The caste system in India is the oldest surviving social hierarchy. India is as much a caste-based country as it is an agriculture-based country. The whole societal structure is based on castes and class – dating back to the four varnas system, i.e. the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (soldiers), the Vaisyas (traders) and the Shudras (labourers). A fifth category that falls outside the varna system is that of the untouchables or the Dalits. The varna system in the present has further been divided into thousands of castes of which the Dalits are the most oppressed and marginalized. The caste system has not developed because of the division of labour but the division of labourer. The occupations have been divided based on castes, and today they have been monopolized. Let’s say, if a lower caste person wants to start a tea stall, she/he will face much larger difficulties in comparison to a high caste person. In various places at tea stalls, we see, there are two different sets of glasses for the lower and higher caste people. In villages around Jhansi, even today lower caste people have to take off their shoes when they pass off the houses of higher caste people.
We discussed the caste system in India with Sarwan Ram Darapuri (78 years) who comes from Jalandhar district of Punjab and is a 1972 batch IPS officer of Uttar Pradesh Cadre. Post his retirement in 2003; he worked actively on the issues related to human rights, Dalit rights, RTI, Forest Rights Act etc. He is currently the state president of Mazdoor Kisan Manch, founder member of Dr Ambedkar Mahasabha and the national spokesperson of All India Peoples Front.
Mr Darapuri cited various instances that highlight the oppression and discrimination faced by the Dalits and lower caste people. During his posting as an IPS officer in Gorakhpur, he experienced this problem for the first time as he mentions that during his visit some people were sitting on the ground and some were sitting on the benches. He was told that those sitting on the ground are from lower castes. This is an irony; as the institutions that are supposed to bring an end to the problem are themselves practising it.
Post his retirement; he came across a case from Hardoi district in Uttar Pradesh related to land ownership. During the 1970s a Dalit family was given land, but they were not allowed to occupy or cultivate on this land because of the exploitations from local people. He intervened and sat on dharnas with the victim family, and after 34 years of oppression, they got their rightful land. Another issue was of a village where the newly elected Gram Pradhan was from the Dalit community, but he could not take his office. He could not work as per his duties as the previous Pradhan who was a non-Dalit didn’t hand over the registers and overall charge to him. Mr Darapuri and other activists intervened and fought for the rights of the Dalit Pradhan.
In 2018, he came across a typical case of casteism in Lucknow. Based on an order issued by the Supreme Court, the state governments had to ensure that people from socially backward castes are hired to cook mid-day meals in schools for children to eradicate caste-based discrimination. In a school, 70 out of the 76 enrolled students refused to eat the meal as a Dalit woman prepared it. The parents of the children also protested against the lower caste woman for cooking food for their children. Mr Darapuri demanded a probe in this incident and fought against the exploitation faced by the Dalit woman.
Based on his experience, he mentions that a very small effort is required to bring a change and the society should come forward to resolve the issues related to caste-based discrimination or any other form of discrimination based on gender, colour, creed, sexual orientation etc. For long, we have seen that education is being vouched as the way to eradicate this issue. But it needs to be augmented with experiences related to social transformation as the society cannot be changed without bringing up social equality.
In India, Dalit politics and the Dalit movements have long been limited to saving reservations in government jobs and the victory of Dalit leaders has been considered the success of Dalit politics. It is no misnomer to say that even if a Dalit becomes a Prime Minister, the Dalits cannot be uplifted easily. The benefits will be passed on only to the Dalit leaders who will get political power and the Dalit labourers, and landless farmers will continue to face the oppression and never-ending poverty. Therefore, Dalit politics and activists must be transformed so that they work in the direction of safeguarding the rights of the lower caste people.
Siddharth Modi is a Management Student at IIM Ahmedabad