The Impact of Caste and Religious Ideologies

The caste system is an integral part of India today, and much of the oppression, corruption, and unjust hierarchal status stems from the historical beginnings of caste. Its lasting effects are evident in the day-to-day segregation of the 180 million people in India who are subject to discrimination and exploitation as members of the Backwards Classes (Thekaekara). Backwards Classes are a legal classification for people from the lower castes of Indian society, such as the Dalit community (formerly known as “untouchables”), as well as several ethnic groups such as the Aboriginals, and other outcastes and nomads.


People from the Backwards Classes are often subject to unfair economic and social treatment. In fact, of the millions of bonded laborers in India, 90% are Dalits or other members of the Backwards Classes (Upadhyaya). These castes are also generally forced to do manual work or work that is considered undesirable or dirty, such as manually scavenging (a term used for the removal of human waste), which is 95-98% done by women of the Backwards Classes (Albuquerque). The imbalance of power both physically and physiologically has been a major cause and force in the institution of slavery in India.


To further understand the caste system, one must understand the difference between class and caste:

“Class is a Natural distinction, whereas according to Hindus, caste was founded and created by the divine. A man can move from a low class to a high class, but no one can enter from one caste to another” (Viswanath).


The caste system is often a prevalent use of social distinction in India today, and remains a source of an individual’s identity especially in the rural communities. One is born into their caste and cannot move from one caste to another. Even with managing to attain a higher status through socio-economic means, people will often still identify with their caste. In India’s history, the government administered the castes, while denying the disadvantages and injustices presented to any individuals of a low caste. (Viswanath)


Similar to the United States, India has a constitutional separation of religion and government due to the foresight of India’s democratic founders. The founders declared that India would be a secular country and developed the constitution and government policies that pushed India away from discrimination based on religion and caste. Discriminating a person based on his caste is actually prohibited by law in order to protect the members of the Backwards Classes. The leaders further established corrective steps to improve this issue by creating programs similar to the United State’s affirmative action programs. They are called positive discrimination laws and are meant to ensure the historically depressed classes of India have a chance to develop, integrate, and represent themselves. The goal is to improve their ability to change their current cycle of poverty and oppression through greater government representation and increased education and job opportunities.


In large part due to the governing rules of the state, in addition to global influence and higher education, the urban population in India is generally less strict about the caste system than the rural population (Daniel). In cities it is more likely to see people from different castes mingling with one other, although caste differences may still be more prominent when it comes to such things as marriage, prestigious employment or community positions, admission into prestigious schools, or living in upper class societies. With each generation the prominence of caste within the urban centers of India is fading. This is in large part due to the gradual replacement of social hierarchies from those based upon caste to an informal monetary-oriented tiered system. In most rural areas, however, discrimination based on caste is prevalent and society is often resolved to the matter, overlooking it as being “inevitable” or “unchangeable”.


HISTORY OF CASTES & ITS ROOTS IN RELIGION Caste System Origination

Since its origin between 200 BCE and 200 CE, the caste system has been supplementary to slavery. In the Law of Manu, slave laws were defined (Viswanath) and society was divided into four social orders, called Varnas. Rooted in religious belief, the caste system story explains that the four classes were created from the Creator’s body (Thekaekara). Brahmins, the scholarly and priestly class, were born from the mouth; the Kshatriyas, the warrior and aristocratic class, were born from the arms; the Vaishyas, the merchant class, were born from the stomach; the Sudras, the craftsmen, farmers, and service providers were designated the lowest of the castes and born from the feet. Even lower than the Sudras were the untouchables. The untouchables are considered so polluting and disgraceful that they are created outside of the system of Manu (Viswanath/Thekaekara).


Although Varnas are not technically castes, Indians may often refer to this when asked what their caste affiliation is, and it often plays a significant role in the social norms of society. In addition, Jatis or subcastes further classify an individual by such things as lineage, family society, region, and reputation. Jatis are most often critical during the selection of a marriage partner. For example, an orthodox Brahmin family will often not accept a marriage proposal from another Brahmin of a slightly different jatis or sub-caste. Nor will many people eat food cooked by someone from a sub-caste lower than their own.


