The word ‘Caste’ derives from the Spanish and Portuguese word “Casta” which means race, lineage or tribe. Caste is a social and an economical term assigned to a community of people that decides their position in the society. It is hereditary, which means an individual inherits it at the time of his/her birth. In India, Caste is something that decides our right to education, occupation, wealth and even the right to live. Moreover, caste is a rigid system that divides society into different groups. It places people who have power at its zenith. However, people with less power/no power occupy the lowest position in the Caste system. Therefore, it gives absolute power to the dominant group to discriminate and oppress the people from other castes, deemed as inferior.
Caste System In India
In India, the caste system get its root from the traditional concepts of “Jati” and “Varna”. The Upper Caste Hindus were responsible for this demarcation . People belonging to the lower castes are considered as ‘impure’ and ‘polluting’. Thus,’Jati’ and ‘Varna’ are the primary concepts that analyzes the caste system in India.
What is Jati?
‘Jati’ literally meaning “birth” refers to the subcategories of castes in the Varna System. An individual inherits his/her Jati. Therefore, it remains unchanged till his/her death. For instance, the outcasts as categorized into Mahars, Malas, Madigas and others. Each member belonging to their respective categories of caste ‘inherit’ their certain occupations, rights and duties.
What is Varna?
‘Varna’ refers to “color” or “type”. It is a framework that divides people into certain classes as per the Indian Vedic System. According to the Rig Veda, the ancient Hindu Book, the four different Varnas came into existence from different body parts of Purush – the primal man. The Brahmans came from his head; the Kshatriyas from his hand; the Vaishyas from his thighs and the Shudras from his feet. Furthermore, the members not belonging to these four Varnas were the “Untouchables”, “Outcasts” and Dalits.
Brahmans who secured the highest position in the Caste System consisted of priests and intellectuals of the society. The Kshatriyas included the rulers, warriors and aristocrats of the society. The Vaishyas consisted of landlords and merchants. The Shudras were the peasants and the poor working class of the society. However, the Untouchables had to do the menial jobs such as cleaning and manual scavenging.
Caste And Discrimination
Dalits or ‘Untouchables’ face the highest form of discrimination and oppression within the Caste system. The Upper Caste Hindus treat them as ‘impure’ and ‘polluting’ . Dalits are denied the right to access land, resources, education and basic health-care facilities. Therefore, people belonging to these lower castes are also the constant victims of inhuman verbal, physical and sexual abuse.
The hierarchical society based on Caste, denies Dalits to access water from wells exclusively meant for the Upper Caste. They are denied to enter temples, schools, markets and public places. Dalit students are denied equal opportunities enjoyed by students of higher caste. They are forced to sit separately from the students of Upper Castes. In addition, they are not allowed to have any kind of physical contact with the other castes.
Discrimination faced by Dalit Women
Dalit women face the most heinous atrocities of the Caste system. They not only face violation by the men of Upper Caste but by also men belonging to their own Caste. Women belonging to these lower castes are the ‘objects of lust’ for these men. A vivid example is of the recent ‘Hathras Gang-Rape’ case. This incident not only shocked the whole nation but depicted the heinous exploitations faced by Dalit women in the hands of Upper Caste men. In addition, many Dalit women are victims of sexual abuse, exploitation and even forced prostitution. They face multiple and intersectional discrimination. Furthermore, ‘Honor-killing’ is another explicit way of oppression that results from inter-caste marriages.
Caste And Religion
Caste based discrimination has no boundaries when it comes to religious affiliation. Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians and Muslims practice some or the other form of caste biases . During the British Raj, the political consciousness among the lower castes was to flee themselves from the strong holds of “caste slavery” and untouchability. The only solution for them was to leave Hinduism and convert themselves to Christianity. They wanted to lose themselves from the shackles of caste hierarchy and purity. Hence, they converted themselves to Christianity which they felt was an egalitarian religion.
