Caste matters, despite the great Indian lie

Dalit women remain discriminated against, despite calls to end positive discrimination in their favour. Photo: Pawan Kumar / Reuters
Dalit women remain discriminated against, despite calls to end positive discrimination in their favour. Photo: Pawan Kumar / Reuters

So the lie so beloved of the Indian elite – that the caste system is moribund and no one bothers about anyone’s caste any more – has been nailed.

The largest survey ever to look at caste attitudes has been carried out by the National Council for Applied Economic Research in New Delhi and the University of Maryland. It covered 42,000 households across the country and across religions.

Asked if they practised untouchability in the sense of not allowing a low caste person to enter their kitchen or touch their dishes, 30 per cent of Hindus and 52 per cent of Brahmins admitted they did. Even Sikhs (23 per cent) and Muslims (18 per cent), whose religions are meant to be free of caste, practise untouchability. Only Christians had a relatively low figure of five per cent.

For many years, the middle classes have attacked India’s affirmative action policy for Dalits, formerly known as untouchables. They say that the quotas for Dalits in college admissions and government jobs are unnecessary because this policy has empowered Dalits sufficiently by now and discrimination on the basis of caste has disappeared. They argue that merit should be the only deciding factor.

The irony that those who have ruled India for centuries on the basis of birth are now keen to honour the principle of merit is lost on them.

“They can’t go on being pampered” is the refrain often heard in India. The reality is that violence, rape, and humiliation are inflicted on Dalits all the time, particularly in rural areas.

High caste parents refuse to let a Dalit prepare school meals, while teachers force Dalit children to sit at the back of the classroom and serve them in different, specially marked, dishes. Any Dalit who challenges upper caste authority faces a brutal beating.

The notion propounded by the middle class that caste is no longer the dominating principle of Indian society is merely a self-serving delusion that has been shattered by this survey.

Caste remains entrenched 64 years after its abolition by the Indian constitution. On television, you see no Dalit news anchors or soap opera stars.

No Dalit appears in a commercial. No senior newspaper editor is Dalit. Surveys show that in 1992 there were no Dalits at all in newsrooms.

A 2006 survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies showed that more than 90 per cent of decision-makers in English-language newspapers and magazines and 79 per cent in TV news channels were upper caste. Anecdotal evidence suggests nothing has changed since. As for Bollywood, let’s not even bother. The day a Dalit becomes a film star in India the Himalayas will start to move.

Many middle class Indians have only to look at their own social circles to find they have no Dalit friends. If they happen to find themselves in a Dalit home, too often upper-caste Hindus will want to make a dash for it when offered a meal. Though outwardly westernised, young urban Indians frequently appear to harbour the same bigotry, with the majority stating in multiple surveys that they will marry within the same caste. That is the crux. The caste system can be considered truly dead, and India to be truly modern, only when Indians start eating, socialising, and intermarrying across caste lines.

Legislation can bring about massive changes in social attitudes but in India, it has been only partially successful. By enshrining their rights, legislation has ensured that Dalits have more access to education and better incomes but it has failed to change general attitudes, mainly because there is no penalty, not even social censure, attached to discriminating against Dalits.

Even so, legislation can only go so far. For change to happen, Indians have to be spurred to reflect on the vile and inhuman nature of caste discrimination and feel guilt and responsibility.

This is rarely the case. If media organisations, for example, did care, they would have devised policies to actively encourage the recruitment of Dalits and change the dreadful 1992 reality that not a single Dalit could be found in a newsroom. It’s not rocket science.

Two decades ago, the BBC, realising it had few ethnic minority employees, made a conscious effort to recruit them and it worked.

To solve a problem, you first have to care about it. White Americans are currently debating the spate of shootings by white policemen of black men.

Indians read about horrific caste atrocities but these crimes rarely intrude on dinner table talk or replace the chatter about the latest smart phones, jobs, clothes, and weddings.

Where there should be scathing self-analysis, there is often self-satisfaction. Where there should be a questioning of the status quo, there is frequently acceptance.

Eventually, of course, education, urbanisation and modernisation will erode caste. But the end could come sooner if more people would get more upset about it.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance journalist based in India

Published: December 7, 2014 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one