The caste system in India owes its origins to the Aryan society of ancient northern India but became fixed and hereditary with the emergence of Hinduism around the third century.
The system – the religious word for which is ‘Varna’ – India is complicated but the ancient subdivisions are:
Below these groups are the Dalits, or untouchables, who traditionally perform the most menial tasks.
Caste is a system of social stratification based on heredity and, within the caste group, members are restricted in their choice of occupation and social participation. Marriage outside of the caste is usually prohibited. In Hindu religious texts, the Manusmitri (The Law of Manu) legitimizes social exclusion and inequality as the guiding principle of social relations. Those from the lowest castes are told that their place in the caste hierarchy is due to their sins in a past life and the result has been a long history of discrimination against Dalits by the higher castes. The caste system has served the interests of the higher castes, which have resisted any reforms.
The caste system has been an enormous influence on the social and economic development of India. The occupational barriers that existed between Indian castes began breaking down slowly under economic pressures during the 20th century but social distinctions have been more persistent. The teachings of Mahatma Gandhi began to change attitudes towards the Dalit minority in the 1930s. ‘Untouchability’ was outlawed by the Indian constitution in 1949 and Indian law does not permit the practice of a caste system – but resistance to change has remained strong, especially in rural areas. Discrimination against the Dalit minority has become an important human rights and political issue.
In much of Asia and parts of Africa, caste is the basis of discrimination against and exclusion of distinct groups. Over 250 million people worldwide (160 million in India) suffer from this form of discrimination. Communities affected by caste include the Dalits in India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, as well as the Buraku people of Japan, the Osu of Nigeria’s Igbo people, and certain groups in Senegal and Mauritania.
The Dalits are among the poorest of the Indian population. Their status means that they are frequently the victims of violence, including murders, rapes, arson and forcible land encroachment. In addition they suffer from wage discrimination, infringement of the right to vote and run for elections, discrimination in schools, disproportionately high drop-out rates and levels of illiteracy, dehumanizing living and working conditions, impoverishment and malnourishment.
Dalits form a large proportion of India’s agricultural workers but they generally do not own land and are often relegated to separate villages or neighbourhoods. They are forced to do low-paying and undesirable occupations such as street sweeping and removing human waste and dead animals. They are often not allowed to use the same wells or attend the same temples as higher castes.
Dalit women are affected by the burden of both caste and gender and even farther removed from legal protections. An example of this is the use of Dalit girls in the practice of ‘Joghinis’ – which literally means ‘female servant of god’ – where girls are forced into prostitution.
Today, Dalits make up 16.2% of the total Indian population, but their control over the resources of the country is marginal – less than 5%. Close to half of the Dalit population lives under the poverty line, and even more (62%) are illiterate. Among the Dalits, most of those engaged in agricultural work are landless or nearly landless agricultural labourers. The average household income for Dalits was 17,465 rupees in 1998, just 68% of the national average. Less than 10% of Dalit households can afford safe drinking water, electricity and toilets, which is indicative of their deplorable social condition. Moreover, Dalits are daily victims of the worst crimes and atrocities, far outnumbering other sections of society in that respect as well. The vast majority of these crimes remain unreported due to omnipresent fear, and those that are reported are often ignored by police or end up languishing in the backlogged court system. Between 1992 and 2000, a total of 334,459 cases were registered nationwide with the police as cognizable crimes against Scheduled Castes. More than 60 years after gaining independence, India is still very much afflicted by the cancer of the caste system. Dalits remain the most vulnerable, marginalized and brutalized community in the country.
Under the Indian constitution, discrimination on the basis of caste is illegal and in 1989 the Indian government enacted legislation to combat discrimination based on caste when it passed the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. The government has also enacted legislation which provides quotas for people from low castes in politics and government jobs.
The Indian constitution does reserve a proportion of seats in both Union and State assemblies for Scheduled Castes. Despite this, many Dalits are either unaware of their legal rights or don’t have the resources to seek redress. Dalits are now known by the Indian government as Scheduled Castes and make up 16% of the country’s population.
In Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, the Dalits have a strong political presence and are a powerful influence in the forming of the state government. In May 2002, the leader of the low-caste dominated Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Mayawati Kumari, was sworn in as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. For the first 40 years of elected governments in Uttar Pradesh, every single chief minister belonged to upper-caste communities.
‘It was only with the election of a lower-caste chief minister, that these [Dalit] communities were able to see a link between power and decisions that directly benefited them.’ Ram Dutt Tripathi (BBC reporter, 2010)
The National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, a movement led by Dalit human rights activists, works to protect and promote the human rights of Dalits in India and other countries where the caste system adversely affects the Dalit population. It also works with the International Human Rights Commission of the United Nations.
The NCDHR managed to get the issue of caste on the agenda of the World Conference against Racism in Durban in 2001 and raise the profile of the problem despite opposition from the Indian government.
India is a country undergoing huge social change because of its rapid economic growth. Poverty rates in the country have been reduced but the gap between the rich and the poor appears to be getting wider. The Dalits make up a large proportion of the population living below poverty level. Discrimination has made them much more vulnerable to all the factors that increase poverty but the widening gap between rich and poor is a common factor in other countries that are undergoing rapid economic growth, such as China, Russia and Brazil.
New Internationalist issue on caste, July 2005
New Internationalist article: A lifetime in muck, Mari Marcel Thekaekara
Article: Human Rights Watch
Article: National Campaign Dalit Human Rights
BBC World Service Case Study