Has the Pandemic Changed How Caste Hierarchies Play Out in India?

Migrant workers have talked about how their suffering neutralised caste divisions, even if temporarily.

“No one is touching me and I am touching no one,” said Rananjai Dixit (name changed), a migrant worker from Banda district in Uttar Pradesh.

He was speaking to our research team, sharing his experiences with them. We interviewed 215 quarantined rural migrants in Bihar and UP, mainly over the telephone. The interviewees came from a range of castes.

Dixit spoke to our team about the pain he suffered during the emergency triggered by COVID-19. “Nobody wants to come in close contact with us,” he said. Coronavirus, he said, has produced only two castes in villages – ‘prawasi (outsider)’ and ‘niwasi (insider).

Prawasis have become untouchables for niwasis across the spectrum of caste. The pandemic has changed the dynamic of untouchability in Indian society and brought a type of horizontal untouchability between bodies, which goes beyond caste and religion. The volatility of the times has diluted the rigidity of caste-based exclusion to some degree, especially in light of the experiences of migrant labourers on their homebound journeys. Some of these changes in caste relations have remained after the workers have settled in their villages.

I am going to dwell on some aspects of the way the migrant workers experienced caste relations – or the sudden lack of hierarchies within the structure – during their journey back home. These observations are based on interviews by our team. Migrants have described the journey as going through the “darkest tunnel in their life”.

There are some common threads that bind these narratives. On the one hand, there is the physical suffering of the journey. Equally telling is the way the shared journey broke down caste rigidities and taboos.

Most workers told our team they had no idea how to reach their village. “The only thing on our mind at that moment was that we were desperate to reach home. It was better to die at home rather than die outside from hunger and coronavirus (Yahaan bhukh aur corona se marna tha, achha hai ki ghar jakar hi marein),” the workers said.

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The workers described the journey in detail.

“Some of us walked to reach home, some cycled their way back, some hitched rides in trucks, ambulances, autorickshaws. Whatever mode of transport we could get. We paid whatever money we had to these drivers. After they dropped us at a certain point, we would walk and wait for another vehicle to give us a ride,” said the workers. “Caste was not on our minds in those times. The only thing that occupied our attention was how to reach home,” a Dalit migrant told the team in one of the interviews.

A Brahmin migrant worker narrated how caste taboos were suspended on the journey. He said small tents had been put up by local villagers, religious institutions and traders between Delhi and Agra. These were distributing packets of puri- sabji and water. “We saw a tent with a Ravidas sewa sthal nameplate. They were distributing food and water. There were six people in our group – one Brahmin, three Yadavs, two Kurmis. We were very hungry and thirsty. One of the group members said, ‘Yeh Dalit log honge (These are Dalits). Let’s look for another tent down the road’. But then everybody in our group started to scold him, saying, ‘Do not rake up caste issues now. Or we will die of hunger (Iss waqt jat-pat mat karo, nahi to bhukhe mar jaoge)’.”

Eventually the entire group took the water and food the Ravidasi tent was offering. “We sat there, ate the food and drank the water,” said one of the workers.

Another migrant narrated his experiences on the journey that he made from Delhi to Kanpur. The worker spoke about how Muslims from Muslim-dominated villages came forward to help them, gave them food and water. There were also truck drivers, who appeared to be Muslim, who allowed them to hitch a ride in their vehicles and also shared food and water with them.

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Some migrant workers spoke about their journey on the Shramik Express as they travelled from Delhi to Prayag Raj. An OBC worker spoke about the acute danger they were facing. In times such as these, all migrant workers became people of one caste which was the caste of sufferers (Sab log woh samay ek jati ke ho gaye – dukhiyari jati ke), he said. The worker said he was extremely thirsty, but had no water with him. “One sweeper from my locality travelling with me on the same train had some water left in his bottle. He offered the water to me. I drank it without thinking about caste purity and impurity,” he said.

Times of emergency as witnessed during the pandemic dilute caste rigidity in society – at least for that period of acute distress. In some cases such experiences add a secondary layer to the caste discourse. These times foreground the safety of the biological body as the primary concern. The narratives of migrant workers suggested that untouchability and vertical distance based on caste disappeared in those difficult times. Water, food and goods were moving hand to hand without thinking or bothering about caste.

But I am firmly attaching a disclaimer here. These experiences of dilution of caste hierarchies may be a purely temporary phenomenon. But even then, the journeys of migrant workers may generate experiential capital that we can build upon and further explore.

Badri Narayan is director of GB Pant Social Science Institute.