Many Hindus find the idea of caste and caste discrimination abhorrent and regard those who look down on the lower classes as bigots and extremists. As is the case with Islam and militant jihadism, for every Hindu scripture that supports the caste system discrimination you can find one that refutes it. One scripture from the “Bhagavad Gita” reads: “The best person is one who feels the joy and suffering of others as his own because he sees the same soul in all...in a Brahmin and in an eater-of-dogs.”

Studies of conflict in South Asian villages have shown that struggles and violence occur not only between different castes but also between factions within castes and between groups, each with members of various caste groups. Competition for land is a common source of conflict as well as rivalry between landowners for power in local, regional and state affairs The outcome of local council area and district elections are often influenced by factional conflict.

With the help of quotas and affirmative action, many Dalits now count themselves among India’s middle class and own televisions, cars and homes. Edward Gargan of the New York Times wrote: "Perhaps the strongest force that may be weakening caste is the economy...India has quickened its efforts to dismantle the socialist edifice of state planning and control, opening the economy to larger amounts of foreign investments, which has led to glimmers of sustained economic growth and new jobs...The process of economic liberalization cuts both ways. It makes it easier for upper castes to make use of privileges they have to advance themselves even further. But there is some evidence that the growing cracks in the economic bureaucratic structure are making it easier for some lower caste to improver their lot.” [Source: Edward Gargan, New York Times, February 7, 1994]

Efforts to Change Caste System

Throughout history, efforts have been to get rid of the caste system, or at least mitigate some its harsh and discriminatory elements. Buddhism and Jainsim won converts by outlawing caste distinctions, abolishing hereditary priesthoods, making poverty a precondition of spirituality and advocating the communion with the spiritual essence of the universe through contemplation and meditation.

Mahatma Gandhi tried to liberalize the caste system and he renamed the Untouchables "the children of God." Gandhi campaigned for rights for untouchables and lower castes and, to a lesser degree, for women. He opposed the caste system, child marriages and dowry payments. Gandhi was loved by peasant farmers, untouchables and the urban poor. He worked as hard to reform India's class system and caste system and unify Muslims and Hindus as he did to overcome British rule, however he did not advocate abolition of the caste system. In his land reform program he urged landlords to donate ones sixth of their land to the poor.

The caste system in India has begun to break down somewhat as a result of government-initiated quotas for lower castes and minorities, political power in the voting booth and economic liberalization. "Power was gradually slipping through the hands of the dominant castes for several decades," one social scientist told Time. "It has already slipped down to the lower castes and it is now reaching the Dalits."

Discrimination against Dalits and lower castes found its way on to agenda at a United Nations conference on racism. The Indian government has fought international efforts to reform the caste system on the grounds that the caste system is an internal matter and outside interference is not welcome. . One Dalit man told National Geographic, “The government refused to address problems like this business about the well because say the caste system does not exist. Well, look around you. People treat animals better than us,

One Indian sociologist told the Financial Times, "Change can not be achieved overnight. It will take a few generations. It should start in social areas. The government can abolish it by trying to encourage and give preference in housing and scholarship to people of mixed castes. The process has to be systematic and coherent." Many higher castes resent the privileges and power being achieved by the lower castes. In 1981, mobs rioted for 78 days in Gujarat state when a high-caste student was denied entry to a medical school to make a space for a Dalit.

Indian Constitution and Reforming the Caste System

The Indian constitution prohibits discrimination by caste and a number of laws have been passed outlawing discrimination on the basis of caste, but the system is so ingrained into society that it is difficult change of an societal level. Educated in the West, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru tried to amend the constitution to make India "a casteless society with equal opportunity for all.”

The Fundamental Rights embodied in the constitution are guaranteed to all citizens. These civil liberties take precedence over any other law of the land. They include individual rights common to most liberal democracies, such as equality before the law, freedom of speech and expression. In addition, the Fundamental Rights are aimed at overturning the inequities of past social practices. They abolish "untouchability"; prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth; and forbid traffic in human beings and forced labor. They go beyond conventional civil liberties in protecting cultural and educational rights of minorities by ensuring that minorities may preserve their distinctive languages and establish and administer their own education institutions. Originally, the right to property was also included in the Fundamental Rights; however, the Forty-fourth Amendment, passed in 1978, revised the status of property rights by stating that "No person shall be deprived of his property save by authority of law." [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Directive Principles of the India constitution promote the educational and economic interests of Scheduled Castes (Dalits and lower castes), Scheduled Tribes (Indian tribal minorities), and other disadvantaged sectors of society. The Directive Principles also charge the state with the responsibility for providing free and compulsory education for children up to age fourteen. In addition to stressing the right of individuals as citizens, Part XVI of the constitution endeavors to promote social justice by elaborating a series of affirmative-action measures for disadvantaged groups. These "Special Provisions Relating to Certain Classes" include the reservation of seats in the Lok Sabha (House of the People) and in state legislative bodies for members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The number of seats set aside for them is proportional to their share of the national and respective state populations. *

