Confession time, I have very little knowledge of the Indian caste system. What I do know, I learned in history class in high school and even that was cursory. Given that caste protests are happening in India with more unrest on the way, knowledge of the issue is important. Therefore I have enlisted the help of our very own Lamat Hasan to help me understand the caste system in the modern Indian context.
Cod: I thought Caste systems were a thing of the past? Weren’t their laws passed to try and get rid of the system?
Lamat: No. Laws that exist are there to protect the lowest castes but there is no law to abolish the system itself. The lower caste needs the protection given the kind of atrocities they have faced over the centuries.
Cod: Wasn’t it the British that passed laws abolishing the caste system? Did these protection laws come about then or post-independence?
Cod: Castes are tied to a Hindu belief in reincarnation right?
Lamat: Yes, to some degree. The Dalits emulate the Brahmins by giving up on meat and alcohol to purify themselves so that they come back in a better avatar in the next life. But while the system has Hindu origins, even Indian Muslims have created a caste hierarchy. It is now a societal problem.
Cod: Is there still a stigma associated with the untouchables (Dalit)? How does Indian society see them?
Lamat: They are not allowed to visit the same temples as everyone else. They used to be forbidden to drink water from the same wells and this is still true in some villages. They are the most underrepresented and least economically developed sector of society.
After laws were passed to ensure that there was no discrimination against them (the SC/ST Act), I think the upper castes – the Brahmins, the Kshatriyas – can’t accept this change in status.
Cod: Can you explain the SC/ST law?
Lamat: It is a law passed in 1989 that forbids discrimination and criminalizes hate crimes against people belonging to lower castes and tribes in India.
Cod: Are the Dalit allowed to attend universities? Get meaningful jobs?
Lamat: They are…in fact, there is an affirmative action program that reserves seats for them, which I think is needed to reverse their condition. Of course, there are some loopholes in there. Some fake their castes to get into the programs while others see these reservations as unfair.
Cod: How can you tell who is Dalit and who is not?
Lamat: The surnames are a giveaway, professions can be too. Usually, a surname is linked to a profession. Cobblers, for instance, are all Dalits.
Cod: …Couldn’t you just change your last name?
Cod: Well, I mean in most countries you can just change your name.
Lamat: You could maybe use a neutral surname but you can’t use a surname like Sharma – which is what only a Brahmin can be. There have been cases of Dalits being lynched for acquiring a high caste hobby…so you know what changing your surname to a high caste name might do.
Cod: So in India, you can’t change your name to Sharma or Khan or whatever you want it to be?
Lamat: No, you can’t. You wear your caste on your sleeve, so to say.
Cod: I have to ask, what is a high caste hobby?
Lamat: Oh, there was a case of a Dalit riding a horse, which is a hobby of the rich. The rich equals high caste here.
Cod: Are there no rich Dalit? If a Dalit becomes wealthy, does he/she shake off the stigma associated with their caste birth?
Lamat: No, It doesn’t happen. There was a very interesting case of an Indian diplomat who was a Dalit. Her Dalit credentials were played up and people wrote about whether she got in through a reserved seat or not.
Cod: So despite various governments trying to abolish the caste system, it is still very much alive and well in India?
Lamat: Yes, very much so and it is difficult to wish away. We are modern people but we can’t do away with the caste system.