Dr. M Faiyazuddin
The origins of the caste system in India and Nepal are shrouded, but it seems to have originated some two thousand years ago. Under this system, which is associated with Hinduism, people were categorized by their occupations. Although originally caste depended upon a person’s work, it soon became hereditary. Each person was born into a unalterable social status.
The four primary castes are: Brahmin, the priests; Kshatriya, warriors and nobility; Vaisya, farmers, traders and artisans; and Shudra, tenant farmers and servants. Some people were born outside of (and below) the caste system. They were called “untouchables.”
People who violated social norms could be punished by being made “untouchables.” This was not the lowest caste – they and their descendants were completely outside of the caste system. Untouchables were considered so impure that any contact with them by a caste member would contaminate the other person. The caste-person would have to bathe and wash his or her clothing immediately. Untouchables could not even eat in the same room as caste members. The untouchables did work that no-one else would do, like scavenging animal carcasses, leather-work, or killing rats and other pests. They could not be cremated when they died.
The term, caste was used by the British who ruled India until 1947. The British who wanted to rule India efficiently made lists of Indian communities. They used two terms to describe Indian communities. Castes and Tribes. The term caste was used for Jats and also for Varnas. Tribes were those communities who lived deep in jungles, forests and mountains far away from the main population and also communities who were hard to be defined as castes for example communities who made a living from stealing or robbery. These lists, which the British made, were used later on by the Indian governments to create lists of communities who were entitled for positive discrimination. The phenomenon of Caste has aroused more controversy than any other aspect of Indian life and thought. Some see India’s caste system as the defining feature of Indian culture and some have dismissed it as a colonial artefact. Since the days of the British rule, both historians and anthropologists referred to India as a ‘caste society’. Obviously this is an overstatement of the importance of caste. British rulers made purposely an ideological attack on Indian society. They developed a complex in the minds of Indian intellectuals about efficacy of caste system. British rulers portrayed caste-system as “discriminatory,” “iniquitous,” “exploitative,” “oppressive” “barbarous,” “uncivilized” and “highly stratified”. They held caste system responsible for evil social practices, feudalistic attitude, backward thinking, belief in dogmas and superstitions sustained by a unique set of rituals, and whimsical concept of purity and pollution. But for many leading personalities, caste was, and is, a real force in Indian life. The casteism that we find today is a materialistic body-based system of designation that has become a way of oppressing the lower social orders of people. It says that if you are born in a family of a certain classification, then you are of the same class, regardless of what else you may do. In casteism, birth is the determinative factor in deciding one’s social standing. It dictates that your social order, occupational potential and characteristics are the same as your parents, which is a label that may have been placed on a family hundreds of years ago.
Casteism says that if you are born of a brahmana family, then you are a brahmana, no matter whether you truly exhibit the genuine characteristics of a brahmana or not. And if you are also born in a kshatriya family, or a vaisya or shudra family, then that is what you must be. It is as if when born in a doctor’s family, the child is also considered a doctor. However, this requires the proper training and perception to see if the child will be a qualified doctor or not. Just being born in the family of a doctor does not mean that the children will also be doctors, although this may help. But they surely are not doctors merely by birth. Training and intelligence must be there.
Casteism today does not help society advance spiritually. In fact, it helps promote contempt and disapproval among the people of different classes and ethnic groups. For this reason, we still see today that when the Shudras and Dalits feel like they are disliked by fellow Hindus, they become Muslims or Christians or Buddhists in the attempt to find greater acceptance elsewhere and avoid class distinctions. The result of this has been social disharmony. Otherwise, there would have been no need for parts of India to be divided to create Bangla Desh and Pakistan, which have since become nothing more than mortal enemies of India. Have any lessons been learned? Apparently not. Ethnic intolerance is on the rise in many parts of India.
In ancient India there developed a social system in which people were divided into separate close communities. These communities are known in English as caste. The origin of the caste system is in Hinduism , but it affected the whole Indian society. The caste system in the religious form is basically a simple division of society in which there are four castes arranged in a hierarchy and below them the outcast. But socially the caste system was more complicated, with much more castes and sub-castes and other divisions. Legally the government disallows the practice of caste system but has a policy of affirmative discrimination of the backward classes. Allover the world, many systems, institutions, structures, principles, and cultures have been developed from time to time, which created a wave sweeping the entire world with it for some time. But soon, they became obsolete and were replaced by anti-waves which replaced them and wiped off the previous influence. But caste system, on which Indian social structure is based, has proved to be an exception. After each assault, it re-emerged with greater force.
It is an irony that those very people, who criticize caste-system vehemently, them-selves cling to their caste identity very strongly. For politicians, it is a recipe for creating vote-banks. For others it is the base to enjoy special privileges/benefits of affirmative action programs initiated and implemented by the Government of India. Elite section amongst lower castes protects its turf under the banner of backward castes. The interest of all lies in keeping the majority of people ignorant, insecure and out of mainstream. And here lies the crux of present day’s caste-ist politics.
Religiously anyone who does not belong to the four Varnas is an outcast and untouchable. It means, all foreigners and non-Hindus are all supposed to be untouchables. But in reality neither all foreigners nor non-Hindus were treated as untouchables. Foreigners and non-Hindus were treated differently in different parts of India. After the introduction of Islam on the subcontinent, for example, Muslims were divided into classes such as the Sayed, Sheikh, Mughal, Pathan, and Qureshi. These castes are drawn from several sources – the Mughal and Pathan are ethnic groups, roughly speaking, while the Qureshi name comes from the Prophet Muhammad’s clan in Mecca.
casteism can be eliminated if new attitudes in the minds of people are developed. The cinema and other mass media can do much towards the creation of these attitudes. In short the best way to remove caste system in India is through value based education both at home and school where there is a holistic development of a child to make him into a rational adult who works for the development of society at large and not just self-gain.