Believed to have been created more than 2,000 years ago, India’s caste system remains one of the oldest forms of social hierarchy that still exists to this today. In this system, Hindus are divided into social classes based on their work (karma) and their duty (dharma). Specifically, karma is the belief that someone’s placement into a caste is dependent on the actions of his or her previous lifetime.The caste system is hereditary and inhibits social mobility. The social stratification is divided into four main varnas (caste categories), from highest to lowest status: Brahmins (the priests and teachers), Kshatriyas (rulers and soldiers), Vaisyas (merchants and traders), and Shudras (laborers and artisans). The Dalits (untouchables), are at the bottom of the hierarchy and make up a fifth category of the caste system, which falls outside of the varna system. Furthermore, these main castes are further divided into thousands of jatis (sub-castes based on a person’s specific occupation). The term jati appears in almost all Indian languages and relates to the idea of lineage and kinship group.
Although the exact origins of the caste system are widely unknown, an ancient text known as the Rigveda reveals that the creation of the caste system was based on Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, and his manifestation of the four groups. Brahmins were believed to come from Brahma’s head, Kshatriyas from his arms, Vaisya’s from his thighs, and Shudras from his feet. In addition, Manusmriti, thought to be the most important authoritative book about Hindu law (which dates back to 1,000 years before the birth of Christ), says the caste system is the foundation of uniformity in society.
Additionally, one’s caste often determined which occupations they could pursue, their religious and social life, and who they could marry−− Hindus were only allowed to marry people of the same caste. Rural communities were also arranged based on castes, as Brahmins could not accept food from Shudras. Additionally, reminiscent of Jim Crow laws in the south of the United States, water wells were not to be shared among castes. While the upper castes lived a more privileged and carefree life, those of a lower status suffered from poverty and terrible conditions. For instance, about 25% of India’s population is made up of Dalits. Many members of this group are considered to be impure. Because they have a low social status and are impoverished, Dalits are forced to become sanitation workers and complete jobs such as cleaning up after funerals and scrubbing bathrooms. However, Mahatma Gandhi, a political activist who spread the idea of peaceful protests, renamed the untouchables as Harijans (the people of God), and in 1949 the Indian Constitution called for the abolition of the practice of untouchability and for all citizens to be equal. Because of the endeavors of Gandhi and the government, many Dalits living in cities have improved their conditions. However, the untouchables are still referred to as Dalits and some living in rural areas are still met with problems such as a lack of education. Without proper education, they are unable to understand the government’s policies and are prone to be cheated by village officials and local leaders. Although the government has attempted to change the Dalits’ lives, there are many groups of people such as local leaders and local government officials who have hindered this process.
In 1950, discrimination based on the caste system was outlawed, and since then there have been many efforts to improve the lives of members of the lower castes. Despite its official abolition, the caste system still exists in much, if not all of the country. The societal taint of the caste system still greatly affects the lives of Hindus. In total, nearly 160 million Dalits are still ostracized by the rest of the community. The untouchables are not allowed to cross the dividing lines separating their part of the village and those of higher castes. They even are unable to pray at the same Temples, or even drink from the same cups as members of higher classes. Given the severity of these conditions, one may believe that discrimination towards the Dalits comes from laws put into place, but in reality, they are social norms that have strengthened over the years.
One of the many examples of social disparities lies within the story of Polamma, a Dalit mother of four who is nine months pregnant. She needed to walk down 250 steps from her “hilltop slum” and walk one kilometer, or more than half a mile, to reach the nearest grocery store. Furthermore, the weather in India is usually extremely hot and sunny. Once when she was on her trip to the grocery store, she was stopped at the bottom of the 250 steps by community leaders of a dominant caste; because of the current pandemic, she was forced to return empty-handed to her four hungry children. Since the lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 began in India, families who live in the same hilltop village as Polamma have been prohibited from descending the hill to purchase necessities such as food and medicine. These hilltop families have been separated because of their caste, and they work as garbage pickers and drain cleaners. According to Polamma, despite living near a milk factory, there is no milk for her children to drink. This is because the hilltop families are thought to be dirty and are believed (by higher caste members) to be spreading the virus. However, how can the families spread the virus if they are restricted from going down the hill? Although the caste system was banned, in the eyes of Hindus, it very much exists and those who suffer the most are those who cannot fight back: the Dalits. Shudras also face discrimination in Indian society, but their treatment is not as bad as the Dalits’ treatment which is why there are fewer stories about Shudras.
