Just imagine, all of your career opportunities, healthcare options, social status and marriageable partners have all been predetermined from your birth. This is the essence of the caste system which has existed in India for thousands of years.1 It is a social hierarchy system which epitomizes the inequitable distribution of power, money and resources such that higher classes benefit from those beneath them.2 Any hope of ascending through this social ladder was nearly zero.1 The life of a newborn Indian was either blessed with opportunity or cursed with lifelong, unvalued servitude without hope of ever rising to greatness.
So firstly what is the caste system and what are the hierarchies? The image below summarizes:
There are 4 official classes of the caste system listed in social standing3
- Brahmans – The priests, teachers and judges who understood dharma (spiritual laws that govern the world)
- Kshatriyas – Rulers and warriors
- Vaishyas – Traders/businessmen and skilled farmers
- Shudras – Predominantly unskilled workers
- Dalits – “untouchables” their work includes toilet cleaning, human/animal body and garbage removal. The jobs the other classes refuse to stain their hands with.
There are strict social rules for how each class should behave within their own caste and with people of other castes.1 The most horrendous rules regarding the untouchables (Dalits). As the name suggests, they are not to be touched by people of other castes as they’re seen as lower class humans. They are not allowed to drink from the same wells as the other castes and paradoxically subject to sexual abuse despite their title ‘untouchables’.4
Intercaste marriage was largely forbidden, forcing classes to stay within their own group.3 The system benefited those at the top of the pyramid while severely disadvantaging the lower classes. The employment, healthcare, study and even religious opportunities are much greater for those of higher classes compared to those of lower classes.1 For example, a Dalit (lowest rank) is usually forbidden to enter a temple as their presence is thought to corrupt the sanctity of the place.1
Mahatma Ghandhi worked hard to end the discrimination against the ‘untouchables’ bestowing upon them the title of harijan which translates to blessed believing they were blessed by their suffering.1 The Indian government had also fought against this social injustice and in 1950, made it illegal to discriminate based on classes.1 The government has given opportunities for education and even reserved positions in political cabinets for all classes including Dalits. There has been increasing hope for Dalits to become successful especially with the election of the tenth president in India, K. R. Narayanan who was a Dalit reigning from 1997-2002.1
Image obtained from: http://www.caravanmagazine.in/journeys/gandhis-last-stand
However, while the laws are present, caste discrimination has persisted through the 21st century being especially prevalent in rural communities.2 The vast majority of Dalits are still under oppression where they are denied access to lands, abused by police and higher castes, forced to work in appalling conditions and discriminated against.4 The government seldom acknowledge complaints about violations of the law regarding Dalits and therefore forces them to endure the oppression.4 There have been Dalit resistances both violent and non-violent which usually end in more suffering to Dalits.4
Life and society is changing in India but there is still a strong underlying discrimination between caste classes. The problem is likely to persist in the future but with knowledge and understanding, this system can change so that no one is oppressed from their birth and lack opportunities to succeed in life. Social equality should be the ideal we all work for.
- Dowling M. The Caste System at mrdowling.com 2014 [cited 2014 4 April]. Available from: http://www.mrdowling.com/612-caste.html.
- Dalmia S. The Tragic Truth About India’s Caste System 2012 [cited 2014 April 3]. Available from: http://reason.com/archives/2012/01/24/the-tragic-truth-about-indias-caste-syst.
- Mtholyoke. History of the Caste System in India 2010 [cited 2014 April 5]. Available from: http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~epandit/page2.html.
- Watch HR. Broken People – Caste Violence Against India’s Untouchables 1999. Available from: http://www.hrw.org/reports/1999/india/index.htm#TopOfPage.