Many Westerners have heard of India's caste system, but a thorough understanding of its ins and outs is still relatively uncommon.
What's the caste system?
Broadly speaking, a caste system is a process of placing people in occupational groups. It has pervaded several aspects of Indian society for centuries. Rooted in religion and based on a division of labor, the caste system, among other things, dictates the type of occupations a person can pursue and the social interactions that he/ she may have.
Castes are ranked in hierarchical order which determines the behaviour of one member of society over another. Even in a modern business setting, where caste isn't openly acknowledged, there may be subtle observances of village or family-style ranking. For instance, a young official may address a senior person, not necessarily his superior, as chacha ji, a respectful term for a paternal uncle.
The caste system has been used to control the Indian population. Most government officials have traditionally belonged to the higher castes. The caste system still plays a huge role in India, castes very rarely intermarry and are definitely not changeable.
Literacy rates, childhood vaccination levels, access to drinking water, the poverty level and life expectancy for the lowest castes is below average and much lower than the top castes.
How it's Structured
India's caste system has the following main classes (also called varnas) based originally on personality, profession, and birth. In descending order, the classes are as follows:
• Brahmana (now more commonly spelled Brahmin): Consist of those engaged in scriptural education and teaching, essential for the continuation of knowledge.
• Kshatriya: Take on all forms of public service, including administration, maintenance of law and order, and defense.
• Vaishya: Engage in commercial activity as businessmen.
• Shudra: Work as semi-skilled and unskilled labourers.
In addition to the varnas, there is a fifth class in Hinduism. It encompassed outcasts who, literally, did all the dirty work. They were referred to as "untouchables" or "dalits" because they carried out the miserable tasks associated with disease and pollution, such as cleaning up after funerals, dealing with sewage, and working with animal skin.
Brahmins are considered the embodiment of purity, and untouchables the embodiment of pollution. Physical contact between the two groups is absolutely prohibited. Brahmins adhere so strongly to this rule that they feel obliged to bathe if even the shadow of an untouchable falls across them.
This ideological scheme is composed of 3000 sub-castes, which in turn is composed of 90,000 local sub-groups! with people marrying only within their sub-group.
Types of Untouchability Practices and Discrimination
These girls, who belong to the Untouchable caste, make dung patties which are used for fuel and heat by members of all the castes.
Dalits represent a community of 170 million in India, constituting 17% of the population. One out of every six Indians is Dalit, yet due to their caste identity Dalits regularly face discrimination and violence which prevent them from enjoying the basic human rights and dignity promised to all citizens of India.
In the name of Untouchability, Dalits face nearly 140 forms of work and descent-based discrimination at the hands of the dominant castes. Here are only a few:
• Prohibited from eating with other caste members
• Prohibited from marrying with other caste members
• Separate glasses for Dalits in village tea stalls
• Discriminatory seating arrangements and separate utensils in restaurants
• Segregation in seating and food arrangements in village functions and festivals
• Prohibited from entering into village temples
• Prohibited from wearing sandals or holding umbrellas in front of dominant caste members
• Devadasi system - the ritualized temple prostitution of Dalit women
• Prohibited from entering dominant caste homes
• Prohibited from riding a bicycle inside the village
• Prohibited from using common village path
• Separate burial grounds
• No access to village's common/public properties and resources (water wells, ponds, temples, etc.)
• Segregation (separate seating area) of Dalit children in schools
• Prohibited from contesting in elections and exercising their right to vote
• Forced to vote or not to vote for certain candidates during the elections
• Prohibiting from hoisting the national flag during Independence or Republic days
• Sub-standard wages
• Bonded Labor
• Face social boycotts by dominant castes for refusing to perform their "duties"
In as many as 38% of government schools, Dalit children are made to sit separately while eating. In 20 percent of schools, Dalits children are not even permitted to drink water from the same source.
A shocking 27.6% of Dalits were prevented from entering police stations and 25.7% from entering ration shops. 33% of public health workers refused to visit Dalit homes, and 23.5% of Dalits still do not get letters delivered in their homes. Segregated seating for Dalits was found in 30.8% of self-help groups and cooperatives, and 29.6% of panchayat offices. In 14.4% of villages, Dalits were not permitted even to enter the panchayat building. In 12% of villages surveyed, Dalits were denied access to polling booths, or forced to form a separate line.
