Millions of people in India are born with existing scars that may not fade till their lifetime or over next generations. In the Hindu society of India, people are born in certain families, by the accident of birth, that are already looked upon as having lower status in the society. There are the shudras, also termed as Dalits or the untouchables . These people are socially stigmatised and economically backward as they are forced to perform menial jobs for the upper caste people . These people are discriminated and socially excluded, which means that they are not allowed to fully participate in the public and community life, which also has several adverse consequences upon their growth and development.
The caste system in Hinduism encompasses a complex ordering of social groups on the basis of ritual purity. A person is considered as a member of the caste into which he/she is born and remains within that caste until death. Differences in the status are traditionally justified by the doctrine of Karma, a belief that one’s place in life is determined by one’s deeds of previous lifetime. Though, the practice of untouchability has been abolished by the constitution, yet the imposition of social disabilities on people by reason of birth into a particular caste remains the part of lives of people in India. Discrimination and exclusion on the basis of caste is hereditary in India. If a particular caste is seen as untouchable, then all the members of that community face discrimination, whatever be the occupation of the member of that caste.
Forms of Caste Based Discrimination and Exclusion
Discrimination and exclusion have deeper roots in Indian society. That is why even when there have been various legislations that prohibit discrimination on the basis of caste, yet it has not been eradicated completely. This discrimination and exclusion manifests itself in several forms. These may be social, economic or political.
In the social hierarchy, the lower castes are ascribed the lowest status. It means that they are considered as unholy, inferior and polluting. Even their touch is considered as polluting by the upper castes. Hence, they are exploited and discriminated and often they are beaten if they come in contact with the people of higher castes. They were made to perform unclean jobs such as washing clothes, scavenging, tanning, shoe making, removing dead animals etc.
They were not allowed to use public spaces and avail facilities such as common wells, ponds, temples, schools, hostels, hospitals, dharamshalas etc. They were forced to live on the outskirts of the town and villages during earlier days. Even now, their houses are physically separated from those of the upper caste houses. They were allowed to work as labourers in the houses of the upper caste people but later the house was purified using cow dung or cow urine or holy river water. In South India restrictions were imposed on the way of their dressing, types of their houses and even the ornaments they can wear. They were sometimes not allowed to cover their upper bodies. Higher education was denied to them. Even now many dalits face discrimination in educational institutions. They are not able to avail of opportunities that are available to the upper caste people studying in the same education institution. Even now the literacy levels among the scheduled castes is too low.
These castes have also been denied religious services. This practice exists even today and many people from the lower castes can not attend religious ceremonies in various temples of India. The Vedic mantras could not be listened to by the ‘impure’ castes. They were even denied burial ground in various regions of India.
For centuries, the untouchables were not allowed to own land and houses of their own. It is after the democratisation of India after its independence that their right to property has been recognised. Still the propertied class among the untouchables is quite low. Majority of the workforce in India is engaged in agriculture but the dalits still own very less agricultural lands as compared to other castes.
Many of the untouchable castes today work as landless labourers. A large number of lower caste families are debt ridden. Though their economic conditions have improved but they have not improved in synchronisation with the changing times and changes in the economy. Hence, still they are economically exploited by the upper castes.
The caste system also imposes certain restrictions on the lower caste people. They are not allowed to mobilise up the social and economic ladder. Whatever traditional occupations they were carrying on, they are not allowed to change those occupations. They are forced to take up only those occupations which are reserved for them. Though seats have been reserved for them in various government sector occupations yet they make up only a small proportion of the overall workforce. Moreover, mostly the lower castes are occupying the lower level jobs in government services.
The untouchables rarely participated in the political matters. Earlier, they were not allowed to hold public positions. Political representation was denied to them. After independence, seats in the Parliament and State Legislatures were reserved for them. But they are yet to become a decisive force in the Indian politics. There has not been much influence of lower castes at the national level politics. Their influence has mostly been localised only barring a few political groups that have succeeded at the national level too. Mostly the lower castes have not been able to coherently organise themselves at the national level. Thus, they are still excluded from the political power sharing.