As the population continued to grow and new specializations formed, thousands of jatis were formed. Each of the jatis is exclusive from one another. There are over 3,000 estimated jatis in India today and there is no complete formalized ranking of all of them by the Indian government. This is largely due to the informal, socially constructed nature of these, known only to the local communities who adhere to them. In addition, the Jatis system is not static and a jati’s position and ranking can change over time. It is important to note that the ranking or position of an entire jati community, not the individual, can be gradually changed, which is foundationally different than the fixed caste hierarchy system.

Formal Classifications

When the British arrived to India at first they were appalled by the caste system and its inhumane characteristics. They outlawed practices such as Sati that forced a widow to commit suicide by being burned alive in the funeral pyre of her husband. However, the British left most of the caste system in place and eventually took advantage of the system to their benefit as their colonial rule strengthened. They saw the set structure useful to organize Indian society to help serve the British imperial rule. For example, the Brahmins were designated as clerks and administrators to serve the British colonial rule (Thekaekara).


The Indian lower classes are listed in three categories, collectively defined as Backward Classes.

The Impact of Caste and Religious Ideologies

The caste system is an integral part of India today, and much of the oppression, corruption, and unjust hierarchal status stems from the historical beginnings of caste. Its lasting effects are evident in the day-to-day segregation of the 180 million people in India who are subject to discrimination and exploitation as members of the Backwards Classes (Thekaekara). Backwards Classes are a legal classification for people from the lower castes of Indian society, such as the Dalit community (formerly known as “untouchables”), as well as several ethnic groups such as the Aboriginals, and other outcastes and nomads.


People from the Backwards Classes are often subject to unfair economic and social treatment. In fact, of the millions of bonded laborers in India, 90% are Dalits or other members of the Backwards Classes (Upadhyaya). These castes are also generally forced to do manual work or work that is considered undesirable or dirty, such as manually scavenging (a term used for the removal of human waste), which is 95-98% done by women of the Backwards Classes (Albuquerque). The imbalance of power both physically and physiologically has been a major cause and force in the institution of slavery in India.


To further understand the caste system, one must understand the difference between class and caste:

“Class is a Natural distinction, whereas according to Hindus, caste was founded and created by the divine. A man can move from a low class to a high class, but no one can enter from one caste to another” (Viswanath).


The caste system is often a prevalent use of social distinction in India today, and remains a source of an individual’s identity especially in the rural communities. One is born into their caste and cannot move from one caste to another. Even with managing to attain a higher status through socio-economic means, people will often still identify with their caste. In India’s history, the government administered the castes, while denying the disadvantages and injustices presented to any individuals of a low caste. (Viswanath)


Similar to the United States, India has a constitutional separation of religion and government due to the foresight of India’s democratic founders. The founders declared that India would be a secular country and developed the constitution and government policies that pushed India away from discrimination based on religion and caste. Discriminating a person based on his caste is actually prohibited by law in order to protect the members of the Backwards Classes. The leaders further established corrective steps to improve this issue by creating programs similar to the United State’s affirmative action programs. They are called positive discrimination laws and are meant to ensure the historically depressed classes of India have a chance to develop, integrate, and represent themselves. The goal is to improve their ability to change their current cycle of poverty and oppression through greater government representation and increased education and job opportunities.


In large part due to the governing rules of the state, in addition to global influence and higher education, the urban population in India is generally less strict about the caste system than the rural population (Daniel). In cities it is more likely to see people from different castes mingling with one other, although caste differences may still be more prominent when it comes to such things as marriage, prestigious employment or community positions, admission into prestigious schools, or living in upper class societies. With each generation the prominence of caste within the urban centers of India is fading. This is in large part due to the gradual replacement of social hierarchies from those based upon caste to an informal monetary-oriented tiered system. In most rural areas, however, discrimination based on caste is prevalent and society is often resolved to the matter, overlooking it as being “inevitable” or “unchangeable”.


