While Doing Fieldwork


About the author – Aashish Gupta was a student in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, who graduated in 2011. He currently works in Allahabad with Jean Drèze, the famous developmental economist in the area of food security. In this article, he talks about how communalism and casteism in India is a deep rooted social problem that cannot be removed easily.

logo1Saad, Paroma, Nayantara and I (all undergraduate students in different universities) were in Khunti, Jharkhand in the summer of 2009 doing fieldwork on the functioning of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Khunti is largely a tribal district, but there are small pockets of areas where there are caste villages. In Birhu, one of those villages in the district where so-called high caste and low caste residents live in separate parts, we had to quickly find someone who would agree to cook dinner for us.

We had already brought rice, dal and mustard oil, and we were ready to pay a small amount of money for cooking. It was getting dark. We met a woman who looked nice enough to cook, who was briefed of our situation. She asked us, “So, what’s your caste?” Growing stiff, I asked “How does that matter?”. I said to Saad in English, “Let’s go to the other hamlet.” Saad, who knew me well by then and was hungrier than I was, cut me off. He said to her, “His name is Aashish Gupta, and I am Abhay Joshi.” She happily agreed to cook for us.

Later on, she came to know that Paroma was a Kashmiri Brahmin. Her behaviour took a radical turn after that. Not only did she cook potatoes for us, using her own supplies, she was quite keen to stuff us with food. In the end, she touched Paroma’s feet. This despite our trying to explain that things such as caste should be irrelevant, what matters is ‘how people are’ and that ‘everyone is equal’.

That same year, I met a girl from St. Xaviers’ College in Mumbai who had come to do fieldwork in Jharkhand. She was born and brought-up in Ahmadabad, but in 2002, she and her parents had to leave the city. One fine day, a stone was thrown at their apartment’s window, and given what was happening in the state, they packed their bags for the next train to Mumbai. Her parents, as you would expect, were middle class professionals, who thought it was best to leave at such a time. They left their apartment and most of the belongings as it is, entrusting them with their neighbours. This is the only time I have met someone affected by communal violence, even if she was affected in a not-so-violent (but still significant) way. I didn’t ask her if she went back after that, or what happened to the apartment. I had become too engrossed in answering the question, “if this was what happened to the rich, what would have happened to the not-so-economically-fortunate?”

This summer, Althaf, my classmate, spent a substantial amount of time in cities and villages of Madhya Pradesh. Althaf found out early on that telling his real name led to a high rate of non-response, and sometimes hostility to his eager questions. In a meeting in a village, he informed villagers that his name was Althaf, and that he was from Kerala. A local leader quickly rose to explain to the rest of the villagers, “Muslims in Kerala are patriotic. Not like here.” Very soon, he found himself using Hindu names, in order to be able to do the survey. Althaf used names he read in newspapers, of IIT toppers etc. though all of them had a tendency to begin with an A.

All these instances, simple yet common, have led to a realisation that I am still not comfortable with. I knew quite early on from my reading that deep social divisions exist within our society; that Muslims or Dalits might be discriminated against in ways which are subtle and not-so-subtle; that the task of creating an inclusive society is easier said than done. I am also aware that while all my examples are from rural parts of India, such divisions can be very prevalent in urban parts of the country. My grandmother for instance, did not serve Muslims in her house, and if a vessel was touched by a Muslim or a Dalit, it would be thrown away immediately after the departure of the Dalit or Muslim concerned.

However, seeing these things on my own has led to a growing sense of discomfort, about my own ‘privileged-position’, as well as the difficulty in challenging these divisions. Solutions look easy from a distance, but we realize how incapable and weak we are, as soon as we start working to eliminate these divisions.

Another question that has no easy resolution is that of research ethics: when with a casteist woman or a communal man, what should I do? Should I let it be, which would be pragmatic from the point of research, but irresponsible as a person? Should I argue it out? In my first year of college, I would have told Althaf to use his real name and confront these divisions head on, told my friend from Mumbai that she and her parents should have remained in Ahmadabad and fought for their rights, or would have gone to the far off Dalit tola and eaten there. I still want to, but I realise that it’s not that easy for many of us.

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