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India’s caste system and human rights

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When we hear the word “outcast”, we immediately equate it with a poor, destitute person, a person who is poorly provided for and best kept away from.

It is also true that most people equate it with India. And so it is. That is where the term comes from, to indicate that, within a social division that exists in that country, the outcasts are at the bottom of the ladder. India’s caste system is one of the oldest in the history of mankind and still, to this day, continues to set the course for many Indians who have only had the disadvantage of being born into a highly devalued social status.

“Fair” division system

This system is said to divide Hindus into fairly rigid hierarchical groups based on karma (work) and dharma (religion or duty) and dates back at least a thousand years before the birth of Christ, as recorded in the Manusmriti, considered the most important and authoritative book of Hindu law, which justifies the caste system as “the basis of order and trust in society”.

There are four main categories in the Hindu caste division: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Sudras, and many believe that these groups originated from Brahma, the Hindu god of creation.

Within this scale, we can see that the brahmins (teachers and intellectuals) come from the head of Brahma.

  • Brahmins (Brahmin) come from the mouth of the giant. They have the gift of speech. Traditionally, they were in charge of maintaining knowledge and rituals. They were priests and intellectuals supported by other castes, who had to lead an austere life.
  • The warriors and administrators (kshatriya) came out of their arms. They have strength and their virtue is justice. They have to rule and protect the other social groups.
  • The traders (vaishya) were the caste that made the economy move and where the main resources came from to maintain the social pyramid. Their origin is in the legs of the giant. Lawful profit was not frowned upon in Vedic culture. They had the practical knowledge of trade, agriculture and animal husbandry.
  • The servants (shudra) were the labour force of the society. They sprang from the feet of the giant Purusha and were attributed only humility as a virtue. They had few privileges and few duties. In fact, their only privilege was to be protected by the upper castes.
    The Vedic texts also refer to outsiders (mleichas) who do not belong to that social structure. It is believed that the early Indus civilisation was an egalitarian society and that this structure was brought with them by the Indo-European peoples when they came to India. This subdivision into social strata was common in many ancient civilisations and even up to the Modern Age in Europe. The originality of the caste system in India is its vertical organisation based on the concept of purity of the activities performed by the individual and the predominant role of the intellectual caste in the social pyramid. The fact that the estates were hermetic would be found in other societies as well.

It should be noted that the jati are governed by a panchayat, or council of elders, who determine the practices attached to the community. Each jati determines fundamental elements of people’s daily lives such as:

  • Hygienic habits
  • Diet: alcohol, prohibitions, vegetarianism…
  • Marriage rules
  • Rituals and devotion to certain gods
  • Education and profession.

All these aspects create cohesive and endogamous cultural communities embedded in a very plural society divided into tens or hundreds of Jati living together in the same territory. The practice of jati has allowed the Indian to be very tolerant of what he considers outside his community, while being able to strictly enforce the social norms that govern his own community (jati).

As an example, the Rajput, who consider themselves a warrior caste (kshatriya), were groups that settled in Rajasthan in the 7th century. They share a culture that is maintained within the various clans or jati that fall under this denomination. Although they are a warrior caste, their culture and way of life is very different from other kshatriya jati such as the khatri.

Outside this Hindu caste system were the Achhoots, the Dalits and the untouchables.

Untouchables and human rights

Approximately one in six of India’s population is Dalit, some 200 million people. Most ‘untouchables’ live in extreme poverty, on less than a dollar a day, and suffer not only economic inequality but also social discrimination.

Forty-eight per cent of Dalit children show signs of malnutrition and 72 per cent are anaemic. A high percentage do not attend school or drop out after primary school, and only a quarter of girls living in rural areas attend school. Dalit children routinely face verbal and physical abuse from teachers and peers; and in addition to dealing with extreme poverty, they know that they are unlikely to achieve equal opportunities simply because they were born as “untouchables”.

When you are born in India, a country that is as big as a continent in size, within the pariah social class, you are forbidden the right to draw water from a well, you cannot enter a temple to pray, let alone make offerings, which, due to the profuse religiosity of Indians, is a heinous way of separating you from your beliefs.

Some are killed in the streets, where they are picked up by others of the same social status, and these deaths are never investigated, as they are hardly taken into account as people.

In almost 40% of public schools, Dalit children have to eat separately from other pupils; and in 20% they are not allowed to drink water from the same source. They are considered impure. Discrimination is the main cause of school dropout: almost 70% of Dalit children between 5 and 15 years of age leave school without completing their studies and only stay in the education system for an average of 3 years. For all these reasons, education has not been a priority for Dalit communities and many children start working from the age of eight or nine to support their families, so it is very important to carry out campaigns to raise parents’ awareness of the importance of their children receiving an education.

According to the study ‘Untouchability in rural India’, carried out by academics and activists in more than 500 villages in eleven Indian states, in 47% of these localities, wedding marches by Dalits on horseback were banned, and in 8.4%, untouchables even had to seek permission from upper castes to marry; they are forbidden to shake hands with members of other castes, and even to go out on the streets at certain times of the day.
“As a group, when they seek to assert their constitutional right to equality, Dalits are often targeted by the upper castes (who see their dominant position threatened and use violence) to teach Dalits a lesson (…) by constantly reminding them of their subordinate status,” the study says.

