Let's talk about caste

Before I left the Mohalla Clinic, Saima, a staff worker asked me, “If you don’t mind me asking, what caste (jaati) do you belong to? What is your surname?”

I had no idea what caste I was technically born into, no one in my family had ever mentioned it while growing up. I told Saima that I was brought up in Abu Dhabi in the Middle East, and living there I had never even realized that Muslims in India even had a caste system until I learned about the constitution of India and the Muslim scheduled castes and tribes (SC/ST). The owner of the clinic, a personable and charismatic ancient army veteran, shared, “In India, Muslims also have a caste. For example, I would be considered a Mughal. But, I don’t believe in the caste system. People are above others only by deeds.” Saima agreed with him but was skeptical about my response, “I don’t believe in the caste system either, but everyone generally knows what caste they were born into, even if they don’t talk about it.”

This Mohalla Clinic was a 10 minute walk from where I was staying, a locality that I have visited for weeks and months at a time for almost two decades now. During all my visits to the area, I never heard, saw, or thought about caste. That incident left me more than a little shaken and shattered any perceptions I had of the locality being homogeneous in terms of religion and caste. While I respected the opinion of the owner of the clinic, I couldn't help thinking that it was so much easier to dismiss caste when you had the luxury of being on top of the hierarchy. So much so that I myself had been blind to it all this time...