In 2019, two comedians came to Srishty Ranjan’s college, a part of Delhi University for a performance. Their set was filled with jokes on reservation — affirmative action provided for people from oppressed castes by the Indian constitution. Ranjan took to social media to call out these comedians. Despite her post being shared widely, there was radio silence from the comics.
India is a society deeply divided by caste. The multifold caste system divides people into two large sections: Brahmins and savarnas or communities with immense social capital and Bahujans, an umbrella term for Dalits, Adivasis, Vimukthi Jatis and some Shudras. The latter have been violently oppressed by the former for centuries.
With the advent of social media, this casteism has manifested online with some savarna influencers with a large following mocking their domestic workers online or even pinning them as the reason they contracted COVID-19.
“In India, caste and class cannot be looked at separately. Your caste decides your class in the country,” Hannah, a 24-year-old copywriter and creative strategist, said. As a Bahujan woman, she has been one of the many calling out influencers for their casteism.
A majority of the videos mocking domestic workers have a common focal point — language. Influencers point their camera at their domestic workers and openly mock their indigenous languages or their pronunciation of English words. In one incident, an influencer even posted a story where she complained about her domestic worker not cleaning to her satisfaction.
“Concepts like consent and agency don’t exist for Bahujan women because we are not humans in the eyes of savarna women,” Hannah told Re:Set. “The idea of purity and what makes you more Indian is also decided by the language you speak. Adivasi dialects and languages spoken by marginalized communities are more often made fun of by Hindi and English speaking savarnas.”
Despite some Bahujan folks gaining traction and followers on social media, the divide is clear. “People like me and Hannah — even if we have a few thousand followers — we still face casteism,” said M, an artist who has been using her Instagram page @thebigfatbao to hold casteist influencers accountable. “Influencers, on the other hand, have millions of followers and brands approach them and pay them for the content they make. And I don’t know if they have explained the nature of their work to the domestic workers they mock,” she told Re:Set.
Even when influencers apologize or take down their casteist content after being called out, the apology comes off as a bad PR strategy. “There is a format to their apology,” M said. “The first is, ‘we didn’t know.’ The second point is, ‘I am still learning,’ and the third is, ‘It would be great if you could share resources with me.”
This constant labour to educate savarna influencers and their followers on their casteism only for them to repeat the same behaviour is tiresome. “How long do I speak about this?” Hannah asked. “There is a vacuum in such conversations, but then again what is the point? Because these savarna influencers, who have the leverage to make an impact, put no effort to do so. So I am stuck in this exhausting loop,” she said.
The emotional labour that comes with calling out these influencers has taken a toll on the mental health of Bahujan folk. Recollecting an incident from the recent past, Ranjan narrates how an influencer gaslit her into taking down her post holding the influencer responsible for casteist content. “The influencer said they know better now and by leaving the post up, I was only sending abuse and harassment their way,” she said.
But how can these influencers and their followers make up for the mental trauma they have inflicted on Bahujans? “I need savarnas to pay for my therapist bills,” M said on a lighter note. “In a utopia, I would ask for money from savarnas,” said Ranjan. But that is not a real possibility because paying for or even recognizing emotional labour is not common in India.
However, Hannah does not believe that financial compensation is enough. “It is easy for savarnas to throw money at Bahujans and continue being casteist,” she said. Real reparations from savarnas means taking accountability by recognizing their casteist actions, encouraging reservations and working on unlearning casteism that have been normalized in the daily lives of Indians.