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Our cities and villages have become smart, but have we?

Illustration: Prathap Ravishankar/ The Hindu
It was a usual Facebook browsing in the evening when I came across a post that read, ‘Baksa Village is Northeast’s First Smart Village’. The description of the village seemed strikingly similar to the one I was born in and thus curiosity stroked me hard. And indeed it was; I was up for a pleasant surprise that the remote village near the Bhutan border where I was born is now the first smart village in the entire region.

The smart village Barsimlaguri, which is about 18kms north of Nalbari town, happens to be one of the most remote villages in the country. The location is so remote that an evening stroll around the paddy fields can actually give you a view of flickering lights from the villages in Bhutan.

So, a village as remote as Barimlaguri is today smart. It’s a little overwhelming for me to see my distant cousins and residents of the village, who until sometime back had no idea about internet, sending me friend requests.

India is getting smart. As I write this, somewhere in Delhi they are deciding upon the list of first set of smart cities in India. Google has already released the list of railway stations that will have access to high speed WiFi. So, the bottom line is, India is getting smart or at least we can assume that we are on track.

I, however, have a question here. Is smartness just determined by accessibility of free internet or better infrastructure? Or let’s put it like this, our cities and villages have become smart, but are we smart?

All of us aware of the suicide or rather, the institutional murder of Rohit Vemula, the PhD Scholar from Hyderabad Central University. This unfortunate incident refreshed the old wounds of ‘casteism’ that have been existent in the Indian society since time immemorial. Our society as a whole has been dealing with a lot of issues with caste being one of them. It’s like the body is facing multiple organ failure while caste is the cancer that’s killing you fast.

To be really honest, I wasn’t someone who has ever been involved in any political as well as social movement. Actually I never cared about any of it. I knew the caste system was or rather still is the greatest cancer which the Indian society is fighting against. But I knew this only as a general knowledge. See the irony; the issue of caste atrocity in India is general knowledge for some.  Must we be ashamed of ourselves?

The reason why I was least bothered about caste based identity politics was because no one ever bothered me with the issue. Until I reached college. Well, some people might call me privileged enough as I was not exposed to caste based atrocities or sentiments while millions in India face this cancer almost every day of their lives. But it’s not actually a matter of being privileged or not. It’s about your upbringing and your surroundings.

As I mentioned earlier, I was born in one of the remotest of villages in Assam and the upbringing which at least I had there, wasn’t at least casteist. Nowhere here am I trying to assert that I was born in an ideal society which had no issues. Every society has issues; but what I am trying to imply is that there wasn’t a conscious effort within my family or in the surrounding that focused on caste at large. Yes, hierarchies did exist and I used to question as to why we had to call someone else to perform rituals in our temple. But I do not recollect anyone complaining of caste as an issue.

It was only when I reached high school I realized that I wasn’t a Brahmin. It happened when my best friend had his sacred thread ceremony. It was only then that debate started rolling within my friend circle in school that some of them were Brahmins while some aren’t. It’s imperative for me to mention here that I moved out of my village and was enrolled in one of the top schools of Guwahati.

As the educational journey reached a higher stage I became more familiar with this entire system of casteism in India. Until school, things were fine, but once we crossed the higher secondary level and had to fill in application forms for competitive exams, the line of caste became a topic of serious discussion amongst my peer groups. You know that box of ‘General’ and ‘OBC’ in the application form, that box I feel ignites the first difference of attitude within students of different castes. The usual debates of caste turned into taunts when one realized that his friend might get admission into a university easily because he belonged to a certain group of the society.

The point of this post isn’t about defending or fighting the reservation system. But the point which I am trying to make is that our education system is also one of the components that contributes largely into this discourse of caste based politics or discrimination. The more you scale the ladder of education, the more you get exposed to this caste system.

As I continued my higher education, I realized more and more how much caste is involved in our lives. Today, I study in an institute where it’s a little difficult for me to do away with the caste base identity which we have and this is the reason why I am writing this. Though out my undergraduate days, no one asked me which caste I belonged to. And here, within the first few days of college I was asked about my social marker as some wanted to learn what political affiliation I had.

I am not necessarily complaining about this entire structure. I am just amused with the fact of how this caste cancer runs into our society. As you reach the higher strata of education, you get exposed to more caste based politics. And I thought education made you smarter.

Rohith’s death is unfortunate. But what is even more unfortunate is the politics that’s happening after his death. The way the government and its affiliates have reacted again proves that your social identity plays the most important identity in India. A bright student committed suicide, but no, in India it has to be ‘a dalit’ student committed suicide. India won’t be smart enough, unless you identify a student by his merit level and not by caste identity.

The intention of the post wasn’t to hurt anybody. In fact, I declare that my intellectual level isn’t that great that I can actually comment on such a serious topic. And I repeat, never have I ever participated in any discourse that involved social issues like caste. But what propelled me to write this post is the sheer fact that today we have smart cities and villages but not a smart surrounding to live in.

If a remote village can nurture someone to be not casteist, I would rather stay there than a smart casteist city.      
Amlan Das Amlan Das Author

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