HISTORY OF CASTES & ITS ROOTS IN RELIGION 
Caste System Origination

Since its origin between 200 BCE and 200 CE, the caste system has been supplementary to slavery. In the Law of Manu, slave laws were defined (Viswanath) and society was divided into four social orders, called Varnas. Rooted in religious belief, the caste system story explains that the four classes were created from the Creator’s body (Thekaekara). Brahmins, the scholarly and priestly class, were born from the mouth; the Kshatriyas, the warrior and aristocratic class, were born from the arms; the Vaishyas, the merchant class, were born from the stomach; the Sudras, the craftsmen, farmers, and service providers were designated the lowest of the castes and born from the feet. Even lower than the Sudras were the untouchables. The untouchables are considered so polluting and disgraceful that they are created outside of the system of Manu (Viswanath/Thekaekara).

Although Varnas are not technically castes, Indians may often refer to this when asked what their caste affiliation is, and it often plays a significant role in the social norms of society. In addition, Jatis or subcastes further classify an individual by such things as lineage, family society, region, and reputation. Jatis are most often critical during the selection of a marriage partner. For example, an orthodox Brahmin family will often not accept a marriage proposal from another Brahmin of a slightly different jatis or sub-caste. Nor will many people eat food cooked by someone from a sub-caste lower than their own.


As the population continued to grow and new specializations formed, thousands of jatis were formed. Each of the jatis is exclusive from one another. There are over 3,000 estimated jatis in India today and there is no complete formalized ranking of all of them by the Indian government. This is largely due to the informal, socially constructed nature of these, known only to the local communities who adhere to them. In addition, the Jatis system is not static and a jati’s position and ranking can change over time. It is important to note that the ranking or position of an entire jati community, not the individual, can be gradually changed, which is foundationally different than the fixed caste hierarchy system.

The first four Varna and the later conceptualized fifth category (Heitzman)


Formal Classifications

When the British arrived to India at first they were appalled by the caste system and its inhumane characteristics. They outlawed practices such as Sati that forced a widow to commit suicide by being burned alive in the funeral pyre of her husband. However, the British left most of the caste system in place and eventually took advantage of the system to their benefit as their colonial rule strengthened. They saw the set structure useful to organize Indian society to help serve the British imperial rule. For example, the Brahmins were designated as clerks and administrators to serve the British colonial rule (Thekaekara).


The Indian lower classes are listed in three categories, collectively defined as Backward Classes.


The first category is called Scheduled Castes. This category includes communities who were untouchables. Today people are not referred to as untouchables, but rather Dalits, meaning depressed or broken people. Until the late 1980s they were called Harijan, meaning children of God, a title given to them by Mahatma Gandhi, who wanted society to accept untouchables within their communities.

The second category is Scheduled Tribes or Adivasi meaning aboriginals. These communities had retreated from society to live in the jungles, mountains, and forests of India. The Adivasi resisted the Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religions, as well as refusing the caste system.


The third category, Other Backward Classes or Backward Classes, is a catch all class for people in the Varna castes who then converted to a religion other than Hinduism. It also includes various nomads and tribes who made a living primarily from illegal or criminal activities.

Over time, some castes and jatis became more defined and some castes, such as the untouchable class, became more excluded from society. The untouchables were forced to live outside the village, prohibited from communicating with higher castes and wearing clothes of high castes. The exclusion goes as far as believing that the touch of an “untouchable” is contaminating (Viswanath).


RELIGIOUS IMPLICATIONS

Several “justifications” for the caste system are found in the Vedas, which was how the system gained the support of the people since ancient times. The Purushu Sukta in the 10th Mandala of the Rigveda, describes how the castes came into existence. They used a human form called Purusha, who was a Cosmic Soul, and during the sacrifice to the gods, the Brahmins came out of his mouth, the Kshatriyas from his arms, the Vaiyshas from his thighs, and the Shudras from his feet (Jayarama V).


The caste hierarchy began as a Hindu construct, however, several Hindus have been converted to other religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, Sikhism and Islam, yet their caste status often follows them for contemporary social placement. It is difficult, if not impossible to escape one’s caste as although not treated as a religious ideal anymore, it is still a label to classify one’s worth in society and is brought up often when applying for jobs, homes, for marriage purposes

(Thekaekara).


Karma Philosophy

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines Karma as the "sum of person's actions in one of his successive states of existence, viewed as deciding his fate for the next. The Hindu religion believes in life after death, and karma from this life determines the type of life the person gets in their next life. Every person is responsible for his or her acts and thoughts, so each person's karma is entirely his or her own. This all roughly translates into a philosophy that believes: "People get what they deserve". So, if someone is suffering they could just be paying off their bad karma from a prior life.


