Growing up, when I’d hear about the caste system in India, it would usually be followed by a “Oh, but it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s illegal.” Call it naivety, privilege or a mix of both, that’s what I was told, so that’s what I believed. The caste system was glossed over as a backwards system of classifying people that no longer existed and therefore no longer affected people.
But the truth of the matter is that the caste system is very much still present in India. Essentially, India’s caste system was a system used to separate Hindu people into four major groups: Brahmins, who were the priests and teachers; Kshatriyas, who were the rulers and soldiers; Vaishyas, who were the traders and merchants; and Shudras, who were the laborers. Those who did not fall into the four major groups were the Dalits, commonly known as “untouchables.” Since April is Dalit History Month, there is no better time to address this issue.
India’s caste system was abolished in 1950, but as is true of many steps towards “progress,” if an act is merely deemed illegal, its lasting impact due to the systemic oppression it has created will nonetheless continue to be felt. Although the caste system was abolished, and the Indian government created quotas to ensure that members of all castes would be given similar opportunities in terms of jobs and educational institutions, the tensions the system created are still very much real. People in India and around the world continue to feel the effects of this discriminatory system.
The idea of inter-caste marriage is still seen as taboo in many regions today. As of December 2020, according to the Indian Human Development Survey, about 5% of marriages in India were between members of different castes. The consequences of inter-caste marriages — due to social taboo and stigma — are incredibly horrific, with stories reported of a man being hacked to death in Karnataka; a man being hacked to death in front of his pregnant wife in Telangana; and a husband and wife being hacked to death by the wife’s father in Tamil Nadu. The violent and deadly effects of the caste system are immensely alarming and cannot be ignored.
The social effects of the caste system go even further than just inter-caste marriage. Currently, there are about 166.6 million Dalits in India, and about 80% of them live in low-income, rural communities. Many Dalits face economic exploitation, and particularly Dalit women face health, education, housing, employment and wage inequality, along with high rates of sexual violence compared to other, higher caste groups. Dalits also often face abuse at the hands of police and other higher-caste groups, with little hope of justice.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these inequalities, as many lower-income Dalits have been at risk of greater exposure due to the nature of their jobs. This became readily apparent when India went into lockdown in 2020. India’s sanitation and cleaning workforce employs about 5 million people, 90% of whom are Dalits. Since that job was considered essential, many of them had to continue working, and many of those working in hospitals were refused personal protective equipment such as masks and gloves.
The discriminatory effects of the caste system have clearly remained prevalent in India and cannot be minimized. Often called “Asia’s Hidden Apartheid,” Dalits in India and other parts of South Asia, especially in rural villages, face immense abuse. In some cases, Dalits are not able to use the same amenities, such as wells, temples, churches or tea stalls, that members of higher castes can. Between 2018 and 2020, there were over 130,000 crimes committed against Dalits in India — and this does not take into account the crimes that are not reported in certain rural areas, or cases where Dalits may be discouraged from reporting altogether.
Many Dalit activists have pointed out how the ruling government party in India — the Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi — has also perpetuated caste-hatred and violence. Despite Modi claiming to create change, especially for lower-income populations, he has worked to incite religious divide by touting ideals of Hindu nationalism and perpetuating violence against non-Hindu populations. I’ve talked about how Modi has promoted religious divide and is dangerous and Islamophobic at great length, so I won’t belabor that point.
However, what I will say is that Modi, along with the rest of the BJP, has ignored many of the Dalits’ major problems, with many still unable to access public water sources and better job and educational opportunities. The BJP’s Hindu nationalist ideals have also led to an increase in attacks against Dalits, as well as non-Hindu populations, especially Muslims and Christians. The current government in India is not conducive to change and improvement for the Dalits.
Clearly, the caste system is still a major problem in India that cannot be brushed aside. Despite being abolished over 70 years ago, the lasting impact on everyone, especially the Dalits, is extremely important to understand.
However, it is also critical to note that the effects of the caste system are not confined just to India. Even in the U.S., many Indian Americans have faced caste discrimination, with a 2016 survey conducted by Equity Labs finding that about a third of Dalit students from kindergarten to 12th grade have faced caste discrimination. This discrimination has occurred in American colleges as well, to the extent that the entire California State system, educating about a half million students across 23 campuses, added caste to its non-discrimination policy.
Caste discrimination is less prevalent in the U.S. than in India because those lower castes are less likely to have the resources to immigrate to a new country. Therefore, there are fewer Dalits in the U.S., but the discrimination persists, as many upper-caste South Asian communities either still uphold ideals regarding caste-bias or are privileged enough to ignore the issue altogether.
The caste system extends to South Asians in Canada as well. Evidently, we cannot brush off this social system as “a thing of the past.”
Within India, as well as other South Asian nations where ideals of the caste system persist, action must be taken. People from higher castes must speak out against the inequalities Dalits face until concrete government action is taken. The BJP, especially Modi, also must be held accountable for ignoring the problems Dalits continue to face, and for making empty promises regarding economic and social improvements and equality for Dalits.
In the U.S., as well as other nations where South Asians experience caste-based inequalities and discrimination, there must be more awareness about the modern caste system. Just because the caste system was abolished in 1950 does not mean it no longer exists, and it certainly does not mean it only exists in India. From studying the issue in schools to adding caste to university non-discrimination policies, there much work to be done.