‘Excuse me Sir,’ I took permission as I entered the Talathi’s office in my village of Curtorim.
‘Come in,’ the Talathi replied.
I entered the office, kept my documents on the table and sat down quietly.
I had gone to the Village Panchayat seeking the Talathi’s report, the first step in procuring a Scheduled Tribe Certificate.
Some years ago when I was considering applying at the Department of Sociology at the Goa University which had a limited number of seat, that time, hearing about my enthusiasm for the course, my friend’s mother had asked me why I didn’t make a caste certificate to improve my chances. My first thought was, ‘How does she know that my family is a Gawda? That means most people in the ward must know.’ I had home and asked my mother if that was true. She had said ‘yes’ and told me that the same neighbor had told her not to get a caste certificate because then we would have to face discrimination of all kinds. I had dropped the idea of the certificate, but was now applying for it after having finished my MA in Sociology.
‘Yes, tell me, what do you do? Are you working?’ the Talathi asked me while going through my documents.
‘I work as a Research Assistant at Global Health Histories,’ I replied.
‘Where exactly do you stay?’ he asked.
‘Near the Chapel, next to the School,’ I replied.
‘Hmm, Dias I don’t think there are any STs living there. Are there? And with this surname?’
This question left me speechless. I didn’t know much about the presence of Scheduled Tribes (STs) in my area, but I remembered what my mother had said, so I said confidently, ‘Yes sir, there are STs.’
‘How many ST houses are there?’ he quizzed.
‘There are around three-four houses,’ I answered, my nervousness increasing as I had no idea about the exact details of ST families in my locality. I had never taken much interest in knowing such things.
My early schooling was from Shiroda, in the Ponda taluka, and then our family had moved to Curtorim.I was about eight years when the family made the move. I joined school in Curtorim and as I moved in to high school I realised that apart from being known by our names and grades, we were also known by our caste.
Once, during a conversation between friends about caste, I told them that I was a Shudra. I drew that conclusion based on what I noticed in school and comparing it to how we lived at home. I happen to come from a family that belongs to the Gawda community. My father is a Gawda and my mother is a Shudra. At home, there was always a comparison with the Brahmins, so it was clear to me that I was not a Brahmin. Anyhow, that evening I asked my mother what our caste was. ‘Why do you want to know about our caste? Who asked you? You shouldn’t believe in all that…’ she went on and on. But finally she did tell me that we belong to the Gawda community. I wondered if I should go and tell my friends, but then dropped the idea as I felt uncomfortable about revealing the truth.
We didn’t discuss caste among friends again until a new person entered our group who belonged to the gawda community. So it happened that we were just having an informal discussion and the caste issue came up. I was quiet, but this new friend said, “Hanv baba gawdi” (I am a Gawda). I said that I, too, was a Gawda. But my friends didn’t react to this. I noticed that this new friend was uncomfortable revealing his caste just like me.
‘Who is your Panch?’ the Talathi continued.
‘You know Mr and Mrs. Fernandes? Do they know you?’ A barrage of questions was thrown at me.
‘Yes. We stay in the same Ward,’ I answered.
Mr. Fernandes had once advised my mother to make an ST certificate, so I saw a ray of hope. The Talathi decided to call some people to check about my family.
‘They are not answering the call,’ he said after a few attempts.
‘Your Panch is also not receiving the call. Now whom to ask about you?’
I was in the Talathi’s office for half-an-hour and thought that he would not give the approval letter because there was no proof of me being an ST.
‘If parents have a certificate, then it’s easy,’ the Talathi said.
I feel my parents did not get a ST certificate because they wanted to save us from the stigma of being identified as a Gawdi. I remember that whenever the relatives on my father’s side came to our place, my aunt would say, ‘Don’t use words like “tiyani” (they), we say “tenni” (they). She used to say, “Gawdi te Gawdi uttole kennach sudorpana” (You will always remain a Gawdi and will never rise up). Now I understand how they must have felt, so I don’t blame them. Whom do I blame for excluding us from the community of original settlers of Goa? I thought it was a matter of pride, but then why is it a fact that needs to be hidden?
The Talathi finally gave me the approval form, ‘But there should not be any problem for me, okay?’ he added.
‘No. Not at all,’ I assured him and after little over an hour I left his office.
The final stage of getting the ST Certificate was to submit this approval form at the Mamlatdar’s office, then submit at the Tribal Welfare Office and finally I got the ST Certificate.
All said and done, I still wonder if I am really ready to go out and say to the whole world that I am a Gawdi. I talk openly about my tribal identity only to those who I feel will understand me. It took great courage to write in an interview form that I belonged to the ST category, because there were people who knew me and I was a little embarrassed about my ST identity at that time.
I am just waiting to see what this new identity has in store for me. I once read in the newspaper that my village has three main Wards dominated by the Gawdi community. I don’t know which ones they are. I ask myself, do I really want this identity? If so, is it only for its benefits?
I often wonder what would be the reaction of other Gawda people. Will they accept me or will they feel that I have acquired the tribal certificate only for its benefits. Frankly, I don’t have an answer to that. I will not lie and claim that I will not use my certificate to avail the benefits. But, more importantly, I have got the certificate as an attempt to reach some sort of conclusion about my identity.
If people feel that I have never been a victim of caste discrimination then all I would like to say is that if I had not been a victim then I wouldn’t have been here writing about my caste experience. In fact I have to face double discrimination—one from non-Gawdas for being a Gawda, and secondly from Gawdas who might view my use of the Gawda identity as mercenary.
I sometimes wish I had not discovered my tribal identity at all. But this fact has actually shaped me into a new person; a person with a new set of questions that require new answers. All I hope is to get over this confusion and have a clear mind about what I want to do and where I want to place myself. I am also interested in knowing if there is someone who faces a crisis similar to mine.
(Favita Dias is a post-graduate from the Department of Sociology. Presently teaching at Maria Bambina Higher Secondary. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)