India as an Independent nation has its foundation on democracy, socialism and secularism. These principles of the nation had been the goals of freedom fighters too. It was not a mere freedom from British imperialism that the great freedom fighters like Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar and Nehru had in their vision. These leaders wanted to build up a progressive nation devoid of any discrimination, injustice, domination and inequality. However, despite all these efforts, it is a fact that one section of the society is still termed as Dalit and it has been kept away from the human developments.
Even after 65 years of Independence, the Dalits in India have to face common discrimination and cruel treatment from upper caste. It is to be noted that the caste system and a social identity based on caste are prevalent only in India and not in any part of the globe. Indian society is full of caste discrimination, a fact which many studies point out. In spite of several anti-caste discrimination laws and provisions, violation of these norms is a regular feature. Even the UN has been making efforts to combat discriminatory practices still faced by Dalits of India. It is estimated that India has even failed to uphold existing laws against caste discriminations and violations of human rights. Further, Dalits are also seen segregated in all walks of life and forced to live in deplorable conditions and there are many cases wherein they are abused on all counts by the people of upper castes. Violence against Dalits is manifested in all kinds of inhuman atrocities, rapes and murders. Hence, caste discrimination is also considered as the root cause of violence against Dalits.
Untouchability is a term closely linked with discrimination. It can be traced from ancient time in Indian society operating as a social institution. Untouchability also has its own socio-economic reasons behind it – causes which divide the society into different fragments having different social status. In the present time, the practice of untouchability is pervasive both in the rural and urban areas and this has affected all aspects of daily life. Dalits often reside in separate locations such as slums, with separate wells or water tanks in many villages in India. They are frequently not allowed to take out processions on public roads which pass through the settlements of a higher caste. They are denied entry to temples, are made to find menial work under the most humiliating conditions and are abused by the upper classes. Although India has prohibited caste discrimination in its Constitution, in practice this is not seen enforced. The continuation of the practice of untouchability is thus contrary to the constitutional provision of the abolition of untouchability (Article 17) and different criminal laws are enacted to eradicate such a social evil as untouchability. Discriminating a person on the basis of his caste is, on record, prohibited. Along with this law, the government allows positive discrimination of the depressed classes of India, to empower them.
Equality, fraternity liberty and social justice are considered the foundations of the Indian Constitution – the Constitution which grants all citizens social justice, political visibility, equal status, equality before the law, freedom of speech and thoughts, freedom of faiths, and the freedom to choose one’s profession. However, it is proved in studies that though the nation has achieved political justice, it has not truly accomplished social and economic justice. The inequality between caste and class in various fields is not yet addressed and this inequality has erected many barriers to Dalit’s liberation and, by extension, to development in India.
According to the 2001 Census, the Scheduled Castes population in India is 166,635,700 persons, constituting 16.2 percent of the country’s total population. Being rural people, four-fifths (79.8 percent) of them live in rural areas and rest one-fifth (20.2 percent) live in urban areas. The sex ratio of 936 females per thousand males is slightly higher than the national average of 933 sex ratios. The highest percentage of Scheduled Castes population to the total Scheduled Castes population of the country live in Uttar Pradesh (21.1 per cent) followed by West Bengal (11.1 per cent) and Bihar (7.8 per cent), Andhra Pradesh (7.4 percent) and Tamil Nadu (7.1.percent). In fact, more than 57 percent of total Scheduled Castes population inhabit in these five States. Proportionately, the largest proportion of the population of the Scheduled Castes to the total population of the State is in Punjab (28.9 per cent), followed by Himachal Pradesh (24.7 per cent) and West Bengal (23 percent). In Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Pondicherry proportion of SCs population is exactly equal to the National average of 16.2 per cent. The smallest concentration of the Scheduled Castes population is in the North-Eastern tribal States such as Mizoram (with negligible or only 272 persons) followed by Meghalaya (0.5 per cent) and Arunachal Pradesh (0.6 per cent).