Part XVI also reserves some government appointments for these disadvantaged groups insofar as they do not interfere with administrative efficiency. The section stipulates that a special officer for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes be appointed by the president to "investigate all matters relating to the safeguards provided" for them, as well as periodic commissions to investigate the conditions of the Backward Classes. The president, in consultation with state governors, designates those groups that meet the criteria of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Similar protections exist for the small Anglo-Indian community. *

The framers of the constitution provided that the special provisions would cease twenty years after the promulgation of the constitution, anticipating that the progress of the disadvantaged groups during that time would have removed significant disparities between them and other groups in society. However, in 1969 the Twenty-third Amendment extended the affirmative-action measures until 1980. The Forty-fifth Amendment of 1980 extended them again until 1990, and in 1989 the Sixty-second Amendment extended the provisions until 2000. The Seventy-seventh Amendment of 1995 further strengthened the states' authority to reserve government-service positions for Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe members. *

Caste Quotas and Affirmative Action in India

India is regarded as the first country to use affirmative action. The 1950 constitution established quotas to help "scheduled tribes," "scheduled castes," and "backward castes”. In 1990, the Indian government expanded the affirmative action system. It set aside a high number of government jobs for 3,743 lower castes, or “Other Backward Classes” and positions in government schools for "Scheduled Tribes", "Scheduled Castes," and "Backward Castes”. The legislation was initiated by a short-lived government lead by the left-leaning National Front. In 1992, a Supreme Court decision greatly upheld the 1990s legislation and expanded the scope of affirmative action to include an additional 676 “social and educationally” disadvantaged cases.

A large portion of all government jobs, education slots and seats in village council and legislatures are reserved for members of lower castes. There is a Dalit Welfare Department. One third of all purchases and contracts are set aside for Dalit-owned businesses. In 2002, 4 million of the 20 million jobs in government-controlled institutions were held by Dalits and members of indigenous tribes. In the mid 2000s, the policy was extended to all departments.

The caste quota system has all been seriously abused. The Yadav caste, for example, took control of the state government in Uttar Pradesh and set aside a third of all state jobs for Yadavs even though they make up only 3 percent of the population. There is b real test for eligibility. In some cases individual that are well off qualify fore benefits because their group qualified. The daughter of rich Dalit may be awarded a spot in medical college over a better qualified poor Brahmin.

Quotas and affirmative action have divided India just as they have the United States. The rise of the Hindu nationalist BJP party has been closely linked with discontent over the quota issue. Members of upper classes claim reverse discrimination. Affirmative action legislation and court rulings have resulted in massive demonstrations by middle-class college students who felt their positions and future careers have been threatened. Some groups have agreed to be labeled as “Backward Classes” so they too can benefit from the quota system. Quotas and special programs have suffered as part of efforts to shrink the size of the socialist government.

Caste Politics in India

Caste is a very powerful force in democratic politics in India. When castes can be organized to vote as a block they can significantly affect the outcomes of elections. At a local level this can lead to monopoly of power for one caste where that caste is dominate. But no caste is large enough to wield the same kind of power on state or national level.

Caste parties can form some rather unusual alliances. It is not unusual for a Brahmin party to join forces with a Dalit party it has denounced to keep a Sudra party from gaining more power. Some alliances have been compared to Americans and Russians joining forces to fight the Germans.

In urban areas different castes often live together in the same villages and neighborhoods and belong to the same caste associations and work together for the same civic, religious and political purposes. The different castes sometimes join together to petition the government for certain benefits and do other things together to improve the welfare of their village or neighborhood group.

The BJP is committed to maintaining the caste system status quo and preserve the privileges of the upper classes. Lower castes have traditionally supported the Congress Party of Gandhi and Nehru but these days Lower castes parties generally lash out at both the Congress Party and the BJP. In the past, upper classes worked complex strategies to bring castes together to support certain candidates.

Lower Caste and Dalit Political Representation and Power

The 1950 constitution mandated a quota system that reserved seats in the national legislature in accordance with the total percentage of Dalits in the general population (around 15 percent). In these matters Dalits are referred to as the Scheduled Castes. In the mid-1990s, the constitution was amended so that elections for “panchyats” ("village councils") reserved a third of their seats for women and set quotas for lower castes. Seats are also reserved for lower castes in state legislatures.

