The Irish Times - Thursday, October 7, 2010
Caste divisions remain an obstacle to India's progress
Chandra Bhan Prasad, a former Maoist revolutionary and the first Dalit
to have a regular column in a national newspaper, believes economic
growth will eventually help loosen the bonds of caste.
FORTUNES OF INDIA: A government decision to conduct a caste census
next year has sharpened the debate on the place of caste in India's
fast-changing society, writes MARY FITZGERALD in India
SUNITA JATAV never imagined that something as innocuous as feeding
some leftover chapatti to a local dog would incur the wrath of her
Nor did she expect elders to impose a fine of 15,000 rupees (€245) –
an enormous sum for any villager.
Her crime? Sunita is a Dalit, a categorisation that puts her on the
lowest rung of India's millennia-old caste system. According to the
dog's upper caste owner, the animal had been rendered "untouchable" by
the simple act of taking food from her.
The incident, which took place in the central state of Madhya Pradesh
last month, is one of the more bizarre manifestations of an ancient
social hierarchy which remains stubbornly prevalent in India's
India's 1949 constitution abolished caste and introduced a system of
quotas in areas such as education to encourage a levelling of the
inequalities formed by it. But caste's continuing shadow over a
modernising India reveals itself in many ways: from the hundreds of
caste-related crimes, including murder, rape and arson, recorded each
year; to the caste-obsessed matrimonial ads in newspapers and
matchmaking websites; and the practice of separate cups for Dalits
that prevails in many rural tea shops.
Despite the advent of a burgeoning middle class, sociologists say the
caste system, which was originally based on occupation, remains the
biggest obstacle to social mobility.
Given that less than 5 per cent of the country's 1.2 billion people
are upper caste Brahmins, and more than 70 percent derive from lower
castes, enduring caste divisions present a formidable challenge to
India's future prospects.
But the answer to the question of how much caste matters in India
today changes as you travel from the impoverished states of India's
north to its prosperous south. For several reasons, including a
traditionally strong emphasis on education, the grip of caste has
loosened to a far greater degree in southern India. The region boasts
several successful entrepreneurs who have emerged from the lower
castes. In the north, however, progress has been hobbled by political
parties that have exploited caste identity as a way to mobilize
voters. Such is the power of caste in the politics of northern India
that, as the hoary expression puts it, people don't cast their vote;
they vote their caste.
Chandra Bhan Prasad, the first Dalit to have a regular column in a
national newspaper, believes economic growth will help loosen the
bonds of caste. "It will weaken the caste system because the market is
the greatest leveller," he argues. For Prasad, a former Maoist
revolutionary who now speaks of the potential of what he calls "Dalit
capitalism", urbanisation is also key. Caste has always been more
easily escaped in the anonymity of India's cities, very often through
the changing of Dalit surnames. And economic growth, together with
technological advances, has ushered in new occupations that are
"If India becomes predominantly urban, and remember there are
predictions that by the year 2050 more than 40 per cent of Indians
will live in urban areas, I believe caste will lose its force," Prasad
"India will not become caste-free in the foreseeable future, but it
can become caste-neutral."
In recent years, the decades-old affirmative action programme which
reserves a certain number of university places and government jobs for
lower castes, has become increasingly controversial. Other groups are
clamouring for similar benefits and there are demands for caste quotas
to be introduced to the private sector. Many complain the quota system
is riddled with corruption, with people pretending to be lower caste
to take advantage.
Others gripe that while the quota system has helped nurture a small
Dalit middle class, it has also reinforced social stratification. And
in many cases, says Kiran Martin, director of Asha, an Irish Aid
funded NGO which works in Delhi's slums, those most in need remain
unaware of what they are entitled to.
"Even if they do know, they have no clue about how to obtain the
[caste-certifying] documents which will enable them to get
reservations in educational institutions and jobs," she says. "And
then they have to battle all the corruption that exists within the
system." One element of Asha's work is helping teenagers living in
slums, including many from the lower castes, apply for third-level
education. "When they access this right of theirs and go on to attend
university, the process of integration is amazing to see," says
Martin. "There is so much potential."
The debate over the place of caste in today's India has sharpened
following the government's announcement last month that it will
include a tabulation of the country's mosaic of castes in next year's
census — the first such caste count since British rule. There are
concerns that new caste calculations could trigger much upheaval,
given that present policies are based on extrapolations from the last
survey in 1931. Supporters of the move believe proper measuring of the
size of the different caste groups is necessary to help the government
target affirmative action benefits more efficiently. But critics fear
a caste census would only encourage the growth of caste-based
political parties and bolster politicians who already rely on caste
identification to shore up votes. Others wonder why India, which
considers itself a progressive nation with superpower ambitions, would
undertake such a "regressive" headcount.
"By returning to the old categories established under colonial rule,
the present regime will be making an admission of our failure to
transform ourselves into a nation of citizens," wrote Andre Beteille,
professor emeritus of sociology at Delhi University, in a recent
Meanwhile, Chandra Bhan Prasad recounts his recent visit to a village
in Uttar Pradesh. There he was told that the son of local Brahmins,
having struggled to make a living from the land, bought some buffaloes
and now sells milk to some 50 Dalit households. "I never thought in my
life that we would see a Brahmin selling milk to Dalits in a village,"
"Stories like this give me hope that India is changing."
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