"It is hard to cast out caste from India."
This is an oft quoted expression and its perhaps because of this that anti-caste writers often find it a daunting task to write comprehensively about caste in India.
Caste, in all of its socio-cultural incarnations, has remained an infallible unit of categorizing humans and human activity. To chart the entire history of caste, and all the forms that it has taken and continues to take, seems to be beyond the scope of this article. However, I have attempted to outline some basic bare bones of how caste works. I have also tried to use stereotypes and simplistic notions about caste as launch pads to dive off to the lesser known nuances as seen in the diverse Indian landscape.
Caste – Meaning and Origins
The details of how actually caste came to be is still a mystery to many. What is not a mystery is that caste finds religious sanction and support in India. Caste was ascribed in ancient Brahmanical scriptures -- religious texts celebrated by the priestly class -- and derives formidable power as a concept because of the same. Linked with Brahmanism and Hinduism, caste still holds ritual as well as secular value in social stratification.
The Caste System, to crudely summarize, is a socio-cultural hierarchy within which labour and labourers are organized into four broad Varnas, which are characterized by a hereditary occupation and socio-economic position of the members of the said Varna. However, one cannot hope to possibly capture what caste truly is through crude summarization. So let us dig deeper into the sewers of caste.
The Sewers of Caste
“An animal will never pick up another animal’s excreta, why have humans in our society not emulated them?” is the song-cry of the manual scavengers in the state of Tamil Nadu.
Manual scavenging refers to the “profession” of humans collecting, transporting and disposing off of human waste. Although legally banned, manual scavenging still continues to exist in India.
What does this have to do with caste?
As stated earlier, caste is a system of organizing humans and human activity. Broadly speaking, there are four Varnas which contain within themselves various castes and sub-castes. Conventionally, the overall hierarchy of the Varnas is the following, in order of social standing:
Brahmins - Priests
Kshatriyas - Warriors
Vaishyas - Traders
Shudras - The Servants
Considered too low to be even considered within the human caste spectrum are the so called Dalits - subhuman Ati-Shudras.
The Great Tradition has been such that the Brahmins have enjoyed a religious/ritual social status that elevates them above all the other castes. In addition, they are typically believed to have controlled knowledge -scriptural and other- in Indian society. Kshatriyas have enjoyed military power and often were rulers and soldiers. Vaishyas are conventionally believed to be merchants and traders. Shudras are usually people from the serving class and tend to be associated with menial, low paying jobs. In this very order the castes are ranked from “highest” to “lowest” on the social ladder of reverence and marginalization.
"As per the caste system, the Dalits are subhuman, polluted “people” whose bodies, breath and being will dilute the cleanliness of any other caste’s body and/or soul. Hence the Dalits were, and in cases still are, referred to as the Untouchables – people who cannot (or more aptly should not) be touched for the sake of your own purity."
However, caste exists not only in ideas of who does what and how much respect s/he deserves but also in how pure or polluted one is, spiritually and/or materially. Brahmins are usually believed to be the “purest” of all castes since they deal with scripture, worship and (political/religious) ritual while Shudras are considered borderline polluted since they tend to work in “lowly” walks of life. Beyond, or “below” if one is willing to say so, the Shudra is the Dalit. As per the caste system, the Dalits are subhuman, polluted “people” whose bodies, breath and being will dilute the cleanliness of any other caste’s body and/or soul. Hence the Dalits were, and in cases still are, referred to as the Untouchables – people who cannot (or more aptly should not) be touched for the sake of your own purity.
Numerous ancient myths and legends can be found that allow one to form an understanding of how caste has been a part of India’s culture through the years. Caste has dictated norms and “limits”, so to speak, for each caste in not only occupation and social status but also education, marriage, access to tangible (like water wells) and intangible resources (like knowledge of scripture) and in many such ways has erected a complex stratification of people.
"Mostly caste violence refers to the violence inflicted by the so-called upper caste people onto the so-called lower caste people. The purposes of such violence are numerous- to punish Shudras and Dalits who transgress caste-ordained boundaries, to maintain fear amongst the lower castes and to simply satisfy upper caste whims."
Nearly every Indian is familiar to at least ten different forms of caste based violence. Incidents of caste violence have found their presence in mythic legends, historical records and present-day newspapers. Mostly caste violence refers to the violence inflicted by the so-called upper caste people onto the so-called lower caste people. The purposes of such violence are numerous- to punish Shudras and Dalits who transgress caste-ordained boundaries, to maintain fear amongst the lower castes and to simply satisfy upper caste whims. Men from the lower castes are often brutally punished for “crimes” like drinking water from an upper caste well, marrying a woman from an upper caste than themselves, entering an upper caste temple, emulating the appearance of upper caste men and many other such reasons. Lower caste women can be punished for any crime that a lower caste man can be punished for and additionally are victims of rape at the hands of upper caste men. Arundhati Roy, in her lecture ‘The Doctor and the Saint’, remarked “Men from the privileged castes have undisputed rights over the bodies of untouchable women. (Inter-caste) Love is polluting, but rape is pure”
Hence, Caste is a division of labor only in theory. However, in practice, almost every aspect of one’s life can be brutally ruled by caste.
Returning to manual scavenging, it would be appropriate to mention now that traditionally the caste system has designated this “profession” to one of the many Dalit sub-castes – the Bhangis (means “Broken Identity”). For years Bhangis have been alienated as collectors of excreta from Brahmin households and their development, if they ever were on a path to development in the first place, has been stagnated and stifled in the sewers of caste.
The manual scavengers of Tamil Nadu are mostly all from Dalit sub-castes (such as Arunthathiars, Ottar, Malla, Madiga/Mathiga, Chakkiliyar, Adi-Dravidar etc.) Before one can even begin to comprehend the misery of people who have to deal with human waste to earn their bread and butter, one should know that manual scavenging exists in multiple states in India as it is unduly ignored – sometimes wilfully so. It would be amiss to state that the plight of the manual scavengers has gone unnoticed, but it would also be inappropriate to say that they have been treated with justice.
"Numerous people from the Dalit community, who clean sewers full of human waste and garbage, have died or have been diseased because of lack of equipment and administrative apathy to their demands and/or public ignorance of their predicament. In many cases, the family members of the deceased Dalit manual scavenger would not even receive the compensation entitled to them in such cases of death at/because of the workplace."
Manual Scavenging is only one example of how caste has survived legal reform yet continues to exist in socio-cultural (and, hence, economic) forms, much like a virus resilient and potent enough to survive multiple anti-viruses. Journalists like P.Sainath have pointed out how Indian media is casteist. Writers like Arundhati Roy have pointed out how a caste analysis of the traders and teachers of the nation in this day and age reveals the presence of caste in the present-day world.
Caste, unlike the humans it oppresses, continues to exercise power and say in the social atmosphere.
About the Author
Rahul Chaudhary is a literature student at Hansraj College. He is interested in social work and has worked with multiple NGOs and organizations. Having written for online portals, magazines, blogs and more he is well experienced with handling content. His tenacious interest in social issues and art has allowed him to work with organizations like the World Comics Network, Project FUEL and many other education-awareness projects. Still working for various journals and awareness initiatives, he continues to write on issues close to his heart as he explores the world beyond his comfort zone.
His hobbies include drawing, listening to music and writing politically correct intros for his own profile.