First, we feel disgusted. Then, we feel ashamed. At last, we stop talking about it. This is how the majority of the issues and taboos within the South Asian community have been tackled down. Caste system is among those taboos that have been all of a sudden shut down and forgotten about. Whenever the topic is addressed, we are told that such thing doesn’t exist no more, in the Occidental World, and we should not bring it up neither. Think about it … is it truly because caste systems don’t exist anymore in the West or is it because we are ashamed to talk about the presence of it explicitly? We try masking the existence of such practice but doing that would also mean erasing centuries worth of our history, of the way our society was organized, the way each of our actions were orchestrated and basically ignoring the fact that we owe apology to those people we call “lower-caste”.
Still up to this day, many people in our natives lands struggle to have basic rights on a day-to-day basis because of how deeply rooted the caste system is. The only time you might’ve heard of caste systems are in movies or tv serials. Although they accurately show how marriages can be interrupted if they aren’t inter-castes, they forgot to address the inaccessibility of basic human rights those people face every goddamn day. Let’s take the story of a PhD student named Rohith Chakravarthi Vemula who got suspended from classes for three months, expelled from campus residency, forbidden to eat at the campus cafeteria, enter other campus buildings and vote in the student elections along with four of his friends. They were falsely charged for attacking a student from a right-wing student body. One fact that is really interesting is that him and his four friends were Dalits, a self-proclaimed name by “lower-castes” in India. – During the medieval period, India’s caste system was divided in four big categories, each one being associated to a particular work field : first you have the Brahmins (mostly priests and teachers), the Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers), the Vaisyas (farmers, merchants and artisans) and then the Sudras (labourers). Dalits were initially called the “Untouchables” or the outcasts. This stratification was initially taken from the Bhagavad Gita , a Hindu holy text and was meant to encourage a harmonious work environment. However, it took a quick turn into a system of discrimination that lead “lower castes” to extreme poverty in Nepal , India and Sri Lanka. With the arrival of colonial era , the Portuguese and British tried to understand this organization which was initially named communal groupings that served as a way to identify groups within a society. In the process, they compared such groupings to their hierarchy in their land like bourgeoisie classes and proletarian classes. They introduce their own conception of this practice on a bigger scale throughout South Asia and named it the “caste system”. Their implication in this matter led to major modifications and corruption of the definition and the functioning of those communal groupings. – Back to Rohith, he compared his exclusion to the exclusion of Dalits from their own village back in time. His exclusion pushed him to fight for the rights of Dalits and the reinforcement of laws that forbid discrimination based on caste system in India, nevertheless his emotions got the best of him and he ended his life in the process. That was the 12th death of a Dalit since 2002 on that campus.
Rohith’s mom was expecting him home that week. She was a tailor who worked for 150 rupee a day which is not enough to even afford one full meal a day; yet she made it so far to raise her son and get him into a University. In India , there is about 180 to 220 millions who are shunned by the society because of their place in this social construct. Lower castes are often trapped in their misery and poverty, as you can’t marry out of your caste , you are often stuck marrying people from the same status as you. Furthermore, upper castes usually benefit from a superior education due to their financial state, they even have the possibility to occupy seats in University hence, Dalits always have to fight for a place in academical fields. Their opportunities to find a job are reduced as most of these unprivileged people are often educated in governmental school in the state language, like Rohith who was brought up speaking Telugu. Companies and certain universities use English for lessons, paperwork and training , kids like Rohith who didn’t have the chance to acquire English are disregarded when it’s time to apply for a job or higher education.
All of this shunning doesn’t end at the border of your native country, it follows you across the sea. If you think caste systems are gone in the West, you might need to recall those conversations where people ask you about your city/village/area, basically your provenance within your native country. You might think they are asking out of curiosity, but you also might know that they are trying to figure out your social identity in a more “inexplicit” manner. As a matter of fact, Varinder Dabri is a veterinarian who immigrated to Canada. He describes the system as “a disease with no cure” after his co-worker didn’t believe him when he said that back in India, he belonged to a lower caste. His co-worker believed that people such as Dabri were “filthy” and “uneducated”. He says that the only way you could get rid of such categorization is high education and changing your name , as name can be an indicator of your caste, but even then it might end up in a fail attempt. Some elders still teach young women to not marry men from lower caste and vice-versa.
Today, we can count more than 3000 sub-castes that are furthermore divided into 25000 smaller castes. Across South Asia, the treatment that lower-castes undergo varies. In Nepal and India, poverty among the victims of our social organization is to a higher level than in Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka, it is easier to get out of the vicious circle that caste system creates through education, as education is a little less corrupted than in India. I remember asking my mom details about the caste system, she was very reluctant at first to recall those memories. Through out the whole time she kept saying : “but it toned down now”. She threw the infamous “but” to escape the injustice we’ve been accepting to contribute to by being silent. She recalled how, in Sri Lanka, temples associates would refuse to let lower-castes get water from the temple wells. Some temples even forbid those marginalized people to enter the sacred place. Moreover, if they are offered food or water in their workplace, they would always be served in different plates and utensils that were meant for them, since it was apparently outrageous for an “upper-caste” member to share the same utensils. In addition to that, they were always put aside in social events and functions. Caste system isn’t exclusive to Hindus as it is practiced among Christians and Muslims throughout South Asia.
All this just to make you realize that the presence of caste system might’ve toned down but it is never gone. We can never forget what those people went through and are still going through. Dismissing the fact that such system ever existed or escaping the fact that some of our ancestors thought they had the power to determine who were worthy and who were unworthy, it’s trying to erase a part of the history of our communities. We owe the victims of the system an apology and even more for all the exclusion and torture they’ve gone through. We need to stop dismissing the privileges we’ve been benefiting from and try to up-root caste system from our society. We shall do that not by ignoring it, but by talking about. We must bring those elders that carry caste system across seas to realization and make them understand that they do not have the power to categorize people and feed into hatred and separation by telling kids to avoid “unworthy people” who turn out to be human beings just like us.
DOSHI, Vidhi. “India’s caste system: ‘They are trying to erase dalit history. This is a marty rdom, a sacrifice’”,The Guardian, [Online] , January 24 2016, [ https: //www. the guardian .com/world/2016/jan/24/student-suicide-untouchables-stuggle-for-justice-india], (consulted October 12 2016 ) .
D’SOUZA , Jason. “Indian caste system in Canada called ‘a disease’ worse than racism”, CBC News , [Online], [http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/indian-caste-system-in-canada-called-a-disease-worse-than-racism-1.3090441], ( consulted December 26 2016 ).
RAO , Jasmine. “The Caste System: Effects on Poverty in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka” , Global Majority E-Journal , [pdf online], [https://www.american.edu/cas /economics/ ejournal/upload Global_Majority_e_Journal_1-2_Rao.pdf], ( consulted October 12 2016 ).