What is India's caste system and why did Seattle ban it?

Social stratification is one of world’s oldest and divides Hindu society into four hierarchical groups

Dalits belong to the lowest of castes, according to the Indian caste system. AP
Powered by automated translation

Seattle has become the first US city to outlaw caste-based discrimination after the city council passed a resolution to include the contentious birth-based social classification in the list of banned discriminatory laws.

The resolution was moved by Kshama Sawant, an upper-caste Hindu of Indian origin, and was approved by the Seattle City Council by a vote of six to one.

“It’s official: our movement has WON a historic, first-in-the-nation ban on caste discrimination in Seattle! Now we need to build a movement to spread this victory around the country,” Ms Sawant tweeted after Tuesday's vote.

Calls to outlaw discrimination based on caste, birth or descent have grown louder among South Asian diaspora communities. But the ban is opposed by many Hindu-American groups, who support the rigid hierarchy and believe their community is being singled out.

Why did Seattle ban caste discrimination?

The caste system in India is among the world’s oldest social stratifications. It divides Hindu society into four hierarchical groups based largely on social and professional roles. Dalits face widespread discrimination for being at the bottom of the ladder.

Indians, mostly Hindus, are one of the biggest immigrant groups in the US and over the years the country has become the new theatre for the ancient discriminatory practice, particularly in the employment sector.

A California state agency in 2020 filed a lawsuit against tech giant Cisco over allegations that an upper-caste Hindu manager discriminated against a Dalit employee.

The legal case led to a flurry of complaints being received by civil rights group Equality Rights, with Dalits complaining that they faced discrimination from managers and colleagues, including caste-based slurs, sexual harassment and arbitrary dismissal.

How did the caste system start?

While there are different theories regarding the origin of the caste system in India, it is widely believed that Hindu society was divided according to Manusmriti, a code of conduct governing how to run the society put together by Brahmins, the priestly class and the highest in the caste order.

The ancient text came into being about 1,800 years ago, according to mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik.

The texts are attributed to Brahma, the creator. They are said to have been compiled by Manu, a sage and the first man, who passed it on to other sages and Brahmins to run the social system.

What are some examples?

Manusmriti teaches that Hindu society is composed of four kinds of communities governed by birth, meaning the families they are born into.

Those who know the Vedas or the religious texts are Brahmins, those who govern the land are Kshatriyas, those who trade are Vaishyas and those who serve are Shudras or Dalits, formerly known as untouchables.

The Brahmins enjoy the highest ranks and Dalits remain at the bottom, continuing to be widely discriminated against in India despite such discrimination being banned by law in 1950.

Street sweepers, cobblers, leather workers and scavengers are among examples of Dalits.

How does the caste system work?

For centuries, the caste system has caused inequality in India. It has been exploited by those in power in upper castes to subjugate people from lower-caste communities, who are still not given opportunities to progress and continue to face hate crimes.

India's constitution treats all Indian citizens equally, irrespective of their caste, race, religion, creed, descent or place of birth. But untouchability and discrimination continue in society. It particularly affects Dalits, who face exclusion from major areas of life.

There are special rights and caste-based reservations for people from lower castes for education and jobs, but social domination means they rarely get opportunities to free themselves from the system.

More than 70,000 cases of atrocities against Dalits were under official investigation at the end of the year 2021, according to the latest data by National Crimes Records Bureau.

Updated: February 22, 2023, 4:43 PM