By Karl Singarvelan Raha
Karl is a new member of our writing team. He is interested in speaking out against the caste system in India, gender-based inequality, economic inequality, children’s rights, worker rights and other inequalities.
Indians and caste go together like Laurel & Hardy or Romeo & Juliet or Cleopatra & Caesar. Whatever analogy is most apt, caste remains an immortal relationship for every Indian who stays in India, leaves India, or who even leaves planet Earth! Discrimination has been going on for perhaps more than 3,000 years. There was a huge global outcry over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. But there were no protests when, in India, a Dalit (lower caste) man was killed for plucking a guava fruit from an upper caste landlord in November 2022, or when a Dalit man was beaten to death for drawing water from an upper caste well. Do Dalit and other Lower Caste lives not matter to India or the world?
A brief historical overview
The Caste System is a hierarchical system which emerged after the Aryan Migration to India (1,800 – 1,500 BCE). Brahmins (priest class) are at the top of the hierarchy followed by Kshatriya (noble or warrior class), Vaishya (Merchant class) and Shudras (Servants) according to occupations. Later, this caste system came to be based on birth, so that anyone who is born into that caste will remain in that caste forever. For instance, if someone is born to Brahmins, he or she remains Brahmin and enjoys the status of being in an upper part of the system, while a Shudra remains a Shudra forever and faces discrimination accordingly. The four castes evolved into five castes, with the lowest caste becoming known as Dalits or Tribals. Fifth caste people are also known as untouchables, and they do not belong to the original caste system. Today, the system is sub-divided into 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub castes. Each caste relates to a particular occupation and social status. This hierarchical system is a black mark on Indian history and indeed on humanity as a whole.
Discrimination embedded in Hindu scriptures
The Manusmṛiti, also known as the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra or Laws of Manu, which is one of the many legal texts and constitutions of Hinduism, laid the foundation for discrimination, as these quotations illustrate:
'If a Sudra sits in a seat along with a Brahmin, his hips should be scorched, or he should be driven away from the town.' Chap.8 S.281 (S is for Shloka which means verse.)
'Even if a Sudra were to do the work of a Brahmin, he will not become a Brahmin, because he has no right to do the work of a Brahmin.' Chap.1 S.101
'Any eatable article becomes polluted and unfit for consumption when: A pig dashes against it; hens and cock fly over it; when a dog looks at it or when a Sudra touches it.' Chap.3 S.241
'If a Brahmin happens to eat anything that has been tasted or touched by a Sudra, and if he should have intercourse with his wife that night, the Brahmin's ancestors will live in the wife's faeces for a month.' Chap.3 S.250
This book, the Manusmṛiti, is the foundation of Hinduism. Caste is infused into every part of the Hindu scriptures, including the Rigveda, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, and the Bhagavat Gita, and in Hindu customs. For instance, in the Ramayana it is mentioned that ‘When Sambhuka, a Shudra, was meditating, the demigods considered this a disaster because meditation was the duty of Brahmins only. After hearing this, Rama, a Kshatriya (the warrior caste hero of the story) went and beheaded Sambhukha.’ And the Bhagavat Gita states:
‘I created mankind in four classes, different in their qualities and actions; though unchanging, I am the agent of this, the actor who never acts!’ (Bhagavad Gita 4:13) ‘For finding refuge in Me, even those who though born of the womb of sin, women, Vaishyas, and Shudras too, reach the supreme goal.’ (Bhagavad Gita 9:32)
Fear of religion and God, and the patriarchal nature of Indian society, helped the caste system to grow stronger. The upper castes like Brahmins formed customs and traditions which were harsh and exploitative towards the lower castes. Kshatriyas and Vaishyas supported the Brahmin exploitation. For example, religious scriptures must be read by Brahmins. If a Shudra recites them, it is said that boiling mercury must be poured into the ears and mouth of the Shudra.
Over time, the caste system became stronger. Islamic rulers were focused on war, the spread of Islam, and defending their dynasties. No efforts were made to reform the existing social order. Upper caste elites served under the kings to protect their status and took bribes from the rulers. British colonialism brought many social reforms to Indian society with the help of social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Jyotiba Phule and Fatima Sheikh.
The British brought about the abolition of slavery in 1813, made the Varna (Caste) System of punishments illegal in 1817 and human sacrifices in 1830, and introduced higher education and English education for Shudras and Dalits in 1835. And the Caste Abolition Act was passed in 1850. These reforms were revolutionary for India, and angered the upper caste elites. This was one of the main causes of the 1857 Rebellion (or Mutiny) against the British by Indian rulers and sepoys (professional Indian infantryman).
Humanists and rationalists fight against the system
Although the reforms had given opportunities to Dalits and other lower castes, they had little effect on the thinking of upper castes. It was humanists and rationalist leaders like Periyar Ramasamy and Dr. B R Ambedkar who fought against the existing system. Their movements, described below, brought a great change in life of Dalits and other lower castes.
Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy, known as Periyar (1879-1973), was a radical social activist and politician who criticized the caste system. His Self-Respect Movement argued that lower castes must not be inferior to others and that self-respect is the birthright of every human being. He opposed theism, Hindu customs, and superstitions and gave a voice to oppressed classes. Apart from being an anti-caste activist, he was also an activist for women’s rights. His ideas became a major driving force in Tamil Nadu and influenced many political parties.
Dr B R Ambedkar (1891-1956) was born as a Mahar (lower caste), but became one of the fathers of modern India by emphasising equality, fraternity and justice. He was educated at the London School of Economics, Columbia University, and Gray’s Inn in London. He fought against the caste system and introduced reforms to try and break it. He fought for the equality of Dalits, granting them non-discriminatory access to public roads, sources of water such as rivers, ponds and wells, and temples. After Indian independence, he became the First Minister of Law and Justice, and Chairman of the Constitution Drafting Committee, which outlawed discrimination with severe punishments for violations, emphasized separate electorates for Dalits and Tribes (that is, constituencies in which seats are reserved for Scheduled Castes and Tribes, based on the size of their population) and reserved quotas in educational institutions and government jobs. He also fought for the rights of women and manual workers.
The present time
After years of effort by many anti-caste activists, and laws in the Indian constitution, Dalit lives are better than in the past. The Indian Constitution grants quotas in government jobs and educational institutions to improve the quality of life of the low castes. Many lower caste people have become politicians, activists, and academics or have attained other high status positions. A reservation system was introduced whereby a certain number of seats in Parliament and state assemblies are reserved for members of the lower castes. This is one side of the coin, but the other side is shocking. The National Crimes Record Bureau of India has reported that two Dalits are murdered every day, and ten Dalit women are raped every day. Ninety-nine percent of cases remain pending, and convicts are released without being punished appropriately. Eighty percent of Indian villages still practice untouchability. For instance, in a village called Dhauladevi in the state of Uttarakhand in northern India, lower caste students are served with separate food and asked to sit separately from upper caste students.
Due to rural caste discrimination, people move to urban areas to make their caste invisible and to escape from poverty. After the 1970s, there was a huge migration of lower caste people from rural areas to urban areas. Although there are now fewer signs of untouchability, discrimination still occurs in both active and passive ways. Cities like Mumbai and Delhi have lower crime rates against lower castes, but Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Lucknow, and Bhopal have seen a surge in reported cases. Those experiencing poverty mostly belong to lower castes and tend to work mostly in blue collar jobs. Economic inequality is another evil which can destroy the lives of lower caste people in the cities. For instance, Dharavi in Mumbai is the largest slum in Asia. Thirty percent of its population are Dalits and the rest belong to other disadvantaged classes. They tend to be in low caste occupations such as washermen, leather cleaners, and potters, etc. Dharavi contributes around US$1 billion to the economy of Mumbai, yet its inhabitants suffer from poor housing and sanitation, with one toilet for every 1,500 people. These conditions lead to cholera, typhoid, dysentery, and other diseases. And fire, accidents and floods affect the region in a disastrous way. Higher caste people and the government are biased against the people of Dharavi, and treat them like aliens.
Cities like Bengaluru and Hyderabad, which boast about their IT developments, have townships where only Brahmins can buy plots of land; non-Brahmins are not even allowed to live there. Is this not apartheid? Yet none of the world’s media have protested about it. Occupations such as scavenging, rat catching, sweeping, drainage cleaning and other jobs which include health risks and filth are assigned to Dalits and lower castes. Terms of abuse based on caste are used about people for wrongdoing or for being dirty. For instance, Chandaluda is a slur in the Telugu language which is used if someone is dirty. But Chandala is a caste name for a person who takes care of graves and dead bodies. There are many other examples of slurs based on lower caste names which are used to insult someone.
In Silicon Valley, top companies consider caste discrimination to be a major problem. In Cisco, the American technology firm, there were reports that a Dalit engineer was being discriminated against by upper caste superiors. This report from the University of Pennsylvania gives a disturbing account of caste discrimination in the USA. There are also issues in the UK - see here.
Political parties like Dravida Munetra Kazhagam, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party are taking responsibility for lower castes and Dalits. Smaller parties like Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK), Dalit Vikas Aghadi, and the Republican Party, play a crucial role but they are fighting for electoral presence. Sadly, the changes they propose are mostly superficial or not enough, and leaders of bigger parties are more interested in building a cult following rather than changing society. Many Dalit and other lower caste politicians in other major political parties are looking for personal benefit and to attract voters, instead of responding to discrimination.
Caste discrimination has existed for thousands of years and, so far, very little real change has taken place. The upper castes are still inhumanely discriminating against the lower castes. Every day there are news reports of discrimination against Dalits. But social evils can be overcome when they are exposed to the glare of the wider world. Once held up to scrutiny and global protest, oppressors are forced to respond, as the murder of George Floyd demonstrates.