Freedom of Expression without Harm, a Caste Privilege

I have two roommates who are staunch Hindutvavadis, highly Islamophobic and big time fan boys of Narendra Modi. I on the other hand a secular humanist, left-leaning atheist have to live with them and many a times have made my anti-Modi, anti-Hindutva stand very clear.

Only recently did I learn that they consider me to be a Brahmin* (they enquired about my janeu, sacred thread that is the marker of Brahmanism, and I instinctively lied that I cut it off way back). I realised that the only reason they tolerate me is because they think I belong to the highest caste. They never swear when they talk to me (or even around), while it is pretty usual for them to do so with each other. Neither do they disregard whatever I say, they take me seriously sometimes with reverence. I even noticed that they do not even touch me or my stuff and that I am always designated with the pronoun ‘Aap’, although I am clearly much younger to them (people in Maharashtra, especially Mumbai, very rarely use Aap in common parlance).

I am extremely uncomfortable with such a relationship, but now I am actually afraid of clearing this misunderstanding. These guys are violent and extremely chauvinistic. They have little when it comes to respecting an individual for their opinion. Me being a Brahmin in their eyes is what is clearly giving me the immunity from their punches. And I, honestly, do not want to risk this immunity by correcting them and making it clear that I am just a degree lower** to what they assumed me to be.

This will never give me a clear conscience. But I realised that my caste name as Nair gives me powerful immunity in this extremely prejudiced society. It always has and I know it always will. I knew I enjoyed caste privilege, even when people knew that I was not a Brahmin. It is with these guys I realised the extent of my privilege, which is keeping me safe and unscathed. It has till now very clearly kept my free speech and expression protected, and has kept me away from real harm. My case did not take place in some remote village in the hinterland. This is the centre of our country’s largest metropolis and among the urban English-educated class we so blindly believe to be progressive. This is how caste works in India.

*It seems many in Mumbai consider Nair to be synonymous with Iyer, and hence the confusion
**I will not make preposterous claims that I am “casteless”, “beyond caste” or “have left my caste behind”. Because caste is not a choice. It’s a social reality, much like gender and cannot be erased as long as you live in a caste society.


  1. says

    I too thought that “Nair” implied Brahmin. What caste are they coded as? Having looked up this website it doesn’t seem clear. How tragic and disgraceful it is that such classifications exist in the first place.

  2. Karan says

    Dear Anish, I loved this post– thanks! I’m curious, what caste do they belong to? And why are they willing to degrade themselves with the whole non-touching and ‘aap’ business? Super weird.

    @Sunil, it is often useless to try and assign a varna status to big castes like the Patels, Agarwals, or Nairs simply because different sections of the said caste claim different statuses. The three castes I have named are examples of what the sociologist M.N. Srinivas called “dominant castes,” who often have sudra varna status (by village and group consensus), but are powerful because of their economic capital and their numbers. Of course, many low-caste groups like the Yadavs claim high status like Kshatriyas, but since no-one else views them as such, they have little claim to it. Varna is always a claim, it’s hard to get absolutely everyone to view you as a particular varna.

    Nairs in Kerala were traditionally a dominant caste who ruled in conjunction with the Namboodiri Brahmins. Untouchables in colonial Kerala would need to cry out to Nairs and Namboodiris to alert them of their presence, and the Nairs would sometimes murder them on the spot if they failed to do this. Many Nairs, due to their ruling past, would probably consider themselves to be Kshatriyas.

    That being said, Nairs were very progressive in one regard: they had a matrilineal society. The feminist author Nivedita Menon, a Nair herself, often lambasts the Hindu Civil Code for pitting sisters against wives in terms of property division. Another curious convention is that all over Kerala, bare breasts were not considered obscene with females until Christianity began to seep in. One of Menon’s own ancestors was upbraided by her mother because she covered her breasts, and this was seen as indecent! Of course, Christianity later changed this, and low-caste women had to fight a rule that any low-caste person, male or female, had to have a bare torso when coming before a Namboodiri.

    The anthropologist CJ Fuller’s written a great book about the Nairs if you’re interested. This goes for you too Anish!

  3. Eristae says

    they enquired to me about the janeu/sacred thread and I instinctively lied that I cut it off way back

    What does it mean to cut off the the janeu/sacred thread? Is this something you would do upon becoming a secular humanist/atheist or does it indicate something else?

  4. says

    @Eristae; most male Brahmin and Kshatriya secularists and atheists I know had given up their janeu (or poonul as they call it in the South) as an act of leaving the religion altogether. Some have ritually cut off the thread as an act of defiance. The janeu is supposed to bestow the wearer with ritual purity that gives him the spiritual authority over the others. It is a symbol of caste-authority. Yet the cutting off of a janeu is construed by some to be completely abandoning one’s caste as a Brahmin, to become “caste-less”. A very good argument against this notion is given in this article from Kufr,

    can the word brahmin be sanitized of its history, and of its sociology? can a person just be a brahmin, just as someone can be tall, fat or dark? can someone be a brahmin and not be acting as a brahmin?

  5. the eddy says

    Good article….but would not Muslimophobic be better than Islamophobic as the word used . Because “Hatred towards Islam” is as much justified as “Hatred towards Hinduism” . It is the ordinary people i.e. Muslims against oppression , who need to be defended , not Islam.

