The Caste System Today: Is It Still Practiced as Much?

There are 67 million Dalits in India, and more than 250 million around the world. In order to escape from the clutches of the caste system, some of them have converted to Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Islam, and Christianity. Dalits account for 17 percent of the total population of India, of which 81 percent live in villages.

In some places, the caste has lost some force. Intercaste marriages are on the rise, especially in the urban areas. However, the caste system is still practiced with a vengeance in rural areas.

Dalits and Democracy

Democracy has been the hallmark of independent India for the last six decades, since independence in July 1947. Democracy is supposed to guarantee its citizens justice, liberty, and equality; however, the benevolent ideas that were meant to bridge the gap between the Dalits and the other castes have, in some instances, worked in reverse.

First of all, the political process of elections works to perpetuate the caste system rather than wipe it out. Candidates who run for elective offices invariably select a constituency where their caste is the majority. Caste solidarity comes to the forefront; it is necessary for the political survival of both the candidate and the constituents.

Secondly, the government has introduced some affirmative action programs to amend the wrongs done to the Dalits over the centuries. These programs are supposed to eradicate the root causes of economic, educational, and social disadvantages. Instead, these programs sometimes serve to perpetuate the system. In order to get the quota of services, a person has to prove that she is a Dalit, and thereafter she is identified as part of the lowest of all classes.

A Different View of Caste: Past and Present

Let us consider the history of the caste system from a pragmatic view, as opposed to traditional explanation.

The people of the lowest caste were called Dravidians by the Aryan conquerors. In fact, they were known as Adi Dravidian, emphasizing the fact that they were the original indigenous people of India.

The Vedic Brahmins called the Dravidians Untouchables and expelled them from their locales, saying they were polluters and unclean people. Dravidians did not accept the social hierarchical system devised by the Brahmins; they were the defeated people and yet were too proud to submit. The Brahmins expelled them, and the Dravidians in turn expelled the Brahmins.

There was a custom among the Dalits that if a Brahmin set foot in their area, the women would break up the cow-dung pots, or degrade him on sight to cleanse the area because the Brahmin's presence polluted their space. In other words, segregation and the concept of Untouchables were practiced by both sides — victors and vanquished.

The Dravidians were a proud people and rejected the names others tried to force on them, even Gandhi's name for them, Harijans (“children of God”). The Dravidians considered this a degrading and condescending name, and declared they wanted to be identified as Dalit, oppressed or broken people.

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