Casteism In Our Words: 10 Casteist Slurs And Why We Need To Stop Throwing Them Around

Casteism In Our Words: 10 Casteist Slurs And Why We Need To Stop Throwing Them Around
Nidhi Iyer for Homegrown

The Print recounts that when late Karpoori Thakur had implemented the reservation quota for Other Backward Class (OBC) in Bihar, the so-called upper caste groups had at the time raised a defamatory slogan which went like this: “Kar Karpoori kam pura, gaddi chhod utha ustara” (Karpoori, be true to your profession, leave the chair and pick up the shaving blade), asking the former Bihar chief minister to quit from his post and take up the job of a barber.

There are innumerable instances of such derogatory statements being thrown around in political conversations in India. However, what’s worse is that this kind of caste-based vocal discrimination is so deeply embedded in the Indian parlance that people keep using such words and phrases casually on an everyday basis without considering the historical and sociological baggage these words carry. It’s also not difficult to assume that most of the powerful positions in India are filled by people belonging to the upper castes who have still not been able to let go of the feudal mindset that has existed all along. One of the reasons why they don’t let go of these linguistic and sociological structures is because long after the supposed ‘independence for all’, these structures continue to serve and benefit them, putting them ahead of the historically disadvantaged in every league.

It’s time, however, to start acknowledging that our language is casteist, and so is the way we choose to use it. Almost every mainstream regional language and most definitely, the English language and how we use it in India is intricately imbued with casteism. So, whenever we need to comment on the way someone’s looking or how dirty or messy they could be, we immediately resort to words we have learnt from our casteist upbringing, and words we know are associated with the ‘wrong’ or the ‘bad’ side of ‘the other’. While it’s a longer discussion to have, it’s important to start recognising the problematic words in our everyday conversation more actively.

Here’s a humble attempt to draw a list of casteist words, mostly used in Hindi-speaking regions, that carry heavy historical baggage rooted in discrimination and caste-based violence.

I. Bhangi: Bhangi, often used in a derogatory manner, is a term that could refer to a member of the Bhangi caste, who have been historically oppressed and traditionally restricted to cleaning latrines, manual scavenging, and sweeping. Also known as ‘Chuhra’ or ‘Balmiki’, they have found themselves on the margins throughout, even being banned entry into religious places for prayer.

II. Malech/Mlechcha: The Sanskrit word was used by the ancient Indians originally used to refer to ‘outsider’ and ‘barbaric foreigners’. What had started off as a response to their undecipherable language, was extended to be used in the sense of ‘impure’ or ‘inferior’ people.

III. Dhobi: In 2017, the Supreme Court of India declared that calling people ‘dhobi’ or ‘harijan’ was offensive. The Wire informs, “Relying on the Statement of Objects and Reasons of the SC/ST Act, the bench observed that calling a person ‘Harijan’, ‘dhobi’ and so on nowadays counts as abusive and language and is offensive. “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 court held.”

IV. Chamar: Citing similar reasons, in 2008, the Supreme Court had said that addressing a person from one of the Scheduled Castes as ‘Chamar’ or ‘Chambhar’, traditionally, the community whose primary occupation was tanning and leathercraft, may amount to an offence punishable under the provision of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989. The bench noted that when used today, the word does not normally denote a caste but is hurled to intentionally insult and humiliate someone.

V. Kameena/Kameeni: Anti-caste activist Divya Kandukuri informs that the word, which is otherwise used to call someone as rapscallion was historically used to mean ‘low’ or ‘low-caste’ in Persian.

VI. Chandaal: In the modern-day, Chandaal is used to address someone’s ‘cruelty’. Chandaal, however, comes from the word ‘Chandala’ or ‘Chandalam’, the community that has traditionally been assigned the occupation of dealing with the disposal of corpses. During the later Vedic age, the Chandala community was severely stigmatised and labelled as ‘untouchables’, it was deliberately put on the margins by Hindu Brahmins. In the post-Manu era, the practice of untouchability did only intensify and worsen, it was also used to label everyone whom the Indo-Aryans considered to be ‘lowly’ or at the bottom of the society.

VII. Pariah: “What do we do with language that is steeped in colonial history?”, asks Akil Kumaraswamy whose mother had written to Noam Chomsky about the problematic history of the word ‘pariah’. Kumaraswamy writes about how “the British had taken a caste-based practice of exclusion and incorporated it into the English language, hardening its meaning and hindering social mobility for a community.” She elaborates, “in ancient Tamil literature like the Love poems, which explores human emotions in relation to landscapes, Paraiyar was the name of those who worked as messengers and drummers.” With the intensification of Brahmanisation, occupations that were concerned with death (like the Chandalas’) or dead animals came to be considered lowly and ‘untouchable’. We share Kumaraswamy’s reflection and urge when she says, “I imagine taking a scissor and cutting out all the words I find problematic. But the dictionary is a living archive of the past and the present that is trying desperately to capture our future.” Language is truly a depiction of our societal development and it’s time to let go of ‘pariah’.

VIII. Mahar: The Wire explains, “The Mahar, and its equivalent untouchable caste across India, were marshal communities that worked for the safety of village societies. But they never received humanitarian treatment because Brahminic rituals and social relations had taken deep roots in India. This discrimination exists even today.” The Mahars of Maharashtra, who comprised the largest untouchable group in the state, mostly all converted to Buddhism in the mid-20th century following the path of Dr B.R.Ambedkar.

IX. Kanjar: Talking about ‘Kanjar’ and casteism in our words, Haroon Khalid says, “there is nothing intrinsic about the word Kanjar that renders it a suitable curse for my dear friend. It becomes a curse because it is a product of societal prejudice that identifies one caste as a curse.” Traditionally, Kanjar were a nomadic tribe that eventually settled in different cities of India and Pakistan. They have historically been associated with prostitution. In fact, many musicians in Pakistan have their roots in the Kanjar community. In modern parlance, however, the term ‘Kanjar’ has come to be used to refer to a pimp or a person of low moral character.

X. Bhand: Divya Kandukuri talks about common phrases like ‘bandh hokar naachna’ thrown around casually when one wants to talk about dancing drunkenly. Bhands or Bahands are a traditional folk entertainment community. Kandukuri continues, “the sentence actually slurs against an SC caste who are street performers by profession. And they are actually even listed under the scheduled castes in Rajasthan.”

This list is in no way exhaustive and barely even manages to touch the surface when it comes to language. Other words like ‘kathodi’, ‘dedhgujari’, ‘adivasi’ ‘junglee’ , ‘kasaai’, ‘naai’, and so many more that we repurpose to denote lowliness are words that we have historically learnt to hate and deem inferior. It is, however, upon us to cleanse our language and make space for love. As an old Hindi TV series would ask us to do, ‘Zabaan Sambhaal Ke!’ (Mind your tongue).

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