The Indian society is socio-politically stratified. Caste system has prevailed for ages and arranges the people into social strata or classes. Though this system is similar to the concept of racism that prevails in western countries where people are discriminated on the basis of their skin color, in India, people are socially differentiated on the basis of tribe, region, class, and religion. This means that when a child is born their status on the social hierarchy gets fixed on the basis of the caste he/she is born into. Caste system becomes an obstruction in the growth of the people and nation.
Meaning of Caste
Caste, which is also known as ‘Jati’ or ‘Varna,’ can be defined as the hereditary classes of Hindu society or the classification of individuals into hierarchically ranked classes that becomes the identity of an individual at the time of his/her birth. Going by the Hindu shastras, four hereditary castes exist in India, namely Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra.
The Brahmins are at the top of the caste hierarchy and comprise of scholars and priests. The next in line are Kshatriyas who are regarded to be soldiers and political leaders. These are followed by Vaishyas or merchants. The last in the hierarchy are Sudras who are usually servants, labourers, artisans or peasants. There are also the untouchables who are considered as outcaste and perform occupations like skinning dead animals and scavenging. The untouchables do not fall in the ranked castes.
The people of these classes derive their livelihood from specific occupations and the children born in their families follow the suit, acquiring the appropriate occupation as per their caste or jati, thus, maintaining the hierarchical ranking of occupations and hereditary occupational specialization.
Proper rituals, rules, and regulations govern the occupational pursuits and appropriate social behaviour of the people of these classes, including rules related to marriage as well.
Origin and History of Caste System in India
There are many theories relating to the origin of caste system in the country. While a few of these theories are historical, some are religious or biological. There is no universally accepted theory on caste system.
Going by the ancient Hindu book, the ‘Rig Veda,’ human body was created by ‘Purush’ by destroying himself. The different castes or varnas have been created from different parts of his body. It is said that the Brahmans were created from his head, Kshatriyas originated from his hands, Vaishias from his thighs and his feet created Sudras.
There is another theory pertaining to the origin of the caste system that states castes originated from the different body parts of ‘Brahma’, the Hindu deity referred to as the ‘Creator of the World.’ Going by this theory, inter-caste marriages, mixture of blood or contact of members of different races is regarded as a heinous crime.
Historically, it is believed that the caste system began in India around 1500 B.C during the arrival of Aryans in the country. It is believed that the Aryans, who possessed fair skin, came from northern Asia and southern Europe that contrasted with the indigenous natives of India. They started conquering regions all over north India and the locals were driven south towards jungles of mountains in northern part of the country at the same time. Aryans followed a specific social ordering called Varna Vyavastha which eventually resulted in four hierarchical divisions of the society.
Code of Conduct
Besides the stratification of people in different castes, these castes also followed some strict rules and regulations which were followed by the members of the caste religiously. Rules especially pertaining to religious worship, meals and marriage dominated their lives. However, the least amount of restrictions and regulations were implemented on Brahmins and Vaishyas. The most suffered ones were the Sudras as most of the society laws were applicable on them. Some of them were –
- Brahmins could give food to anyone if they wished but the person from a lower caste was not allowed to even go near the place where a Brahmin was eating.
- Sudras were not allowed to enter the temples or other places of worship whereas the other three classes had full rights to worship.
- Sudras were not allowed to take water from ponds or wells as their touch would pollute the water.
- Inter-caste marriages were forbidden. In many cases even marriages within one’s own sub-caste or jati was not allowed.
- Sudras were also pushed towards the outskirts of the city and were not allowed to live anywhere near the Brahmins, Kshtriyas and Vaishias.
Negative Effects of the Caste System On the Society
- It hinders the choice of occupation as per one’s preferences and individuals are forced to take up the occupation of the family. This resuls in debarring mobility of labour that hindered the growth if the nation.
- Higher classes look down upon the lower classes due to the rigidity of the caste system. This results in hindering the national unity. National interests are overlooked in the course of giving importance to caste interests.
- Cast system stands against the norms of democracy. It works towards suppressing the lower classes resulting in the exploitation of people belonging to the lower caste.
- National development and advancement gets hindered due to the deep rooted caste system.
- Caste system is also held responsible for some religious conversions. The dominance of Brahmins drove Sudras to take up Christianity, Islam and other religions as they were allured by the philosophy and ideology of these communities.
Reforms and Constitutional Provisions
The upper castes treated the lower castes as their slaves. The social stratification resulted in the exploitation of sudras and untouchables. The so-called upper castes held the leadership positions in society, religion, and economy of the nation.
However, a number of social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and various others gave their entire life working towards opposing evil practices and educating masses. Thus, when India broke the shackles of slavery and the Constitution was framed, the founding fathers of the constitution added provisions in order to reduce the ill-effects of prevailing caste system in the country.
The Preamble of the Indian Constitution ideates India as a country that practises political, economical and social justice; a nation where the dignity and equality of status of the citizens is secured.
Discrimination on the basis of caste has been declared illegal by the independent India’s constitution. In 1950, in an attempt to rectify historical injustices, the authorities introduced reservations or quotas in educational institutions and government jobs for the lower castes referred to as scheduled tribes and schedule castes.
The reservation was extended to a group of people who fall between the traditional upper castes and the lowest, referring to then as other backward classes (OBCs) in 1989.
Article 14 of the constitution guarantees equality before law.
Article 15 (1) of the constitution enjoins the State not to make any discrimination on the grounds of caste against any citizen. Article 15 (2) of the constitution mandates that no citizen shall be subjected to any disability and restriction on grounds of race or caste.
Article 17 abolishes the practice of untouchability in any form.
Article 15 (4) and (5) empowers the state to make provisions for reservation in educational institutions. Article 16 (4), 16 (4A), 16 (4B) and Article 335 empowers to State to make reservations in appointments for posts in favour of Schedule Castes.
Article 330 provides for reservation of seats in Lok Sabha for Schedule Castes. The same is applied under Article 332 in state assemblies and Article 243D and Article 340T in the local self-government bodies.
The purpose of these reservations were to improve the situation of the underprivileged classes as a temporary affirmative, but over the years, it has become a vote-grabbing exercise for politicians who woe caste groups for their electoral gains in the name of reservation.
Article 46 of the constitutions makes sure that they are protected from social injustice and exploitation of all forms.
Acts That Ban Caste System
In order to make sure that the mandates laid by the constitution are fulfilled, a number of other acts were also passed in order to put an end to the discriminatory and exploitive practices against the lower classes. Following are some of those acts that ensure social justice for all.
- The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Bill 2013.
- The Untouchability (Offenses) Act 1955. In 1976, it was renamed as Protection of Civil Rights Act.
- Prevention of Atrocities Act 1989.
The scenario within the country has undergone a lot of change with the progress in technology, education, social outlook, urbanisation, and modernization. With the spread of urbanization and rowing secular education, influence of caste has decreased. This has occurred especially in cities where inter-caste marriages and people of different castes living side-by-side in societies have become common.
However, despite the growing changes the caste identity still holds a lot of importance in the society. The last name of an individual strongly indicates the caste to which a person belongs. Caste-related violence has also been witnessed by the country after independence.
Only the political parties cannot be blamed for this, the prejudice lies in the minds of the citizens of the country. The country still struggles with the problem of the caste system. A lot of work needs to be done in order to uproot the evils of the caste system from the country. The laws and acts can only provide protection, but the change in perception and attitude has to be brought by the society.