People often comment with disbelief when visiting India for the first time at the ability for the upper class to walk by horrific scenes of mistreatment and misery without stopping to assist. The combination of caste ideology and the belief in karma reinforces an unconscious acceptance of inhumane treatment of others. Dalit slaves believe they must work off their bad karma in order to be reborn into a higher caste in their next life. One believes that their current pain and sorrow is due to bad behavior in a past life. This karmic balance is a belief engrained in society that excuses slave labor that justifies injustice and instills a hope for future progress (Smith).


One of Hinduism’s primary beliefs is reincarnation and this plays a large role in preventing people from revolting against the caste system. The Aryans, a term used to describe the noble class in the Vedic period in India, misused the religious ideology of Karma as a way to justify the oppressive treatment of the natives. The concept of reincarnation justifies injustice by deferring the happiness of the suppressed communities to their next life, but only if they are “good” while simultaneously eliminating guilt for the upper castes as they are just reaping the rewards of their behaviors in a past life (Deshpande).


Dharma Philosophy

Dharma comes from the Sanskrit root "dhri", which means to uphold or to sustain. It can also be translated as duty or even righteousness, but the idea of dharma is far more complicated. A way to think of dharma is to say, "that which upholds or sustains the positive order of things: the nation, the community, the family, and ultimately even the universe" (Devasthanam, 1). At a social level, every individual has a particular dharma according to his or her place in life. If everyone performs their dharma then there will be order in the universe: children obey parents and parents look after children, everyone does what they are supposed to do. This includes the people of low birth performing the functions they are supposed to perform.


It is easy to see the natural leap made with these philosophies to subconsciously justify the issues of caste in society. It is easier to not feel responsibility for the plight of others if one believes that people are born into their positions in life based on their own karma/sins. In addition, there is hope for the future as the belief in reincarnation also states that if people do what they are supposed to do according to their dharma, they will reap the benefits in their next life. There is an underlying comfort that can be derived from these philosophies in that there is a certain natural order to the world and that the right thing to do is to just follow the rules of what we are supposed to do in life and all will be well.


BACKWARDS CLASSES CURRENT SITUATION

The caste system played a pivotal role in the village life, as the distinct sub-castes and jatis provided the occupations needed in the villages, such as priests, teachers, carpenters, potter tradesmen, shepards, washermen, beggars, and rice agriculturists (Velassery). With increased education and the integration of cultural norms from influences outside of India, the urban communities are less tainted with caste biases. The villages, however, have held on to caste differences as a primary mean of maintaining their traditional social order (Viswanath). The main shift from historical caste system to modern caste system is the transformation of caste as a basis of religion and social organization to caste as a political strategy of organization and power. (Daniel)


Caste has been a social organization for work and living, however, in urban India, caste as identity is less prevalent. In urban society, caste comes in to play when fighting for resources such as houses, jobs, education, and political power (Sekhon/ Thekaekara). With struggle for resources, hostility can arise between the upper and lower castes, as the upper castes often feel threatened by the lower castes coming up in society and they revolt, sometimes through violent means (Daniel).


India, a democratic, socialist, and secular country, fails to effectively separate religion and state with the integration of caste into its government. Although the government has made steps to eradicate caste discrimination and untouchability, and these practices are strictly illegal, the issue remains. Within the government structure, the caste system is tightly integrated into the economic system through an established positive discrimination (Daniel).


In 1989 The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was passed, prohibiting the discrimination of caste and schedule tribes. However, a major flaw is the corruption within the police and government, who tend to favor the upper castes and their bias prevents punishment against the upper caste’s offenses. Corruption is so prominent that police officers often turn a blind eye to offenses made by the upper caste members against the Backwards Classes (Thekaekara). Protection is also provided under the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, that requires the state to enforce the rights of caste and schedule tribe citizens. The atrocities detailed under these acts displays the type of inhumane crimes committed against innocent people simply because of a social status. They include forcing a scheduled caste or tribe to eat or drink toxic substances, taking ones life or property, forcibly parading around a schedule caste or tribe naked, etc. These acts of utter humiliation and oppression reinforce the belief within these groups that they are less worthy and even less human than those of the upper castes. As a result, despite the enactment of these Acts, the Backwards Classes continue to live in fear and vulnerability, because of the common abuse they often face from upper castes (Child Protection & Child Rights).


