Societies throughout the world contain elements of classification or segregation among the members of society. The basis on which this segregation comes into play varies among different regions and cultures. The origin of classes among members of society may be attributed to different reasons present in that society, but it is an established fact that such segregation among society members into groups or castes has often lead to inequality. The Hindu faith describes these inequalities in terms of ‘purity’ and ‘pollution’, and associates them with divine natural order. Exploitation of masses on religious grounds is a common happening in Asian continent. In the Indian institution of caste, inequality has been so deeply engraved that no such examples exists throughout the world. There have been a number of attempts by many people to get rid of the evil of the caste system of India, but none has survived or succeeded. Despite the bitter criticism that this caste system receives, it has managed to survive and affect the lives of millions of Indians till this day.
The word “caste” takes its origin from the Portuguese word “casta” which is used to refer to ‘kind’, ‘race’ or ‘breed’. Equivalent words in the Indian language are ‘varna’, ‘jati’, ‘jat’, ‘samaj’ and ‘biradri’. According to the Indian tradition, a caste is often linked to an occupation. It is commonly understood that the caste system of India originated after the Aryan invasion into the Indo-Gangetic plain around 1500BC. This was the time when Hindu religious texts were written and caste system was framed. Different theories about the origin of caste system exist. According to some scholars, castes originate as a result of tension between opposing forces. One force may push towards centralization while its opposing force pulls toward decentralization (Quigley, 1993). This caste system is mentioned and emphasized in the most authentic religious texts of Hinduism including Vedas, Bhagvad Gita and Mahabharatha, thus adding religious sanctity to the institution of caste (Bayly, 1999). Rig Veda, which is around three thousand years old and one of the sacred texts of Hinduism, states that the off springs of the famous four varnas originated from various parts of the body of primitive man which was created from clay (see The Vedas and Polytheism, ch. 3). The concept behind this idea is that every group of the human society has a pre-defined function that contributes to the functioning of the society as a whole. So it is stated that the Brahmins or priests were created from the ‘face’ or ‘mouth’ of the primitive man and so they serve for the intellectual and spiritual needs of the society. Kshatriyas originated from the arms and so they are warriors or rulers of the society. The ‘thighs’ gave rise to the Vaishyas, who performed the role of landowners and merchants. The lowest of all the castes took its origin from the feet and so their duty is to perform manual labour. Generally speaking, the members of higher castes tend to be wealthier and enjoy prosperous lives as opposed to the members of lower castes who are often financially stressed and consequently have poor living standards. This poverty in turn becomes a reason for their tolerance of oppression.
The caste system which is prevalent throughout the present day India segregates the members of society into four basic categories, or the so called “varnas”. The basis of this segregation is “ritual purity”. The highest category is known as “Brahmins” who hold leading religious positions of the society. After the Brahmins, “Kshatriyas”, who are warriors, enjoy a dignified position in society. Kshatriyas are followed by “Vaishyas”. Traders and merchants belong to Vaishyas. The lowest caste includes those who are responsible to serve the other three superior castes, and are referred to as “Shudras”. Those who are considered “too fallen” to be included in any of the castes of this caste system are termed “untouchables”. The fifth category which is termed the “untouchables” was conceptualized later in the course of evolution of this religion. They were given the job of cleaning and performing polluting works related to bodily dirt. In modern times these “untouchables” are referred to as “Dalits” meaning “broken people”. By the year 1935, a new term known as “scheduled castes” was coined to refer to the members of the lower castes. There are around 138 million Dalits in India according the 1991 census. The four main castes are further subdivided into sub-castes. These castes gain importance in matters of marriages, and the matrimonial advertisements in newspapers often mention the caste.
In the past, Hindu society forced the Dalits to observe extreme respect for the higher caste Hindus. They were required to physically keep their distance from the higher classes, to avoid pollution from their touch or shadows. They were not allowed to wear shoes or any upper body covering in the presence of higher castes to show respect. The lower caste Hindus had to ring a little bell to warn the members of higher castes before approaching them, so that they can protect themselves from the pollution of lower castes. The lower caste Hindus were punished for reading or even hearing the sacred texts, besides being prohibited from entering the temples. Lower caste Hindus were prohibited from carrying umbrellas, wearing shoes or golden ornaments. They were not allowed to milk cows or build houses more than one storey high. The women were forbidden to carry pots on their hips or cover the upper parts of their bodies. Women of lower caste were expected to be bare-breasted in the presence of Brahmins and other high status people, as sign of respect (Cohn, 1996).
