Unpacking The Indian Caste System – Part One

Nila Varman and Robert Nettleton

The Caste System. Perhaps the most unnecessary and longest-surviving social hierarchy to plague the Earth, unsuccessfully attempting to balance community relationships, ironically through iniquitous imbalance. Instead, it fuels discrimination and violence on countless levels, integrating colourism, religious divides and even family relationships, influencing the way certain social groups behave towards one another – almost always with hostility.

The Indian Caste system, propped by the crooked pillars of discriminatory bias, was constructed over 3000 years ago to divide individuals by rigid and entirely arbitrary hierarchical criteria, comprising of occupation, personality and social interactions. Despite the ban on caste-based discrimination by Independent India’s Constitution in 1950, the mistreatment by members of one caste towards another remains endemic to both rural and modernized Indian communities.

Furthermore, caste determined identities still play a pivotal role in many communities, especially in relation to marriage. In 2011, only 5.8% of the marriages in India were inter-caste, despite the gradual acceptance of boundary-crossing brought by increases in education, urbanization and economic stability.

The caste pyramid divides Hindus into several categories, wherein members of a “higher” caste have greater social statuses than those of a “low” caste.

At the top of the pyramid loom the Brahmins, who were traditionally teachers and priests, though later adopted more clerical jobs during the British Rule. They are perceived as “fair skinned” and well-educated individuals. Second come the Kshatriyas, descendants of warriors or protectors. Third are the Vaishyas, who were originally influential in trade and business.

The Dalit community is deemed so low in society that it doesn’t even qualify a place in the system; it’s the societal leftover

The lowest of the pyramid, the Shudras, who hold menial jobs, are historically disadvantaged, although not as much as the Dalits. Individuals from the Dalit community were associated with occupations that were “impure” and generally perceived as “untouchables”, even by some communities today. Both of these “lower” castes are usually associated with those with darker skin.

Unfortunately, the Dalit community is deemed so low in society that it doesn’t even qualify a place in the system; it’s the societal leftover. The dogma of caste-based discrimination is so entrenched that Indian communities are still struggling to escape from these warped ideals.

Rural communities have long arranged themselves on the basis of the caste. The “upper” castes have historically lived, and continue to live, in privileged and segregated colonies with proper resources, not shared (suffice to say) with members of the other castes. The system permitted plentiful opportunities to the “higher” caste individuals, regarding education, jobs and the currency of respect, which consequently sanctioned repression of the lower castes.

From time to time in certain communities, this discriminatory desperation to maintain social standing breeds barbaric cases of honour killing, wherein individuals would rather murder their own friends or family members than let them fall in love, or even interact with, members of lower castes. Shamefully, most of these cases are unreported by the media, and are even disregarded when a “lower caste” individual lodges a complaint.  Thus, “lower caste” members are unjustly denied the opportunity to economically flourish.

For a while, the situation seemed to be improving. For example, Jyotirao and Savitrabai Phule, a married pair of social activists, fought to educate women of ostracised communities, successfully opening a school for girls, with Savitrabai as India’s first female teacher.

In Tamil Nadu, a state in South India where my family originates, the infamous Periyar was an Indian social activist and politician, known as the leader of the lower castes after demanding that Dalit individuals be permitted into places of worship in 1924.  Periyar also instigated the Self-Respect Movement to protest caste-based miscarriages of justice and pushed for access to birth control.

As an individual who has lived in the United Kingdom my whole life, I can confidently say that caste-rooted stereotypes often spread like rot into many Indian communities

Now, you might think these issues wouldn’t extend beyond India and its rural communities, but it does. As an individual who has lived in the United Kingdom my whole life, I can confidently say that caste-rooted stereotypes often spread like rot into many Indian communities. Members of my family have been assumed, by members of the Indian community, to hold lower reputed jobs, merely because of our darker complexion.

One Indian schoolteacher presumed my family and me to be Brahmins because of my mum’s fair complexion, my Dad’s occupation as a doctor, and the fact that my brother and I spoke good English. This collectivistic assault on individual identities, inspired by an ancient, oppressive and preposterously arbitrary social hierarchy, must be called out and combated.

Yet a solution seems far from straightforward, and an article of this modest length cannot hope to capture the breadth and reach of such a multifaceted Hydra of cultural contaminants. Caste rears its ugly head, for instance, in Indian cinema’s long-evidenced discrimination against dark-skinned women and in the market of fairness creams that regrettably remains booming – though these are issues for another day, another page.

Many activists are at this moment continuing the struggle for equal rights, and equal respect, but progress can only grow as fast as public awareness of the problems, so we all share an obligation to educate ourselves. So let’s get reading!

Nila Varman and Robert Nettleton

Featured image courtesy of Girish Dalvi on Unsplash. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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