In 48.4% of surveyed villages, Dalits were denied access to common water sources. In 35.8%, Dalits were denied entry into village shops. They had to wait at some distance from the shop, the shopkeepers kept the goods they bought on the ground, and accepted their money similarly without direct contact. In teashops, again in about one-third of the villages, Dalits were denied seating and had to use separate cups.
In as many as 73% of the villages, Dalits were not permitted to enter non-Dalit homes, and in 70% of villages non-Dalits would not eat together with Dalits.
In more than 47% villages, bans operated on wedding processions on public (arrogated as upper-caste) roads. In 10 to 20% of villages, Dalits were not allowed even to wear clean, bright or fashionable clothes or sunglasses. They could not ride their bicycles, unfurl their umbrellas, wear sandals on public roads, smoke or even stand without head bowed.
This video is the inspiration of a 7 year old girl named Sukhmani Kaur. Her family is among 123 people
Restrictions on temple entry by Dalits average as high as 64%, ranging from 47 % in UP to 94% in Karnataka. In 48.9% of the surveyed villages, Dalits were barred from access to cremation grounds.
In 25% of the villages, Dalits were paid lower wages than other workers. They were also subjected to much longer working hours, delayed wages, verbal and even physical abuse, not just in 'feudal' states like Bihar but also notably in Punjab. In 37% of the villages, Dalit workers were paid wages from a distance, to avoid physical contact.
In 35% of villages, Dalit producers were barred from selling their produce in local markets. Instead they were forced to sell in the anonymity of distant urban markets where caste identities blur, imposing additional burdens of costs and time, and reducing their profit margin and competitiveness.
Criticism Of The Caste System
There has been much criticism of the caste system from both within and outside of India. For example, Jyotirao Phule vehemently criticised any explanations that the caste system was natural and ordained by the Creator in Hindu texts.
If Brahma wanted castes, argued Phule, he would have ordained the same for other creatures. There are no castes in species of animals or birds, why should there be one among human animals.
In his criticism Phule added, "Brahmins cannot claim superior status because of caste, because they hardly bothered with these when wining and dining with Europeans." Professions did not make castes, and castes did not decide one's profession.
If someone does a job that is dirty, it does not make them inferior; in the same way that no mother is inferior because she cleans the excreta of her baby. Ritual occupation or tasks, argued Phule, do not make any human being superior or inferior.
Vivekananda similarly criticised caste as one of the many human institutions that bars the power of free thought and action of an individual.
Caste or no caste, creed or no create, any man, or class, or caste, or nation, or institution that bars the power of free thought and bars action of an individual is devilish, and must go down. Liberty of thought and action, asserted Vivekananda, is the only condition of life, of growth and of well-being.
The maltreatment of Dalits in India has been described by some authors as "India's hidden apartheid". Castes are a racist aspect of the hindu religion. Caste, social hierachy and looking down at others is not part of Sikhism.
Dalits would be most welcome to become Sikhs if they chose to do so. Unfortunately, that is also the reason why Sikhs have always been seen as a threat to hindu leaders, they want to keep low caste untouchables as slaves for themselves.
ਚਹੁ ਵਰਨਾ ਕਉ ਦੇ ਉਪਦੇਸੁ ॥
Cẖahu varnā ka▫o ḏe upḏes.
He gives instruction to people of all castes and social classes.
~ Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Guru Arjan, Ang 274
ਜਾਣਹੁ ਜੋਤਿ ਨ ਪੂਛਹੁ ਜਾਤੀ ਆਗੈ ਜਾਤਿ ਨ ਹੇ ॥੧॥ ਰਹਾਉ ॥
Jāṇhu joṯ na pūcẖẖahu jāṯī āgai jāṯ na he. ||1|| rahā▫o.
Recognize the Lord's Light within all, and do not consider social class or status; there are no classes or castes in the world hereafter. ||1|| Pause||
~ Sri Guru Granth Sahib Ji, Guru Nanak, Ang 349