There have been only very few instances where a scheduled caste member has won a seat in Legislature or Parliament at the national level or at state level from a general category seat. Often the lower castes find themselves at the odd end in a quarrel between the upper and lower castes. In the power tussle they are made scapegoats and denied even the basic human dignity. is a well-known fact that lower caste victims are often treated as perpetrators of crime and denied justice. Moreover, they are exploited, insulted and humiliated by the criminal justice system.
Effects of the Caste Based Discrimination and Exclusion
Caste system hinders national unity. People become conscious of their own castes and prioritise their caste and class interests over national interests. It is against the democratic spirit. India is seen internationally as the champion of democracy in the world. If the citizens are discriminating against each other, it defeats the spirit of democracy. Democracy is based on equal rights and respects but the castes system believes in a hierarchial arrangement where the upper castes enjoy more privileges and lower castes are looked as inferior. It results in suppression of individual liberty and dignity.
The dignity of the lower castes people is not respected as they are denied basic human rights such as right to livelihood and right to food. Inter-dining and inter-mixing of upper castes with lower castes was not allowed earlier and this practice is still prevalent in some backward regions of India. The caste system is thus against the idea of national development. In the national interest it is essential that all the sections of the society should contribute to the social welfare and national economy but the caste system views the lower caste people as unequals and denies them a voice in national development and economic advancement.
The hierarchial system of caste and the discrimination that the people of the lower caste face in their everyday lives undermines their abilities and aspirations. Acceptance of one’s social status becomes mandatory and unquestionable. Thus, caste of the people is given more importance in the society as compared to their abilities and capabilities and one’s ability, talent, personal endeavour becomes meaningless. It has also resulted in the monopoly of the upper castes over knowledge, education and wisdom. This has created a wide gulf between the upper and the lower castes. It is again a hinderance to the national development. Caste based discrimination has also led to the emergence of other forms of exclusions and discriminations. For eg. women among the lower castes are more discriminated upon. They are exploited physically as well as mentally . They are forced to follow certain rituals against their wishes . Thus, the prevalence of caste based discrimination has made some citizens unequal as compared to others in a democratic nation.
How to Eliminate Caste Based Discrimination?
Though various legislations have been passed by the Parliament and the State Legislatures yet caste discrimination exists in India. The following measures can be taken to eliminate this evil from Indian society
• Policies should be designed and implemented that specifically aim to challenge the discrimination on the basis of caste. One important point to note here is that there must be effective participation and consultation of those communities that have been exploited for centuries on the basis of caste. Thus, this decentralised approach is necessary as compared to the earlier top down approach where policies were made at the top level without any representation from the affected castes.
• Platforms should be built at the national as well as local levels that should specifically be used to build the capacity of the communities who are victims of the caste based discrimination. These programs should be regularly monitored and their deficiencies should be analysed so that they can be improved. Providing reservations without further support will not work.
•Institutional discrimination should be tackled at every level. Institutions, be it government or private, which promotes caste based discrimination should be reprimanded and counselled so that a human rights approach can be promoted towards those people who are or have been discriminated and disabilities imposed upon them on the basis of caste.
• Good housing facilities with provision of basic services shall be built for the lower castes so that they are not deprived of their right to shelter. These houses should not be built on separate lands or lands away from the upper caste houses but they should be constructed in a way that the lower castes and upper castes live in the same piece of land and in complete harmony.
• Caste bias should be removed from the minds of public servants such as police, judiciary, civil servants, legislators etc, so that the lower caste discrimination is not institutionalised.
• To completely eliminate caste based discrimination, the current laws and justic providing institutions should be strengthened further so that the lower castes are not denied their equal rights as equal citizens of India. There should be national level platform where dialogue between the representatives of upper and lower castes should be promoted so that the historical bitterness can be dissolved and a message of peace and harmony on the basis of democratic rights, equality and human dignity can be spread.
Despite many reforms and government regulations it is unfortunate that caste system in India still exists. We as citizens must take cautious steps and uphold discrimination as a serious offence. It is essential to eliminate caste discrimination before it eliminates the unity of India.
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