Caste divisions remain an obstacle to India's progress


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 FITZGERALDin India

SUNITA JATAV never imagined that something as innocuous as feeding some leftover chapatti to a local dog would incur the wrath of her village council.

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 fast-changing society.

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 caste-neutral.

“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 says.

“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 commentary.

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,” Prasad says.

“Stories like this give me hope that India is changing.”