The 'Non-Brahmin' Cook from Pune and the Myth of the 'Caste-less' Middle Class

The incident in Pune wherein a Brahmin employer filed a police complaint—and the police filed a case under various laws—against her domestic help on the grounds that the latter misrepresented her caste highlighted the many levels of casteist prejudices even among the so-called ‘caste-less’ upper and middle classes. Unfortunately, the incident did not generate a wider protest against the systemic fault lines in society.

In early September, a scientist with the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) in Pune, Medha Khole filed a complaint with the police against a domestic worker, Nirmala Yadav for “violating ritual purity and sanctity (sovala).  According to Khole’s complaint, Yadav had claimed that she was a Brahmin by caste when the former was looking to employ someone to cook food for religious rites. 
The police filed a case under Sections 419 (cheating by personation), 352 (punishment for assault or criminal force) and 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).Whatever the formal charges, it became clear that Khole’s complaint stemmed from blatant Brahmanical caste supremacist prejudices and discriminatory practices. To put it bluntly, the grievance was that Yadav, a Maratha and a widow, cooked food to be served for certain religious rites.

It is not surprising that a Brahmin would hold such casteist prejudices. What is disconcerting, however, is that these prejudices became the grounds for a police complaint which was unhesitatingly filed by the police. The complaint has subsequently been withdrawn but Yadav has filed a complaint against the harassment and humiliation caused to her. However, the police has not registered an FIR (first information report) based on it. Consequently, a number of organisations organised a rally on 27 September in support of a demand to do so. Activists such as Baba Adhav and Bharat Patankar were among those who addressed the rally.

Hypocrisy of ‘Casteless’ Modernity

Even while practising subtle and explicit forms of caste discrimination and benefiting from the privileges it affords, a large section of the upper-caste middle class considers itself “casteless.” There is, thus, considerable unease among this section, not so much over the inherently condemnable act but because it exposes the rottenness/decadence within. Thus, instead of serious reflection and introspection, this incident is sought to be shown as an exception, one that is inappropriate for our times. While the upper middle class argues vehemently against caste-based reservations, such cases are not taken up with the same passion. The same section also happily registers with caste-based match-making websites when seeking marriage partners. In Pune itself, the popularity of Anurup  (a matrimonial agency which caters to different castes) stands testimony to this. This shows how benign forms of maintaining ideas of ritual purity are acceptable but that these ideas feed into such “extreme” expressions, as the episode under discussion, is conveniently overlooked. 

While the incident has been widely condemned in many quarters and large sections of the media, there were some subtle and other brazen justifications of the act. The explanations of sovala in terms of the preference for hygiene actually reinforce the grotesque nature of discrimination as it associates the lower castes with filth. A section among the “otherwise” liberals has subtly or explicitly faulted Nirmala Yadav for concealing her real identity, even as they find Khole’s complaint problematic. 

Even if Yadav did indeed conceal her caste to get a job which was “reserved” for a Brahmin–suvasini (woman whose husband is alive), the economic duress that forces a person to do such a thing cannot be ignored. Khole’s prejudices do not really shock us because one keeps coming across advertisements in newspapers for Brahmin–suvasini cooks. Can such discrimination pass off as a matter of personal faith carried out in the personal space? Can it be exempted from censure and punishment under the right to freedom of religion, as certain Hindutva organisations have asserted? On both these counts, the justifications offered do not hold any water.

At the Crossroads of Gender, Caste and Labour 

Domestic work, which is widely considered to be women's responsibility, is classified as part of the private sphere, confined to the bounds of the home. Even when it is “outsourced” to a domestic worker it is still considered as such. Instead of the employer–employee relation, the nature of such work is by and large that of the patron–client type. Even if this ambiguity regarding the private and public character of the home is factored in, there is no reason why domestic work cannot be regulated by laws. As several domestic workers’ unions have pointed out, domestic work cannot be considered to be “private” as it is basically carried out at a workplace. Organisations like the Pune Domestic Workers Union, the All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) and the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) make this point and highlight the forms of discrimination faced by domestic workers. But the deeper question is that even if it were to be considered a private space, can such an abhorrent practice based on supremacist values of purity/pollution be justified or “tolerated” in a secular set-up? Freedom of religion cannot supersede other fundamental rights which outlaw untouchability and other such forms of discrimination. Apart from the legal sanction, can there be social acceptance to observance of purity/pollution under the garb of religious freedom? That there indeed is such acceptance (or normalisation) is borne out by murmurs of justification invoking the same and generally prevalent stated/unstated discriminatory preferences in employing specific persons for specific jobs. From instances of parents not allowing their children to eat the mid-day meal cooked by Dalit workers to admission in the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) survey by a sizeable section of the population that allowing Dalits into kitchens or to touch or use utensils, this is widely observed. This once again highlights the necessity for interventionist secularism wherein the state has to actively intervene to eradicate abhorrent practices and not simply maintain separation between religion and state. 

It is important to point to an important dimension of this case which has by and large been missed even among progressive circles, barring the notable exception of an article written by a Satyashodhak feminist Pratima Pardeshi. At one stroke, this incident has shown the enormous obstacle of caste hierarchies and privilege in forging the bonds of sisterhood among Indian women. Khole repeatedly invokes the term “suvasini” in her complaint, emphasising the ritually inferior status of a widowed woman in the Brahmanical code. Hierarchies of value and worth created among women by Brahmanical patriarchy not only impede sisterhood but make an upper-caste Brahmin woman positively contemptuous and hateful towards a widowed woman from another caste which is considered to be of an inferior status. Expectations of empathy become a tall order. Furthermore, even among those who condemn the incident there remains a danger of the issue being reduced to either to one of injustice to domestic workers, or violation of the asmita (pride) of a particular caste (it indeed is about these issues but not only about them). 

Concluding Remarks

As noted by perceptive commentators writing in Marathi, this incident has punctured the Hindutva claims of a homogenised religion and culture, as Khole kept ranting against Yadav as a believer in the “lesser” cults of Khandoba and Mhasoba. In fact, one of the reasons why Hindutva organisations prevailed upon Khole to withdraw this complaint was to not let these fissures and divisions become public. It is notable that activists and commentators largely from the Maratha community highlighted the hope that this incident would make the Maratha community reflect upon its pursuit of Brahmanical values and practices and supremacist attitudes. However, it should also be noted that even among progressive sections there is a tendency to see this issue as a case of strife between Maratha and Brahmin. It is unfortunate that there were no widespread protests over this issue encompassing larger systemic issues of brahmanical patriarchy, which would have been the only positive outcome of this repugnant incident. 

Image Courtesy: Representational Image. Flickr/Tallapragada Sriram. [CC 2:0]

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