High-caste women in Harkura, India (1915). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Abundant in culture and steeped in complex ancient traditions, India is home to almost every religion, a multitude of languages and a plethora of ideas. As the largest pluralist secular democracy, India is poised to make its mark in the 21st century. According to the World Economic Forum, trailing behind China and ahead of the United States, India is projected to be the largest economy in the world by 2050. Seismic changes are expected globally in the coming decades as policy dialogues on trade, security and diplomacy shifts significantly to the East. As a 4th generation Malaysian of Indian origin, I am immensely proud of my motherland and its economic strides. However, it is also of great displeasure to observe the plague of severe social problems such as the repugnant modern practice of the caste system that threatens to taint India’s economic progress.
To understand the Indian caste system, its origins must briefly be explored to avoid misapprehension. It is important to note that the very word Caste in any translated form and our modern understanding of is not present in any Hindu scripture. Caste in the Indian context is essentially a term covering two different systems and ideas, namely Varna and Jati. Varna is more significant theologically and philosophically in understanding the caste system as opposed to Jati which is a complex labyrinth of clans, tribes and sub-communities. The system of Varna has theological underpinnings dating thousands of years back to several Hindu scriptures, the oldest being the Rigveda, Bhagavad Gita as well as the Manusmiriti.
In Sanskrit, Varna is defined as colour. The Rig Veda asserts that there are four Varnas or classes: brahmin (Priests), Kshatriyas (Warriors), Vaishyas (Merchants) and Shudras (Peasants). Outside of the framework asserted in the Rig Veda lies another the “untouchables” or commonly known in modern terms as the Dalits whom are subjected to segregation, discrimination and senseless violence. Even in some parts of modern day India, Dalits are treated as if they are communicable diseases. The most common misinterpretation of the caste system is that an individual is born to remain in a particular Varna .This is further from the truth as individuals were not born into a particular varna but instead were divided by individual qualities. As stated in the Bhagavad Gita, the primary purpose of the caste system is for a stable society in which individuals work altruistically for the welfare of society. The Gita further states that each class is regulated by differing edicts and should an individual follow those edicts, ascension to a higher Varna in the caste system is automatic.
In its elementary form, the caste system is no different from European feudalism. While philosophically and perhaps theologically it may differ, structurally it is almost identical. Most of the social problems related to the caste system are remnants of Colonialism. Prior to 1947, India did not exist. The Indian sub-continent consisted of numerous dominions and principalities which made conquering India an easy feat for the British. On the other hand, preventing a huge conquered population from revolting proved to be an overarching worry for the British. To divide and conquer Indians, as a means of social control, the caste system was severely repurposed as a method of oppression and intolerance. The industrial revolution, the Bolshevik revolution and two major wars amongst other factors ultimately lead the march for a more equitable society in Europe, where the common man had as much rights as the nobility. Following independence, the same could not be said of India due to the residual leftover of caste discrimination.
The violence that befalls those who fail to adhere to the rigid caste system are ever so present in modern India. In 2016 the brutal attack of a young lady Kausalya and the murder of her lower caste Dalit husband in the Southern Indian State of Chennai in what seemed to be an honour killing gripped the nation and opened unattended old wounds questioning the caste system and forced endogamy. The entire attack was conducted in broad daylight and fortunately was captured on CCTV which ultimately lead to the arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators which shockingly involved Kausalya’s parents. Amnesty International in a recent statement declared that in 2016 alone, there were over 40,000 crimes against Schedule Castes . In a country with over a billion people, 40,000 might seem to be a trifling figure, be that as it may, it is important to note that many more crimes go unreported by victims due to scathing often fatal retaliation. As Kausalya continues life as a widow and an activist, she can take solace in knowing that some measure of justice has been administered, a comfort that many individuals like her do not share.
Affirmative actions such as the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1955 and the National commission of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were formed to further integrate lower caste individuals such as the Dalits into society. Furthermore, social media has served as a great tool in bringing issues pertaining to caste discrimination and violence to the forefront. Justice,Liberty and equality for all, are tenets ascribed in the Indian Constitution which was written by Dr. Ambedkar, a Dalit himself. With that being said, much more needs to be done to eradicate discriminatory violent practices on Dalits and individuals of lower caste. As the largest democracy in the world, if India aims at truly being a superpower, it needs to ensure that majority rules but the rights of disenfranchised minorities like the Dalits are truly upheld.