Login   Sign Up 


The Caste System in India

by sairah19 

Posted: 07 April 2003
Word Count: 3295
Summary: Talks about how the caste system originated in India and the problems that people within the lower castes still continue to face in this century.

Font Size

Printable Version
Print Double spaced

The subjugation of millions of people in the caste system, a radical form of apartheid, has long had its critics, both from India and outside it. The Indian Government has introduced an-equal opportunities legislation in an effort to erase some of history’s wrongs but untouchability is an accident of birth that continues to stigmatise and ostracize more than 240 million people.

Pscycologist, Samita Patel, who graduated in India with her Bachelors and then travelled to England to complete her PhD, believes the caste system to be the cruellest feature still alive in India. She argues: “It is the strongest racist phenomenon in the world!”

“Three different theories concern the existence of the caste system yet none of them are clear-cut” claims Dr Patel. “There are the religious mystical theories, biological theories and socio historical theories but only the social theory goes the closest to explain the creation of the untouchables.”

“It all began when the fair skinned Aryans arrived in India from South Europe and North Asia in 1500 BC. They conquered, taking control of regions in the north of India and pushed the local people southwards, towards mountains and into jungles, organising themselves into three group” continues Dr Patel. “These groups include the warriors (who called themselves Rajayana and then changed their name to Kshatria), the priests who were referred to as the Brahmans and thirdly the Viasias who were the craftsmen.”

To secure their status, Aryans made social and religious rules offering themselves greater powers. Srinath, a resident of Maharashta in West India, claims that the name of the area he resides in arose from the dark skin colour of the people living there: “They were the outcasts, not because of their class or status, but because of their dark skin”. Even the word ‘Varna’ is the Sanskrit word for colour.

Srinath recalls many Hindu religious stories in which the so-called noble fair skinned Aryans successfully challenged the demons and devils, which were of a darker skin colour. “The different gods also have different coloured skins, depending on how important they are,” he adds “there are stories of demon women seducing Aryan man in deceptive ways”. Srinath finds it ironic that some people in India, especially in his state of Maharastra, still believe this is true and logical.

“The Aryans created the caste system because they believed the child would always take on his father’s profession” believes Dr Patel. “It was the communities that professed polluting jobs who were named the ‘untouchables’” she continues “at that time it was firmly believed diseases could spread via the air and not just by physical touch. Subsequently the untouchables had to ensure they stayed a sufficient distant away from the higher castes.”

Dr Patel agrees with Srinath: “The belief that people working in ignominious, polluting and unclean occupations are impure still exists all over India.” She provides a few examples: “The Untouchables are forbidden to enter the house of the higher Varnas, enter the temples or to use the same wells used by the Varnas.

“In public occasions they are compelled to sit at a distance from the four Varnas. But strict of all is the idea that even their shadow cannot come upon the four Varnas. If by chance this does happen then they have to pass through some religious ceremonies to purify themselves from this so called pollution.”

Dr Patel argues that by 1947, when the British rule in India came to an end, the whole caste system had evolved and expanded creating some 3000 different castes. She states: “Although the system underwent great changes throughout this period, strictly speaking, it never effectively eradicated.

“Interestingly the first effect that the British had on the caste system was to strengthen it rather than undermine it, for the British gave the Brahmans back certain special privileges which under the muslim’s rule it had been withdrawn from them.”

Samita, sub-editor for the Asian Age, recalls many stories that appear daily in newspapers concerning untouchables that accidentally enter into the house of the Varnas and are subsequently beaten or killed. “Some people are even employed to deliver warnings if any untouchable are approaching” she continues “the hierarchy Jats have servants whose job it is to walk before the Jat family members and announce their arrival on the streets and to see to it that the streets are unclear of untouchable people.”

“Today many lower caste people, especially within the rural areas are marginalized, with little access to education, limited resources, and unskilled or menial jobs as their only option” argues Samita but points out that “thanks to a long school of missionary schools and to various changes in government-sponsored education, many have become better educated and now hold higher paying jobs.”

Dr Patel, as she studies the employment statistics in India, reports: “Rural India still presents a dismal picture of life for its low caste people. Untouchables remain at the bottom of the socio-economic scale and are found, more often then not in unskilled, low status occupations.”

