India Journal – A very brief intro to caste
July 18, 2008, 12:14 pm
Filed under: India, social action

One of the primary things we went to India to learn about was the caste system, and how to overcome it. It’s difficult to convey to Westerners just how pervasive the caste system is there, and how difficult it is to overcome it. The closest comparison for people in North America is racism . . . except that with caste, it’s racism on major steroids, and it’s much more random, given that you don’t know someone’s caste just by looking at them. You have to learn family names, regions, etc. before being able to label someone.

We met lots of folks from a variety of caste backgrounds. As is typically the case, the people who have the power and privilege will usually downplay the extensiveness of the problem, and live their lives as though the problem doesn’t exist. But you don’t have to scratch very far below the surface to see things amiss. People say “Oh, no, I don’t believe in caste,” but if you ask them if they would ever consider marrying outside of their caste, or how many low-caste homes they’ve spent time in, or how they feel about the reservation system (which is the Indian equivalent to affirmative action), you’ll get a very different response. I met at least three people who had been completely cut off from their families for having married outside of their caste.

There are castes for everything – street sweepers, farmers, cobblers, rodent hunters, cadaver removers, everything. The picture here is a typical street sweeper.

The so-called “untouchables,” or Dalits, are actually considered outside of the caste system . . . because you have to actually be human in order to be in the caste system. Dalits are considered “talking animals,” and therefore, on the outside. As it turns out, this actually gives them some advantages (if you could call them advantages) over low caste people – because the low caste people are actually locked in. These low castes are known officially in India by the term OBCs. What does OBC stand for? “Other Backward Castes.” That’s right.

The degree to which caste has captured the identity of people is staggering. Dalits and OBCs don’t even conceive that they’re living under oppression. They’ve been well trained to accept their fate (actually, their karma) and hope for a better go ’round in their next lives. Meanwhile the upper caste people (a mere ten to twelve percent of the population in India) go through life happily oblivious, often denying the reality that their comfort costs others dearly.

Lest I come across as judgmental, allow me to out myself. I will freely admit that I would have described American racism in much softer terms prior to Hurricane Katrina than after. Why? Because I’m a white, middle class, male – I don’t have to think about being a power holder if I don’t want to. Katrina woke me up to a different reality than I would have believed before. Again, racism in the West is a far cry from caste, but that’s all I’ve got for now.

Oh, and for the sake of clarity, it’s also important to note that caste is so pervasive that it transcends Hinduism. Sadly, caste is alive and well in Muslim, Sikh, and yes, Christian communities.

I’ll write another time about a very small thing we did that demonstrated how locked into the caste mentality the Dalits and OBCs are.


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