A short account of India's caste-system.


1. Caste-Offs

I’ve been searching for something. It glimmers, like copper pennies in the dust behind a dresser. It sings its bitter song like a blackbird. Forgive the similes. I’ve been searching for hope. The World is changing, undeniably. Whilst Britain and America may once have been indomitable forces, the 21st century has seen the steady economic increase of the East; India namely. It is destined to become a “super-nation” by 2020, with one of the World’s fastest growing populations. We accept, with a tired smile, because it’s all very well and good- We retire into the facts. Yet this is what I’ve been looking for: hope. I know where I won’t find it, and that is in India. There is something stagnant about India’s society... an abysmal clause that has been brought to the surface and then dismissed throughout history. It is the matter of their caste-system. Broken down into levels, or "varnas" the caste system dictates thus: Brahmins are the ruling class; teachers and doctors and, notably, priests. Their inferiors are the Kshatriyas; warriors and leaders. Below them are the Viasyas, merchants and skilled traders. Lower yet, and stigmatised because of one unjust sub-continent-wide principle, are the Shudras, who are unskilled factory workers and farmers. India’s caste-system isn’t exactly unheard of in the wide-world, as it has been an active part of their social structure since the initial Hindu influence of the third century. But a history lesson is not required here. We all know about it. We raise our eyebrows and bemoan the hypocrisy of... things. Perhaps we speculate a little. And then we move on. But it's not quite finished. As if this type of vivid anachronism in the 21st century isn't enough, there is yet another class, stitched onto the end of the pyramid as an after-thought. They are called the Dalits. The "untouchables, or in traditional Sanskrit: "shattered, broken”. Blessed as "God's children" by Mahatma Gandhi but, to this day, they are despised by Shudras and Viasyas and Kshatriyas and Brahmins alike. The population say that the Dalits are not pure. Unclean and unwanted. Northern India is idyllic and caught between the beauty of mountain peaks, dense forestry and placid lake-land. However, in some of its religiously-influenced villages and towns, Dalits are secluded from the rest of the population. They are banned from entering the homes and temples of the ruling classes and a Dalit mayl go their entire life without being in possession of their own land. The worst jobs- although they can’t exactly be defined as “jobs”- in society are reserved for the Dalits; toilet cleaning by day and by night, prostitution, where they are exposed to the risks of unprotected sex (the spread of syphilis has become dangerous, particularly as treatment is not accessible). “Rat-catchers” are the lowliest form of Dalit, deemed abhorrent by almost everyone because they have no choice but to eat and kill street-rodents for means of survival. Dalits are subjected to rape and robbery and abuse and murder; their perpetrators somehow always escape the eye of legality and justice... and why on Earth should there be justice? Dalits, of course, only even skim the bottom of the caste-system. Their existence is a mere insatiable glimpse at the rest of humanity. Humans are defined by their rights: their right to vote, their right to education, their right to live without fear. Dalits, by that logic, cannot be classed as humans in Indian society. The only way for Dalit children to escape their dire situation is through education. Education is, undoubtedly, power, but this is not exactly easy. Many Dalit children are not allowed to attend the same schools as those from the higher classes. If they are, merciless racial animosity and teasing is directed at them, so they leave, denied basic education. This is far from the playground politics of “You can’t play with us”. This is deep-rooted xenophobia but, ironically, channelled between children of the same race. Brahmin children will go on to become priests and doctors. Kshatriyas gain some of the best seats in the Indian government. Viasyas and Shudras might prosper as merchants and farmers. But over 65 years of Indian history, just two Dalits have become Supreme Court Judges. They have minimal influence over the way in which their country and their lives are run. The title “Dalit” is carried around like a terrible set of shackles. The key has been lost and these shackles shall not be cast off until it is found again. In some way, the Indian government have managed to convince the rest of the world that their attitudes to the Dalits are nothing but cultural and internal policy. To borrow a quote from The Godfather: "It's nothing personal. Just business". But this is very much a reality and a sickening one, at that. The practice of untouchability (in which the higher classes will not touch anything that has come into physical contact with a Dalit) has been banned since 1949, yet it still continues and spreads throughout the country like a drop of blood in water. India’s caste-system is a never-ending metaphor. An almost onset of thrombosis; a conflagration that has now dwindled, but still scorches the outskirts of a forest; the grime lodged at the crevices of a tramp’s nose. More than simply unpleasant or macabre or shameful. It is the shadow of an apartheid, first and foremost. A country that is economically burgeoning still has the social scruples of a medieval dictatorship. The ostracisation of minority groups has been echoed throughout human history; the Holocaust, the South-African Apartheid, the Rwandan civil war, to name an unfortunate few. In India, the Dalits are pushed into the shadows. Their lives are nightmares, but this has been made routine; frankly permissible. There is no point in living and believing in Dalits and Shudras and Viasyas and Brahmins. Believe in people. Believe in people and all their strengths and their beauty and their potential. Perhaps if we did, there would be no need to share the stories of the Dalits and all those who live in terror; the oppressed. But right now, we must. We must tell their stories for them. And you must listen.
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