“They are forbidden to enter temples, often beg for their food, must leave their chests uncovered and silently endure public humiliations and insults” she adds, “they remain on the fringes of society and it is even said by some that their shadows pollute passers-by.”

Samita, who lived in India for over 30 years believes it is in the south of India that the idea of untouchability is carried to an absurd length. She starts by saying that “the mere presence or proximity of the untouchables defiles higher castes” and concludes “it is a case of inapproachability rather than untouchability!”

Dr Patel provides firm evidence to Samita’s argument: “There is even a scale of distances within which the untouchables may not approach Brahmans. It is eight yards for Iluvans, 12 yards for Tiyans, 16 yards for Iluvans and 32 yards for Pulayans.”

“In rural areas such as Travancore, Cochin and Malabar, an untouchable may be required to keep further away and is prevented, at any rate in the day time, from using the roads in quarters inhibited by Brahmans” continues Dr Patel. “The time required to go from one place to another depends, not merely on distance, but on the Brahmans using the road.”

Arvind Karrupaiya, a Medial Researcher for the University of Manchester, recalls his school years in South India: “The boys belonging to the untouchable families were always late coming to school because of the number of Brahmans they had to avoid on their way. An untouchable boy may either be kept out of the village school, made to sit separately in class, or in the veranda outside the schoolrooms.” As for the girls, Arvind does not recollect seeing any girls belonging to the untouchable families ever going to school.

“In my area, an untouchable purchasing something had to undergo a long and humiliating process,” Arvind continues. “The untouchable places money on the ground in front of the shop and withdraws to a safe distance. The shopkeeper then comes out with the goods, puts them on the ground, and takes up the money. Only after the shopkeeper has returned back to his shop can the untouchable take what he/she has purchased.”

“Daily injustices” argues Arvind “are common”. He remembers that his university colleague won a gold medal in mathematics but was not allowed to graduate because his Hindu university refused to hand out any medals to students belonging to the untouchable caste.

Dharamnath of Jagdalpur, a member of the Methodist Church and renowned vocalist within the area says that the typical low caste village family may only have one sari (a draped dress using seven yards of cloth) for all its women. So while one woman comes out of the hut draped in the sari, the other four women must wait inside for their turn to wear the same dress. They therefore tend to come out only one by one.

On 15 April 1991, the American magazine, Time, carried the story of a 15 year old Indian girl who had eloped with her lover, Brijendra, a boy of 20. Both belonged to different castes; she was a Jat, one of the main agricultural upper castes of North India, and he belonged to the untouchable Jatav caste. The infuriated elders of Meharan, the girl’s village, held a council and pronounced the only acceptable verdict: Death!

Brijendra was hanged from his feet. His lips and genitals scorched with burning cloth. Roshini, after being dragged from her house to a banyan tree, had a rope placed around her neck and her parents were forced to hoist her up. The parents, unable to complete the task, were pushed away by bystanders who rushed to take their place. As though the punishment was not harsh enough, their bodies were placed on a pyre and burned.

One might be tempted to think that the untouchables are a thing of the past but it still remains. It is easy in the west to condemn such behaviour yet the people responsible for such atrocious acts were not professional killers. Rather, peaceful farmers who were normally no violent then any of us. In their view they had a valid reason behind behaving so cruelly. In fact when the police arrived on the scene, no one sought to avoid responsibility.

Mangtu Ram, the leader, gave the police a detailed account of the execution. Convinced they were in the right, he stressed that they had been left with limited choice: “If we had not been harsh”, he added, not without insight, “our entire community would have been disgraced. No-one would have married Jat girls from our village.”

Roshini’s mother pleaded with the pitiless censors for mercy: “Drive us out of the village, or burn down our house, but spare my daughter.” This favour was not granted, and the only answer she got was: “She is not your daughter, she is ours!”

Rahul Patel, editor for the The Nation, believes the story carried by the Time is not an uncommon event in contemporary India. “Indian newspapers carry stories almost daily of what they term as ‘atrocities’; but many, and no doubt most cases go unreported”, he states, “Between six and nine thousand incidents of violence against Untouchables were being reported annually in the late 1990s and this was only the tip of the iceberg.”

Until the 1920s even Mohandas K. Gandhi, later known as Mahatama Ghandhi, argued in favour of the caste system, even to the extent of regarding the prohibitions on intermarriage and commensality as an essential stage in the progress of one’s soul.
Supporting the caste system he said: "I believe that caste has saved Hinduism from disintegration.

