, because no, it did not.)
CBI officer: “Was your grandfather’s father from Jaipur?”
Me: (Hey Bhagwan) “Sir, he was from a small village next to Jaipur, I am unable to recall its name right now.”
I didn’t have back then what I have now: the response, “Why do you want to know ‘Kahan se hain?’ Does it make me any more or less of a journalist?”
A scene in ‘Article 15’ depicts Kumud Mishra, who plays a cop from a low caste, asking Ayushmann Khurrana, an upper-caste senior cop, to not take food from his plate. The former immediately says, “Arrey nahi, main aapke liye doosre plate mein la deta hoon.”
The scene pushed me to think if I had a colleague who belongs to a low (and marginalised) caste or if I had ever wondered whom I took food from. I couldn’t, however, answer definitively, as I had never cared to check or ask someone’s caste.
In the same vein, I’d like to share another incident:
On a cold evening in Delhi, my cameraperson and I went to meet a victim’s family in a slum area. They lived in a one-room house. We were welcomed inside and after we were both settled on small stools, they asked us if we’d like a cup of tea. Of course, we did, and we said so. One of them was about to prepare tea when they were stopped and their son was asked to step out to get two cups of tea and biscuits. Unaware of the reason behind it, I promptly said,
Me: “Nahi nahi, ghar par hi chai banayiye, acche se ubaal kar”. (No, no, please make tea at home, boil it properly.)
Man: “Nahi madam, main bahar se mangwa deta hoon. Aap kahan yahan piyenge.” (No, madam. I’ll get you tea from outside. Why will you drink the tea made here?)
Me: “Kyun nahi. Ghar ki chai toh acchi aur fresh hoti hai”. (Why not? Homemade tea tastes better.)
Man: “Theek hai madam.” (smiling). (Okay, madam.)
When we left their place after finishing our work, my cameraperson asked me, “Do you know why they wanted to bring you tea from outside?” I looked confused and asked him, “What do you mean?”
“He didn’t want to serve homemade tea in his utensils because he belongs to a lower caste. He must have thought that we might not like it. But poor guy didn’t know that he was talking to an ignorant urban half-Bong (Bengali) and a half-UPite, who read about caste only in books,” he added jokingly.
What films like ‘Article 15’ do is shake you up from your deep ‘urban slumber’ and bring you up-close-and-personal with what you were previously ignorant of or thought was a thing of the past.
We’re all aware of the ills of the caste system but we need to break out of the “Aisa hi hota hai, aisa hi chalta hai” mindset. We cannot look the other way or let something ‘wrong’ go on just because it’s become the norm, or our parents do it, or our grandparents did it...
In the film, Manoj Pahwa, who plays a cop, tries to stop his senior Ayushmann Khurrana from registering a rape FIR against the upper caste contractor. He repeatedly warns Khurrana saying,
“Sir, aisa mat kariyae, santulan bigad jayega.” (Don’t do this, it will disturb the social balance.)
By the time he said so, I realised it isn’t about the tenuous ‘santulan’: it’s about deferring responsibility by soothing ourselves with “Aisa hi hota hai...”.
Today, I can say brazenly that our parents were wrong when they asked us to serve labourers tea in a glass that wasn’t used by the family, and we were wrong to follow in their footsteps. It’s time to tell them, and everybody else, the truth. It’s time we speak out.
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