REPORTS & ESSAYS
Caste Discrimination and Related Laws in India
May 29, 2019
Of late, privileged India has been forced to take cognizance of the ‘other’ India because of a series of events that brought to light their plight. First was the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD student whose death was dubbed ‘institutional murder’ by the burgeoning students movement in the country. Then came the Una lynchings where four members of a Dalit family in Gujarat were publicly assaulted for skinning a dead cow. And then finally when the New Year’s Day attack on the Dalit community led to a statewide strike in Maharashtra, bringing even Mumbai – a city that never sleeps – to a grinding halt.
But because fear, hate and violence are all born out of ignorance, perhaps the first step toward a solution is to empower oneself with knowledge. Here are a few resources to help you understand the laws related to prevention of caste-based discrimination against people as well as gain a deeper understanding of the impact of the caste system on the socio-cultural fabric and political climate of India.
A brief history of India’s Caste System
Indian society was divided into four varnas based on the role people played in society, politics and economy. However, unlike European guilds that anyone could join based on their professional inclinations, caste was governed by birth. Therefore, a trader’s son was destined to be a trader, a craftsman’s son a craftsman, a soldier’s son a soldier and a priest’s son a priest. However, some people were kept outside this varna system. These people performed the so called ‘menial’ jobs like cleaning sewage and garbage disposal. They were considered ‘untouchable’ by the other castes in the social hierarchy and forced to live outside the city or village limits. These people faced discrimination and exclusion for centuries and therefore ended up with little or no access to education, the one empowering tool that could help them level the playing field.
All castes, excluding Brahmins and the warrior caste (Kshatriyas) were barred from equal access to education. Interestingly women of all castes, were similarly disempowered. Which is why when Savitribai Phule.and Jyotiba Phule established the first all girls school at Bhidewada in Pune in 1948 it was considered such a radical act and generated violent opposition from the privileged sections. Fatima Shaikh was her associate in the venture, a fellow teacher and Usman Shaikh, a philanthrophist, gave the couple much-needed support.
An example of discrimination and exclusion is that of how the Peshwas of Pune treated Dalits. They were not only forced to wear a small pot tied with a string around their neck to collect their spit, but many Dalits were also made to wear a broom behind their back to wipe away their footprints!
While the government of India abolished untouchability in the Constitution itself and passed laws against caste based discrimination and even introduced several affirmative action measures, these historically oppressed people continue to face several social challenges even today.
Caste, Untouchability and Indian Law
Article 17 of Indian Constitution says:
Untouchability” is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of “Untouchability” shall be an offence punishable in accordance with law.
Article 17 of the constitution abolished the practice of untouchability and made its practice a punishable offence. But what does this particular term exactly mean remained uncertain as it wasn’t defined in the Constitution. Article 35 of the Indian Constitution (Article 35(a)(ii)) gave the Parliament the power to make penal laws for the offences mentioned under Article 17. Consequently, The Untouchability Offences Act of 1955 (renamed to The Protection of Civil Liberties Act) was enacted which provided penalties for preventing a person from entering a place of worship or from taking water from a tank or well.
Subsequent legislations focused on the discrimination and oppression of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. These include:
The Dalit and Bahujan communities continue to face exclusion and even violence in many parts of India even today. Many organisations have been working at the grassroots level to empower Dalits and fight for their rights, but few got as much attention as the Dalit Panthers. Founded in 1972 by Namdeo Dhasal, JV Pawar and others, Dalit Panthers were ideologically aligned with the Black Panther Party, a social organisation fighting against racism is the United States. They gained prominence during the 70’s and the 80’s after the Republican Party founded by Dr. BR Ambedkar split into multiple factions. Soon Buddhist Bahujans also joined the movement.