Despite the fact that this caste system was abolished in 1950, and most Indians claim that this caste system is no more effective, the reality of the matter is different. Instead of being abolished practically, different castes have certain rights under the Indian constitution. Different caste groups are becoming increasingly politicized in order to compete with other interest groups for economic and social benefits (Lynch, 1969). Members of lower castes are entitled to reserve electoral offices, reserved job quota in government jobs and special educational benefits. One seventh of the state and national legislative seats are reserved for the members of lower castes. This contradiction is perhaps the cause of the problem. On one hand the caste system has been abolished by law, but on the other hand, that same constitution is promoting the rights of the lower caste peoples, thus making the caste segregation more prominent.
Discrimination among general public on the basis of caste is forbidden in the constitution of India. After the abolition of caste system, the government of India has taken various steps to assist the untouchable class of society. Various land reforms and programs to provide Dalits with preferred access to jobs and education opportunities have been the mainstay of this assistance. The institution of caste has undergone considerable change after the independence. However, since the caste system has been present in India for centuries and the whole society knows and understands its impact on their lives, the caste system has and will continue to affect the lives of Indians in future. There have been several incidents in the Indian society, when individuals willing to enter a matrimonial bonds belonging to two different castes have been forbidden or even punished to death for doing so. The impact of caste system is more evident in country side as compared to urban areas, and has more far reaching consequences when it comes to matters of marriage as opposed to less personal relations.
The land reform programs have added to the problems of the lower classes instead of helping them. To help the lower caste Hindus, lands were given to them in order to improve their financial and thereby social status. Since the upper classes hold higher positions in government, they are in a better position to sabotage the interests of lower classes. They have always managed to deprive the lower caste Hindus from such benefits. There have been several incidents when Dalits who sought to claim their land rights were brutally tortured, humiliated and killed by members of higher castes for the purpose of intimidating other lower caste members. Similar incidents have caused the destruction of homes and shrines of Dalits. The entire purpose of this brutality is that Dalits should remain landless and as a result work on the lands of higher caste land owners. The financial burden on Dalits forces them to fall prey to money-lenders who lend them tiny sums of money at sky-scraping interest rates. Once stuck in debt, these Dalits are forced into illegal “bonded labour” or sometimes prostitution, which may last for decades and in some cases throughout life. According to the estimates of Human Rights Watch more than forty million bonded laborers exist in India today. On the contrary, the Brahmins lead lavish lives, constituting only a small proportion of the population.
Official figures clearly show that the majority of high profile government jobs are owned by Brahmins who make up only five percent of the population. The lower castes of India still lack the opportunities to educate themselves. Due to the educational benefits given to the Dalits, they have managed to improve their literacy rates from 10.3 percent in 1961 to 21.4 percent in 1981. The difference in literacy rates as compared between the higher castes and the lower castes shows an ever-increasing trend. Lack of education in turn leads to joblessness. The majority of Dalits are either jobless or trapped in insignificant jobs. To them, programs such as land reforms are a bright opportunity to get rid of the vicious cycle of caste-system. But the members of the upper castes have always fiercely resisted such programs in an attempt to preserve their privileged lifestyle. To them these opportunities for the lower castes may cause the collapse of their caste-based feudal economy. In the real world, both culture and power matter a lot. The higher castes usually mobilize economic and political resources to promote their interests. The discriminatory actions of the higher castes usually have a mechanism of monitoring the actions of individuals of lower class. This is done to ensure preferential treatment for the dominant group (Bonacich, 1972).
The Mandal Commission Report emphasized the need to provide special advantage to lower caste citizens of India, so that they can obtain civil service positions and access to higher education. The higher castes of Hindus proved to be the least flexible in this regard, and they considered this move to be an attempt to deprive them of jobs for which they were more eligible than the members of lower castes. The results were fierce riots all over the country and the fall of Prime Minister V.P Singh’s government.
