Combating the inequality inherent in the Caste System – The State and the role of NGOs

Article written by: Juliana Fernandes

“To remove untouchability is a penance that caste Hindus owe to Hinduism and to themselves”

— M. K. Gandhi

Social stratification organizes and classifies the several members of a certain society. In India, the Hindu religion influenced one of the most closed stratification systems that exists, the caste system, which determines social status at birth and dictates little mobility between them. Nowadays, legislation, government programs and the work of NGOs make the economic and social discrepancy between castes smaller, especially in urban areas. However, certain areas still live according to the caste hierarchy and, consequently, there is inequality in access to opportunities, particularly in education. In this sense, this text aims to analyze and describe the elimination of inequalities inherent to the caste system evolution, understand which areas are most affected and which solutions are applied to overtake this challenge, highlighting the work of a specific organization in this field.

Manusmriti, one of the most important books of Hindu law, “recognizes and justifies the caste system as the basis for the order and regularity of society”. It classifies individuals into four varnas, which determine access to wealth, power and privilege. At the top of this hierarchy, we find the Brahmins, usually priests and academics, followed by the Kshatriyas, politicians and soldiers; then the Vaishyas, or merchants, and in fourth place, are the Shudras, who are workers, peasants, artisans and servants. Outcastes, or untouchables, are perceived as impure and, therefore, are not even considered in this hierarchy. In a context that the caste system has persisted for centuries, a lot of movements have emerged and government measures have been implemented to eliminate inequality. It was in 1935 that the British Government of India presented a list of groups considered untouchable that would have special privileges, called scheduled castes and tribes (for now on, SC). The name Dalit became common in the 1970s, after many untouchable leaders used it.

At the legislative level, besides the Article 17 of the Indian Constitution, which abolishes and punishes the practice of untouchability (1950), there are other dispositions relating to equality between castes: Article 35 gives parliament the power to make laws against crimes of untouchability; Article 21 guarantees the right to life and freedom; Article 23 prohibits human trafficking and forced labor; under article 24, no child under the age of fourteen should work or engage in any dangerous activity; Article 43 forces the State to guarantee that all workers have a decent salary and good working conditions; according to article 46, the State must promote the educational and economic interests of the weakest sections of the people and, in particular, of the SC, and must protect them from social injustice and exploitation; Article 15 prohibits discrimination based on religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth; Article 330 provides for quotas for SC in the Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament), while Article 332 provides for seats in state legislative assemblies for the respective groups. Finally, Article 16 stipulates that the State has the power to make “any provision for the reservation of appointments or positions in favor of any class of citizens who, in the opinion of the State, are not adequately represented (…)”. In addition to these constitutional solutions, other laws were enacted, such as the Untouchability Offenses Act of 1955 (renamed the Civil Liberties Protection Law), which provides penalties for those who prevent the entry into a place of worship or the use of water from a tank or well, The Scheduled Castes And the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (1989) and The Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Act (2015). In addition, there are programs created by the government, which aim to increase the self-sufficiency of SC, also through financing self-employment activities. However, the unequal access to opportunities experienced by the Dalits reveals the limitations of the law and that awareness is still needed.

Nowadays, wealth and power are less associated with caste, but discrimination is still evident in some rural areas, in contrast to urban areas. The last census (2011) allow us to observe that the territorial distribution is uneven, with only four Indian states containing almost half of the population of SC (Uttar Pradesh with 20.5%; West Bengalcom with 10.7%; Bihar with 8.2% and Tamil Nadu with 7.2 %). Although Uttar Pradesh has the majority of the population of SC, Punjab has the largest share of Dalits in its population, counting with 31.9%. According to the 2011 census, most SC (73.33%) live in the rural area, while 26.67% live in the urban area of ​​Punjab. The same census concludes that the literacy rate among SCs is 64.81%, compared to the state total literacy rate of 75.84% and 73% of the country. The spread of secular education and the increasing urbanization contributed to the reduction of caste’s influence, but social status remains a determining factor in obtaining civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights. The caste still dictates, in some cases, rules of housing, marriage, employment and social interaction in general, which are reinforced by the practice and threat of social and economic ostracization, as well as physical violence. Factors such as migration and urban anonymity contributed to the occupational mobility of some Dalit, but the possibility of social mobility remains low, so one way of achieving a better standard of live would be through education. However, most Dalit are enrolled in government schools that lack basic infrastructure, classrooms, teachers, and resources. Public schools generally teach in local languages, while private schools teach in English, so Dalit are harmed in the private sector and in the global market because speaking English is relevant to ensure good employment. Discrimination based on untouchability has contributed to a high dropout rate and illiteracy among Dalit children, particularly girls.

In addition to the State, NGOs play an important role in raising awareness and seeking solutions to the educational inequality due to the caste system. Shanti Bhavan Children’s Project is an example of such organizations. Located in Bangalore, it was created with the aim of suppressing the educational needs of the Dalits, proposing to “lift children out of poverty into a life of dignity and conquest”. Defenders of a holistic approach, they provide shelter, clothing, food, medical care, education, trust and values, operating in a boarding system. Shanti Bhavan intends to give opportunity to children who may later be responsible for positive change in their communities, noting the importance of the fight against social discrimination and poverty.

With that said, we can deduce that, although caste-based discrimination has been abolished, inequality persists in some areas of India, determining the lives of individuals before they are born. Even though international law has progressed to reduce inequality and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights dictates that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights (…)”, India still needs to go a long way to guarantee the effective distribution of fundamental rights and public goods, especially in the areas most populated by lower-caste individuals. Although the State protects the most vulnerable cast groups, seeking to guarantee non-discrimination and equality through constitutional solutions, protective legislation and social programs, it can be said that it would be essential to act more surgically, especially in the most affected areas, but also there is a need for more investment in the education system, in order to adapt it to the new reality, providing the necessary tools to succeed in the current job market. NGOs, like Shanti Bhavan, can complement functions not filled by the State. However, although the need to rethink the implication of an obsolete stratification system in the rights and freedoms of Indian citizens is clear, it is important to remember that the question of caste hierarchy can be considered very sensitive, as it is intrinsically linked to Indian culture, so there is a need for dialogue and understanding.


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