As per the 2001 Census, there are 22 districts where the Scheduled Castes population is 30 percent or more. In the majority of the districts (i.e., 273 districts) the concentration of SCs population to the total population is between 10 to 20 percent. In Nagaland, Lakshadweep and Andaman & Nicobar Islands, no Scheduled Caste is notified. The 2001 Census, tells us that the total population of the Scheduled Tribes in India is 84,326,240 persons, constituting 8.2 percent of the total population of the country. 91.7 per cent of them lives in rural areas, whereas, only 8.3 per cent inhabit in urban areas. The sex ratio of Scheduled Tribes population at 978 females per thousand males is higher than that of the total population of the country as well as that of Scheduled Castes.
The origin of the term ‘Dalit’ and its indebtedness to Dr BabasahebAmbedkar also needs a closer look at this stage. This term which means broken men was coined by Dr BabasahebAmbedkar, the pioneer of the Dalit struggle against domination. Dr BabasahebAmbedkar advocated a more fundamental, modern approach for eliminating the oppressive practice of untouchability, along with more ambitious aims of making the society free of all evil practices. The significance of social democracy and its implications cannot be better explained than what Dr BabasahebAmbedkar did on 25 November 1949, during his memorable address to the parliament. His words in the parliament can be cited here:
We must make our political democracy a social democracy, as well. Political democracy cannot last unless there lies at the base of it social democracy. We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment or else those suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy which this Assembly has so laboriously built up. (Ambedkar: 1994:1216)
Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar has defined Social democracy as a way of life which recognises liberty, equality, and fraternity as the principles of life.
They form a union of the trinity and he argues that to divorce one from the other is to defeat the very purpose of democracy. Dr Ambedkar, however, rejected the notion of achieving equality for the lower classes by violent means; he advocated a peaceful resolution in the Buddhist way of the middle path.
While the caste system has been abolished under the Indian constitution, there is still discrimination and prejudice against Dalits in South Asia which is also a common phenomenon all over India. Since Indian independence, significant steps have been taken to provide opportunities in jobs and education. Many social organisations have encouraged proactive provisions to better the conditions of Dalits through improved education, health and employment.
Discrimination and violence against Dalits are reported even these days. The reasons cited are various, including the failure of the Indian government and authorities to take enough measures to stop such inhuman acts. It is also said in the media that such acts happen with the support of local police machinery and corrupt judiciary system or as they reject the principle of fair conduct for Dalits. One can say that the nation has failed to protect the poor Dalits against the exploitation from powerful classes. The ruling class creates a false impression of democracy and social justice through the institution of civil society, education policy, the media, political parties, cultural organisation, and charitable groups. All these symptoms indicate the marginal position and the incapability of Dalit.
To understand the root cause of the social problem, one has to go into the 3000-year old social institution, that is, the caste system. The priests and lawmakers used to be at the highest point of the social pyramid prepared of four classes, the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas and Shudras. The untouchables or shudra were those who did not fit into this system of organisation, either by birth or by the nature of their work. The caste system was perpetuated by cultural practices and religious belief in the law of karma, that the lower castes are there by virtue of them being punished for sins in a previous life. The Brahmins used to have a vested interest in getting the caste system perpetuated and they could influence laws or religion. Shudras, on the other hand, gained little support from the other backward classes as they themselves were the victims of discrimination.
However, social reformers in India realised the dangers of untouchability and a movement against it had started from within the larger framework of the Freedom Struggle itself. They successfully fought all the practices that legitimised untouchability. One should also keep in mind that fact that India is the first country in the world which has taken affirmative actions against discrimination as a national policy. Even then, studies now and then come up with the suggestion that a rigorous socio-legal action based on economic liberation is the effective solution for the social problem of Dalit.
It is necessary to understand the structure of caste system to get sensitized to the Dalit issues.