"To destroy the caste system and adopt the Western European social system means that Hindus must give up the principle of hereditary occupation, which is the soul of the caste system. The hereditary principle is an eternal principle. To change it is to create disorder."

Later, however, he toned down his enthusiasm and restricted his message to ‘varna shrama dharma’, or the four-part division of society, which he regarded as fundamental to Hinduism. Gandhi left with the belief that there is no reason why a Shudra is inferior to a Brahmin, but every man is duty bound to follow the traditions and occupation of his forebears. To do so is simply to follow the law of nature, which decrees that we are born with the same features as our parents.

Traditionally untouchables espoused the quarrels and factions of their masters and practised vertical solidarity rather than the horizontal mobilization, which still remains the case. “Fragmentation of the untouchables is their greatest curse”, argues online editor, Maruf Khawaja “untouchables could wield great political weight within India if they formed a homogeneous community but Harijans are dispersed into hundreds of castes. No single organisation can claim to represent untouchables as a whole.” This is evident by the fact that every village has its untouchables who never constitute a majority. Instead they remain divided into relatively small communities.

In Sri Lanka, the famous English anthropologist, Edmund Leech conducted one of his principal field studies. Leech’s conception of caste fits in well with the perspective of the ‘models of unity’. He argues that the phenomenon of caste cannot be understood outside the system. His writings stress the interdependence of castes, which are united within a system of organic solidarity. He explains that all castes fulfil a well defined function and deplores the fact that anthropologists tend to emphasise endogamy, exclusiveness and separation between castes and stresses that the fundamental characteristic of the system is interdependence: all castes are bound up in a network of reciprocal ties of an economic, political and ritual nature.

Leech identifies that in a caste society, unlike those based on class, the labouring classes constitute a numerical minority. They are guaranteed a certain degree of economic security, and above all enjoy specific privileges. Therefore they do not see themselves as being rejected by the system, rather as having a privilege of performing tasks denied to other groups.

The caste system rests on a sort of consensus in which everyone is ultimately content with his or her own lot and share similar values. Co-operation is inherent to the caste system and when castes come into competition, they cease to be castes. Competition may exist within the caste, between individuals in the group because they are of the same nature but different castes, by their very essence, cannot compete with each other.

To Leech the untouchables do not suffer because they are a low caste but because their position has degenerated by the wake of changes introduced by ‘capitalism’. He does not consider the caste system to be an abnormality but believes the untouchables are an integral part of the system and stresses that they are perfectly content with their condition.

M.N. Srinivas, the great Indian anthropologist, whose two monographs, Religion and Society among the Co-orps and the Remembered Village, are both ‘classics’ that help explain the ‘social structure’ within villages that practise the caste system. He sees caste system as being marked by two characteristics: separation and dependence, or hierarchy and interdependence.

Srinivas writes: “Professional specialisation creates caste interdependence, while hierarchy stresses endogamy and restrictions on commensality, and therefore separation. A caste-based society thus combines these centrifugal and centripetal tendencies, and hierarchy and interdependence are but two aspects of a single system.”

Faustina, a teacher at a mixed school run by the Roman Catholic Church in Ongur, argues that the untouchables are still separated in the village. “Normally Dalits are put on the east side of the village”, she reports “because the wind blows from west to east, and non-Dalits do not want to be contaminated by the wind that has touched the Dalits. All the institutions are thus situated in the non-Dalit area of the village.”

“Dalits make up 18-20% of the Indian population,” continues Faustina in expressing the discrimination caused by the caste system “only about 3% of the Indian population is Christian but around 50% of the Christian population are Dalits.” She is also a member of the Dalit Solidarity Peoples (DSP) National Working Committee, working hard to help the Dalits with education and economic development.

Empowered by the Indian Constitution, the Dalits have organised to push for change through legislation and social institutions. “Public transportation, radio and television have begun to have a modernising impact especially on children and youth, even in the rural villages” states Faustina positively “but a lack of political will on the part of the state prevent many recommendations from being implemented.”

