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“If the majority knew of the root of this evil, then the road to its cure would not be long”

-        Albert Einstein

About a thousand years before the birth of Jesus Christ, a lawbook was compiled in India that supposedly set the destiny of a civilization. This book is considered the most important book on Hindu law, and it expounds on a rigid social stratification based on birth that would plague the subcontinent for centuries.

This book was called the ‘Manusmriti’ and it said that Brahma, the Hindu god of creation created four castes, and each of these castes came from the body parts of this supreme divine being. The Brahmins from the head, Kshatriyas from his hands, Vaishyas from his thighs, and the Shudras from his feet.

The order in which the castes originated also represented the positions that members of each caste would fill as well as their placement in the caste system.

The Brahmins since they sprang from the head occupied the uppermost positions in the hierarchy. They were mostly teachers, priests, and philosophers. The Kshatriyas followed the Brahmins and as they originated from the hands of the creator, they were destined to be warriors and rulers. Next in line were the Vaishyas, having been begotten from the thighs of the creator they were supposed to become merchants and traders. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the Shudras who were condemned to be servants and serve the upper three classes, or Varnas.

There was another group that represented roughly one-sixth of the population of India not mentioned among the original four classes and against whom the caste system directed its full powers of dehumanization. They were considered so low, even beneath the Shudras, that their very presence or their shadow was deemed a pollutant. They were called Untouchables. For instance, when a higher caste individual accidentally touched an untouchable, it was incumbent upon the higher caste individual to undergo an elaborate purification ritual to restore their “purity.”

They were outcasts, despised, not to be touched, and were pushed into the cesspool of dehumanization. They experienced degrading and inhuman practices, such as being restricted from using the same wells, temples, or the same cups in tea shops as the upper castes.

Mohandas Gandhi, seeking to elevate their social status and instill self-respect among the Untouchables, labelled them ‘Harijan’ (Children of God). The untouchables would later come to be known as ‘The Dalits.’

The caste system in India remained largely stable for several centuries. Those who were at the top of the pyramid continued to be bestowed with privileges and honours while the lower castes faced repression and indignities sanctioned by the privileged castes.

The Hindu belief in reincarnation proved to be instrumental in preserving the caste system for a long time. It is the belief that one reaps the rewards or suffers the punishment in the present life for the deeds committed in the past life. If a person was born as a lower caste that is because of his misdeeds in a past life and vice versa. The more keenly one abides by the rules of the caste into which they are born, the higher their station will be in the next life.


The tremendous capacity of humans

This is not to say that the oppressed castes of India resigned themselves to their miserable fate and played willingly into the hands of the dominant castes. There have been umpteen heroes who arose from the squalor that they were condemned to in true swashbuckling manner to fight for a life of dignity for the oppressed castes. The lives of two such crusaders against the caste system are worth mentioning, Jyotirao Phule and Bhimrao Ambedkar.

Phule was born in a Shudra household and was an ardent critic of the caste system. He was inspired by the work of Thomas Paine – Rights of Man (1791) and the fight against slavery in America. Phule established schools for girls and children of the lower castes at a time when it was extremely rare for girls and children of lower castes in India to receive an education. This prompted backlash from the conservative and orthodox Brahmins for disrupting the social status quo, but Phule continued undeterred.

Phule believed that the Brahmins wanted to inculcate among the lower caste a sense of subservience and a feeling that they were deserving of their pitiful state. The Abolitionist movements in the years leading up to the Civil War in America had a great bearing on Phule and he began to consider the Brahmins as slave masters and the caste system as an effective mechanism of human bondage. In one of his greatest works the inspiration he drew from the abolitionist movement was unmistakable as he dedicated his book, Slavery in the civilised British government under the cloak of Brahminism, to them:

‘With an earnest desire, that my countrymen may take their noble example as their guide in the emancipation of their Sudra brethren from the trammels of Brahmin thraldom’.

After leading the Montgomery bus boycott in 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. visited India to meet the father of the nonviolent protest – Mohandas Gandhi, whose fight for freedom from the British rule had inspired his fight for justice in America. “To other countries I may go as a tourist but to India I come as a pilgrim,” he stated while there. The civil rights activist also wanted to see the Untouchables. After his meeting with the then Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, King travelled to Thiruvananthapuram, a city in the state of Kerala and in a meeting with the people from the Untouchable caste he said, “Yes, I am an Untouchable and every Negro in the United States is an Untouchable.”

It is from this Untouchable lot that Bhimrao Ambedkar emerged. He would go on to become India’s first Independent law minister and the father of Indian constitution. Growing up, Ambedkar endured abject humiliation by the upper castes. He was discriminated against in the classroom, having to sit on a gunny sack that he had to take home with him after school, and was denied water out of fear that the upper caste children would be polluted.

In 1913, Ambedkar journeyed to the US to study economics at Columbia University, and while there he got acquainted with John Dewey, the American philosopher and educational reformer, who would later become Ambedkar’s mentor and would help Ambedkar formulate his ideas for equality and social justice.

On December 25, 1927, Ambedkar burned copies of ‘Manusmriti’ in protest against its casteist preachings that advocated untouchability. He would also reject Gandhi’s term ‘Harijan’ for the Untouchables and would instead call them ‘Dalits,’ meaning ‘Broken People’ as he felt it a more fitting term as that was what the caste system made them. Ambedkar wrote to the great African American intellectual of the day W.E.B. Du Bois, saying: “There is so much similarity between the position of the Untouchables in India and of the position of the Negroes in America that the study of the latter is not only natural but necessary.” Du Bois responded writing that he had every sympathy with the Untouchables of India.

Casteism today

After India attained its independence in 1947, discrimination based on caste was prohibited and the practice of untouchability was made illegal. To address the historic injustices meted out to them, a public policy to establish equality within society was created that provided opportunities to disadvantaged castes by developing policies such as reserved positions in governments, legislatures, and state-sponsored educational institutions.

Although caste-based discrimination has been abolished on paper, it is still practiced predominantly in the rural parts of the country and caste comes into prominence during election time. There have been several reports of caste-based violence reported throughout the country since independence.

When the irrationality and the dehumanizing effect of the ‘caste’ corrodes the mind, it is perhaps wise to recall the words enshrined in the preamble to the American Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness.”

Photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY

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