What is Caste?

Caste systems are a form of social and economic governance that is based on principles and customary rules. It involves the division of people into social groups (castes) where assignments of rights are fixed by birth, often includes an occupation and are hereditary. In simpler terms, caste is where society is divided up into different groups, with those who have more power at the top and those who have little or no power at the bottom. You inherit your caste and it cannot be changed. Even worse are those deemed so inferior as to be out of the system altogether – previously known as outcasts or untouchables.

In South Asia caste discrimination is traditionally rooted in the Hindu caste system. Supported by philosophical elements, the caste system constructs the moral, social and legal foundations of Hindu society. Dalits are ‘outcastes’ or people who fall outside the four-fold caste system consisting of the Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. Dalits are also referred to as Panchamas or people of the fifth order. However, caste systems and the ensuing caste discrimination have spread into Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh communities. In Japan association is made with Shinto beliefs concerning purity and impurity, and in marginalized African groups the justification is based on myths.

The difference between race and caste

There is a significant difference between race and caste: two people can come from the same village (as have their families for generations), be of the same race, skin colour and religion, and yet be treated in very different ways. Similarly, it cannot be categorised as a class system: you can change your class and it is now largely determined by education, wealth and upbringing. You are born into a caste, the same as all of your ancestors, and it cannot be changed regardless of how intelligent you are, how wealthy you become or who you marry.

Furthermore, caste-discrimination has no boundaries when it comes to a religious affiliation. It affects Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians, and those of no religious denomination at all.

Why caste matters

Those who are in the lowest castes (or even outside the caste system) often suffer from caste-based discrimination. They are seen as ‘impure’ or ‘polluting’ and are often shunned by people who are from so-called ‘higher’ castes. They have difficulty getting access to land, resources and education, are victims of verbal, physical and sexual abuse, are given the most demeaning jobs and are at high risk of ending up in bonded labour.

Protection against caste-based discrimination

In some countries there are laws in place to protect those from the lower castes and outside the caste system. Both India and Nepal have anti-caste discrimination laws, as does Australia. While caste systems are mostly found in South Asia (India, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka), you can also find them in a number of African countries (Nigeria, Mauritania, Senegal, Niger, Mali and Kenya), Japan and the Yemen. Caste-based discrimination is also found in the diaspora, and while Australia provides legal protection, the UK and the USA have no specific laws, despite evidence showing that discrimination occurs there.

In India the caste system has been around for more than 3000 years, but anti-caste discrimination laws were only enacted in 1955. It is going to take a long time for a mindset that has been so deeply ingrained in the population to change. It also does not help that there is a proportion of the population that feel that there is nothing wrong with the caste system. Or that there is anything wrong with treating those of the lower castes in such a dehumanising way.

A hidden problem

Caste-based discrimination is usually concealed. People from lower castes often will not say which caste they are from, as this might open them up to discrimination. People from ‘dominant’ castes just regard that as their privilege and see no issues arising from their position.

Caste-based discrimination has also been described as a ‘hidden apartheid’ because the issue is hardly every noticeable to those outside of the caste-affected communities. That is very different to racial apartheid.

Dalit Identity

Dalits – formerly known as untouchables – comes from the Sanskrit word, meaning ‘broken’ or ‘oppressed’ and has been chosen as a preferred term by the community. In South Asia the term ‘scheduled castes’ is more formally used. There are estimated to be around 260 million Dalits worldwide. The term Dalit is now one used to show a growing movement against caste-based oppression.

A global ban on caste-based discrimination

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) states that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Various United Nations human rights bodies and mechanisms have addressed the issue of caste-based discrimination. International Dalit Solidarity Network has documented the mentions of caste at the UN on their website.

One of the most legally binding documents covering caste-based discrimination is the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which includes the protection against discrimination based on work and descent.  

Caste-based discrimination in practice

On the most basic of levels, Dalits are considered ‘impure’, they often will not be allowed to share the same water resources, eat off the same crockery, sit at the same table or have any physical contact with other castes. They are usually forced to do the worst jobs, such as manual scavenging (cleaning out toilets, latrines and sewers by hand), handling cow carcasses (considered a taboo in Hinduism), or are caught in a cycle of bonded labour where they are forced to work for free in order to live on the land or to pay off hereditary or new debts. In parts of Africa, where a comparable caste system exists, those with the perceived lowest status are called ‘slaves’.

The ability to access education may be restricted, and Dalit school children are sometimes forced to sit on the floor or outside the classroom, eat separately from other castes, and may struggle to reach university as the quality of schooling is much lower for them and they are unable to catch up. There has been a spate of suicides at Indian universities, as the abuse they have suffered has made their lives untenable.

Not only is verbal abuse a daily occurrence, but physical beatings are common for any assumed slight or infraction of the social norms. ‘Cow lynchings’, where Dalits who have no choice but to skin cows for a living, and therefore offend the sensibilities of some Hindus, are not uncommon. Furthermore, inter-caste marriage has resulted in a number of so-called ‘honour killings’, and even riding a horse during a wedding ceremony has led to violence or atrocities.

Dalit women face multiple and intersectional discrimination, as they are considered of little or no value due to their caste as well as gender. Many Dalit women are victims of sexual abuse and exploitation, including forced prostitution. On reporting incidents to the police, they may be violated again by those in authority and then accused of making false accusations and consequently persecuted.