Scrolling through your Instagram, you will see that the generation of people that is on the app, or for that matter any of the social media, has a mass of voices calling for equality and feminism and change. Despite this mindset, we often go back into the spiral of our feudal ways of behaviour when we casually throw around casteist slurs. Randomly dropping ‘bhangi’ or ‘chuhra’ in conversations does not seem a big deal to the majority when at a loss to find the right or politically correct word. But, these casteist slurs subtly propagate age-old mindsets that as a nation we have worked to eradicate, or at least attempted to do so.
Often it is subconsciously ingrained in the way we think, that leads us to casually tell someone to stop behaving like a ‘bhangi’ or to even tease your friend by the very commonly heard term ‘kameena’.
How have casteist slurs crept their way into our daily speech?
Power is the answer. If the history of our nation teaches us anything it is that there has been a pattern of people exercising control over the meek through various ways and means. The oppression gave the former group something to revel in and made the latter group feel demeaned. Today the same pattern continues, albeit in a different way, by using language as the medium.
While some would argue that they had no idea that these casteist slurs were derogatory indeed, there does exist a section of people who do know but choose to continue with them as it helps them revel in the fact that they are playing the first group, the oppressors. And this is the start of the vicious cycle that goes on.
Is ‘bhangi’ offensive and why?
Munmun Dutta, who you’d more popularly know as Babita in the famous Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah, got into trouble after a Youtube video of hers surfaced where she used the word ‘bhangi'. There was outrage following this implication of a casteist slur, and Yashica Dutt, the author of ‘Coming Out as Dalit’, took to Twitter to express her ire. “As someone who spent decades tormented by this word, a Savarna actress casually describing being ‘ugly’/‘unclean’/‘unpresentable’ by calling it Bhangi is not surprising. It’s a reflection of the deep tentacles of the caste system that so endemically normalises a caste being seen as lower than it is turned into a synonym for dirty. It shows the complete acceptance of the idea that Bhangis, one of the lowest-paid people, are inherently unclean.”
If you were completely unaware of what your words may be meaning unintentionally, this is a guide for you to sit up and take note and stop using these casteist slurs!
A caste that was oppressed and given menial jobs to do is what ‘bhangi’ refers to. In the feudal system, this class was looked down upon by members of the upper castes and they were thought to be filthy and repugnant and even unskilled though they did have talents. Calling someone this term, or its counterpart ‘chuhra’ is not only demeaning but displays a lack of knowledge of the atrocities that these castes had to face.
The Sanskrit term was initially used to refer to people who spoke in a language that was incomprehensible. While the term was previously formulated to refer to native forest tribes and bands of robbers, it later was used to refer to people who lacked intelligence. The foreigners were considered outcasts, as they had no position whatsoever within the caste system.
The question of whether calling someone ‘dhobi’ was justified, was taken up by the Supreme Court of India. In 2017, the Court was quoted saying “It is basically used nowadays not to denote a caste but to intentionally insult and humiliate someone. We, as a citizen of this country, should always keep one thing in our mind and heart that no people or community should be today insulted or looked down upon, and nobody’s feelings should be hurt”.
The word chamar did not have a derogatory meaning when used in days of old, as it referred to a caste that was skilled in tanning leather as the term was derived from the Sanskrit word ‘charmakara’. However, when used in today’s context, the term is used as a derogatory one.
A word that is so casually thrown around in today’s context, ‘kameena’ is borrowed from the Persian language and is used to denote a person who is inferior. The word means low base and is used in a vulgar sense.
The word has controversy associated with it. Stand up comedian Atul Khatri had used the term to express his ire against Rangoli Chandel for certain remarks she had passed over the stone-pelting incident in Uttar Pradesh. He had written, “She’s a bloody Chandaal”. However, while the term is used to refer to someone’s cruelty in today’s context, in the feudal system, the caste was assigned the work of disposing of corpses, and thus a remark of calling someone ‘chandaal’, is considered offensive.
If you check the meaning of the term in the urban context, it refers to people who are unloved or not accepted by society. However, in the systems that existed in India, Paraiyar was the name given to people who worked as messengers or drummers and were considered outcasts.
The Mahars had an important role which is to work for the safety of the villages. They belonged to the lowest group of the Hindu caste system and were the largest untouchable caste in Maharashtra. Calling someone ‘mahar’ is considered offensive.
The term referred to nomadic people who were widespread and had settled down in various areas of India and Pakistan. However, ‘kanjar’ people were associated with prostitution and hence referring to someone as this is an insult to their character. The term was also used to refer to a man whose wife practises prostitution.