India’s Hindu caste system is a complicated and wide spread social structure that is embedded in 2,000 years of religion.
There are four main castes. At the very top are the Brahmins — the priests, scholars, and philosophers. The second highest caste is the Kshatriyas, these are the warriors, rulers, and those concerned with the defence and administration of the village or state.
Third is the Vaishyas, who are traders, merchants, and people involved in agricultural production. The lowest caste is the Shudras — the labourers and servants for the other castes. Each caste includes many subcastes divided by occupation.
Below the Shudras are the Dalits, formerly known as the Untouchable, these people have no caste at all and are seen as ‘outcastes’.
They perform the most menial jobs, such as dealing with dead bodies (manual scavenging) and cleaning toilets, sweeping roads and leather work, basically anything associated with dirt.
Higher-caste people who partake in the caste system believe that if they touched one of the caste-less, they would be contaminated and would need to go through cleansing rituals.
Caste is determined by birth – a person falls into the same caste as their parents, and there is almost no way to change it. This year the Nepalese government enforced a new law, which offered payment to high caste individuals if they married into lower castes, in the hope that eventually the caste system would be non-existent in years.
Despite the fact that it was outlawed in the Republic of India in 1950 this form of social stratification is still visible throughout India, although more prominent in rural towns and villages.
Caste discrimination is a highly politicised and sensitive issue for India’s estimated 200 million Dalits.
A recent census in India found a population of 1,201,193,422 people, the equivalent of 17.45% of the world population. Dalits constitute approximately 200 million people, which put into context is just above the entire population of Cyprus (804,435) Malta (417, 608) and Fiji (861,000).
According to a 2007 United Nations report Dalit children are segregated in village schools while their parents are denied basic rights such as water, the right to stage marriage processions and the right to vote. The same report claims that every 20 minutes a Dalit girl is raped by upper caste men.
The Indian government’s own figures show that Dalits are routinely brutalised by police and the judicial system when they try to seek justice. Between 1999 and 2001 some 89 per cent of trials for offences against Dalits resulted in acquittals.
The Sachar Committee report of 2006 revealed that Dalits of India are not limited to the religion of Hinduism. The survey found that almost nine-tenths of the Buddhists, one-third of the Sikhs, and one-third of the Christians in India belonged to the notified scheduled castes (Dalits).
October 14, 1956 was a historic day for conversion when more than 300,000 Dalits, led by Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, an iconic Dalit revolutionary figure for democracy, rejected Hinduism’s caste divisions and embraced Buddhism.
Since then there has been further significant conversion ceremonies with hundreds of thousands of Dalits converting to Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Sikhism and other less known Indian religions to try and escape caste discrimination. But the hierarchy follows them to other religions.
However, a report by the Dalit Freedom Network this year has found that Dalits who convert to Islam or Christianity lose their legal status as Dalits and with that the financial and legal support to which they are entitled according to the Indian constitution.
The government proclaims that as Muslims or Christians they no longer belong to the lowest order of society so lose their constitutional rights. Strangely this does not apply to Dalits who become either Buddhists or Sikhs.
Despite these conversions to other religions the caste system is still predominantly Hindu with 180 million of India’s Dalits being Hindu.
Hinduism preaches a cycle of birth and reincarnation, in which a person’s soul is reborn into a new form after death. An individual’s actions in this life determine their fate when they are born again. If they are faithful and dutiful in this life, next time, they will get a better caste. The system fits well with this belief. Lower-caste people believe that if they lived a good life, they could be reborn in a higher caste in the next.
Laws to protect Dalits, is the Prohibition of Discrimination Act on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth, Abolition of Untouchability Act, Protection of Interests of Minorities and The Promotion of Educational and Economic Interests of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes.
Following such constitutional guarantees, the Indian government has successfully passed The Protection of Civil Rights Act (1955), the Bonded Labour System (Abolition) Act (1976) and Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989) and the Employment of Manual Scavenging and Construction of Day Latrines (prohibition) Act (1993).
The point here is that although there are ample laws in place to protect Dalits from the practice of untouchability, law enforcement is lacking, especially in rural regions where a large part of the population is living.