The caste system cannot die. Long live the system!

Does urbanisation address the issue

Does urbanisation address the impact of the caste tradition

The Hindu social order (its caste system) contradicts the universal human rights framework and in the land of its origins a legal framework that abolishes caste-based discrimination has not deterred this ancient social order from the everyday life of Indians. Thus untouchability[i] continues to govern social behavior of many high caste Hindus. Upper caste Hindus, liberal or otherwise, deny the true extent of the role of caste in Indian social and economic imagination and refuse to confront this issue. A typical liberal tendency, which is also intertwined by an unwavering faith in the market to correct this evil, is to cite urban centres as sites of social equalisation. It is often pointed out by liberals that caste is nonexistent in urban centres. This assessment is based on the simplistic deduction that people share urban spaces without regard for caste. This leads to the general belief that industrialisation and urbanisation are solutions to this problem. While it may be conceded that urbanisation offers opportunities to lower the salience of caste in human interaction, it is nevertheless important to cast a sideways glance before we move in the path of urbanisation.

On May 3, 2008 an upper caste landlord brutally assaulted a Delhi university research scholar who hid her lower caste identity to secure accommodation (Sengupta:2008). This is only a subjective violence, which barely hides the systemic violence of the Hindu social order[ii]. Upper caste Hindus largely socialize with upper and middle class Indians and it is not very difficult to imagine the caste (and religious) identity of upper and middle class Indians. It is a fact that in India low-caste households and tribal minorities suffer disproportionately from poverty (Kijima:2006). A Princeton University study found that lower caste Hindus (easily differentiated by their surnames) were less likely to find jobs than upper caste Hindus. The researchers sent 4808 identical resumes with upper caste and lower caste Hindu names to for 548 graduate level openings with blue chip Indian and multinational companies to arrive at their conclusions.  Or take the case of Sukhbir Singh Badhal, a post-graduate at the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) Delhi. Though a Dalit, he topped the selection exam for a coveted post in lab medicine under the general category. The post was given to the individual who stood second, an upper caste Hindu. The problem runs so deep that the perpetuators of this injustice – the AIIMS administration – overruled the orders of the dean of academics to award the residency to Badhal. An investigating committee headed by Sukhdeo Thorat uncovered discrimination against lower caste staff and students running rife and deep throughout the AIIMS. And Badhal’s case was only the tip of the iceberg. As the committee investigated further, caste discrimination was found to be a systemic problem that was traced up the director of AIIMS, P Venugopal, a Brahmin. So deep it was that the committee had to meet the victims in secret to record their evidence (Mitta:2007).

So we witness two levels of discrimination: a) one of the crude medieval nature that can be found in many B-cities and the rural areas where identification on the basis of caste is much easier and opportunities for social mobility and transgression due to industrialization are limited; b) and of the modern nature that, like racism, has morphed into newer sophisticated forms in the urban space.

Having demolished liberal claims of urbanisation and industrialisation as the solution to the caste problems, we need to look elsewhere; a travel through the expanse of the country reveals discrimination that would sadden any conscientious and enlightened individual. A peek into India’s post-colonial history offers fascinating insights this issue. The Indian constitution was drafted (1947-48) at the same time as the UN Declaration on Human rights (1948). The “Fundamental Rights” and “Directive Principles” of the constitution mirror the UN declaration and were framed to secure justice for all and protect all citizens from discrimination, with specific provisions for the lower castes. The constitution entrusts the state with the responsibility of promotion with “special care the educational and economic interest of the scheduled castes/tribes and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation”.

The Indian state appears to have launched many initiatives and laws so that the socially repressed have equality and access to justice. This includes abolishment of “untouchability” (1955); enactment of “Protection of Civil Rights Act 1955”; the Scheduled Castes/Tribes Prevention of Atrocities Act (1989). We must remember here that periodic review of law was necessitated as the normal provisions of the Indian Panel Code had been found to be inadequate to provide safeguards to SC/ST against several crimes. In the economic, educational and political spheres provisions have been made through reservations and representation to improve access and participation of the socially repressed.

