By Nikhil Basu and Sohan Gade
The caste struggle is an issue that Indian society has grappled with for centuries, well before the country’s independence. At the time of independence, two main schools of thought grounded conversations about the caste system. Gandhi championed the position that the caste system was not primarily a tool of oppression, qualifying that there were “limitations…” but had “nothing sinful” (Singh 432). On the other hand, Ambedkar supported the “total annihilation of the caste system”, advocating for Indians in lower-castes and vocalizing his distrust of the entire system (Singh 416). This debate has extended far past these leaders’ lifetimes and remains relevant to Indian society today.
To rectify the issues engendered by the caste system, the writers of India’s constitution attempted to sign equity measures into law. The constitution states that neither the “State” nor “citizen[s]” are allowed to discriminate… on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth” (Ambedkar 25). Beyond this blanket statement, the Constitution also acknowledged caste-based prejudice and attempted to push for progress by offering protections to lower caste groups or ‘scheduled castes’. It not only outlawed caste-motivated discrimination but also tried to foster caste equality through the “reservation of seats,” where “seats shall be reserved for Scheduled castes” (Ambedkar 30). The Constitution’s quota-style framework remains the most formal effort against caste-related inequities in India.
Thus far, the main type of policy measure used to improve caste equity have been quotas. In 1984, the Indian Supreme Court, “ordered a 27% quota [in government jobs] for the ‘Socially and Educationally Backward’,” indirectly referring to lower caste Indians (Raman 33). Although the lower castes gained better representation in some areas, inequities persisted in others. For example, the Supreme Court maintains only a “handful of Scheduled Caste members” (Raman 34). In addition to the judiciary, higher education also lacks lower-caste representation. Despite high-percentage quotas, “fifty-eight percent of faculty positions for SC/STs (Scheduled Castes/Scheduled Tribes) and OBCs (Other Backward Classes) are still vacant in central universities” (Maurya 29).
While the education quotas seem progressive, they fail to address several systemic issues. Success in college can heavily rely on external factors, and the quota policies have failed to incorporate factors such as mental health and adequate housing into their framework. Dalit students were often labeled as the “quota guy[s],” as they faced many degrading stereotypes (Maurya 17). Mental health also remained an issue in the Dalit student community making up over “90% of all reported student suicides” in India (Maurya 18). Finding adequate housing during university remains yet another challenge for lower-caste Indian students. A study reported that “18% of Dalits…were rejected” compared to “0% [for] upper-caste Hindus” (Maurya 31). The quotas only exacerbate the number of challenges Dalits face, including a lack of representation in teaching, mental health challenges, and housing opportunities.
Caste equity measures are often met with strong backlash. Sometimes, leaders can exploit the quotas to reserve an excessive number of spots for lower-caste individuals. One particular example was in 1994, “when Uttar Pradesh elected a member of a lower-caste as Chief Minister” (Raman 33). The election should have been a major development for Dalit rights and caste equity. However, many people were outraged as the Chief Minister “[disproportionately] filled the ranks of the state government with [members of a lower-caste],” resulting in “strikes and riots” (Raman 33). This is not an isolated case, across India, there have been bitter conflicts over caste. In fact, there were “several bloody inter-caste uprisings in Bihar” (Raman 33). Caste tensions paint the picture of a dormant volcano, ready to explode with backlash after any policy change. Poor leadership creates mistrust in the quota system, undermining the quotas’ aims. Although their outcomes vary, affirmative action policies remain at the center of caste conflict, attempting to remedy the divisions.
Although Affirmative Action policies have allowed low-caste Indians to achieve some social mobility, the caste system has reinvented itself for a modern age, stunting child development and perpetuating health and education inequalities. Today, caste inequalities persist in education access and achievement: men and women in Scheduled Castes are twice as likely to be illiterate as their upper-caste counterparts (Desphande). Additionally, far fewer Scheduled Caste Indians receive higher education, which is now a necessary stepping stone to an upper middle-class, white collar job. These sectors are blocked off to low-caste people who cannot afford or access university.
The pandemic has disproportionately hurt low-caste Indians. Although many believe that caste is no longer a relevant distinction, and that India is a “post-caste” society, empirical evidence shows that lower-caste peoples are more deprived, less well-educated, work in more precarious environments, and continue to suffer from widespread societal stigma. There is a pervasive myth that pandemics and natural disasters are “equalizing” events, affecting all humans equally across group divides and even resolving historical inequalities (Deshpande). However, since Dalits and low-caste Indians do not have the means to social distance or practice recommended health and safety measures, they have been disproportionately harmed by COVID.
Despite decades of affirmative action to uplift low-caste and indigenous Indians, 40% of Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SC and ST) do not have a private bathroom, and 70% do not have access to soap (Mondal). These proportions are significantly lower for the Other Backward Classes and Forward Castes. It is impossible for Dalits to protect themselves against COVID-19 transmission when so many families do not have access to the most basic hygiene items.
On top of this, Scheduled Castes and Tribes are over-represented in the poorest quintile of Indian society, forcing them into low-paying, manual labor. This work is often done in the informal sector, where job security is nonexistent and daily wages are volatile and unstable. India’s informal-sector workers include street vendors, waste pickers, and construction workers. In the first month of the lockdown, SC and ST Indians – who are more heavily represented in these types of work – lost jobs at more than twice the rate of their compatriots (Deshpande). For many Dalit and indigenous families, an already precarious economic situation was thrown into chaos by the pandemic and lockdown.
One solution to caste-based, pandemic-related inequality is to strengthen job security, health care, and welfare programs for informal sector employees. This would require unionization or professionalization of informal-sector laborers. Such a movement would draw on the collective bargaining power of millions of manual laborers all across India, in the same way that B.R. Ambedkar inspired millions of Dalits to fight for their dignity decades ago.
Since independence, Indian leaders have understood that caste discrimination must be actively stamped out for the country to progress. It has proven especially pernicious, surviving decades of affirmative action policies that gave Dalits access to schooling, work, and life essentials like sanitation. A more comprehensive understanding of where caste inequalities persist (such as higher education access and middle-class, secure private sector jobs) is necessary. This will allow the Indian government to target the specific realms in which low-caste families continue to face precarity and deprivation, especially in the face of a pandemic that has thrown millions of lives into chaos and uncertainty.
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