During the summer of 2010, I travelled to India to conduct on-the-ground research on modern-day slavery and its root causes. The two non-government organizations (NGOs) that I worked with focused heavily on educating the Dalit community on the foundational concept of self-identity and dignity. In the villages, the concept of dignity is taken from them at an early age and reinforced with each generation. I heard the stories of how each seemingly minor act reinforced the belief that they were somehow less human than those from the upper class. This message was clearly delivered to them with every act of not being allowed to walk on the sidewalks, not being allowed to wear the same type of clothing, being handed food only through a system that ensures zero contact, and not being allowed access to indoor bathroom facilities.


Caste System Statistics

There are almost 180 million from the Backwards Classes in India today and at least another 60 million around the world who face caste discrimination of various kinds (Thekaekara).


India is not alone in the world facing issues of discrimination and segregation. America has outlawed all slavery since 1865 however racial discrimination and segregation between blacks and whites remained for nearly a century later and still today racial tensions exist. Racism exists in many parts of the world and governments struggle with programs and policies to eliminate the issue. India’s discrimination and segregation issues on the “created” caste system in the villages of India has additional complexities to solve due to the large population impacted, the level of extreme poverty, the sever lack of education, and the fact that traditions of caste have existed for thousands of years.

For instance, the Backward Classes have been unable to break from the poverty issues that plague about 75 per cent of Dalit communities living below the poverty line (Muthumary). This makes this community highly susceptible to mistreatment and abuse. Although the current official estimate of the number of people implicated by modern day slavery in India is 14 million, some estimate the number of bonded laborers in 2001 was as high as 20 to 65 million and the Government found that 85 per cent of these individuals were Dalits or from lower castes. These included a large number of children (Indian Human Rights Report). Much of the seemingly unbreakable bounds of poverty are due to the lack of education with two-thirds of the Dalit population being illiterate (Muthumary). Dalits and Adivasis form the largest proportion of those who drop out of school. In 2006, UNICEF estimated the Dalit children’s average dropout rate from primary school in India to be 44.27% (IDSN). A year earlier, a special report was created looking at girls right to education and found the literacy rate for Dalit girls to be 24.4 percent, almost half of the Indian national average for women (IDSN). As a result half of the Dalit population become landless agricultural laborers with only seven per cent having access to safe drinking water, electricity and toilets (Muthumary).


The discrimination issues go far beyond just the issues of poverty and education. Mass rapes often form part of the tactics of intimidation used by upper-caste gangs against lower castes. The Home Ministry reported that, between 2000 and 2001, there was a 16.5 per cent increase in reported rape cases (Indian Human Rights Report). In fact, inter-caste violence claims hundreds of lives every year with issues being especially pronounced in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh (Indian Human Rights Report). The perpetrators of this cruel behavior are often unpunished in India which may be the result of a largely disproportionate number of upper class individuals in positions of power. Brahmins, who make up 3.5 per cent of the population, hold 78 per cent of the judicial positions and approximately 50 per cent of parliamentary seats (Indian Human Rights Report).


Examples of Oppression, Discrimination, and Abuse

This injustice is portrayed through the segregated practices of the caste system that excludes the castes from one another through social interactions and customs. One’s life occupation is often determined by ones caste, and therefore limited. However, there are many other limitations on castes. For one, marriage between different castes is often forbidden by the family and can lead to social exclusion. Even those who have converted to different religions find themselves entrenched in the caste cycle, as they search for marriage partners of the same caste. Although the caste system originated as a religious ideology, it remains today as a form of identity, or a label. This caste label is brought up when applying for jobs, homes, and marriage, deeply integrated into Indians lives (Thekaekara).


Caste has even taken a hold over the types of food a certain caste can eat or exchange. The two types of food: Pacha and Kachcha, create restrictions on the exchange and consumption of food, as Brahmans will take Pacha food from Shudras, but they would not accept Kachcha from a Shudra, as Kachcha food can only be exchanged by the same caste or from a higher caste to lower caste (Pyakurel). Many individuals of higher castes will not eat food cooked by a lower caste.


