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  • Shanita Jetha

The Indian Caste System – A Matter of Life or Death?

Photograph: Flickr, Mikhail Esteves

In 2014, two young girls in a small town approximately 120 miles away from New Delhi were abducted from their homes, raped and hung on the branches of a mango tree for the community to see. Why? Because they came from an "untouchable caste", which is a consequence of the social culture prevalent in India, which allows those thought to be ‘inferior’ to be mistreated. This raises concern regarding the social issues of the caste system which promotes ‘untouchability’, therefore increasing inequality between those of a ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ caste.

This disconcerting divide is long engrained within the Indian culture, which has led to suffering by the lower castes in social, economic and political spheres in the name of religion. The ‘Shudras’ are thought to be the lowest caste, which instantly forced them to become servants, hence acceptable for them to be exploited through preventing access to education and places of worship, as well as leaving them vulnerable to public beatings. Imagine living in a society where you are treated as inhumane solely for the fact you were born into a caste which is thought to be worthless. This is an alarming truth of India even today, particularly in rural areas.

The current government, led by Narendra Modi are taking measures to tackle these issues, however for any change to occur it will require changes in attitudes which is proving to be a challenge.

Earlier this year, Modi interacted with over 230 young people who work in the ‘Prime Minister’s Rural Development Fellows Scheme’, an initiative set up by the Ministry of Rural Development aiming to reduce poverty in remote regions of India. This scheme promotes the empowerment of women through education, along with implementing technology in order to improve infrastructure and healthcare. This in turn, helps to achieve an equality of opportunity, which is crucial in tackling the consequences of the deep-rooted caste system.

Despite this, there is more which can be done; for instance, through strengthening employment laws. Currently, the ‘Industrial Disputes Act’ of 1947 prevents an individual, who has been employed for over a year, from being dismissed without permission from the government. Employers can take advantage of this, by ill-treating staff knowing that the process of leaving is a lengthy one. When injustice does occur in the workplace; such as in the case of ‘Bharat Forge Co Ltd v Uttam Manohar Nakate’ where an employee was fired for repeatedly sleeping, the Supreme Court is slow to respond, allowing the employee to face the negative effects of mistreatment until the court rules otherwise. Having a living wage along with a strong body enforcing health and safety legislation would eradicate any reason to discriminate individuals on the basis of the caste, and therefore empower all citizens.

Many western countries give foreign aid to India despite it being the tenth richest country in the world, which begs question whether the rich and middle class should be taxed more heavily. Doing this will provide the government with sufficient revenue to implement more projects like the one mentioned previously, which focus on improving education and allow the nation to prosper in terms of social equality.

The United Kingdom have stopped providing aid to India, arguing that the country invests heavily on space research, which raises the debate on whether domestic inequality is even at the forefront of the government’s agenda. Although Modi is attempting to improve rural areas, it would be much more efficient if the opportunity cost of astronomical development was taken into consideration, at least in the short term in order to invest this money into dealing with the social problems which are currently existent.

It is important to recognise that the caste system was not intended to cause any harm, nor were the effects of it that we are facing today anticipated. Although the precise origins of it are unknown, the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ defines the rights and duties of the various castes, implying that the caste system was simply used as a way to encourage citizens to act selflessly by stating their duties within the community. Previously, this was well respected as it allowed communities to thrive as individuals were loyal to their responsibilities. However, overtime, this has evolved into what we define as the caste system in the modern day.

There is an evident distinction between this and the western notions of a ‘class’ system where social mobility is allowed since your status is based upon your occupation – rather than vice versa, as is the case in India. In a society where individuals have varied skills, interests and expertise, India should focus on encouraging people to act on these as this is what drives innovation which contributes to economic prosperity, which will help in tackling caste-based poverty.

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