  6. says

    When we use the words Antiziganism and Antisemitism, we usually do not bother with the semantics now, do we? One doesn’t feel or contemplate the fact that “Semitic” as a term is an expansive ethnolinguistic terminology, including the Arabs and Kurds. Neither do we include the Bedouins or the Lambadis when we say Antiziganism. Islamophobia likewise for me is not a controversy.

    Also I do not see why an exclusive hatred for or an exclusive baseless and unreasoned fear of Islam, of all religions, by non-Muslims should be given the benefit of doubt.

    Attacking religions is not a problem, but selectively attacking a religion almost always has a tacit intent of undermining the humanity of Muslims as a whole. The intent of selective hatred for a religion, be it Hinduislm or Islam, should always be questioned if we want a secular and tolerant platform for antitheism.

  7. the eddy says

    I would like to share how Caste & Religion criss-cross each other . And indeed where religion divides , caste unites & vice versa. I would do so using special focus on the Rajput community ( as it remains the most multi-religious caste ) & special focus on Rajasthan . Perhaps because I was born accidentally into the Deora Chauhan tribe of South Rajasthan. and indeed it shows the highly complex nature of the Caste-Communal problem :

    1) Rajput is a caste that includes 36 tribes with their own sub-clans ranging from Sindh to Bihar & Nepal , & from Kashmir to Madhya Pradesh. A person belongs to these tribes , so he claims Rajput status , not vice versa. But otherwise all these communities are perfect examples of what Dr. Ambedkar says “imposition of endogamy upon exogamy “.
    2)Pakistan – Almost all Sindhi clans except Sodhas claim to be muslim Rajput clans– Bhutto , Samaa & Junejo , have been muslims for over a millenia as Arab conquest of Sindh happened in 700s AD . Former Pakistani Prime minister ZA Bhutto was a Rajput. Punjabi Janjua Rajput Emperor of Kabulshahi Empire , Jaypal Janjua ,had fought Mahmud Ghazni . Around 1200s AD , his descendant Ajmaldev embraced Islam & became MalKhan Janjua . Today this clan is Pakistan’s largest Rajput clan .Similarly Bhattis & Khokhars of Punjab too converted in 1200s AD .All Kashmiri Rajputs converted to Islam around 13-14th century.

    3) Indian Muslim Rajputs – Rajasthan has 3 broad divisions of Muslim Rajputs on region-basis : a) The Meo Rajputs b) SindhiSipahi c) QaimKhani. In Rajasthan Chauhan’s have 5 subclans , out of which 4 are Hindus & 1 is Muslim (QaimKhanis). In Malkana region of UP , all Rajputs are mostly muslims. The Gautam Rajput royalty of UP , both that of Fatehpur & Azamgarh region were Muslim Nawabs. They had a large population of non-royal Hindu Gautams under them. Azamgarh & Azmatgarh was established by Azam Khan & his brother Azmat Khan , both were Gautam Kings.

    4) In Indian Punjab , Rajputs preferred Sikhism than Hinduism. Similarly the Gahadval rajputs from whom Rathores & Bundelas have descended ,practiced Buddhism before becoming Shaktas

    5) Ahmedabad was established by Ahmed Shah ,of Muzzafarid Dynasty . The dynasty’s founder Zafar Khan was son of Sadharan , a Tanka Rajput. Similarly in Gujarat , there is Naik Jamat-that are made up of Muslim Solankis & Muslim Vaghelas.

    In each of these places one sees Muslim or Sikh Rajputs exerting the rajput identity though in their own ways. Muslim Rajputs marry among each other as well as marry Pathans & Mughals of their region but not others. Simarly Syeds (of same status as Brahmins , as they are of Arab origin) preferintermarriage within the community

    .In this I have only given a picture how caste is deeply rooted in the Prakrit-origin cultures of Northern Subcontinent , inspite of all Persian & Arabic influences over the last millenia .I only doubt that end of Brahminism or any other Hindu religions , can pull Indian society from the “quagmire of castes”. Though indeed caste has kept rural fraternity amongst rural Hindus & Muslims of a region against communalism but then one can see Upper caste Hindus/Muslims always feeding on lower caste Hindus/Muslims . Both Caste & Religion are equally pernicious though they do cancel each other at times.

  8. Srishti says

    I realized the same when while watching the reactions of people to Dalit atrocities.A lot of reactions involved statements like – ‘he had attitude’, ‘hurting religious sentiment’, ‘he provoked it’ and the response to it is to burn down dalit Bastis and attack individuals disproportionately. A young man killed for putting his legs up in the cinema, would non-Dalit, a Brahmin or a dwija be killed for that? Whole communities aren’t attacked if a single individual crosses an upper-caste or breaks a caste boundary .The idea of collective punishment for dalits missing for other castes is also something I realized. If I do something wrong, an entire caste or community won’t suffer for it.

  9. Gunzo Gunzo says

    Yikes, I feel ashamed. India has not progressed at all. I have run out of words.

  10. Bindu says

    Yes, it is shocking how blind people are about caste privilege. And all impassioned speeches about meritocracy is beyond disingenuous: caste privileged folks will continue to benefit, all while thinking it’s because of ‘merit’.

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