A sense of superiority is constructed through social customs and segregation. Similar to the prior segregation laws in the United States between African Americans and Whites, in India segregation of caste prevails despite laws that prohibit caste discrimination. For example, many Dalits will not be served at restaurants and cafes, and the two-glass system eliminates this issue of “untouchability”, preventing Dalits from making any contact with waiters and other customers at tea shops and any restaurants. Separate, “untouchable” cups are placed on separate shelves and when tea is being poured, it is at a safe distance from the Dalit, and when returning the cup they must wash it themselves and place it back on the shelf. Another caste created system is the chappal system, which requires Dalits to remove their footwear before entering the part of the village where the other castes reside (Thekaekara). In a survey taken in 2004, of 22 villages in Tamil Nadu in southern India, 16 practiced the two-glass system, 14 practiced the chappal system, 17 villages probibited Dalits from entering temples, and only 4 had challenged these systems and abolished them (India Human Rights Report).


68 years after India’s independence, Dalits, “the broken or depressed people”, continue to face severe injustices, such as rape and murder (Thekaekara). They live in communities where they are constantly reminded that they deserve less, and are lesser human beings. They are reminded, as they are forbidden to wear shoes and pants, and instead wear kurtas, rag-like skirts, because they are “inferior”. An entire village may come together to punish a Dalit publicly to intimidate and make an example of them as was done to Gopal, a man I interviewed during my research the summer of 2013 who was in bonded labor for 36 years. The upper caste members publically beat Gopal when he attempted to wear pants to go to a nearby city to look for work. These crimes are committed so often, and blinded by so much corruption, that they rarely make local or national news (Thekaekara). These vulnerable groups are subject to the worst kinds of slavery and bonded labor, because the other castes believe they deserve these brutal conditions based on the originations of the system.


In the rural community, the discrimination is much more pronounced. During the summer of 2013, I lived with the Dalit communities in the villages in Karnataka, India, and I was able to witness in detail how prevalent the caste system is today in these communities. My interviews with Umesh, a leader in the Jeevika NGO in Karnataka, explained the real life challenges he and his family faced. As a young man he worked for a landowner, helping to care for the animals and property. He described how humiliated he felt when the wife of the family refused to even hand him a ragi mudde ball to eat and how she would place it in the stable above his head. Once, when it dropped, it spattered on her and he was beaten as she was now touched with something “unholy”. Although Umesh grew to be educated and taking over a management position with the NGO, he was rejected for years to be able to move into a better neighborhood closer to his son’s school. He eventually fought his way in, but I witnessed how the neighbors treated him poorly and the level of daily discrimination his family felt.


Impact to Women of Backward Classes

In addition to bonded labor, the exploitation of women in lower castes and tribes on top of an apparent sexism leads to sex trafficking. Women lack rights and power to defend themselves, and without education or finance opportunities, they are vulnerable. The corrupt legal system lacks protection for these women and the oppression and discrimination of women and young girls is deeply rooted in society. As a result police and government officials rarely take on cases of rape, domestic violence, and trafficking. A woman subject to discrimination in her small village in India said, “This is our culture. Men want us as slaves.” (Prasad).


Many untouchables, many of whom make a living as scavengers, are cut off from access to opportunity or progress; therefore, they are unable escape their cycle of oppression (Prasad). Girls in lower castes are subject to gender related exploitation. Dalit women are also subjugated in religious places by ancient practices such as the Devadasi system which are estimated to hold 250,000 “devadasi” girls, almost all from the Dalit community (The Hindu Staff Reporter). A Devadasi is considered a servant of the gods Yellamma and Khandoba and are mostly found in the temples on the Maharastra-Karnataka border. This is a system by which Dalit girls are offered to the goddess Yellamma just before they attain puberty. These girls are raped by the temple priests and then are forced into prostitution in the name of religion. These women are considered married to the temple, and when they have children they are stigmatized, with the daughters most often becoming devadasi themselves (Colundalur).


