Social Inequality: India’s Caste System

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Ingrained within India’s long and colorful history is one of the oldest, most regressive societal hierarchies in the world: the caste system. Despite the antiquity of this greatly unjust system, its relevance today is enormous, and it affects the lives of more than 200 million Indians worldwide. From rejecting ‘menial’ jobs to rubbing away at our dark skin, the universal fear of being stigmatized as a lower caste is deeply rooted within our society.

When I was younger, my mother would constantly berate me for coming back from school with darker, tanned skin. It seemed as if every cooking ingredient we owned was rubbed into my face in her efforts to lighten my offensive skin, and I would then be paraded around the living room to show off to my relatives my newfound beauty, as well as the excellence of my mother’s parenting.

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She didn’t know it, but her Indian beauty standards are awkwardly rooted in caste-related stereotypes spanning hundreds of years. Advertisements for fairness creams are ever-present across India’s streets, and they rake in 150 million rupees in sales annually, preying on our desperation for white skin. Historically, India’s leaders have been fair-skinned, and it became a symbol of power and status as a Kshatriya to bleach one’s face, whether it was with milk or toxic arsenic – a symbol that is essentially meaningless in today’s secular, democratic society.

To be dark-skinned was the mark of a menial job in the 19th and 20th Centuries, as it meant that work was laborious and scorching. It was also the mark of a lower caste. Dalits are members of the lowest social group in Indian society, so much so that they are not even included within the ranks of the caste system. The word ‘Dalit’ means ‘oppressed’ or ‘broken’ in Sanskrit, and was a name that the group gave themselves as an alternative to the incredibly degrading ‘Untouchable’. (‘The Dalits, or Untouchables, Traditionally Were Oppressed by Hindus’, 2019)

Hindus believed that some people were born as Dalits as punishment for crimes committed in their previous life through the idea of reincarnation. Dalits were prohibited from eating or drinking in the presence of a higher caste, nor were they allowed to marry above their station. However, those who painstakingly obeyed these ‘rules’ would be rewarded for their behavior by the ascension to a higher caste after their death. The infantilization of Dalit groups, by promising ‘rewards’ should they behave well, was almost as sickening as the brutality and discrimination they faced every day.

It was easy for society to accept this belief. Around 80% of Indians today are Hindu, and this number was far higher in the 19th Century. Labeling injustice as religion was an easy way of keeping superiority over someone else. Even the lowest castes of Indian society were indifferent to Dalit treatment, although they lacked the same powers as higher caste members. Human history tells us that even the prospect of power over someone else is almost intoxicating, and it was incredibly easy for higher castes to turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of someone else if it kept them safe.

Even so, some tried to change this dynamic. In the 19th century, the ruling British Raj tried to reduce the caste system’s hold in India. Although they gave Brahmins special privileges, they tried to base social status on wealth and education, and tried to rid India’s justice system of discrimination based on caste. Britons considered the treatment of Dalits as cruel and inhuman partly due to the fact that the idea of reincarnation was outlandish to them.

Under British rule, it became increasingly difficult to restrict social contact, as people began to mingle with one another regardless of social standing. However, prejudice and social inequality was still prevalent legally, as caste discrimination was not deemed illegal under the Constitution.

This changed following India’s newfound independence in 1947. India’s new Constitution identified former Dalit groups as ‘scheduled castes,’ creating affirmative action policies and giving these groups government assistance. However, instead of destabilizing the social hierarchy, this only emphasized the distinction between castes and contributed to modern hatred of Dalits.

Dalit groups are incessantly vilified in the Indian narrative. They have been victims of 70% of all hate crimes in India since 2015. Every hour, two Dalits are assaulted, three Dalit women raped, two Dalits murdered and two Dalit houses burned, and yet only 1% of those who commit crimes against Dalits are ever convicted.

The Indian government’s half-hearted measures to reduce caste discrimination have also been effectively futile. Some argue that already wealthy Dalit groups have taken advantage of quotas for universities and government jobs, ‘robbing’ other caste members of positions in these incredibly competitive environments. Nevertheless, Dalit groups are undeniably disadvantaged in terms of education, job opportunities and health. On average, only 37% of all Dalits are literate; in some communities, this number goes to 10%.

The only way to combat caste-based discrimination is to develop a collective egalitarian vision under the ideally secular state that India should be. We must provide vulnerable social groups with a platform with which to fight prejudice and discrimination. Dalit political parties and activist groups, such as the International Dalit Solidarity Network already work towards this vision, but it will take the complete reform of the Indian mentality to solidify Dalit civil rights and social equality. In this world, Indian girls will no longer feel bound by their social standing, nor will they feel obliged to rub turmeric on their face. (‘Despite political setbacks in India, Dalit voices grow stronger’, 2019)  

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