If the discriminations and disparities on the basis of gender, race, religion, and creed were not cruel enough, there exists a system in Hindu societies that perpetuates segregation on the basis of caste. This caste system comprises four castes the Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudrain order of rank. This is a system that has been in place for a thousand years. This system is directly linked with other determinants of a person’s living standards and access to education, health, income, and opportunities. This extends much beyond a person and is a part of a larger society which is greatly prevalent even today in one form or the other.
Origin and History
The Hindu mythology places the birth of the caste system in the creator out of whose body parts; mouth, stomach, thighs, and soles of the feet; emerged different groups of people. This gave birth to four castes, and the interpretation and development vary among different literatures but the essence that remains constant is that originally this system had been in place to serve the purpose of division of labour in the society. Basically, people were divided into various castes based on their occupation, the Brahman were the teachers and priests, Kshatriya were the army, the Vaishya merchants and traders, and the Shudras served the previous three castes. This meant that Shudra took up all the remaining work no one else wanted to do like sweep the streets, bury animal carcass, and work in other people’s fields.
This kept continuing over generations from one to another and people automatically started taking the occupations of the families they were born in. Over the years, the system originally of division of labour changed to a system of oppression as the higher castes became more educated and rich because the kind of work they were involved in and the conditions of the lower castes deteriorated because of various discriminations that had come their way. The others could dominate Shudras because they were poor, dirty, uneducated, and lived in terrible conditions.
Caste and Religion
This system has its bases in religion making it one corrupt institution that has furthered stratification in the society. When the idea of differentiation of people on the basis of their castes is made obligatory by religion, the individuals profoundly religious are bound to inflict upon others mistreatment and malpractice. It would be unreasonable to believe that people would discard what has been followed as tradition and culture guided by religion because if people were that kind of rational, this system would not be in existence today.
Having said that, we can now fathom a society where everybody knows each other’s caste and treat them on that basis. There exists inequality in society which is given validation due to the social norms and customs that are a huge part of religion, like visiting temples or participating in communal activities. The people from lower castes are banned from entering temples or fetching water from the communal wells and taps. In fact, people get violent towards them for entering temples on almost a regular basis. They are barred from hearing the religious texts, let alone see or read them. The very religion that rendered them as outcastes also does not permit them to read or practice it freely.
Additionally, the indigenous communities not traditionally Hindu have also been a part of this system due to an overwhelming influence of the Hindu majority in Nepal and India, both. This has also caused disadvantage to the people of minority religions and sects. Buddhism was in fact borne out of the fact that it was a necessary declination to an egalitarian society without discriminations based on caste.
Caste and Society
Because the societies are held intact by religion, it permeates into other social institutions and thus all these institutions fuse at some point. Therefore, due to the system of discrimination that is the caste system, there exists heredity and affinity towards one’s caste. People are born into one caste and they can be excommunicated if they are dishonorable. This system is kept in check and difficult to break out of because of the fear of shame that comes from being excommunicated from the caste and community.
The cultural and social behaviours are often pre-dictated and everybody that is a part of this system follows it without asking twice. The word ‘untouchable’ is not loosely used in this context. They are literally considered so. The Brahmins, for example, do not accept food or items that have been touched by the lower castes.
In a modern-day scenario, it could translate to a person being told off for hailing from a low caste, their opinions insignificant, and their say in social and personal affairs negligible. It was observed by Human Rights Watch in six states in India that children from lower castes cannot go to the same school as others, and if they do get enrolled they will not be allowed on desks and chairs but on the floor and other children do not interact with them. Also, the ethnic languages of these children belonging to the lower castes could be different; ‘crass’ and ‘uncivilized’; from the mainstream language so these children do not understand what is being taught to them and they cannot communicate with other kids who anyway refuse to interact with them in the first place. In India, an alarming 2 million children are out of school for these reasons. In rural Nepal, complaints of not being given adequate mid-day meals, forbidden from using the school toilets, and regular bullying are some of the reasons why they stop attending school.
A lot of urban people claim to not bother about the caste they belong to but the fact remains that a person’s caste is revealed by their surname and this complicates things because a person’s caste is not hidden. Surnames, in Hindu societies, cannot be easily changed because of societal attachment and responsibilities towards one’s clan and ancestry. Yet, people belonging to the lower castes have sanskritised by adopting the habits and rituals of the upper castes, and sometimes even their surnames.
It is believed that every 15 minutes, an atrocious crime is committed against a person of the lower caste and six women are raped per day. Women face double disadvantage since they are discriminated against by their husbands and family, and also by the society. According to the UN, stripping and naked parading, torture by pulling out nails and hair, sexual slavery, bondage, and witchcraft allegations is really common among the women of lower castes. The entire sham of untouchability seems to disappear when the men belonging to the higher castes deem it okay for them to enter into sexual relationships with the women of the lower castes. It is more accepted for men to marry women of lower castes but not vice-versa. Marriage outside the caste is still considered a taboo to maintain the purity in the caste and so in cases of breach, the guilty are severely punished by the community. The children of such marriages or inter-caste relationships do not inherit the high caste of their fathers but there exists a complicated system to ensure that the impure offspring does not claim a high caste.
Caste and Politics
Constitutionally, caste based discrimination is outlawed in both India and Nepal. However, historically, the Nepalese constitution in 1854 had propagated the system of caste hierarchy and rendered people as ‘enslavable’, ‘impure’ and ‘untouchable’. It was later outlawed in 1962.
Dirty games have always been played in politics keeping in centre the caste system. Representation of the lower castes have always been low and they are dominated in the local panchayats (village councils and tribunals). In Nepal and India, it has repeatedly been argued that the higher castes have always dominated regional and national politics despite reservation. In both these countries arguments have harboured against the system of reservation on the basis of caste which has been always favourable towards the creamy layer but the actual people who require these benefits. Politicians belonging to lower castes are very few in higher positions, but some include Mayavati and Ram Vilas Paswan who have only furthered their wealth but have contributed nothing significant to the people they represent.
The current President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, is the second president to have hailed from a lower caste since their independence from the British in 1947. However, vote bank politics has a major role to play here because since his affiliation with the ruling Bharatiya Janta Party, the people from lower castes en masse switched their votes from the Indian National Congress. The lower castes make up about 20% of the total Indian voters which definitely has a huge bearing on the society. Thus, they have always been political ploys to garner votes by mobilizing them but in return, they do not get what they are promised. Nothing is really significantly done to change the ground realities.