The Caste Impeding India's Social Mobility

G. Stolyarov II
 
Issue XIV - May 4, 2003
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In 1947, upon India’s independence, the secularist government of Jawaharlal Nehru avowedly renounced the hierarchical rigidity of the caste system and embarked upon erasing its impositions off the face of India. However, instead of eliminating the power structures, the Indian government has half-inverted them, fueling mutually escalating antagonisms among members of upper and lower castes. While caste-consciousness and institutionalized discrimination have risen to a record high, the sociopolitical barriers to the ascent of aspiring individuals from lower castes remain firmly entrenched in rural India. If India were to receive a grade for its performance in fostering equality of opportunity and equal rights for all its citizens before the law, the only fitting mark would be an F-.

“Untouchables” and “backward castes” had historically been scorned in India as carriers of “spiritual pollution.” They were coercively consigned to the most menial of tasks and treated with presumptuous contempt by more privileged members of the technologically and economically backward Indian village. The violence and oppression directed against lower castes continue to manifest themselves to this day in India’s rural north. In the vast Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, several months in 1998, a period of transition to a new regional government, had been marred by the murder, rape, and/or expropriation of dozens of innocents, the majority of them Dalits (“the oppressed,” the name untouchables have designated
themselves with in order to flaunt the scars of victimization) (Rettie 1). Within that same state, a single case of a man who had slapped a higher-caste member for having stolen peas from his field, illustrates the perversities of today’s caste discrimination. The man’s mother was “stripped and paraded through the village at gunpoint for an hour,” without any attempt by the villagers to halt the violation and abuse of an innocent woman even whose son had not committed any crime, merely having retaliated against a coercive deprivation of his property (Rettie 1). In Bihar, India’s second most populous state, skirmishes between lower-caste peasants and landlords, fueled by mutual resentment and the inability to peacefully settle land issues, have resulted in over 100 deaths on both sides (Zubrzycki 1).

Moreover, the hard-line traditionalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), until recently at the head of India’s coalition government and still wielding a more substantial quantity of parliamentary seats than any other political group, has launched an indoctrination effort to glorify the birth-based distinctions of caste in official government textbooks. A history reading presented to students in Gujarat state portrays the caste system as, of all things, an ideal recipe for socioeconomic harmony! It scolds the lower castes as inherently ignorant and “failing to realize the importance of education in life,” as if one’s economic status at birth is in any manner a determinant of such a mindset (Guardian Weekly 41). Despite the textbooks’ avowed condemnation of unenlightened sloth, what an immense degree of intellectual sloth is required for so-called academics to proclaim in a collectivist manner that the entirety of man’s mind and disposition is deterministically governed by his genome! Those same books interpret with much commendation Hitler’s attempt to create a caste system in Nazi Germany based on race, ethnicity, and genetic determinism. Another social studies text in Gujarat considers Hitler to have “instilled the spirit of adventure in common people” (Guardian Weekly 41). Government treatment of lower caste members remains far from equitable, as the prevailing societal inhibitions and stereotypes against them become institutionalized, even while the caste system has remained officially illegal since 1950, and discrimination against untouchables is absolutely prohibited… on paper.

Nevertheless, far more menacing to Indians of all castes and to the prospects for a secular, caste-blind India are the measures undertaken by the government supposedly to benefit untouchables, “backward castes,” and “other backward castes” (OBCs). Within its alleged secularism and caste-blindness, India’s 1950 Constitution had in actuality triggered a relapse to caste-consciousness by laying the groundwork for the world’s most gargantuan affirmative action policy, devised by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, a pressure-group Dalit politician. This system is comprised of reservations for lower-caste jobs in India’s bureaucratic web, as well as “proportional representation” for lower castes in legislative assemblies and educational facilities (Zubrzycki 1). The percentages reserved were initially slight and seldom harshly criticized by the Indian population, which had, during the first two decades of independence, steadily shifted toward a caste-blind mentality. Writer Shashi Tharoor describes his own generation as raised under the Nehruvian/Gandhian creed of caste irrelevance, as one’s interactions in the schools, in the workplace, in family relationships, and in the rapidly modernizing urban centers of Bombay, Hyderabad, and New Delhi were performed without recourse to India’s dismal legacy of anti-individualistic hierarchical rigidity (Tharoor 110).  Although political fragmentation of India into caste-based factions had crept upon it gradually, the death knell for secularism was sounded in 1990, when the government of V.P. Singh decided to pander to the voting potential of rapidly amassing pressure groups and implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission ten years earlier. 22.5 percent of parliamentary seats have been allocated to “scheduled castes and tribes,” 27.5 percent to OBCs, and 5 to 10 percent to “the poor.” Simultaneously, numerous northern states have raised lower caste quotas to a baffling eighty percent (Kamath 3). The official definitions of OBCs and “lower castes” have also been blurry at best, leading to widespread disputes among pressure groups as to whether members of a caste are or are not qualified for gratuitous endowments. Given that V. P. Singh had expected to secure 60 percent of India’s overall vote via this policy (which he did not obtain), one can without dispute observe the resurgence of institutionalized pressure-group prejudice and rivalry within India (Kamath 3). In the words of Tharoor, “your caste determines your opportunities, your prospects, your promotions. You can’t go forward unless you’re a Backward.”