According to the policy of “protective discrimination” elected positions are reserved for Schedule Caste candidates based on their population in the state and the nation. The multitudes of poor and lower caste members have made their wishes known through the ballot box. With the decline of the Congress Party, votes have increasingly been cast along caste lines, which has given a lot of power to the large lower castes and taken power away from Brahmins, who are relatively small in number compared to other castes.

In poor provinces such as Bihar, political parties are often divided along caste lines. In elections in Uttar Pradesh, where Muslims are more numerous, the caste parties have united with disaffected Muslims to elect their own state leader. In Uttar Pradesh, voting has been so divided along caste lines that no party can win a majority and parties have been forced into unique power-sharing arrangements. The upper-caste-supported BJP party and the lower-caste-supported BSP party have shared power, which each leading for six months out of the year.

In the 1990s, large numbers of poor and illiterate Indians and members of low castes, as well as women, have become increasingly active in politics. According to studies, poor people are more likely to vote than rich people. Many have joined local or caste-based parties. Politicians in some parts of India have promised to combat the caste system by offering quotas in schools to Muslims and members of lower castes. The move has more to do with an effort to win votes than to make social improvements.

In the past Dalits were forced to vote for candidates supported by their landlords or masters or they were showed away from the polling stations. Now Dalits have founded their own parties and politicians from India's broad-based parties have to make concessions and promises to win Dalit votes.

The number of Dalits who said they were members of political parties rose from 13 percent in 1971 to 19 percent in 1996 while the percentage among members of upper castes declined from 36 percent to 28 percent. Mayawait, a Dalit woman elected as Chief Minister in populous Uttar Pradesh state, told Time in the 1990s: "Earlier, I had thought it would take longer, but change now is so rapid that in a few years we will have a Dalit Prime Minister in New Delhi."

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the Great Dalit Statesman

India's most famous Dalit is Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (1891-1956) , the Law Minister and chairman of the drafting committee that drew up India's constitution after independence in 1947. He authored the article in the constitution that read, "Untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The enforcement of any disability arising out of untouchability shall be an offense according to law."

In one of his most famous speeches, Ambedkar declared, "Nothing can emancipate the outcast except the destruction of the caste system. Nothing can help the Hindus and ensure their survival in the coming struggle to except the purging of the Hindu faith of this odious and viscous dogma." In another famous speech he blasted Hinduism. “The religion which allows one to touch a foul animal but not a man is not a religion but madness....That religion which says one class may not gain knowledge, may not acquire wealth, may not take up arms, is not a religion but a mockery of man’s life....The religion which teaches that the unlearned should remain unlearned, that the poor should remain poor, is not a religion but a punishment.

A short, bespeckled man, Ambedkar was born into a poor low Mahar (dalit) caste family in what is now Madhya Pradesh state. Brought up in an impoverished village, he was able to attend school but was required to sit apart from higher caste students. When he was older he studied abroad with the a scholarship from the Maharajah of Baroda. He eventually received several degrees, including ones from Columbia University and the London School of Economics. He served as a financial adviser to the Maharajah that patronized him. While working for him he had to endure servants throwing documents on his desk rather than handing them to him because they were worried about contamination.

Ambedkar made a name for himself as fiery and brilliant lawyer and politician. He was a leader in Dalit emancipation movements and once burned a copy of the “Laws of Manu” at a rally and called for outright abolition the caste system. At times he worked with Gandhi. Other times the two men battled each other on positions such as the place of Hinduism in a secular society. Gandhi ultimately kept Ambedkar from making radical changes.

Ambedkar worked with Gandhi and Nehru to forge the independent state of India. He escaped his low caste status by converting to Buddhism. Regarded as the founder of the Neo-Buddhist movement, he viewed Buddhism as a way for Dalits to escape Hinduism and the caste system, arguing it was a better way to achieve an egalitarian society than Communism. Ambedkar died in 1956 after forming the Republican Party of India. Many Dalits keep his picture in their homes today. He has been apotheosized as a Bodhisattva. His birthday is major festival in some places.

Other Successful Dalits

In 1996, a Kerala-born Dalit named Kocheril Raman Narayanan became India's first Dalit president (a largely ceremonial position). The forth of seven children born to an herbal healer, he overcame discrimination in school, where he sometimes had to stand on a bench in front of the entire class. He rose to became ambassador to the United States before entering politics.

