New Internationalist

Equality Watch: Caste & Class

Issue 364

The caste system has been called ‘Asia’s hidden apartheid’. It harms some 240 million people who live a precarious existence, shunned by much of society because of their rank as ‘untouchables’ or Dalits.

In theory caste discrimination is illegal in India but that is not the practice, either in India or in communities elsewhere.

There are 100,000 cases of murder, rape, arson and other atrocities against Dalits reported in India each year, many as a result of their attempts to defy the social order or demand minimum wages or basic human rights.

An estimated 40 million people, among them 15 million children, are bonded labourers, working in slave-like conditions in order to pay off a debt. Most of these are Dalits. One million Dalits are occupied clearing latrines of faeces and disposing of dead animals. Thousands of Dalit women and girls are forced into prostitution.

In December 1999, the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights – a grassroots movement of Indian human-rights groups in 14 states – submitted over 2.5 million signatures to the Indian Prime Minister demanding the abolition of untouchability and urging UN bodies to address squarely the issue of caste-based abuse and discrimination. But the Indian Government consistently sabotages such efforts to raise awareness of the caste struggle.

Activists from around the world, including anti-apartheid activists in South Africa and African-American activists in the US, have begun to support the Dalit struggle, seeing it as a new Civil Rights movement.

The injuries of the class system are less glaring but more widespread, at least as powerful and perpetuated by a complex set of social, economic and cultural norms.

Unlike caste, class is not static. But traditional inheritance still has massive sway. In Britain, for example, two-thirds of the country’s land is owned by just 189,000 families. The Queen of England is among the 20 richest people in the world.

Class isn’t all about wealth – but wealth keeps class and privilege going through generations. A recent study from the British Institute of Education shows that children from working-class homes are no more likely to get educational qualifications than they were 20 years ago. Some 48 per cent of young people from the top three social classes – many of whom will have received private education – go to university compared with just 18 per cent of those from the bottom three. Even within the country’s public-health system ‘affluent achievers’ from the professional classes are 40-per-cent more likely to get a heart bypass operation than those from lower socio-economic groups.

Class is often reflected in the precariousness of the work people do. The US Army, for example is overwhelmingly working class, as are the casualties in the Iraq war to date. In Russia, where once politicians boasted of ‘a ruling class of workers’, they now refer to workers as ‘backward-looking’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘parasitic’, ‘sponging’ or ‘useless’.

It’s hard, at this stage in the 21st century, to envisage a viable class-based movement for equality.

Sources: Human Rights Watch 2003, (http://www.hrw.org)[www.hrw.org] Kevin Cahill, Who Owns Britain, Canongate 2002. ‘Research Shows Class Still Rules’, Times Educational Supplement, 21 April 2000. ‘Row over student class gap’, The Guardian, 4 March 2003 and ‘Rich Patients get better health care’ 7 November 2003. ‘Military Mirrors Working Class America’, New York Times, 30 March 2003. ‘Russia in Transition’, Le Monde Diplomatique.

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