There has been a great deal of global attention recently on the prevalence of rape in India, however, it is very important to understand the issue of rape in the context of the suppression of the Backward Classes. The Dalit community is a primary target for this as rape is often used as a method to instill fear into the community to eliminate attempts to break out of their current circumstances. Rape and abuse of Dalit women is often used as a collective punishment for activities committed by other family members as well. Significant international exposure was given to this issue after the two bodies of Dalit women hanging from a mango tree in Baduan, Uttar Pradesh were found and several people from the Dalit community began to fight back (Soundararajan).  The issue of caste is epidemic in India, as an average of four Dalit women are raped, two Dalits are murdered, and two Dalit homes are torched every day, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau (Mannen).


Corruption of Police and Government:

The level of corruption in the police and government seems commonly known, yet difficult to prove. Several recent cases have received media attention where police officers have turned a blind eye to bonded labor, or even aided upper-caste mobs with mistreatment of the backwards classes including horrific acts as murder and rape delivered as punishment to the Dalit community members for breaking out of their “place” in society (Thekaekara).


Once a crime has occurred it is also very difficult for the victims from lower classes to receive justice or even to report their grievances. A Dalit woman has an estimated 2% chance of having her rape case convicted compared to 24% for women in general (Gupta). Many times the police will not believe a lower caste women’s claims, and it is not uncommon for the police to then rape the women as they are seen as “loose”. Sometimes this happens right there at the station when they come to make their claim, and sometimes they are harassed and abused perpetually as they try to reclaim their lives. Other issues of not recording a FIR (First Information Report) are common as without it no legal action can take place. This is done to protect the more influential members of society who often provide bribes or push influence over the police and government officials (Gupta).


In March 2014, the Supreme Court of India began requiring state’s intervention to end the practice of “manual scavenging”, the practice of using the low caste workers to clean by hand the human waste of higher members of the community. Many times violence has occurred when members of the lower caste have tried to leave this type of work (World Report 2015: India). Police are often reluctant to address cast related violence or to record complaints from this community, which discredit much of the crime statistics. However, with media attention increasing, the number of reported cases has increased by 31% from 2007 to 2013 for Backward Classes (Karp) and the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), recorded another 19% increase in 2014 (47,064 in 2014 from 39,408 in 2013) (Jain).


CASTES SYSTEM SOLUTIONS

Although the caste system is deeply rooted into the Indian culture – especially in the rural communities – there are ways to uproot it as well. India has had progress with the elimination of the caste system through legislation and political means; leaders such as Gandhi and Ambedkar have also impacted a change on the system as well. Gandhi is well known for his work to gain independence for India from the British, but he also had a passion for the protection of the Backward Class individuals. Ambedkar, also knows as Babasaheb, was the principle architect of India’s constitution and was also a Dalit himself. He campaigned fiercely against the discrimination of the Dalit community and fought for the rights of women. His work had a significant impact on the foundational political practices of contemporary India, which is commemorated in the Ambedkar Manimandapam memorial in Chennai, India.


Gandhi and Ambedkar, however, promoted different solutions. Gandhi believed in empowering the Dalits to have pride in their identity and changing the mindsets and hearts of the upper castes, while Amedkar believed the issue was not in morality, but due to political and economic means that legislation and education could fix. (Sekhon). Through my research, I’ve come to believe that battling the dangers of this system takes more than one angle. As long as caste exists, so will the modern day slavery and the oppression of millions of innocent people. The system impedes their potential to contribute to society and ability to obtain individual identities apart form the unjust, corrosive system.


Education and Employment

An essential factor in empowering the Dalit community is through education. The people will never respect the legal measures if they do not believe in the values behind them, and see the inability of the government to enforce them. Therefore, education is the key to integrating the new ideology and morals into society, so that new generations of all caste levels will begin to lose ties to the constraining system. Education is a lethal weapon against caste, and those with high power are threatened by its potential. Even in the ancient Hindu scripts, the successors to Manu’s Law created punishments for the low castes: if he intentionally listens to the Vedas “his ears shall be filled with (molten) tin or lac”, if he recites the sacred verses, “his tongue should be cut off”, and if he remembers them, “his body shall be split in twain” (Abraham).