Mayawati is a female Dalit and former school teacher elected as Chief Minister (governor) in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, with 180 million people. In term of the number of people she governed she for a time was the most powerful woman in the world. She is the head of the Majority Society Party. Hundreds of thousands of people show up at her rallies. Although she claims to be a champion of the poor she wear a $635,000 diamond necklace, commutes around in a helicopter and uses air conditioning even when she is outside. She made headlines when she called Mahatma Gandhi “the biggest enemy of the Dalits” and once urged her followers to beat members of upper castes with their shoes.

Other Dalit success stories include K. Ramaswamy, a former street urchin who rose to become a judge in India's Supreme Court; Ram Vilas Paswan, a member of the Janata Dal party who became a cabinet minister; and Narendra Jadhav, a bestselling author and head of a think tank that determined the direction of India's monetary and financial policy. Other lower caste members who found success in politics include a New Delhi parliamentarian from an illiterate cast of ratcatchers (See Ratcatchers under Dalits) and a defense minister who came from a backward class of milkmen who paid for his education with money earned from wrestling. Many Dalit politicians and activists have been women.

Bahujan Samaj Party and Dalit Political Parties

Dalits have been able to exert the power of their numbers in elections. No great unifying leader for the Dalits has emerged since Ambedkar but they do have their own political organizations. The Dalit political movement is largely fractured state by state. Often the greatest power is exerted by small grassroots movement scattered around India that take on Dalit challenges one village at a time. They are often involved in teaching skills and helping people to better their lives. “Barefoot lawyers” are helping victims of illegal discrimination. Important issues include bringing of roads, water pumps and electricity to villages with large numbers of Dalits.

The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) is a lower caste party founded by and for Dalits. Powerful in the populous state of Uttar Pradesh, at one time controlled the government there, it prospered for a while using a system of “vote banks,” in which things like water pumps, free electricity and free school books were brought to poor communities in return for votes.. The BSP’s symbol is a blue elephant. The Janata Dal is a lower caste party in Bihar. Martin Macwan and the Gujarat Navsaran Trust has been active in getting anti-discrimination laws enforced and drawing international attention to the Dalit issue.

The Samajwadi (Socialist) Party represents lower caste and Muslim voters in Uttar Pradesh. It has led a coalition there and has won voters with slogans like “electricity, power, water, plus health” and promises to abolish hospital bed and senior high school fees and raise teacher salaries and civil service pensions.

Dalit Activism and Violence

Some Dalits believe that politics has not brought about change fast enough and some have turned to violent activism. A 75-year-old Dalit laborer told Time, "If you keep pouring water into a rat hole, the rats will come out fighting.”

Violent Dalit activism is particularly common in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. Some Dalits have joined leftist organization like the Maoist Communist Center and the People's War Group that terrorize and slaughter members of the upper castes.

One of the first groups of militant Dalits was the Dalit Panthers, an organization formed in 1972, demanding social and economic equality of Dalits. Their name was inspired by the American Black Panthers of the 1960s. Initially led by educated Mahars and Neo-Buddhists, the group broke up into several splinter groups and these were most active in urban slums.

Some Dalits have armed themselves with homemade guns and explosives made with chemicals pilfered from match factories and mines. Others have gone on strike, refusing to do their lowly jobs. Upper castes have fought back by forming patrols and militias. In some areas the Dalit groups have been better armed and organized than their enemies and upper caste class members have been driven from their villages or forced to perform humiliating tasks such as walking around with sandals on their heads. In Bangalore, leatherworkers have formed a union to combat police harassment and the razing of Dalit work stalls. Dalit politicians have helped Dalits get more gun permits. One Dalit activist told the Washington Post, "Having a weapon, they can protect themselves, their land and their women. I believe conflict occurs between unequals. Balance of power neutralizes war."

Violence Against Dalits and Lowe Castes

Indian newspapers are filled with reports of violence and atrocities committed against lower castes. Some lower caste villagers say: The upper castes are like the elephant’s foot. If you come in their way, they will crush you." Many disputes over water, land and respect have quickly escalated into caste conflicts in which people have been butchered to death or burned alive.

Some upper caste Indians object to the quota system set up for Dalits and other lower caste members. Caste violations are supposed to be dealt with by “panchayati”, local councils set up for each caste but often caste members take the law into their own hands. Hindu nationalists led by Bal Thackery has attacked quotas that favor Dalits and the naming of a university after Ambedkar. Some lower caste members have joined Maoist groups fighting to take possession of land controlled by upper castes.

Dalits have been beaten, raped, burned, splattered with acid, lynched and murdered for being Dalits. Dalits have also been severely beaten for acting above their station for doing things like wearing a wrist watch or trousers instead of a traditional “dhoti”. Wives have been raped in front of their husbands for not keeping their place. Dalit women who challenge their landlords risk being beaten, sexually harassed or raped. In many parts of India if a Dalit man is caught sleeping with a higher caste woman, both are lynched.