Caste has always been a significant factor in Indian society. It can be considered as a part of the global feature of class dialectics. Human history has been marked by frequent struggles between the two contrasting forces; between the ruler in the form of exploiters and the subjects in the form of the exploited, making the polarities of the strong and the weak, the dominant and the weak, the oppressor and the oppressed. Exploitation of the weaker by the powerful is as old as the history of mankind itself. It is also an unavoidable part of the power dynamics functioning in any human situation. Exploitation is a process by which a strong group attempts to manage and exploit the weaker group by using its all resources in order to further and protect its own interests. In this struggle for supremacy, the strong group uses its power and all means of domination, exploitation and humiliation. The class of oppressors does not favour the independence of the exploited. Therefore, it always attempts to install a sense of inferiority among the exploited citing the legacy of their inferior culture. The constant conflict between the oppressor and the oppressed, between the Black and the White, the low caste and the high caste is the unique feature of the modern world history. Caste system can be thus considered as a product of this class dynamics. Since the formation of the Varna or the caste system, Dalits have been segregated from the rest of the community through the inhuman and illogical practice of untouchability. Thus, one can consider untouchability as the primary tool of the caste system. Dalits have also been called as Shudras and thus labeling and language too have been agencies of oppression and discrimination.
A history of the Indian caste system shows that the hegemonic and political aspirations of the higher caste sought the marginalisation, degradation and division of Dalits from the mainstream of life. They have pushed away into the margins of social, cultural, political and economic spheres of life and of the community in general. The terrible senses of depression, agony and the subsequent sense of enmity which Dalits experience have their origin in the revolt against the primitive instincts of the powerful to dominate and crush the weak and establish their hegemony of all kinds. Besides, the caste system and the cultural productions such as belief, values, and writing were completely exploited by the upper classes for naturalising an extremely inhuman and unnatural treatment of Dalits and by labelling them as hideous subhuman, substandard and wicked. It is relevant at this stage to explore the reasons and the rationale that were used to justify the practice of untouchability. In the ancient Hindu social system that was responsible for the ageless and endless pain and sufferings of Dalits, the four Varna based on various occupations were at the centre of the social structure. This Varna system was the root cause of untouchability.
The meaning of casteism can be derived from two words ‘Caste’ and ‘ism’. The meaning of the ‘ism’ as per Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary is ‘practice of showing prejudice or discrimination’. Casteism thus means a prejudice on the basis of caste. Brahmins and Caste Hindus invented and used caste system for their selfish motive. Firstly they formed four Varnas – Brahmin, Kshatriyas, Vaisyas, Shudras and then subsequently, several castes. After establishing this caste system, they practised casteism i.e. discrimination on the basis of caste. Casteism also shows that Caste cannot be eradicated as the caste-bias will remain in the society like the racial bias. The caste system in India is comparable to races in other parts of the world. If there is no concept of caste then there will be some other thing denoting ethnic identity. Caste is often a part of the ethnic identity and it can also be the identity of a group of people. Caste or ethnic identity revealed in a personal name is very much a reality and hence it cannot die as long as the names continue to be the caste-marker. ‘Caste’ as word has been so much manipulated, distorted and misused that the moment a person says anything about caste it creates an uneasy social situation. It should also be noted that casteism has worked in three ways: 1) one looks down on other castes and in turn, feels pride in his own caste, 2) one demands equality from the castes which are higher in the hierarchy and 3) one behaves unequally with the caste considered lower than his own caste.
Caste is a grading system of human groups based on hereditary and occupation.
The traditional caste system in India is a rigid mode which is used to classify society. The Indian caste system is also highly complex. The rigid structure of the caste system in India has abided through centuries. It is true that caste has never been stagnant, that it is a historical phenomenon. In fact, the caste system was imposed upon the whole of the people of India through a long historical process.
In India, caste system comprises closed groups, whose members are severely obliged to restrain themselves to certain hereditary occupations. Particular castes are allowed to marry and socialise only within their own groups. An Individual’s social status is decided by his birth. This also serves to determine his caste. Nowhere in the world is caste dignified to such a degree as in India. The Indian word for caste is ‘jati’. Thousands of ‘jatis’ are scattered all over India. Each jati has its own supremacy, customs, traditions, religion, rules and style of living. The ancients divided Indian society into four groups – namely, Brahmans who came from the priestly group of learning, Kshatriyas who were the warrior and the ruling section of society, Vaishyas who were businessmen, traders and farmers; and Shudras who comprised of labourers and humble peasants.
