India’s foray into a democratic system of governance and its commitment to social justice might make one question whether or not the caste system really exists today. However, social and political scientist Rajni Kothari has stated that the existence of the caste system is unquestionable. The question, hence, should be what form the caste system has taken in the recent years and not whether it exists at all. Killing and maiming each other in the name of religion has been glaringly visible, but the question of contemporary caste based discrimination has been largely unseen by the public eye. The suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Dalit PhD student in the Hyderabad Central University, shows how the ancient system still exists with similar intensity, perhaps more so because of the legitimacy accorded by educational and other public institutions. The caste system has evolved and continues to thrive in even well meaning people’s minds.
Proponents of caste based hierarchy have evolved from something on the lines of “Don’t eat from your friend’s tiffin, “God knows what jati they belong to” to “People of our caste group are known for their intelligence”; from prejudice against other castes to pride belonging to a certain community. If people do not follow untouchability and dine with everyone, they believe they are free from all prejudice. But in all probability, they would still identify themselves as belonging to a certain community and be proud of it. The Indian constitution, while deeming untouchability or any other caste based prejudice illegal, is silent about caste based associations. Social movements by the underprivileged classes in the 1970s and 80s resulted in the creation of the Other Backward Classes (OBC) reservation and the formation of caste based associations. The resulting diversification of the social backgrounds of people in various organizations has led to an ideological backlash by some members of dominant communities, who have since then renewed their efforts to isolate and discriminate against all kinds of cultural minorities. The institutional structures created by both the dominant and discriminated communities are what marks the present era from the past.
Another significant case in point is the phenomenon of arranged marriage. Around 5% of marriages that happen in India are inter-caste; the rest perpetuate their own caste systems and the norms unique to them. One look at matrimonial columns would confirm my statement. People mostly seek grooms or brides from their own caste. In some cases, they would mention ‘caste no bar’ but would still add ‘SC/ST please excuse’. Recently, the mother of a Mumbai-based gay rights activist had put an ad saying ‘groom wanted’ for her son. In spite of having crossed a significant ideological barrier, the ad did not fail to mention that she would prefer an ‘Iyer’ (a sub caste of Tamil Brahmins) groom. [The Hindu, 30th May 2015]
Some people have protested against Brahmin domination, equating the caste system to something in the lines of white vs. black racist debate- a powerful Brahmin versus the oppressed rest. One of the famous proponents of this view was EVR Periyar. Dipankar Gupta has written that there is no objective hierarchy of which caste is to be placed where in the caste system. Here, one must remember that the fourfold varna is different from caste. Also, he states that caste is not to be confused with race, citing the following example: ‘While blacks were despised, they were not considered polluting. Imagine the horror that would be aroused in the home of a traditional privileged caste in India at the very suggestion of an untouchable cook in the kitchen. Thus, while racism at its height might consider blacks to be despicable, it did not regard them as polluting.’ [Dipankar Gupta; Caste, Race and politics] He also critiques the unilinear narrative of Brahmin vs. Non Brahmin by pointing out that various regions of India have had dominating and oppressed castes, for example- jats are against gujars- together they are against urban castes; kolis are against patidars; thevars oppress pallars or the devendrakula vellalas; the vanniyars torment adi dravidas.
It is imperative that we recognize the newer, hidden forms of caste based structural violence to understand how, or if at all, we are progressing as a society.
– Sambhavi Ganesh, Second Year.