Against this legal framework, we have to examine the concept of human rights under the Hindu social order. The Hindu social order is exclusionary in its very nature. Bearing arms, literacy and theology, and mercantile activities are divided amongst the uppermost castes with the priestly class considered the “purest” and “enlightened” followed by the ruling/warrior castes and then the mercantile castes; the farmers, artisans, and other assorted labour form the bulk of the middle castes; while the lowest of the castes perform the menial and “dirty” work not touched even by the middle castes. Through the system of purity, they came to be the “untouchables”. They are not just socially excluded, but physically live outside the boundaries of “normal” Hindus. The Hindu social order does not recognize the individual but the closed social groups whose mobility, vertically or horizontally, is controlled through marriage (or its prevention). Thus the caste identity one is born into cannot be transgressed. This gradation serves to protect the economic and legal interests of the dominant castes.

So we witness two levels of discrimination: a) one of the crude medieval nature that can be found in many B-cities and the rural areas where identification on the basis of caste is much easier and opportunities for social mobility and transgression due to industrialization are limited; b) and of the modern nature that, like racism, has morphed into newer sophisticated forms in the urban space. Sukhdeo Thorat’s paper in the Economic and Political Weekly “Oppression and Denial: Dalit Discrimination in the 1990s” (2002) is a very good exposition of discrimination against Dalits.

The double whammy of the Dalits is that neither the ancient systems nor the modern system of secular nationalism, which gave birth to the post-colonial India, are useful to understand and deal with the Dalit problem. While it is easier to mock the primitiveness of discrimination in rural India, one has to deal with the persistence of the caste logic in urban centres. Newspapers and the internet are meant to be symbols of democracy, participation, and modernism. However, in India, the newspapers and the internet have given us the “casteist” matrimonial ads, where individuals seek partners on the basis of caste. Just check out the classified pages of any Indian newspaper or the popular Indian matrimony website

Into this social mix we also have to throw in the rise of the distinctly upper caste Bharatiya Janata Party, which is an offshoot of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The party owes its meteoric rise to two fundamentalist Hindu parties the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). All these political outfits are out to challenge and change the liberal and emancipator project of the Indian constitution by promulgating “Hindutva”, or Hindu nationalism. When we examine the historical character and makeup of Hinduism, the problem is apparent to see. None of these parties have offered a reformation of the caste system or a modernity of Hinduism. Instead, their agenda is one of transforming the dalits into good “sanskritised” Hindus.  Since the fall of the Babri masjid on December 6, 1992, Hindu right wing nationalism has emerged as a leading political voice. This has given rise the latent discrimination amongst the educated and the globalised classes, thanks to India’s economic reforms.

The success of the Hindutva political parties in acquiring executive power (1996, 1998-99, 1999-2004) led to the emergence of the rise of the saffronised educated and upper-caste elites in India as well as the country’s diaspora abroad. Hindu nationalist leaders and parties in the United States have been emerging in the public sphere in the United States as the representatives of all Hindu Americans (Kurien:2006). Whether in the UK or the US upper caste Hindus define the notion of Indians, very much like the radical Islamists who define Islam (Kepel:1997). It is ironic that the colonial notion of viewing the colonized countries, such as India, as homogenous groups that served as the bedrock for multiculturalist policies. These in turn promoted the development of religio-ethnic nationalism among immigrants and resulted in such groups taking a leadership position within the community. So whether it is the upper caste Hindus in the US or the upper caste Hindus and Sikhs in the UK, what is considered Hinduism or Sikhism is defined by an elite group that is clever enough to figure out the levers of power in the west.

The picture painted so far does not mean that the Dalit lacks agency. Despite the oppression from the dominant Hindu classes, the Dalits have emerged as a powerful political force. Dr B Ambedkar had laid the foundation for a Dalit consciousness, but in an ironical twist the very same casteist structure that kept the Dalits out of social membership and citizenship has helped them to short circuit Hindu nationalism.  As the historians Christophe Jaffrelot, Rajni Kothai, and D.L Shethe have argued, the Dalits have refused to be part of either the project of “secular nationalism” or “Hindu nationalism”. As evidenced by the AIIMS cases as well as the Hindutva project, both are faces of the same coin. From the time of Ambedkar, Dalits have refused to be co-opted into the binaries of nationalism vs colonialism and secularism vs communalism.

