The term “dhobi” pertains to launderers constituting a profession rather than any caste in the old system.
The Supreme Court is spot on about the need to do away with the insulting of people by using their caste name or such non-generic pejoratives that may heap particular ridicule upon them. In a landmark ruling, the court said that no people or community should be insulted or looked down upon. It is a curse of our country that we should have inherited an ancient caste system that is about 4,000 years old and based on the Vedas which, quite illogically, helped determine a person’s identity by his birth after which s/he is categorised in four groupings and then a fifth to be treated as “untouchables”. We had been burdened by the system for so many centuries that we are unable to put a full stop to it despite democratic principles having prevailed to the establishment of an equitable system decades ago.
In dealing with a case involving the harassment of a woman and depriving her of her dignity besides heaping caste insults upon her, the court may not have chosen the best examples in saying words like “harijan” or “dhobi” are insulting, abusive and derisive. While the history of “harijans” or “God’s people” is well-known, the point is that Mahatma Gandhi’s all-embracing term for those being termed “untouchables” was rejected by the people of the so-called lower caste as too patronising. They always have preferred to call themselves “dalits”, deriving from the Sanskrit word for the oppressed. The term “dhobi” pertains to launderers constituting a profession rather than any caste in the old system. But the intent of the top court in calling for an end to all insults demeaning the former lower castes is very clear. As a society, we must learn to exorcise these old and morally incorrect insults, however ingrained they may have been in our experience.
The court was stressing the legal point that those booked in cases involving insults to SC/ST cannot be granted bail which, even as a harsh measure, is fair enough considering how much historical baggage we carry in the matter of caste and what the State and the law must do to put an end to every vestige of the social evils of the old caste system. The issue, however, goes far beyond insulting words. It is the oppressive deeds of the former upper castes, more so in India’s vast rural hinterland rather than the more cosmopolitan cities where people congregate to make a living, that need to be stanched for equality to prevail. The horrors of caste discrimination are far more sinister and they exist today ranging from bans on temple worship to denial of job opportunities. Considering Indian society is yet to mature in terms of avoiding words denoting an old system of oppression despite the laws prohibiting them, it is a challenge to bring about the end of actual discrimination in crucial areas. It is the change of mindset that is going to be the hardest to bring about as we move on to a more modern era.