As I return to India for the second time, I’ve been able to gain a better understanding of the intricacies and contradictions of this captivating country.
Last year one of our greatest takeaways from our time in India was that everything that is true in India is also untrue. And with 1.25 billion people, hundreds of languages and dialects, multiple religions and thousands of years of history, it’s not hard to see why this is the case.
One of the fundamental parts of Indian Society for thousands of years has been the caste system. The caste system is a five level pyramidal hierarchy originating with roots in the Hindu culture.
It has survived all the changes in political systems, perhaps because although the rulers of India change (most recently the British, and before them the Moguls) the village system in remote areas has stayed virtually the same for thousands of years.
1. The top caste is the Brahmans-priests
3. Vysya- traders
5. Dalits/ Scheduled Caste- everyone without a caste who is not integrated into the system, it includes tribal groups
The Caste system is illegal constitutionally in India. You can be sent to jail for discrimination against someone because of the caste system. There are multiple government programs to promote inclusion of all castes in the work force and government. A 5-day temple festival was canceled completely today in the newspaper because the Dalit caste and the Brahma caste couldn’t compromise in sharing the temple.
But everything that is true in India is also untrue. The caste system is still very prominent in many places in India. In the cities, caste is typically brought up in terms of marriage, however in rural areas the caste system plays a huge part in everyday life. Since we have been visiting rural villages, we’ve been able to observe the present-day reality of the caste system in that region.
Sometimes when we are asking questions in the villages what is left in said is just as important, if not more, than what they are saying.
Body language, spacial distribution, and who answers the questions shows very clearly the underlying heirarchies that have existed for hundreds of years. The best example can be seen from this picture taken during our field visit to a tribal village on the outskirts of a tiger reserve.
When we entered the community we sat in a large circle on rope beds brought out from the houses. The women and children sat on the ground across from us, a little outside of the circle. The men sat in chairs, but two men sat in front and answered all our questions. These men were not originally from the Gond tribe like the rest of the men. They were from a higher caste and took it upon themselves to answer for everyone. The men and women from the tribe sat and watched, but didn’t object to the questions being answered for them.
Our guides were from the Brahman caste, and were very reluctant to visit the outcast village with us. Normally people from a higher caste don’t go into a lower caste home, so we had to push our guides very hard to allow us to visit inside the homes. They also took it upon themselves to answer the questions we asked instead of translating to ask the tribal people we were interviewing. The caste system is in the minds of the people.
The caste Hindu society has traditionally given menial jobs to the outcasts from the society (the Dalits or schedules) and an ingrained “check system” enforces the ideas in society. When we spoke to one of the tribal girls to ask what she wanted to be, she said a police officer in the city. Our Brahma guide told her that she should stay a farmer in her village, that the village was her place and it would be better for her to stay. A very real example of the social challenges to the Dalit class integration even with their aspirations to come into higher society.
Especially in rural areas isolation leads to insecurity and acceptance of the caste system institution.
The differences between laws and practice, between the past and present, between north and south and between rural and urban are important to understand if we want to accurately form an understanding of the people we are meeting and the potential for creating economic opportunities to help reduce poverty levels
****Madhya Pradesh state is perhaps the state with the most existence of the caste system in India. It is located in the very heart of India, and we reached the rural city of Khajuraho only by a full-night train.