Kami/Damai: The caste that must not be named
Before you go through this article, take a moment and reflect on how you feel when you say or hear the words ‘Kami-Damai’. No matter which community/caste you belong to, you may have heard or maybe even used these words yourself. You probably have your own set of prejudices too. If you think that through this article, I want to advocate to discontinue the use of these words, then you are mistaken, it’s the contrary. Allow me to explain.
My friend Mira (name changed), who belongs to the SC community herself, narrated this story to me. On a recent trip to Darjeeling with her friends, she met some new people. During a conversation, one gentleman she had recently met, casually asked her ‘Timro jaat chai? (What’s your caste?)’. My friend, who is quite used to getting such questions from people of the hills replied ‘Mero jaat...Kami (My caste...Kami)’.
“I was not surprised at the visible awkwardness on that person’s face”, Mira told me, “I was rather surprised to see the discomfort on my friends’ faces when they heard me. It was as if I uttered the unspeakable.” I wonder if her friends would have been equally uncomfortable had she said ‘Chettri, Gurung, Bhutia or Lepcha’? How has the word ‘Kami’, a word to describe one’s caste become more than just a noun?
The roots of casteism have spread far and wide even in the Sikkimese society- Bhutias, Lepchas and Sherpas being no exception. Though the religion, culture and tradition of Bhutias, Lepchas, Sherpas and others alike don’t propagate, believe and allow caste-based discrimination, we have learnt well from our upper-caste Nepali friends and neighbours.
One might argue that the SCs of our state are not treated as badly as in other states but make no mistake that Sikkimese society has very often discriminated and made them feel small. I want to talk about the subtle aspects of discrimination that we might be a part of without noticing it ourselves.
When a man belonging to SC caste gets drunk and misbehaves, he is condemned saying ‘Kami-Damai ko beurai estoi ho’ like as if all SC people are badly behaved drunkards. If he were any other caste, at least the whole community wouldn’t be reprimanded. It’s unfortunate yet common that when a person who belongs to the Scheduled Caste community makes a mistake, his mistake is tagged along his caste.
I know a landlady in North Sikkim, who used to keep separate cutlery for Kami-Damai to eat in - something she learnt from upper caste labourers working in her home. My friend Mira, who comes from a well-to-do family, narrates the time when her grandfather passed away, “My so-called upper caste ‘Baun’ neighbours came to pay their condolences but refused to even drink a sip of water at our house”.
“When you get used to all this in your childhood, you internalize it.”, she says. “You start believing that you are lesser than others. There was a time when I used to feel embarrassed to admit my caste, but I am not like that anymore. Education has empowered me”.
This admission by my friend got me thinking about how ignorant and hypocritical we have become as a society. The most convincing proof of our caste hypocrisy comes in inter-caste marriages involving SCs.
I am certain you can think of at least one family who has had problems with an inter-caste marriage. Ironically, even SCs discriminate based on their sub-castes. Talk about the scandal or the disapproving looks of a far-away uncle when a Kami boy marries a Damai girl! Even the converted Christian SCs of Sikkim are at the forefront of practising the caste system when in reality, one of the prime reasons for them to abandon Hinduism and embrace Christianity, was to get out of this web of caste-based discrimination.
Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, prohibits the state from discrimination based on the ground of any caste, race, sex, place of birth or any of them. Article 17 - prohibits untouchability. These mandates of the Constitution aren’t enough to fight casteism as it is very much evident from Indian examples.
For instance, more than 100 years before Martin Luther King Jr (fought against segregation and racism), our great reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy fought against the caste system. Americans got their first Black President (Obama) in 2008, but here we are in India where caste discrimination at all new level. Much of this rigidity in Indian society is also because of deeply rooted practices that come with religion. It is time we disown parts of ancient texts that contradicts the Constitution. Today when we have figures indicating a crime against Dalits every 15 minutes, 6 Dalit women getting raped every day- we need to seriously ask ourselves, are we treating fellow SCs any better?
The Scheduled Castes are very much a part of our society. This place is equally theirs as much as it is ours. We live in such a small area, but how very little we know about each other. For many, or rather, for the majority the word Kami-Damai remains slang. One can hear many times someone saying not to behave like Kami-Damai. Even when SC people progress and succeed, it is the weight of these words ‘Kami-Damai’ that they carry with them, no matter where they go, that tries to bring them down. So what do we do? Stop using it all-together? Well, that is probably not possible. But I have another suggestion which happens to be quite the opposite.
Remember how the word ‘sex’ and ‘condom’ used to be taboo, or ‘feminism’ a distant concept up until a decade ago and how gradually we got used to it? We got used to it because the mainstream media started showing it, we started talking about it. Similarly, we need to start talking about caste.
WE NEED TO start having these uncomfortable and awkward conversations until they aren’t awkward anymore. As long as we as a society don’t talk about these things, the discomfort will always stay there, just looking for a reason to manifest itself. The discrimination based on caste was never in the DNA of this land (Sikkim).
If we keep ignoring the prevailing caste-based discriminative practices, the privileged and ignorant will continue to believe that casteism doesn’t exist in our Sikkimese society. We need to make ourselves comfortable with the words- Kami or Damai- treat this community as one of us- setting aside the prejudices deeply ingrained in our societal conditioning.
Precarious is the time we live today. The country’s largest political party in its largest state makes a law criminalizing inter-faith marriage, and most of us are silent spectators. No party wins an election in these significant states if they don’t get their caste maths right. Sikkimese society, to some extent, has been immune to these social evils, but given the times we live in, we must keep the casteist devil within us in check.
I thought I would complete this article without mentioning COVID, but how can we ignore the fact that SCs are the hardest to suffer due to this pandemic? 90% of labours involved in sanitation and cleaning come from the SC community; these labours are underpaid, less protected and less appreciated. During the onset of this pandemic, PM Modi rightly said, the Virus doesn’t discriminate between rich/poor, Hindu/Muslim or Upper Caste/ Dalits, but sadly society does.
To reiterate, we need to start having uncomfortable conversations. Only then, can we move beyond our differences and work collectively for this beautiful land that we share. We need to talk about Casteism, about Classism, about the growing trust-deficit and communalism among Bhutia, Lepchas and Nepali communities and many more issues that continue to knock on our doors. To participate more openly in conversations like this, you may join the FB page ‘PeopleForSikkim’- a platform where we discuss our shared motherland and the things that threaten to divide us. This is a small effort which may not have much impact, but in the words of my favourite journalist- “Not all battles are fought for victory. Some are fought simply to tell the world that someone was there on the battlefield”.
The author is Karma Lobzang Bhutia, a UPSC aspirant from Phodong North Sikkim. He can be reached at email@example.com.