But there are always exceptions that confirm the rule, as was the case of Ambedkar, who belonged to the Mahar community, an untouchable group in the Mumbai area, but was the first Indian to obtain a doctorate from a British university. He was an economist and lawyer and was one of the fathers of the Indian Constitution.

Ambedkar argued that the untouchables should be called Dalits (oppressed) and that the newly independent country should take affirmative action to balance the historical marginalisation of these communities.

Thanks to Ambedkar, the Indian Constitution incorporated titles against caste discrimination and an annex listing Dalit communities and a proposal for measures to reverse inequalities.

Speaking to the Anadolu Agency, outcast rights activist Yash Meghwal reports that most outcasts have no access to education, suffer from food insufficiency and are subject to caste attacks despite the fact that the Indian Constitution abolishes the caste system.
According to Meghwal, those who support the caste system think it is honourable, and he says this situation will continue as long as a full and inclusive education system is not put in place.
This unjust and regressive social system ensured that the upper castes enjoyed many advantages at the cost of repression of those lower down the pyramid, or Brahma’s body.

Centuries it has lasted, and this irrational system still remains for us. Even so, some Dalits and other lower-caste Indians, like B.R. Ambedkar, author of the Indian Constitution, and K. R. Narayanan, who became the nation’s first Dalit president, have risen to prestigious positions in the country.

This was possible because, according to historians, until the 18th century formal caste distinctions were of limited importance, social identities were much more flexible and people could easily move from one caste to another.

However, when British colonisation came to India, the new rulers established strict boundaries that made caste the defining social characteristic of the country and used it to simplify the census system.

The aim was to create a single society with a common law that could be easily governed.

It is true that the Constitution of India, after independence, prohibited discrimination on the basis of caste, and in an attempt to redress the injustices that history had done to Hindus over many centuries. In 1950 the authorities announced quotas in government jobs and educational institutions for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, the lowest in the caste hierarchy.

In 1989, the quotas were expanded to include a grouping called OBCs (other backward classes) that fall between the traditional upper castes and the lower castes.

In recent decades, with the expansion of secular education and increasing urbanisation, caste influence has declined somewhat, especially in cities where different castes live together.

Inter-caste marriages are also becoming more common.

In certain southern states and in the northern state of Bihar, many people started to use one name after the social reform movements that were being attempted, because they were trying to implement the social reform movements.

Social reform movements were attempted, because surnames are almost always indicators of a person’s caste of belonging.

In recent years, there have been demands from various communities to be recognised as OBCs.

In 2016 there were violent protests by the Jat community in Haryana and the Patel community led large protests in Gujarat in 2015 demanding access to scheduled caste quotas.
Both are prosperous and politically dominant communities but argue that a large number of their communities are poor and suffer from deficiencies exacerbated by this discriminatory system.

Some say that the caste system would have disappeared by now if politicians had not regularly stoked the system. In elections, many caste groups continue to vote as a bloc and are courted by politicians for electoral gain. As a result, what was originally intended to be a temporary affirmative action scheme to improve the situation of disadvantaged groups has now become a vote-catching exercise for many politicians. Why are these archaic structures not broken? Because individualism does not yet reign in India and the role of the family and the caste or community in protecting the individual from uncertainty and injustice is positively valued.

Firstly, the Indian extended family is a mutual support group. Likewise, the Indian castes are a protective element for their members as long as they comply with community norms. In the case of the migrating Indian, his first point of contact will be the members of his family or his jati in the city or country he is going to. These are people with whom he shares cultural ties and a way of life. In case a member of the jati has a particular problem in the place where he lives, the panchayat or members of his community will take a decision and protect him. In practice, the mostly rural society was not organised in a hierarchical manner strictly following the theory of the social pyramid. In every area of India, we find a jati who is dominant because he owns the land and this allows him to be the majority population group. This group does not necessarily correspond to the highest castes (varna) or communities (jati) in the hierarchy.

The rest of the communities work for the dominant jati in a dependent relationship. As each jati is dedicated to an occupational activity, a village needs the presence of one or more families dedicated to each of the basic trades, which implies the coexistence of different communities under the umbrella of the dominant jati. This forms the labour system (jajmani) in which the service castes were maintained by the dominant caste in a currencyless economy. With the introduction of money on a widespread basis during British colonisation, many labours came to have a pecuniary counterpart, but the system remained unchanged. In a country where the minimum wage is $65 and the average wage is $300, the salary of a state legislator in Rajasthan is around $4400. Moreover, in India, the state provides official residence to every legislator.

The contempt of the upper castes for the outcasts goes so far that many Brahmins still consider, and say so publicly, that for example the life of a cow – a sacred animal – is worth more than that of an outcast. Some years ago Giriraj Kishore, leader of the Hindu religious group Vishwa Hindu Parishad, supported the lynching of five outcasts because they had killed a cow.

Caste segregation continues to this day, and will be very difficult to eliminate, because it is already based on caste economics, and so the brutal wage differentials make it impossible to break down these barriers.

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