Caste names, and why they are offensive

Every time Reservation re-enters the news cycle, certain memes start doing the rounds in Indian social media. One of these has to do with caste names. They (upper-caste people like myself) ask: If people are willing to get reservation (affirmative action) by saying they belong to a certain caste, why do they mind when those caste names are used to describe or address them.

The words we use to address and describe each other are more than just words. They come with context. It matters who is saying it and what tone they are using.

You, being a person very close to me, can call me a dog or "saala". But that does not mean I will appreciate being described in those terms by just about anyone. I understand the social context that exists between us. And that context does not extend to include most people.

Now look at caste names with this lens.

Caste is the foundation of a centuries old social context. When people use caste names to describe someone, these occasions come with tonnes of context. When a so-called upper-caste person describes or addresses a person from a so-called lower caste using their caste name, it is seen as abuse. And the reason behind this is not hard to understand. For centuries, people from so-called lower caste were scraping human shit. They were considered less than human. They were thought of as incapable and undeserving. And among many people in our "modern" society, they still are thought of in that way.

So when a so-called upper-caste person like you or me uses a caste name to address someone from a so-called lower caste, it is perceived as abuse. It may not be always meant as abuse, but you can't do away with generations of social context by insisting on behaving the way abusers behave.

In America for example, Black people may sometimes refer to each other as "niggers". But it is considered abuse when it comes from a White person.

When you use a word, it helps to not only be aware of what that word means, but also where you -- as an individual -- stand with respect to that word.