To prevent the lower castes from understanding their rights and rising up against the system, the Dalits were not educated and were forbidden to go to school. Eventually they began going to school, but the untouchable children were separated from the other castes, and this still continues in many places today (Thekaekara). When traveling to India in 2013, I heard many stories of how the Dalit children would go to school only to be told to sit on the floor in the back of the classroom or even to have to sit outside and try to listen through the windows. Usually, they became disheartened and stop attending with the belief having no dignity and self-worth being reinforced at a young age. When the community is aware and knowledgeable of their power, they will take back their dignity and demand self-respect. They will begin to fight for what is rightly theirs including land and basic human dignity.


Government Representation

Meanwhile, in India legislation has been passed enforcing positive discrimination towards Backward Classes: Dalits, scheduled tribes and castes. This is called the reservation system. In the government and in universities, quotas have been decided, reserving positions for people from specific caste titles. The quotas are in proportion for some of the classes but not all (Daniel):

  • Scheduled Castes make up 15% of India’s population, thus 15% of government jobs and 15% of students admitted to universities are reserved for them.
  • Scheduled Tribes make up 7.5% of India’s population, thus 7.5% of government jobs and 7.5% of students admitted to universities are reserved for them.
  • Backwards Classes, however, make up 50% of India’s population, but only 27% of government jobs are reserved for them.

As the upper class members have far more qualified candidates for these jobs and university seats, the result is that high caste members compete for the few places reserved for them. The collective Backward Classes members have little competition with many spots reserved and few candidates, thus, sometimes in order to fill the quota, candidates from the lower classes are accepted even though they are not qualified for the roles.


Another issue that has evolved out of this reservation system is the increase in violence towards lower castes and tribes who have become a threat and competition (Deshpande). In addition, there is a great deal of corruption from the wealthier, high caste members to create “puppet” representatives, who are controlled by their votes through bribery, coercion, political esteem, and other methods.


Communities or person on the legal list are entitled for positive discrimination and once on the list they do not get moved off this list even if their social and political conditions get better. Many times the legal system must get involved to decide if a certain person is entitled for positive discrimination. As a result, caste identity has become a subject of political, social and legal interpretation often resulting in unfair or inconsistent results. Caste is now so deeply rooted in Indian society that it is a part of the legal system, despite its discrimination being outlawed. India will never be able to lose its discriminating caste traditions if the government uses it as a political bases to literally discriminate its people whether for “positive” means or not. (Daniel).


Land Rights

Aside from education and government representation, another determining factor for Dalits to regain power in society is through socio-economic means (Deshpande). The inability for lower castes, tribes, and untouchable groups to own land prevents them from becoming socio-economically independent. This inability is the result of several factors, including lack of resources as well as lack of identification, which prohibits many from the Dalit community to obtain credit or other means of economic growth. Thus, in order to survive, many result to forms of slavery such as bonded labor which tie them to the land and their landowners.


The ability to own land enforces a right and power to an individual, and the inability for Dalits to own their own land and work is a key cause of their enforcement into slavery. Land is critical as prevention for the lowest castes being subject to working for exploitative, upper castes, unable to control their own lives and working conditions.


Ownership of land can pull people out of their dependency of the land owners which triggers a large amount of the bonded labor form of modern day slavery. Paul Divakar, Convener of the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights in India says that “On paper, 80 per cent of rural Dalits have access to land but the moment they try to assert control over this land they are harassed.” (Thekaekara). Land is critical for not only socio-economic freedom but freedom from the oppression of caste brutality, as well as a prevention for the lowest castes being subject to working for exploitative, upper castes, unable to control their own lives and working conditions.


Global Awareness

Another impactful component towards eradicating slave labor and through the caste system is through social and global awareness. The corporate world in India is attempting to erase India’s shameful reputation of the caste system, by reserving jobs for Dalits in business (Thekaekara). This change shows how awareness of the caste system can also work to prevent slavery, as the rest of the world can assert pressure on India to eradicate their shameful discriminatory system and give back the rights to the oppressed class by preserving jobs and rights for them.


Although, caste was initially created as a religious ideology to enforce a disciplined and efficient structure on society, the dangers of caste are evident in the extent to which the lower castes are dehumanized. When the lowest class of people is considered so polluted and contaminated that they are referred to as “untouchables”, these human beings lose all means of respect and dignity. They are stripped of their humanity and treated worse than animals. This extreme of the caste system does not present a helpful societal structure, but simply an unjust society that discriminates an innocent people.