Linking caste to merit
What drove the wedge deepest and exacerbated the misery of oppressed communities was the tacit linkage of caste with merit, a myth perpetuated by privileged castes to discredit the affirmative action measures such as reservations in educational institutions. The Mandal Commission was set up in 1979 by the Morarji Desai government to identify the socially or educationally backward classes of India to question the concept of reservations to redress caste discrimination in India. In 1980, the commission’s report upheld affirmative action and recommended 27 per cent reservation in jobs in the Central Government as well as Public Sector Undertakings (PSU). The report’s recommendations were ignored for over a decade and its implementation was considered only in 1990 by the VP Singh government causing widespread protests across the country where nearly 200 upper caste students attempted suicide by self immolation. 68 of them succumbed to their injuries.
Dalit Lives Matter
There are parallels in the resurgence of the Dalit-Bahujan movement in India and the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. The Black Lives Matter movement that was born in 2013 after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, in Florida. #BlackLivesMatter started trending internationally and social media platforms saw renewed vigour in discussions on sensitive subjects like racial discrimination. The movement gained further momentum in 2014 when the first Black Lives Matter march was organised to protest the cold blooded killing of two black men, Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner is New York.
The BLM movement grew from strength to strength, often running into controversy. For instance the Toronto chapter of BLM held up the Gay Pride Parade for about half an hour in 2016 demanding gun totting police personnel be asked to leave the parade. This incident has sparked spirited debates about intersectionality and privilege, subjects that many people are still touchy about even today. However, the manner in which the question of inclusion was raised, eventually led to the inclusion of the colours black and brown in the ‘Rainbow Flag to represent Black and Indigenous People of Colour (BIPOC).
Meanwhile in India, the Ambedkarites and the Left, who were beginning to come together on college campuses were triggered into forming a strategic partnership after Rohith Vemula’s death, an act dubbed as institutional murder by the burgeoning student movement in India. Rohith Vemula, while he was still alive, represented an amalgamation of the Left and Ambedkarite ideology. Infact, it was his denunciation of the death penalty in Yakub Memon’s case that earned him the wrath of right wing extremists who dubbed him anti-national and even physically assaulted him. After his death, the trifecta of dissenters from the Student Movement, the Dalit Movement and the Left, felt compelled to combine forces against the ruling dispensation and chants of ‘Jai Bhim – Lal Salaam’ became even more common on college campuses.
Where is India’s Shonda Rhimes
One of the reasons that conversations around race gained momentum in the United States is because of proactive decisions by several media houses to include greater diversity in movies and television shows. Shonda Rhimes the powerhouse behind shows like Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder and Grey’s Anatomy, is hailed as the pioneer of a more inclusive and racially diverse cast of characters. However, according to an investigation by Variety, showrunners still remain mostly white and male.
Even in the movies there is a slow but sure campaign against whitewashing. Infact, there was an #OscarsSoWhite uproar when the Academy Awards nominees in 2015 turned out to be largely white despite several movies by and about people of colour had gained critical acclaim. There was an encore when things did not change much in 2016.
Perhaps a concerted campaign in mainstream Indian film and television could help the Dalit Rights movement gain momentum. But given how the identity and achievements of a lower caste South Indian man were attributed to an upper caste North Indian man in Padman or how Karan Johar’s remake of the critically acclaimed Sairat is a glammed up version starring star kids and has glossed over the caste question by making it a more ‘up-market’ modern-day take on Romeo and Juliet instead of the original doomed love story between an upper caste girl and a lower caste boy, India has a long way to go.
To get a deeper understanding of India’s caste problem and the struggle to dismantle the caste hegemony, one can read a variety of books. The first one that comes to mind is The Annihilation of Caste, that was actually an undelivered speech by Dr. B.R Ambedkar that he later published in the form of a book.
This is what the original print looked like. The entire text is available for reading for free here:
You can also purchase a copy online here
Jyotiba Phule wrote Gulamgiri, a book examining the concept of caste in the context of perpetuating slavery, originally in Marathi.
The original Marathi text can be purchased here
The book has also been translated into Hindi and English.
Another books that beautifully examines the intersectionality between caste and gender is The High Caste Hindu Woman by Pandita Ramabai Saraswati
A copy of this book may be purchased here.
First published in CJP.
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