There are many socioeconomic disparities between members of the higher and lower castes. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy are often illiterate, lack access to education, and healthcare. This leads to a limited number of job opportunities, most of which are low paying jobs such as cleaning bathrooms or picking up trash being commonplace. Still facing numerous physical and economic attacks and being social pariahs, the Dalits’ condition has not changed; the Indian government has failed to fix the problem and provide everyone with equal rights. In fact, violence against this group of people has risen. According to current statistics, every fifteen minutes, a crime is committed against a Dalit and six Dalit women are raped every day.
One may ask why Hindus do not rebel against the caste system as an atrocious form of treating their own people. Many have rebelled but in return, were met with violence. In one such rebellion in 2018, the main point behind the protest was a Supreme Court order which prevented the immediate arrest of those who were violent towards the untouchables. Protesters carried banners demanding a nationwide shutdown and saying judgment was hindering the law. In this protest, police were beating the Dalits and four people were killed.
Dalits are not only killed, but they are humiliated, tortured, disfigured, and destroyed. In 2018, a Dalit man named Sardar Singh Jatav was walking to meet the men his son worked for; to his surprise, the men were waiting for him in the road. Upon meeting him, the men, who belonged to a higher caste, immediately punched Jatav, pinned him down, and when he yelled for help, nobody came. One of them stuffed a rag in Jatav’s mouth. Another happily took out a razor, took Jatav’s scalp, and began to lift and cut, carving off almost all the skin on Jatav’s scalp. Jatav remembers one man ordering him to tell people that they scalped him. In October of the same year, a fourteen-year-old Dalit girl was beheaded by an upper-caste man whose wife hated the girl because of her caste. Another Dalit man was tied up, whipped, and beaten, all while being recorded and broadcast across the country.
This is the consequence Dalits are paying for their freedom, but there is no need to torture innocent people, especially a young girl who had not and now never will have the chance to experience life. Dalits did not choose to be outcasts, yet they are forced to suffer and deal with the hatred and disgusting behavior of higher caste members who take pleasure and pride in exerting the dominance they were born with.
Fortunately (although there are few), affirmative action programs have helped some Dalits’ escape from poverty. Today, there are some Dalit poets, doctors, civil service officers, and even engineers. Most importantly, one of India’s former presidents was a Dalit. K.R. Narayanan was a Dalit who grew up in poverty with a low social status. With his intellect, he secured a government-sponsored scholarship and later graduated from what is now called the University of Kerala. Narayanan worked as a journalist for some time and after winning another scholarship, he attended the London School of Economics where he received top academic honors. After returning to India in 1948, he entered the foreign service, a field of government, although he was met with opposition from higher caste officials. He led a long and distinguished career as a diplomat and even held posts in various countries. In 1984, Narayanan took a role in politics and served as the cabinet minister in parliament until he was named vice president in 1992. After holding this position for five years, he was elected president of India in 1997. Narayana became the first Dalit president after beating the terrible condition he was born into with his own hard work and determination and ultimately proved to the upper caste members who elected him, that he was the right person for the job. The election of the first Dalit president was a symbol of hope for many mistreated people who hoped that Narayanan would attempt to fix caste-based politics.
These achievements are a beginning to reforming this corrupt system. But, this is only the start. Dalits need more inspiration like Narayanan to show them that despite the terrible situations they are born into, by putting in the effort and combating the privileged upper caste members, there is an end to the tunnel. They can rise to become distinguished and revered people in India, but they need allies. The government of India must take a stronger stance against the higher castes and side with the lower class members in order to finally put an end to the disparities that have been ingrained in the country.
In the minds of some people, Hinduism and the caste system are intertwined; as long as Hinduism is present, the caste system will be followed and abiding by this same idea, as long as the caste system exists, there will always be a lower caste. This does not need to be the case. If people from privileged castes are more informed about the inequalities Dalits are facing, they can side with their disadvantaged citizens to rebel as a whole. With support from more powerful castes, Dalits will have a better chance of combatting the inequality. The hardest step is the first step; It will be hard to rebel against one’s own religion, the ideologies one was raised with, and to go against the members of one’s own caste, but all people must revolt as a whole to achieve change and equality.
Purvi Jonnalagadda is a rising junior at Horace Mann School in New York City. She enjoys baking, reading, and learning about current events, and she is thrilled to be a part of The Humanitarian Collective.