Almost three years ago, former Union minister of state for external affairs, a well-known writer and speaker Shashi Tharoor wrote an article titled "Why Caste Won't Disappear from India?" quoting a study which said 27% of Indians still practised untouchability. He spoke about his idea of being 'oblivious of caste' in it.
Tejaswini Tabhane, 18, an undergraduate Economics student who found it troublesome, wrote a lengthy reply to Tharoor on September 16, 2017. Taking the conversation further, Tharoor replied to her in his column in a magazine saying that he accepted her criticism.
'Why Caste Won't Disappear From India'
Tharoor's first article was published in huffingtonpost.com (US edition) on December 9, 2014. He wrote, quoting an article based on the above-said study, "almost every third Hindu (30%) admitted to the practice [of untouchability]â€¦ that they refused to allow Dalits, the former "untouchables," into their kitchen or to use their utensils."
Tharoor commented about the India Today consulting editor Rajdeep Sardesai's tweet on the elevation of Manohar Parrikar and Suresh Prabhu into the Union Cabinet. Sardesai had tweeted that it was a 'big day for Goa' in which the remark "Saraswat pride" (referring Goud Saraswat Brahmin-GSB) became controversial. Tharoor said, "Caste pride sits oddly with" the elitism Sardesai acquired from the schools he attended.
Setting up a background for the narrative that he was putting up, Tharoor said he is a "product of a nationalist generation that was consciously raised to be oblivious of caste." When he was in school, he reacted as if he is not from earth when his friend Rishi Kapoor (yes, you read it correctly) asked which caste he belongs to.
He grew up thinking caste is irrelevant --- be it for marriage or their children or appointing a cook in his house.
Concluding his take on Sardesai's tweet, Tharoor asked: "Isn't it possible that his unreflective celebration of two GSBs suggests that his attitude to caste is so casual" and it is just like any identity that he can refer to, like the alma mater. He further said, "to upbraid him for casteism is like calling India's first prime minister, the secular atheist Jawaharlal Nehru, casteist for allowing people to refer to him as "Pandit" Nehru."
He ended the HuffPost article hoping more people will allow Dalits in their kitchens when the next survey occurs.
"I found many problematic things in the article which needed to be called out, but no one did that," Tabhane told DH. "I thought this intervention is necessary."
She wrote on roundtableindia.co.in that by reading the headline of Tharoor's article, she expected some answers to why caste did not disappear from the country, but she was disappointed.
Tejaswini questioned Tharoor's understanding of caste. "...what Tharoor misses here is that a Brahmin's caste pride comes with humiliation for other castes," wrote Tabhane as a reply to his argument on Sardesai's tweet.
"Sardesai's caste pride cannot be compared with Dalits' assertion of their identity because the two are located far away from each other in the pyramid of caste. While the former emanates from a sense of superiority (based on false notions of 'merit' and 'eugenics'), the latter is an attempt to brush away centuries of humiliations and disabilities," she added.
She argued that just because Tharoor was unaware of his caste does not make him caste-less. "Anyone, who belongs to Nair caste group [the caste which Tharoor was born into], is bound to get the advantages of his caste location, willingly or unwillingly; consciously or unconsciously."
Ending her rebuttal, she said: "As far as I can see it, he [Tharoor] seems to think that the progress of Dalit community is only limited to entering the kitchens of Upper Caste houses. Are Dalit people not capable enough to enter your temples as priests? Are they not capable enough to enter your academia? Are they not capable enough to enter bureaucracy?
I do not want to enter your kitchen, Mr Tharoor..."
"Since hundreds of mentions are addressed to me on Twitter every day, it's not possible to read them all, let alone look into everything. But sometimes, my Twitter fans and friends will share some messages with me and Tejaswini's blog was one such thing," Tharoor said.
The very next day the reply was published, Tharoor shared it on Facebook and Twitter with this comment: "It's an excellent piece, well-argued &heartfelt. But I don't disagree with her. I'd just like to know what I can & should do differently!"
Tabhane told DH that it was unexpected and she was excited to see that.
On October 22, Tharoor wrote a long reply in his The Week's column, 'Last Word', acknowledging that Tabhane's arguments have changed his view on caste consciousness.
"For a long time, I assumed this was the modern Indian ideal-the egalitarian spirit in which one judged people not by their caste but (to borrow from Martin Luther King Jr) by the content of their character. But, a critical blog by an 18-year-old student taught me, I am wrong," he wrote.
"I grew up oblivious of caste thanks to my father being from the nationalist generation. So, I believed that being unconscious of people's caste is the best approach that I can have towards it," he told DH.
"I am suitably chastened. My father's and my response, to be oblivious to caste and indifferent to the caste associations of friends, employees, and associates, is no longer enough in today's caste-conscious India. Caste blindness, it is argued, is itself an affectation available only to the privileged; the "lower" castes cannot afford to be indifferent to caste," wrote Tharoor.
Speaking to DH, he said that he is "not worried about criticism" and he is "always interested in a serious engagement with any ideas."
"I do believe that I can learn from people of any age and also from people who have had a different social experience."
Asking about 'caste consciousness' in political leadership, Tharoor said caste is being addressed politically. He said he had argued for the caste census in parliament when some of his colleagues demanded the government to drop the idea. "As long as you give the benefits based on caste, it is important to know the numbers." He also raised concern about why the full data of the caste census is not released yet.
"I really appreciate the efforts he made in response to my article. And yes, it is quite satisfactory too," said Tabhane. Tharoor's efforts "will definitely set an example for others" who have a similar opinion including academicians.
Writing rebuttals to the political leadership and academicians is ubiquitous nowadays though most of it goes unnoticed or unanswered. The conversation between Tharoor and Tabhane has created a new path of a healthy debate.