The writings of Kancha Ilaiah (Why I am not a Hindu), the verses of Meena Kandaswamy, the grassroots tribal agitations against capitalist and bourgeoisie notions of development are examples of the Dalit enlightenment and resistance against a homogenizing force. You will not find a chest-thumping nationalist Dalit. It is not the secularists but the Dalits who have and hold the potential to halt the march of the Hindu nationalists. And it is in their imagination that perhaps lies the potential for a radical third way that transgresses the national, the communal, and the neo-liberal in favour of a universal based on the notion of fraternity, solidarity, justice, and universal emancipation. They are speaking. And after centuries of refusal to hear, it is time we shut up and listen instead for a change.


Indian American Public Education Advisory Council. 2006. “Section VI: Timeline of the Hindutva California Textbook Campaign and the Academic/Indian American Community’s Response.” Accessed Feb. 21, 2006 at:

Kepel, Gilles. 1997. Allah in the West: Islamic Movements in America and Europe. Stanford University Press.

Kijima, Yoko (2006) “Caste and Tribe Inequality: Evidence from India, 1983–1999” Economic Development and Cultural Change, 54:369–404, January

Kurien, Prema A (2006) “Multiculturalism and “American” Religion: The Case of Hindu Indian Americans” Social Forces, Vol. 85, No. 2 (Dec), pp. 723-741

Lal, Vinay. 1999. “The Politics of History on the Internet: Cyber-Diasporic Hinduism and the North American Hindu Diaspora.” Diaspora 8:137-72.

Mitta, Manoj (2007) “Diagnosis: Casteism” Times of India, 13 May,

Omvedt, Gail (1995) Dalit Visions: The Anti-Caste Movement and the Construction of an Indian Identity, Orient Longman, New Delhi.

Pradhan, Atul Chandra (1986) The Emergence of the Depressed Classes, Bookland International, Bhubaneswar.

Ram, Nandu (1995) Beyond Ambedkar: Essays on Dalits in India, Har Anand Publications, New Delhi.

Sengupta, Ananya (2008) “A Dalit student in Delhi? Hide your surname” The Telegraph, May 6, Page 1

Thorat, Sukhadeo (2002) “Oppression and Denial: Dalit Discrimination in the 1990s” Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 37, No. 6 (Feb. 9-15), pp. 572-578

Zelliot, E (2001) From Untouchable to Dalit: Essays on Ambedkar Movement, Manohar Publishers and Distributors, New Delhi.

Zizek, Slavoj (2008) Violence: Six Sideways reflections London: Profile

[i] Today the erstwhile “untouchables” are referred to as Dalits. The term Dalit is used as a broad brush to encompass all those exploited either through the social and economic traditions of the Indian sub-continent.
[ii]Here I borrow from Zizek’s critique of violence where he puts forth three forms of violence: subjective, objective and symbolic. Subjective violence is defined as the kind where the agents of violence can be clearly identified. On the other hand objective violence refers to the systemic conditions that are invisibly in operation. For e.g., the logic of free markets which led to Structural Adjustment Policies in Africa.

3 thoughts on “The caste system cannot die. Long live the system!

  1. Interesting article and I agree with you. However not much is done to address the problem as it helps the ruling elite to fool the lower castes and to please the upper castes. Sadly the social justice walls, Lalus, mulayams and Mayawatis, have done little about it. The problem of caste discrimination must be addressed from both ends – positive discrimination is fine but we will have to punish those who practice it. For example in the UK every year hundreds of employers are fined for practicing racial discrimination. How many we have punished in India? Every UK employer has to assure prospective job seekers that he follows – a. a fair selection policy and b. an equal opportunities policy. And that policy is often given in the form of a written document to applicant. Any way good luck.
    Vijay Rana

  2. But racism has morphed into newer forms in the West. Critique of discrimination — of all forms — should be a continuous project.

  3. The fight against this injustice is multi-faceted, ultimately aimed at disarming the power bearers and destroying the pillars that support it.

    As you rightly observed, the preservation mechanism is that of marriage, one of the main pillars that sustain this injustice…The institution of marriage need to be broken and cohabitation need to become the norm. The self styled culture mongerers will whine, but it should be brushed aside.

    Empowering the lower castes’ to hold the rungs of power is another. This is where reservations comes into picture. It is only that power that will truly emancipate them. There is no reservation for dalits and lower castes in the private sector which consumes 90% of the job market. In this context the reservation in public sector should be made 100%.

    De glorification of other sustaining elements (pillars) like ‘great cultural heritage’ (what is great about a culture neck deep in injustice ?), sanskrit, vedas, rituals and customs that preserves the power into the hands of a few.

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