She proceeds: “Villagers who travel to large cities in search of job opportunities are likely to encounter crime syndicates and mafia organisations there. Even in small towns, gangs have proliferated.” Last year saw the worst ever massacre in Bahir of Dalit and landless men, women and children, which led to the death of 60 people. Ranvir Sena, a self-styled armed milita of upper caste landed gentry, was held responsible. He had formed a gang to crush the movements of the Dalits and agricultural labourers.

Dr James Massey, a Minister of the Church of North India and a Dalit, is a member of the government-sponsored National Commission for Minorities (NCM) in India. This commission is responsible for investigating incidents of religious violence in India. Massey says, “The religious violence in India is fuelled by hatred and fear, not by outside influences.”

Massey vividly remembers the highly publicised murder of the Australian missionary Graham Stuart Staines and his two sons, who were buried alive in a jeep in January 1999 whilst sleeping. He explains, “Staines was in Orissa working amongst people with leprosy. The NCM team concluded that the incident was part of a definite plan on the part of the militant Hindus to create insecurity amongst Christians.”

“The gruesome act evoked unprecedented condemnation from all sectors of the Indian society, including the Hindu Bhartiya Janata Party”, argues Massey but points out how “the majority of Hindus do not subscribe to these violent methods of reinforcing the nationalistic ideal of creating a Hindu state.”

Christian leaders in India have appealed for safety and security, not only for the Christians, but also for the ingenious people, regardless of their religion. Massey recalls how “one banner carried by a child at a mass rally read ‘BURN HATRED, NOT CHILDREN’. In a secular society, tolerance and co-existence are two sides of the same coin. Under Article 25 of India’s constitution, a citizen has the freedom to profess, practice, and propagate any religion.”

Financial Consultant, Vikram Mahesh, believes at present the Indian society is characterised as being obsessed with bringing about a free market economy. “The growing economic success of some in India has created a chasm, separating the rich from the poor, who make up about 65% of the population” he argues “India’s caste system can no longer fully sustain the socio-economic changes that the country is undergoing.”

Mahesh comes from an untouchable family but does not believe that this has ever affected his success. He believes “different religions, occupations and levels of education are no longer correlated with caste. A high caste person cannot be born a chief executive, for example, but must work to become one. Similarly, a low caste person may now get a good education and become an executive, college professor or a government leader.”

Tarksheel Society Bharat (Rationalist Society in India) was developed in 1984, under the auspices of Sh. Megh Raj Mitter in order to educate and awaken the people about the menace and the unfathomable dangers of all religions, caste system, untouchability, superstitions and miracles. The TSB undertakes the mission to assert the supremacy of reason and scientific temperament over all arbitrary assumptions and artificially man made creeds. TSB vehemently advocates separation of religion and education on the real principles of secularism. The society endeavours to perpetuate the equality, freedom and happiness for the whole community.

Kamal Murshid, a member of the TSB, is convinced that the “literature plus practical fieldwork in the masses boasted by political activity can yield the cherished substantial results.

“TSB utilises the newspaper media. It has three leading Punjabi Dailies – The Ajit, The Panjabi Tribune and Desh Sewak. We also publish our own journals in Punjabi vernacular Tarak Bodh (logical cognition) and Vigayan Jyoti (Logical Enlightenment). There is also one in Hindi, Tarak Jyoti (Scientific Enlightenment). Further we travel around the country to give talks to scouts, colleges, schools, universities and businesses.”

Many reformers regard the caste system as an obscurantist by-product of an ancient and spiritual way of life; a religious and cultural tradition which confines people within rigid class and caste roles. Such a deeply ingrained social and cultural phenomena, however, has proved exceptionally resistant to the legislative process. Despite heavy fines and terms of imprisonment for those who discriminate against their fellow citizens, the trappings of the caste system are still prevalent throughout India.

Favourite this work Favourite This Author

Comments by other Members

roger at 09:55 on 23 April 2003  Report this post

I felt this was an excellent piece of non-fiction; informative, authoritative (with the various references from Dr Patel etc)and nicely put together. The subject matter could well have been uninteresting to many, but the well thought out structure avoided that. I've learned something today, and I thank you, Sairah, for that.

Account Closed at 13:39 on 01 March 2007  Report this post
Sairah, I guess you're not around to read this, but when the title flicked up under 'Random Read' I just had to read! It's a very informative article, and like Roger, I learned something today.

Thank you,


To post comments you need to become a member. If you are already a member, please log in .