(text of what i wrote on http://www.iw.sify.com/travel/impressions/people11-caste.html a few years ago )
I spent 4 hours relaxing under a tree at Mahatma Gandhi’s Ashram in Ahmedabad on the banks of the Sabarmathi River. I must have visited Ahmedabad a hundred times before but I never took time or interest to visit the Mahatma’s Ashram before.
While I was sitting there , I recollected a conversation I had with Kadiresan , Secretary of COODU a voluntary agency in Coimbatore just a few days back. Somebody had mentioned that Coimbatore is one district which had never witnessed communal or caste clashes before the unfortunate blasts. Kadiresan narrated his experience in the villages of the district in response. He had been conducting village meetings for the Watershed Development Programmes. Let me try and narrate what he said :
All communities participated at our meetings. For the first few meetings I did not realize that the Scheduled castes would not enter the building when the meeting was conducted indoors in marriage halls. They would sit on the ground outside. It was only when we organized a particular meeting in a very large hall, I realized that over half the chairs were empty but people were sitting outside. It took a while for me (a local!) to understand that since they were scheduled caste they were sitting outside. The upper castes and the elders of the village did not seem to object when I attempted to pull them inside the hall. Yet they refused to come. So I had to sit outside with them and explain the whole subject to them. Their response was [-in Tamil] “Sami yellaam yenna solrangalo adhuve yengalukku saringo” (which roughly translates to , “whatever the respectable folks say that is ok for us”)
We started serving food at the end of the meetings. Even there I had to force the scheluled castes to participate. However no amount of persuasion would make them sit with the others. They would always eat after all the upper castes had finished . In one village we were serving food on banana leaves and in the first batch , the upper castes had finished eating . I found that nobody started serving the second batch. Only the scheduled castes and some tribals were sitting in the second batch . I had to start serving food myself before the others slowly started serving them. I noticed that there were no glasses, though the earlier batch had water served in stainless steel glasses. When I asked for the glasses , I was told that the secretary of the Hall had locked up the glasses and left the venue.
In another village , I managed to seat the scheduled caste people along with the others. I went around the dining hall trying to make people relax and eat freely. I noticed heads bent and bodies stiff among members of both the communities. Obviously nobody was enjoying their food.
I realized that I was not the first person to try to change things. Such common feasts to make the castes mingle were organized before. Whatever you did the sheduled castes would behave differently in some manner , either by washing their hands separately or by the way they respectfully removed their own used leaves and run outside the hall with their bodies bent and the leaf hidden.
Mr. Kadiresan narrated this to tell us why there were no caste clashes in Coimbatore villages. According to him, it was because the scheduled castes were careful not to offend the upper castes. On the other hand, he reiterated that in the Southern districts of Tamil Nadu, the scheduled casted were getting bolder and the upper castes were not as rich and powerful, so their superiority was being challenged. This according to Kadiresan was the major reason for Coimbatore villages being peaceful.
Sitting on the banks of the Sabarmati River where the Mahatma had sat and held prayer meetings decades before, I was filled with an acute sense of sadness.