Reform paths for the caste system

India’s system of ‘untouchable’ Dalits dates back centuries, but it can still be changed

Students from various institutions protest against Indian government at Mumbai University, in Mumbai, India. Divyakant Solanki / EPA
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The tragic news that an Indian student at Hyderabad Central University was driven to suicide because of the deep caste stratification in Indian universities has prompted protest and anger across the country. The student, from the Dalit or “untouchables”, felt isolated because of his caste, feeding the social pressures that led him to take his own life.

Universities around the world have traditionally occupied a special place in society not just as incubators of new ideas but also a space where people can improve their lot in life through hard work and application. That doesn’t mean that universities have always been models of integration and inclusion themselves – quite the opposite. In the US, for example, the debate about racism in higher education played a significant part in the development of the civil rights movement and eventually forced those institutions to change. A similar process is required on Indian campuses.

Although the caste system is woven into the fabric of Indian society – a seemingly permanent imprint on the general psyche of India itself – that does not mean change is impossible. However, it will require large amounts of time and clear determination.

It’s the ability of universities to be great levellers of class that can, in turn, reduce distinctions between castes. By changing one’s economic position in society, one can over time mitigate the effect of the caste one was born into. At least that is the hope.

Given the strength of the caste structure in society, real changes will take a great deal of time but that doesn’t preclude attempts to plant the seeds of transformation. India’s rising economy and increasingly globalised outlook make the education system the right place to start what will be a long journey. This is why one of the first challenges will be to reform the universities themselves.

Indian universities reflect many of the ills of the caste system in their underrepresentation of low-caste students and staff, but they remain fertile areas for social change. No more students should have to die to start a discussion about caste that society has avoided. Instead, university campuses should be leading the way.