Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Free the Dalits: Caste

I'll be up front: this is a loooong post. You've been warned.

So far I've given a brief introduction to the Dalits. But what is it that holds the Dalits back, and keeps them oppressed? Caste. That is what we're talking about today.

Racism, sexism and classism are all anathema to the modern American mind. At least in polite society we say the politically correct things, even if such agreement is not universal. We're all assumed to be "created equal" regardless of income, job, race or sex. And it's easy to feel that our experiences and philosophies are common worldwide. In fact, this phenomenon is so common and natural that it leads to the majority of inter-cultural conflicts; we assume others should perceive/act/believe as we do, and encounter problems when they don't. An example of a cultural perspective that turns our view of equality is found in the caste system of India.

The Dalits' oppression is directly related to the Indian caste system. In order to understand their plight, we need to have a basic understanding of caste, and how it affects life in India (and some other countries, most notably Pakistan.) So what is a caste? And how does it affect the Dalits?

A caste (etymology: Portuguese for "a race of men") is a division of society to which one belongs. They are also called varnas. Indian culture, entwined with the prevalent Hindu faith, has four castes to which people belong1:

  • The Brahmins are the top class. Members of this class are the priests and religious leaders.

  • The Kshatriya are the next class, and are political leaders and warriors.

  • The Vaishya are the third class. Members of this caste are the tradesmen, merchants, farmers and craftsmen.

  • The lowest caste is the Shudra, who are laborers and servants to the higher castes.

Each caste is further broken down into sub-castes, called "jatis" (the Hindu term for a sub-caste.) Within the caste, jatis are arranged hierarchically to the net effect of hundreds, if not thousands, of societally distinct social groups. Jatis are defined along specific job lines, so that one jati would cover bakers and another shepherds, both of which would fall under the Vaishya caste.

The caste and jati into which one is born is, with rare exception, the caste and jati in which one lives his/her entire life. There is little movement across castes. There are also strict restrictions on inter-marrying across castes, which has the effect of controlling caste membership; marriage is limited to the same social strata.

The concept of dharma is big in the caste structure. Dharma2, or virtue, refers to the virtues and proper behaviors for a given caste. The dharma for the Brahmins is different from the dharma for the Vaishyas. Caste distinctions also cover things like where one sits at celebrations and banquets to your ability to get into school.

Castes also have differing standards for purity and cleanliness. The top class, for instance, is considered highly pure. To maintain this purity, Brahmins emphasize virginity and fidelity for brides, for example. They also have elaborate purification/cleansing ceremonies to follow if "polluted" by contact from a lower caste member. This is a source of turmoil for Dalits who have been abused for accidentally touching, or even allowing their shadow to fall upon, a Brahmin (thereby "polluting" the Brahmin.) Further down the caste hierarchy, though, standards for purity are relaxed. Virginity and fidelity aren't necessarily requirements for women in the Shudra caste, for instance3.

You may notice that I've so far not mentioned where the Dalits fit into this caste structure. That is because they technically don't. They are considered beneath the lowest caste, the Shudras, and not worthy of being in a caste. This restricts the Dalits to the lowest jobs, such as cleaning bathrooms and sewers. They cannot worship in higher caste temples, and getting ahead through education is rare since most are too poor to be able to attend school. Even Dalit children are often entering the workforce in order to help the family survive. The Dalits are segregated within villages to their own "ghettos" (my wife and her party had to travel through the village they visited to a walled-off section housing the Dalits, entering through a gate.) The caste system acts as a buffer between the elites and the downtrodden, and ne'er the twain shall meet. Out of roughly 1 billion Indians, roughly 20-25% are Dalits. That's a lot of oppression, with rare success stories.

There is some good news to report about the caste system. It was made illegal in 1950, with a Dalit chairing the committee that drafted India's constitution in 19504 (although this obviously hasn't stopped abuse of Dalits or discrimination against them.) The UN has noticed, and awareness is rising that the caste system has enabled violations of human rights. And within major urban centers, Dalit persecution has in fact reduced. However, these are baby steps towards equality, and a couple hundred million people are still being held down, especially in poor rural areas.

Tomorrow I'll talk about how we got to this point, and the history of caste in India. But this should at least provide an idea of what the caste system is, and how it defines life in India. Despite being illegal, classism in the form of caste is alive and well in India. Caste's racist and sexist aspects come into play tomorrow.

God bless!

1 - Information in the discussion, including examples, taken from the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies page written by Paul Flesher.
2 - For fans of the TV show Lost, this understanding may (or may not) provide a clue into the mystery that is the Dharma Initiative
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