Casteism In India – A Harsh Reality with Real Life Consequences Every Day

17-year-old Dalit youth not allowed to enter temple, shot dead by upper caste men for arguing

-Times Now (Updated Jun 09, 2020)

The Indian Dalit man killed for eating in front of upper-caste men

BBC News (Updated May 20, 2019)

‘Tell Everyone We Scalped You!’ How Caste Still Rules in India

-The New York Times (Updated Nov 17, 2018)

Life of the poor is no doubt cheap in our country but when you are a poor belonging to the lower caste or Dalit population, your life is not just cheap but free for the so-called protectors of our social and cultural identity to twist, bend, burn or do whatever they wish to with it.

What is Casteism?

Caste-based discrimination is an age-old archaic practice that has divine roots in the Manusmiriti, an ancient legal text in Sanskrit among the many Dharmaśāstras of Hinduism. It was written during the Later Vedic Age, which was a period, as documented by historians, to be highly rigid and socially derogatory for the lower-caste and women, contrary to the blooming Early Vedic Period.

The division stems from the belief in the Karma Doctrine and those belonging to the Dalit community are supposed to have committed grave crimes in their earlier birth and therefore are punished in this birth as untouchables. The Dalits or Untouchables form the outcasts and are considered belonging to the fifth Varna apart from the four major ones – Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. The Untouchables perform dirty work especially those related to sanitation and scavenging. Some communities like the Badis in Nepal are viewed as a prostitution caste. Similarly, the Devadasi system which deteriorated into a prostitution den mostly comprises Dalits from Madiga and Valmiki castes and are concentrated mostly in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.

Is it still prevalent today?

The above paragraph sounds pretty regressive, right? Now as an enlightened educated Indian, most of us would feel that all this existed decades before and have no place in today’s society. But if every 15 minutes a crime is committed against a Dalit, and if 4 Dalit women are raped every day (as per NCRB Report 2016) there exists a termite eating away the very soul of our community and just putting in display the superficial development we all brag about. The Indian high caste hypocrisy comes well to the surface when they rape women who are otherwise deemed Untouchables.

What do Official Figures State?

As per the National Crime Records Bureau Report 2018, the SC/ST related crimes have seen a dip from 2017 and most of it accounts for simple hurt cases. Under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, reported crimes accounted for just 9.8% (4,212 cases) and criminal intimidation to 7.3% (3,137 cases) during 2018. In case of the Scheduled Tribes, rape cases constituted 15.4% (1,008 cases) and assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty comprised 13.1% (857 cases) during the same period.

At the surface, it seems we are making progress. But with a lot of higher administration including police officials and Judiciary comprising the higher caste and with many cases going unreported, a lot seems to not make it to our official Crime Records. Take, for example, the gang rape and murder of two Dalit girls in Badaun district of Uttar Pradesh, a crime which was tried to be depicted as suicides. (Watch the Ayushmaan Khurrana starrrer Article 15 to understand the core issue) or the multiple hate crimes including lynching, rapes, torture that never make it to the headlines.

In a high profile case in 2000, aka the “Gaidakot Milk Scandal,” the upper castes of the Gaidakot Multipurpose Milk Production Co-operative Institution Limited refused to sell milk from an animal raised by a Dalit. Only after protests and the intervention of NGOs and human rights organizations were Dalits allowed to sell their milk to the cooperative.


The problem of Manual Scavenging

Since archaic times, the Untouchables have been associated with filthy, degrading works like manual scavenging, burning animal remains, sweeping, sanitation work and so on. Manual Scavengers are called Bhangis in Gujarat, Pakhis in Andhra Pradesh, and Sikkaliars in Tamil Nadu. Despite the passing of the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act in 2013, 110 manual scavengers were killed in 2019 while cleaning sewers and septic tanks. This was a sharp 61% increase compared to the preceding (2018) year’s 68 deaths. Despite introducing mechanisation of sewage cleaning, a large number of these Untouchables end up getting entangled in this disturbing occupation due to unemployment, no alternative jobs, poverty and social ostracisation.

Are government programmes and policies helping?

Though the government has appropriate Central and State Laws for the protection and development of the SCs, STs including the Positive Discrimination/Affirmative Action and the much-debated and highly controversial system of reservations thanks to the Mandal Commission, much needs to be worked on at the grass-root level. If SC/ST employees are still segregated even after getting employed through reservations, the problem is not solved. It just gushes in an upward dimension thus bringing the problem right at the office desk.

Some of the most pertinent causes as to why the Centre and State Involvement is doing little to abolish this decadent practice are as follows:

1. Lack of integrated programmes at the grass-root level

2. Weak implementation and sustainability of existing laws

3. Failure to give a platform to a wide section of the backward communities and repressed people into the mainstream national development process

4. Centre-oriented/based programmes rather than community-based/participatory programmes.

5. Little attention to human resource development

6. Lack of encouragement to the development and modernization of traditional occupations and skills

7. Lack of effective institutional mechanisms

Caste-Based Discrimination in urban modern and semi-modern societies

The problem lies with centuries of manipulation and indoctrination of the Indian psyche. No matter how developed or progressive we are, we can find these archaic practices being followed in novel ways in our own homes. When we use words like Bhangi or Ghati or Chamar to abuse someone, we are perpetrating a caste-based crime. I have neighbours who serve water in plastic glasses to their maids, drivers, even certain guests who belong to the OBCs or SCs.

Casteism is also encouraged through discouraging intercaste marriage by way of making your caste visible in several matrimonial ads in newspapers read by the so-called Educated Indians. People settled in the US, UK and Canada come back to India in search of grooms/brides belonging to their particular caste. In some states, predominantly in the North, intercaste marriages lead to bloody consequences as there have been reported incidents of parents killing their children or relatives in a practice termed as Honor Killing.

Why would someone do that is beyond my understanding but even in the year 2020, wherein we are forced to maintain Social Distancing, some Indians have been cherishing the practice since decades and centuries. In fact as per studies done and reports made by several Human Right Groups, even in times of natural disasters like the Gujarat Earthquake of 2001 and Orissa Cyclone of 1999, the laws of “purity and pollution” prevailed thus making the lower caste at the receiving end of government-induced prejudice.

We are not Alone. Some other societies with similar social structures

And India is not the only country to have failed to eradicate this inhumane system. In Sri Lanka, we have the Rodiyas, who were historically excluded from villages and communities. The Wolof Community of Senegal in North West Africa, has the lower-caste Neenos equivalent of India’s Shudras and Jaam/ Slaves community, who are thrown outside all forms of social hierarchy, equalling the Dalits in India. Nigeria consists of the Osus who face several discriminatory behaviours. The Buraku Comunity of Japan dates back to the country’s feudal Tokugawa era in the seventeenth century and the horrors the community has to meet continue even today.

Discrimination against Buraku persists in Japan’s economy. In a high profile case in 1998, over seven hundred companies were discovered to have hired private investigators to unearth job applicants’ Buraku origins, ethnic background, nationality, ideology, religion, and political affiliation. After factoring in each characteristic, an applicant was ranked from “excellent” to “advisable not to hire.” However, a person discovered to be of Buraku origin was not rated and consequently not hired.


No doubt there are signs of upward mobility through education and non-discriminatory laws. But what needs to change is our collective psyche. Indian society needs to unite as one and see the lower-caste community as people with flesh and blood. Their FIR’s need to be made, their cases need to be investigated, their women need to be protected, and their lives need to be made better. For every Dalit death, we all are responsible as a collective conscience is still missing and nothing can deny this truth.

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