The rigid hierarchy of the Indian caste system has been severely criticised by individuals with a humanitarian vision from India and outside India. Gautam Buddha, Mahavir, Kabir, Eknath, Tukaram, Mahatma Phule, ShahuMaharaj and all led criticisms of the caste system in India in olden times. The caste system is still very much a reality in India and the effects of the caste system in modern India can be seen in the form of quota systems, reservations, marriages etc. Modernization and urbanisation have had effects on the caste system. Metropolitan India has started walking away from the rigidity of the Indian caste system. This is the result of cohabitation with other communities, higher education, globalisation and economic growth. Though the government of India has decided to issue job quotas to the less privileged castes and the so called backward classes, caste based reservations in India have ignited the communal fire in a different way, at least in the urban spaces.
Indians of the modern era have also become more flexible in their caste system. In general, the urban people in India are less regimental about the caste system than the rural ones. In Urban, area one can see people of different caste helping each other, while in some rural areas there is still discrimination based on castes and untouchability. Sometimes in villages or in the cities, there are violent clashes which, are connected to caste tensions. Sometimes the high castes strike the lower castes who dare to uplift their status. Sometimes the lower castes get back on the higher castes.
The castes, which were the elite of the Indian society, were called the high castes. The other communities were classified as lower castes or lower classes. The lower classes were listed in three categories. The first category was called Scheduled Castes (S.C.). This category had in its communities that were untouchables. Until the late 1980s, they were called Harijan, i.e. children of God. This name was given by Mahatma Gandhi who wanted the society to acknowledge untouchables within them. The second category is that of the Scheduled Tribes (S.T) which includes in it those communities which do not accept the caste system and choose to live in jungles, forests and mountains of India, away from the society. The Scheduled Tribes are also called Adivasis, which means aboriginals.The third category is known by the name Other Backward Classes (O.B.C.) or Backward Classes. This category includes in it castes which belong to Shudra Varna and also former untouchables who convert from Hinduism to other religions. This category also includes in it nomads and tribes that make a living from criminal acts. Together SC, ST, and OBC, low caste Minority Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Buddhists are known as Dalits. According to the central government policy, these three categories are entitled to positive discrimination. Along with the central government, the state governments of India also follow a positive discrimination policy.
Dr Ambedkar had discussed the cultural, India: in political and economic factors conditioning the Caste system.In his famous work Castes in India. My study of the Caste problem involves four main points:
1) That in spite of the composite make-up of the Hindu population, there is a deep cultural unity. 2) That Caste is a parcel into its of a larger cultural unity. 3) That there was one Caste to start with.4)That classes have become Castes have become Castes through imitation and excommunication.(Ambedkar, B.R.:1996:31)
Discrimination in the form of denial of opportunities and denial of promotion are some of the problems faced by those, who manage to get jobs. The education system also shows signs of maltreatment, with cases of Dalit students being issued different colored school entrance forms and exam answer scripts from non-Dalit students. Thus, in spite of the positive discrimination policy, most of the communities that were low caste in Varna system or hierarchy remain low in the social order even today. Most of the degrading jobs especially in villages are even today done by the Dalits, while the Brahmans and caste Hindus occupy top positions.