Those committing violence against Dalits are generally not members of the highest classes such as Brahmins and Kshatriyas but rather are members of lower castes just a notch above the Dalits. They are often jealous and resentful of the success and material goods gained by Dalits and feel Dalits have been given too many advantages. One leader of an anti-Dalit militia told National Geographic, “people should live within the caste system...If provoked we will kill. For every one of us killed, we will kill ten Dalits.

Many crimes against Dalit are not reported. A 291-page Human Rights Watch report, published in 2000, called “Broken People: Caste Violence Against India's Dalits” described the caste system as a form of "hidden apartheid" and provided details on a number of horrible crimes committed against Dalits. It said Dalit have been lynched, raped and had their houses burned down for answering back to upper caste members. In Rajasthan one rebellious Dalit had the inside of his nose pierced and had string drawn though his nostrils so she could be led around and tied to a post like an oxen. In Tamul Nadu, a Dalit would who had the gall to wear shoes was paraded naked through her village.

Incidents of Violence Against Dalits

In one village, a Dalit man was hacked to death with a sword for the having the impertinence to walk over to the part of the village occupied by Thevars and watch the news on the village's only television. In retaliation, the Dalits in the village burned the houses of all the Thevars and slaughtered all their animals. A game of tag between Thevar and Dalit school children led to the beheading of Dalit and the revenge killing of 13 people. A dispute over a pack of cigarettes triggered a clash between Dalits and upper class Bhumihars that left 26 dead and dozens wounded.

In Bombay, a dozen people were killed in a riot that began when someone placed a garland of dirty sandals around a statute of the Dalit statesman Ambedkar. In Uttar Pradesh, two men were horribly disfigured by acid thrown on them by mob outraged that they would dare fish in a pond reserved for upper caste members. One man in Rajasthan lost both his legs after being beaten with steel rods by upper caste villagers for filing a complaint with police for not being paid wages that were owed him. . Another man had his tractor stolen, his house burned down and his wife and daughter beaten because he dared to buy land.

Violence against Dalits is rising particularly common in Bihar, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. In Bihar, landowners have formed militias to battle wage and land reforms. One militia, the Ranvir Sena, has been linked to the murder of more than 500 Dalits, many of them women and children burned to death in their homes. Their acts of violence have most gone unpunished. In some cases victims have to face their attackers who walk the streets freely.

In June 2003, Dalits clashed with rich Sikh farmers with swords and metal rods at the mausoleum for a locally-revered holy man. Police fired on rioters, killing one person. In 1986 thugs working for an upper class landlord in Gujarat killed four Dalits and wounded 18 because the Dalits object to the landlords taking Dalit land for a threshing operation. The landlords and their thugs were brought to trial for murder. Ten people were sentenced to life in prison.

Incidents of Violence Against Lower Castes

In one northern Indian village an upper-caste gang ripped the clothes off a 45-year-old low caste woman and paraded her naked through the streets of the village because her son slapped an upper-caste boy for stealing peas from her garden. A university in Varanasi was shut down after upper-caste students rampaged through poor neighbors, setting on fire houses after lower-caste men murdered three upper-caste men who were involved in a killing that allegedly was not properly investigated by police. [Source: Molly Moore, Washington Post]

In 1995, 113 people were killed in the city of Nagpur in Maharashtra state after a riot broke over a comma. The Gond-Gowari caste was excluded from a quota system because of a printing error that listed them as "Gond, Gowari" (technically eliminating them). During a demonstration involving 40,000 Gowaris, police panicked and went after the crowd with bamboo bludgeons, setting off a stampede that killed mostly women and children.

Recalling a stick up by members of the politically powerful Yadav caste, one housewife told U.S. News and World Report, "The police stopped our bus at gunpoint. They dragged me away by the hair, beat me savagely, stole my jewelry and tossed me in a sugar cane field. They were Yadavs, so they knew they would never be punished." In 1998 in Bihar, 34 lower caste people were killed in a single incident of caste violence in Bihar. The killings were believed to have been done by an upper class militia in retaliation for the murder of 12 upper caste farmers a few days before. This in turn was in retaliation for the murder of five low-caste Tadavs and 11 Dalits. According to local reports 15 men surrounded a village and shot at anything that moved, killing women and children. Men were forced to line up and then sprayed with bullets "below the belly." While they were shooting the killers reportedly shouted "long Live Ranvir Sena"—the name of one of the most well-known upper caste militias.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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