“Liberty, Equality Fraternity”; at the time of the French Revolution these posthumous terms were the primary mottoes in use. Looking back at times, if we take out the word ‘equality’ and emphasize on its significance, little will we find its reach. The term equality in literal term means evenness. In practical sense it means that everyone should have the same rights. Ironically, the term has just remained to be a literal facet. Equality in class and culture is as fragmented as the streams of a river. A society is socially stratified when its members are divided into categories which are differentially powerful, esteemed, and rewarded. Louis Dumont, in his modern classic ‘Homo Hierarchicus’, maintains that the entire sociological notion of stratification is misleading when applied to South Asia. And if we come to India, its origins are as varied as its extent.

The origin of the caste system in India dates back to the times of the Aryans when they crossed the mountain passes from the steppes of Central Asia and settled in Northern India around 1500 BC. Once the Aryans invaded India, they divided communities into hereditary groups called Jātis. The Jātis were grouped under the four well-known caste categories known as Varnas. The Varnas were formed into the descending order format starting from the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas to the Shudras. The Varnas were classified according to their occupation and economic standard of living. Brahmins were to be the spiritual and temporal guides, as well as teachers and exponents of law. Kshatriya were the warriors, princes and kings, Vaishya, took on the tasks of agriculture and merchantry. Finally, Shudras performed service communities — manual and agricultural laborers, artisans, masons, etc. The Sudra’s were further subdivided. Those who did the polluting job of manual scavenging; cleaning up after funerals or killing animals fell into the untouchable or outcast category. They were ostracized by the Brahmins and treated with contempt and filth. The untouchables were not only disallowed to touch the high caste communities but they also had to stand at a certain distance from the high castes. Over the centuries the Brahmins attained immense power, upholding the law as well as dispensing it.

The caste system is propagated and misused by the people in power. Torture in ancient India began with the inception of the caste system. It soon spread to the entire Indian society following the struggle of class and caste divide. The caste strata in India are decided by birth. One cannot change it. Being born a Brahmin wasn’t a sin. But if one was born as a Sudra or a Dalit (untouchables) then a life of constant struggle and suffering awaited. . In the traditional caste system, members of the lower caste were strictly discriminated against. The high ranking members of the caste system such as the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, were deemed as the clean caste and enjoyed many privileges while the low ranking, the Untouchables, were labeled as ‘unclean’ and lived in abject poverty serving the Brahmins. Dalits could not even step into the dining area of the Brahmins. Rape, torture, and killings continued to take place in the name of the caste system. Poverty, helplessness, and lack of support were the most common ways to torture the lower rung. The children were born to ‘slavery’ where they had to work in the worst possible conditions until they died. The most complex question that arises is the policy of descendants. How does one explain to a child that they are born unclean or a Dalit? They were discriminated right from the womb and lived a life of adversity once born.

If we discuss the most common caste-related violence and torture in India, one cannot ignore the 2006 gruesome murders of a Dalit family where its members were slaughtered to death by people of the politically dominant caste. The killings took place in a small village in India named Kherlanji, located in the state of Maharashtra. The women of the family were paraded naked in public, before being murdered. The Kherlanji massacre instigated the 2006 Nagpur riots by the Dalits. During the violent protests, the Dalit protestors set three trains on fire, damaged over 100 buses and clashed with the police. In the Indian province of Rajasthan, between the years 1999 and 2002, crimes against Dalits were at an average of about 5024 a year, with 46 killings and 138 cases of rape. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, “Dalits and indigenous peoples (known as scheduled tribes or adivasis) continue to face discrimination, exclusion, and acts of communal violence. Laws and policies adopted by the Indian government provide a strong basis for protection, but are not being faithfully implemented by local authorities.” Some of the other forms of violence meted out to the Dalits include the 1996 Bathani Tola Massacre in Bihar where 21 Dalits were slaughtered by a caste-supremacist fringe militia group called Ranvir Sena who were known to perpetrate violent acts against Dalits and other scheduled caste tribes. Among the dead were 11 women, and 9 children. In the 1969 Kilvenmani massacre, in Tamil Nadu, a group of 42 Dalit village laborers were murdered by a gang, allegedly sent by their landlords. On 1 December 1997, the militia group Ranvir Sena gunned down 58 Dalits at the Laxmanpur Bathe. Charges were framed in the case against 46 Ranvir Sena men on December 23, 2008. Countless such stories have been harrowing the Dalits over the years. Phoolan Devi, the notorious ‘Bandit Queen’, famed for her sheer defiance against India’s age-old racist and sexist caste customs, established her reputation as a champion of the oppressed in India. She had been victimized by the caste system her entire life, treated as either a slave or a sex object. She said that she represented people who, like herself, were exploited and abused by their social betters.

In dealing with caste issues that have been arising, the role of the caste councils, called Khaps in India, is another gruesome reality. Honour killings are a condemnable phenomenon that is rapidly on the rise in rural India. The meaning of the act itself is pretty self-explanatory. It involves homicide of a member of a family by other members for the sake of community pride. Honour killings are directed mostly against women and girls, but have been extended to men too. The dishonor mainly comes in the form of marrying outside the caste or marrying within the same clan or Gotra. Such killings are sadly on the rise as more and more couples marry outside their caste or against their family’s wishes. Hair-raising incidents of daylight murder of lovers, castration, and strangulation are a common affair. In one such incident in Rajasthan, the caste panchayat stripped and thrashed down a woman in front of the entire village. The married woman and her partner were tied to a tree, stripped half-naked and severely beaten up for nearly three hours before a crowd of 1,000 people under orders of a caste panchayat. The two were ‘punished’ for having illicit relations. The woman’s husband himself stripped the woman and the youth. Later their hair was cut. When a police team tried to intervene, the villagers hurled stones at them, injuring two cops. One can easily perceive that there are legal ways to settle matrimonial disputes, but the dominance of caste panchayats and their diktats are turning out to be a major bane for the society at large. In the age of caste-driven politics, no party has shown the willingness to come out openly and minimize the role of such panchayats, whose principles are not only archaic, but devastating for the society. The government needs to act and launch campaigns on the redundancy of such acts. Torture, oppression, victimization and colonization have weighed down generations of the Indian ethnic class. If we look from the practical point of view, even the British colonization of India was another form of torture. The British rule oppressed the Indian class on the basis of race, while the Indians continued this discrimination on the basis of caste.

With globalization, the caste system has begun to change and, as a result, new conflicts between traditions, science, faith, and modernism are emerging. One needs to know what their role is in modern day India. Noted sociologist Dr. Upadhyay says “Yes, they exist. And with the fast changing social order, they are trying to be in control and to make themselves relevant for society”. The new caste system is made of Haves and Haves Nots. It depends on the economic status and power of the individual; however, the old system of castes continues to hold influence. Many years after the independence of India, caste based discrimination goes on. India’s feudal caste system is so powerful that although some progress is being made, challengers of tradition often face upper-caste revenge. What is the Indian government doing? What about social movements and the international community. The caste-based system cannot survive forever in the modern world, but the political parties and religious ‘lords’, as religious leaders are called, want it to continue in order to promote their own ethnic interests. They want to use it to fuel sectarianism. The very concept of caste based polarization is flawed. These are things that breed conflicts. We as individuals need to buckle down and ask whether it is socially and morally acceptable in Modern India to let the curses of the caste system persist. If, even after 60 yrs of independence, we are not able to break the shackles of caste discrimination and torture, then what is the guarantee that it will be broken in the next decade?

zubina_vol1_number3Zubina Ahmed is a journalist based in New Delhi. She is currently a programming producer with a leading News Channel TIMES NOW in New Delhi, India.