The implementation of Mandal Commission Report by V.P. Singh in 1990 brought about the start of intense debates over the Indian institution of caste. It appears that although the caste system was abolished in 1950 by the constitution of India, the political interests of this country still promote its existence and implementation. Although it has been eradicated by the conflict between Hindus and Muslims in larger political contexts, the caste system continues to haunt the Indian social world. Modern day Indian politics has demonstrated that caste is the most powerful vehicle for political mobilization. The political movements of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra which have brought considerable unrest in the Indian society are basically anti-caste movements. The inflexible caste system of Hinduism and its rigid implementation in the region forced its followers to reject the system and escape by accepting other belief systems. The famous leader of Dalits, Dr.Ambedkar turned to Buddhism before his death. This conversion set an example for other lower caste Hindus, and as a result several thousands of Dalits have converted to Buddhism or Christianity, as an attempt to escape if not as protest. Various writings, strikes and demonstrations have reflected Dalit anger for the social inequality that they face. Some Dalit groups like ‘Dalit Panthers’ are inclined to bring a revolutionary transition from inequality to a just society. Even well educated Indians find it difficult to accept the mobility of the ‘untouchables’ as being legitimate in reality as well as in theory (Hiro, 1982).
For some observers the caste system is merely a system to safeguard the interests of the higher castes by exploitation of the interests of lower castes. Incidents like those reported in the early 1990s, when blatant lynching of low-caste laborers took place add to the validity of this concept. The underlying cause of inequality appears to be the profitability for the higher castes as well as the increase of earnings of the favored workers of the higher castes (Mueser, 1987).
Despite the inequalities that the caste system confers to the inhabitants of the Indian land, it is an established fact that this caste system has survived for hundreds of years. After 1950, some changes have been observed in the caste system of India. The basic rights of all individuals are guaranteed by the Indian constitution. This includes the right to equality. The practice of discrimination on the basis of caste, race, sex and religion as well as the practice of untouchability are banished by law. Although some improvement has been observed in the life quality of Dalits, more than 90 percent of them still reside in rural countryside, working as landless laborers on the lands of higher caste land-owners.
In the real India of today, where urbanization is continuously increasing, and where inhabitants are not familiar with each other’s caste status, the religious ‘pollution observances’ are on decline. But at the same time, those interactions among public which involve marital affairs or matters of kinship, it is the Indian society itself which becomes caste-conscious. Individuals and seniors of one caste would leave no stone unturned to make impossible inter-caste marriages. There is a general impression among the youth of India that these castes are given more importance than they really deserve, but since the control and power of decision lies in the hands of elder according to the Indian tradition, the youth are helpless. As a result not only has this caste system increased distances between castes, it has also added to the generation gap of the society. The politics of India is not different from the politics of this region. Even after six decades of independence, the major portion of the population lives below poverty levels. Those who are financially strong, continue to add to their strength by exploiting the rights of those who are weak. Adding to these problems is the institution of caste in India. The roots of Indian caste system would never had been as strong as they are now, if the caste system was not promoted by Hindu religion. Religion sets the pillars on which the building of life is constructed, and since religion itself promotes caste system and justifies the oppression faced by lower castes by relating it to divinely decisions, the lower castes are left with no choice, except to accept the brutality, fight against it or leave Hinduism. Therefore, in politics it is observed that caste associations have expanded their areas of effort from local politics to state or national politics. To attain power and political influence within the democratic system of India, different caste groups are forming closer associations with their similar sub-castes. The future may be bright for these lower castes, provided their efforts prove to be fruitful, but the resistance these lower castes are facing till this day may lead them to failure, as before. Caste is still the primary form of local identity in India and it continues even as it continues to trouble (Dirks, 2001).
The history of the Indian constitution of caste can be traced back to 1500BC. This was the time when the religious texts of Hinduism were written. The Aryans brought with them a new social system for this area, which bonded and segregated the individuals of this society in such a way that equality among individuals was totally lost. Even after the passage of centuries, the Indian society is so tightly bound with the caste system, that its impacts are well manifested in their social picture. The four basic castes and also a fifth one which evolved as Hinduism evolved over time, are present till this day. Despite being a minor fraction of the population, the higher castes hold the most powerful positions in the society, and so are able to influence the interests of lower castes according to their own wills. The effects of their power are evident in all the aspects of social life. The politics of the country is in the hands of these powerful castes. Those who intend to attain political power exploit the interests of lower castes, and in doing so, politicians make promises about improving the conditions of the lower caste Dalits; promises which are never fulfilled. On some occasions, some steps have been taken by the Indian government in the form of land reforms or reserved jobs for the lower castes, but the fierce resistance by the members of higher castes has always prevented the members of lower castes to avail what is being offered by the government. The consequence is that, the Dalits are and will continue to suffer from the inequalities that their religion and in turn society and its politics is offering them.