Therefore, the tyranny and humiliation faced from the Upper Caste Hindus forced the Dalits to convert their Religion. They converted in order to have a life of dignity, to gain respect and honor. And moreover, to live independently and as free individuals.
Conversion does not free Dalits from the clutches of Upper Castes as they maintain their dominance and supremacy in other religions as well. The members of Dalit Community face the devastating consequences of caste hierarchies to this very day. For instance, the mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism in Gujarat was a means of resistance to oppose to Dalit discrimination. Even today, in the town of Trichy, there exists a separate cemetery for Dalit Christians. And moreover, they have to sit apart from Christians and must stand while talking to priests. For many Dalits, conversion to another Religion was a humanitarian claim for equality and justice. However, they were denied these.
Understanding Caste Through Literature
It is important to understand caste and how it functions in our society. Dalit literature refers to the literature that portrays the life, struggles and humiliation faced by the people of lower caste. Thus, it is a written record of the oppression and violation faced by their ancestors. Moreover, it functions as a safe space for Dalits to voice their opinions and fight back against the hierarchical caste structure. These three texts will help us understand caste based discrimination in a much better way.
1. UNTOUCHABLE SPRING
Written by G. Kalyan Rao is a memory text that tells the life history of a family in the Telugu Dalit community. Through the mode of oral story telling, the author narrates the saga of generations of Dalit lives. He also focuses on the various art forms that played a major role in their lives. The story takes place in the fictional village of “Yennela Dinni”. The text focuses on the lives of people belonging to the Mala and Madiga castes.
It tells the story of whole generation of Dalits who had gone through the oppression of the Caste system. Kalyan Rao in his novel, explores the conversion of Dalits into Christianity. Through a series of powerful characters Rao emphasizes that conversion was not the only means of resistance and emancipation for Dalits. Instead, Dalits fought against oppression through their songs, dance, heroism, communism, revolution and naxalism
2. BHIMAYANA : INCIDENTS IN THE LIFE OF BHIMRAO RAMJI AMBEDKAR
It is a graphic novel by Subash Vyom, Durgabai Vyom, Srividya Natarajan and S. Anand. The novel focuses on all the pervasive caste System through the life story of B. R. Ambedkar. It primarily focuses on the humiliations he suffered on account of his birth in a Dalit community. The artists of the books use a traditional art form called ‘Pardha Gond’ art to depict Ambedkar’s life story and teaching. Artistic devices such as imagery, symbolism, metaphor, irony, reportage and journalism form the core of the novel. For instance ,the imagery of Ambedkar in a suit in the novel, emphasizes the rejection of rigidity of the Caste system that conforms Dalits as inferiors.
3. THE GOD OF SMALL THINGS
Written by Arundhati Roy, reflects the oppressive caste system in southern part of India. The setting of the novel is in Ayemenem in the Kottayam district of Kerala. The novel emphasizes the inferiority complex that is evident in the interactions between the Touchables and Untouchables in Ayemenem. It novel depicts the oppressive plight of the people belonging to the lower caste of Paravans. Velutha, a very poignant and powerful character in the novel, is the victim of heinous caste oppression. He is a ‘Paravan’ and an excellent carpenter but his forbidden affair with Ammu leads to his brutal death that makes up much of the novel’s tragedy. The below quote from the book depicts the inhumane treatment of these lower castes:
“Paravans were expected to crawl backwards with a broom, sweeping away their footprints so that Brahmins or Syrian Christians would not defile themselves by accidentally stepping into a Paravan’s footprint.”Arundhati Roy, ‘The God Of Small Things’
Does Caste Still Exist?
In 2019 an official data showed over hundred deaths of manual scavengers. A recent survey revealed that nearly 66,000 manual scavengers continue to operate across the country. During COVID-19, no data was collected on the thousands of sanitization workers who got infected while handling medical waste. Therefore, aren’t these enough proof to emphasize that Casteism still does exist in India!