Praful Bidwai
Sunday, December 14, 2014


It’s fashionable in some circles to claim that discrimination based on caste has been decreasing in India, as it’s bound to, thanks to modernisation, urbanisation and industrialisation. Caste itself is changing in character from a hierarchical system based on birth and ritual purity, to a political phenomenon. As India evolves into a ‘merit-based’ society, the argument goes, it will have no place for untouchability vis-à-vis Dalits (Scheduled Castes) in it.This argument is bogus. India has failed to industrialise significantly. The modernisation process is slow, uneven and combines many pre-modern social-cultural elements, including caste, and sometimes reinforces caste-based discrimination. And India isn’t remotely a ‘merit-based’ society.

Now, even the myth of the impending end of untouchability stands shattered by the 2011-12 India Human Development Survey (IHDS-2 of the National Council for Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland, US. The largest survey of its kind, IHDS-2 covers 42,000 households, representative of classes, social groups and regions.

It reveals that untouchability thrives – six-and-a-half decades after India’s Constitution abolished it. The survey asked: “Does anyone in your family practise untouchability?” If the answer was no, the respondent was asked: “Would it be okay for a Scheduled Caste person to enter your kitchen or use your utensils?”

Twenty-seven percent of all households said no. The survey didn’t cross-check the answer with actual incidence, which might be even higher. Yet, the voluntary admission rate is itself worryingly high. An even larger percentage of Brahmins (52) admitted to practising untouchability. And 24 percent of other ‘forward’ castes did.

Less expectedly, 33 percent of Other Backward Classes, lower in ritual hierarchy than these groups, practise untouchability. Even more ‘polluting’ Dalits and Adivasis practise it: respectively 15 and 22 percent. This speaks to casteism’s pervasiveness and its internalisation by its own victims.

That caste is deeply embedded in Indian society is borne out by the fact that untouchability incidence is 20 percent even in urban India, and 30 percent in villages. Not just 30 percent of all Hindus, but respectively 35, 23 and 18 percent of Jains, Sikhs and Muslims also admit to practising untouchability. Only Buddhists, tribals and Christians show a low incidence of it.

The difference between the poorest and richest households confessing to practising untouchability is a mere two percentage points in villages and one percentage point in urban areas.

Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Himachal, and Uttarakhand have a 40 percent-plus incidence of untouchability, which speaks to the absence of a strong social reform movement in the past and continuing social backwardness. The Hindi belt is India’s cultural backwater and a huge reservoir of social conservatism and reaction.

The southern states, especially Kerala, perform far better according to the survey, whose region-wise results haven’t been fully analysed. But the reported figures for Maharashtra (four percent) and West Bengal (one percent) don’t fit the observed pattern of caste discrimination or atrocities.

In Maharashtra, 262 cases were registered annually in 1995-2011 under the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 (POA). The number spurted to 304 in 2012. Maharashtra, where Dr Ambedkar pioneered the Dalit movement, has undergone enormous social retrogression and recently witnessed three major Dalit massacres.

Education does make some difference: 69 percent of Brahmin households with education limited to Class IV indulge in untouchability, but ‘only’ 45 percent of households with a graduate do. But even this is twice the average national incidence of untouchability. So much for ‘education’!

Untouchability is casteism’s most obnoxious and ritually (and scripturally) sanctioned aspect, which regards Dalits and other low castes as too ‘polluted’ to be allowed into the upper-caste kitchen. It is accompanied by other humiliating practices such as assigning separate plates and cups to low-caste people, or getting them to wash the upper-castes’ dishes.

Equally distastefully, young Indians lack the freedom to choose their life partners across caste barriers. Thus only five percent of marriages in India are inter-caste, according to IHDS-2. This speaks to an ugly social pathology based on despotic control of people’s private lives.

Notions of ritual purity and pollution based on birth are deeply ingrained in family practices and customs and unquestioningly carried over to society. A recent Human Rights Watch study shows how Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim children face discrimination in primary schools and are given a “stigmatised identity”.

They are asked to sit separately in class, forced to bring their own utensils for mid-day meals so they don’t ‘pollute’ others’ plates, made to clean toilets, and punished harshly. Thus, differences in skills and performance are artificially created through segregation among children who are identically endowed. These later translate into underperformance, lower incomes and poorer life-chances. Discriminatory practices are carried over even to medical colleges and other elite institutions which often segregate students according to caste. A survey of Indian Institute of Technology-Mumbai students, which doesn’t segregate them, says that 56 percent of SC-ST and OBC students nevertheless experience discrimination.

The larger society too deprives Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs and Muslims of fair access to healthcare, drinking water and nutrition, and municipal facilities like sewerage and garbage clearance. These persistent and multiple forms of discrimination rob these groups of the ability to develop their basic human potential.

Casteism is thus not unjust and unethical in itself. It’s incompatible with human dignity, elementary civil and political rights, and causes cruel destruction of precious human capabilities. It also leads to periodic violence calculated to punish low-caste people who assert their rights.

Indian state and society have failed to combat casteism and empower Dalits through special-component ‘plans’, and to protect them through the POA and other instruments. The POA conviction rate is less than four percent.

Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis are further victimised by India’s skewed justice delivery system. According to a new study by the National Law University and National Legal Services Authority, of 477 prisoners who face the death penalty, these groups account for 75 percent. By contrast, of the more than 1,500 people hanged in Independent India, only three were reportedly Brahmins.

India’s state and society have become complicit in the violation of the Constitutional mandate to abolish untouchability, and failed to redress the injustices casteism entails. This calls for comprehensive and imaginative remedies, including a thorough reform of the education system, such as revision of school syllabi, teaching practices, and non-segregation of children.

It’s not enough that school textbooks highlight Ambedkar’s role as a great leader of oppressed people and a principal drafter of the constitution. They must also educate children on the inhuman nature of the caste system and the persistence of Dalit oppression today. Caste-based segregation in schools must be punished by amending the POA.

Perhaps the most effective way of combating casteism would be to restrict the appointment of cooks for the Mid-Day Meal programme in schools to Dalits alone. Upper-caste parents who wish to prevent their children from eating such meals would have to pull them out of school.

Similarly, all restaurants and food stalls must announce through well-displayed notices that they follow a policy of non-discrimination on the basis of caste towards their employees and customers – as a precondition for getting a licence. Fighting the entrenched caste system won’t be easy. But that’s no reason to give up.

The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi.