Caste discrimination is a highly politicised and sensitive issue in India. Despite constitutional safeguards and special legislation for the protection of the country’s 201 million ‘scheduled castes’ (the official term for Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist Dalits), violations of their fundamental human rights continue on a massive scale. Key issues include access to justice and rising violence against Dalits, multiple discrimination against Dalit women, slavery and child labour, discrimination in education, untouchability and access to basic services including humanitarian aid, social and economic rights and shrinking space for Dalit human rights defenders
Caste is both a historical truth of the Indian subcontinent, and a reality of modern-day India. Some of us are still unaware of the extent to which caste remains an ordering principle in our society today. Caste is present in a massive way in most of India and caste-based discrimination and violence takes place across the nation. In metropolitan cities too, caste has its ugly presence, even if not in obvious ways.
After India achieved independence, quotas on employment- known as ‘reservations’ were introduced into the Constitution, and discriminating against the lower castes was made illegal. By 1990, the quota rose to about 49%, and it applied to groups that were classified as “Other Backward Classes”, “Scheduled Castes,” and “Scheduled Tribes” (groups of historically disadvantaged indigenous Indians).
A major misunderstanding is that there are only four castes: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. These are the Varna’s, which are considered ‘super castes’. However, castes are often regional, and divided based on not just profession. Profession is a minor part of the division that is mainly hereditary, based on different traditions and social status, and degrees of untouchability. And the “untouchable” castes: the main victims of this system of oppression, are not even mentioned in the Vedas. The Dalits, or Scheduled Castes as the government recognises them, form a fifth Varna kept out of the system.
In the caste system, the women were utterly neglected. They enjoyed a very conservative and traditional type of status. They were denied the privilege of higher education. They could not voice their opinion in public affairs.
The women belonging to the higher castes led a still more precarious life due to the practice of child marriage and prohibition of widow remarriage. The desire for male made women produces more and more children which affected their physical and mental condition. Sometimes the lower caste women were sexually harassed by the higher caste males but they could not protest against them due to the prevailing social pattern. In a nutshell, women enjoyed a very low status in the caste system.
Leaders in India must continue to challenge the mindset of those who seek to maintain the status quo. Of the Dalit children who stay in education, the majority are still forced to sit in the back of class and banned from touching mid-day meals. Similarly, a recent survey found that 65% of health workers still refuse to visit SC and ST settlements at all, denying basic care to some of India’s most vulnerable people. Violence against Dalits remains rife. As long as this kind of prejudice remains progress will continue to stall. Modi, himself a member of an Other Backwards Class but at risk of alienating his core support of Gujarati Patels, has been very reluctant to challenge prejudicial language during these recent anti-reservation protests. If the Indian government remains committed to tackling extreme poverty then they must find long term solutions to caste inequality than are currently in place.