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Monday, June 22, 2009

What’s your caste, madam?

As a human rights defender on a mission in India surely I should not be surprised to discover that the caste system prevails in the country. As repelling as the thought is to me, I was prepared to observe such phenomena. It is common knowledge that social hierarchy is deep rooted, despite the legal prohibition of ‘the caste system’.

However, I did not expect to personally experience ‘casteism’ be treated differently due to my ‘position’ in society or even the colour of my skin. It soon became clear to me that my ‘ethnic origin’ was in itself an achievement that was praised. At first I was flattered by the smiles and the interest in my person, after a while I understood that my ‘position’ as a white European contributed to the bows and friendly smiles. My opinion, or rather appearance, was cherished and equalised with an ‘international’ – white-position and thus sometimes considered more important than that of ‘the Indians’.

Whether concerning the press interest in my (read; a white) presence, or the employees in the service sector desire to be ‘at my service’. I was touched by the devotation of the security guard at the hotel, who stood up at their desk every time I appeared with a smile and a ‘hello madam, good morning madam’. Despite my friendly response, they never sat down to relax.

On the last day the guard, encouraged after days of confidence building, smiles and chocolates gifts (for the children I assumed he had), approached me and asked:

“What’s your religion madam?”

A little surprised and stunned by this personal intervention I smiled back and replied: none, sir, I am an atheist. The man looked at me with great surprise, and the reply was a fast:

“What’s your caste, madam?”

The caste system is very much alive.