Dr.Ambedkar had considered the system of Chaturvarna as a social order similar to slavery in his famous work Who were the Shudras?, Dr.Ambedkar exposes the principle of inequality embedded in Chaturvarna :
Under the system of Chaturvarnya, the Shudra is not only placed at the bottom of the gradation but he is subjected to innumerable ignominies and disabilities so as to prevent him from rising above the condition fixed for him by law. Indeed until the fifth Varna of the Untouchables came into being, the Shudras were in the eyes of the Hindus the lowest of the low. This shows the nature of what might be called the problem Shudras. (Ambedkar: 2003:9)
Caste system was not imposed all at once on Indian society: it took centuries before caste became prominent. The two major streams of the conflicting ideas, which is in fact the root cause of the caste discrimination, are the Brahmanic and the shramanic. (Working class). It is believed that the Brahmans belong to the sections of early priests of the Vedic society. In ancient times the Brahmans began to circulate a theory in which the Vedas were considered to be the original, unwritten, eternal sacred literature, and the Brahmans, its authorized interpreters. They used their interpretations of earlier scriptures such as the Vedas (particularly the Purushsukta), and then produced many “manuals” of the social order, or Dharma shastras, which were prescriptive rather than descriptive. Varnashrama system was the ideal social form, in which the Vedic sacrifices and rituals could be performed only by the elites of society who were “pure” unlike lower caste people who were made to do all degrading and “impure” works.
Brahmanic theory, in a way, gave religious sanction to a society of inequality. It has to be noted that it was the theory of “Brahmanism” which propounded a belief in this discrimination, and not “Hinduism.” “Hinduism,” as a term for religion was used many years later in Sanskrit texts, after the Mughal period, and became generalized with the colonial era, when it was identified as the religion of the “people of India”. In the earlier period the term “Hindu” was unknown in India; it originated first as the mispronunciation of “Sind” by the people in the Iranian plateau, who pronounced “S” as “H”, thus turning “Sind” into “Hind.” For a long period the area beyond the Indus (Sind) was known as “Hind” to the Muslim world.
The need to root out this orthodox classification was felt right after the rise of Buddhism. The liberation of the Dalit was the motivating cause behind many caste reformists. Dr. Ambedkar emphasized in his proposed inaugural speech at the ‘Jat-Pat TodakMandal’ of Lahore in 1936 that untouchability ceases to exist as and when these margins are dismantled, but, he was never allowed to deliver his speech precisely because of its anti-DharamShastric contents. Dr. BabasahebAmbedkar condemned the systematic suppression of the Dalits and saw the solution to this in the removal of the social structure that supported the discrimination against them. He was only partly successful in his venture, facing in fighting centuries of unquestioned abuse of the caste system. His influence on the post-Ambedkar Dalit movement however, lives on in the unifying nature of his inspirational writings.Dr.Ambedkar had considered caste system as a social division of the people of the same race.He defines caste system in terms of its inequality:
It is a social system which embodies the arrogance and selfishness of a perverse section of the Hindus who were superior enough in social status to set it in fashion and who had authority to force it on their inferiors. (Dr.Ambedkar, B.R:.Annihilation of Caste.Nagpur, SamataPrakashan, 1944)
To a large extent, the Indian government and its functionaries are responsible for the poor response to the efforts of Dr. BabasahebAmbedkar, to the implementation of policies, in particular constitutional amendments, which were planned to improve the lives of Dalits. Although the government has taken steps to rectify the predicament of the depressed and Article 17 of the Constitution has banned untouchability and made its practice a punishable offence since 1950, in practice these rules are rarely enforced, especially in the more traditional communities and villages where, at times, people have also pointed the complicity of local authorities with landowners. There have also been documented cases where landlords and the police use sexual abuse and violence against women as a way of threatening dissenters. As often occurs, the weak and powerless are used and thrown in a political game, with young Dalit women facing the worst treatment of all due to their vulnerable age and gender.
Caste has never been so aggressive in Indian politics as it is today. This has, in turn, led to caste violence in various parts of the country. Every region has its specific and unique characteristics. In order to understand the phenomenon of caste one needs to give significance to the cultural disparity of the different regions.
- Ambedkar, Babasaheb. Writings and Speeches. Vol.13, Higher Education Government of Maharashtra, 1994.
- Ambedkar, B.R.: Caste in India. Mumbai: PratapPrakashan, 1996.
- Ambedkar, B.R.: Who were the Shudras? Nagpur: KaushalyaPrakashan, edition 2003.
- Ambedkar, B.R: Annihilation of Caste. Nagpur: SamataPrakashan, 1944.
Author – Dr. Grishma Khobragade, Assistant Prof. Dept of English, Birla College, Kalyan (University of Mumbai)