Affirmative action inherently elevates circumstantial group status to the forefront of an individual’s considerations. If one’s advancement is determined not by one’s merit but by alleged “victimization” of one’s ancestry, if one’s education and property are provided not according to one’s ability to pay but according to one’s ancestors’ inability to pay in the past, then the badge of untouchability becomes one’s only ticket toward gratuitous elevation, regardless of competence, to positions of leadership and prominence. Hence it is not surprising that caste has resurfaced dramatically in India and created tensions marring what economics professor Shyam J. Kamath terms “India’s most dangerous decade.” Tharoor contends that the reservation mentality fosters the perception of government employment as “an end in itself,” a means to fatten one’s coffers instead of providing efficient administration, and that the power struggle thereby fueled will shift India toward a degree of government interventionism beyond the already crippling tariffs and redistribution occurring in the present day. As more “backward classes” strive for their share of the quotas, both the fervor of their pursuit and the intensity of the reaction from the institutionally deprived but competent members of “higher castes” will surge dramatically.  After Singh’s implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations, dozens of upper-caste university students committed suicide by self-immolation due to their desperation at the system, which had forever deprived them of the prosperity they could have gained through individual and unimpeded effort within the free marketplace (Zubrzycki 1). But the lower castes suffer also, through the stigmatization of forever remaining the victims who require government redistribution of employment and land in order to ascend and who are deemed incompetent of their own accord. It would not be surprising if such an outlook were the root of the stereotype with which Dalits have been branded by BJP academics.

While Nehru and Gandhi in 1947 had adamantly and perhaps earnestly manifested the desire for an India of equal opportunity in the marketplace and before the law, India’s government has merely institutionalized the victim status of lower castes while perpetuating their general cultural suppression. Aside from depriving jobs from intelligent young members of “upper castes,” India’s progress toward social justice has been either non-existent or annihilated by the past decade. This is perhaps as abysmal a failure as a country can experience short of civil war and Hitler-style persecution.

In the United States, where racial affirmative action is springing up in prominent educational institutions such as Berkeley and Michigan, and where affirmative action by socioeconomic class, in the form of "need aid" offered by many prestigious public schools and the general welfare program, has been rampant for decades, let the lessons of India inform the citizens of this country as to the devastation and hostility spawned by attempting to "correct past injustices" by resorting to collectivist freebie-mongering at taxpayers' expense. It is within this author's hopes that the Land of the Free shall never reach the epitome of pressure-group warfare, currently waged in India. But ultimately, it will take the determination of every American, of every race, economic level, and religious affiliation, to recognize himself as the master of his destiny, not reliant on either perpetuating or leeching off previous tribalist superstitions.

Works Cited:

Kamath, Shyam J. Affirmative Disintegration: India’s Most Dangerous Decade.  Liberty Haven. May 1991. http://www.libertyhaven.com/politicsandcurrentevents/affirmativeaction/disintegration.html.

Rettie, John. Oppressed millions awaken to claim a share in power. 1998.

Tharoor, Shashi.
India from Midnight to Millennium. 1997.

Zubrzycki, John. Lower Castes Still Stuck on India’s Bottom Rung. Christian Science Monitor. 1997.

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