Growing up in an Indian-American family, I was exposed to the idea of a caste system at a young age. My parents never gave me an in-depth history lesson, but they did talk about how India structured its society in a hierarchy based on different castes. I was told that my family were Brahmins, members of the highest caste, but I was never told exactly what that meant, so I accepted it and never bothered to question it.
My first experience with India’s caste system in an educational setting was when my eighth grade social studies teacher attempted to cover it during our unit on India. I found myself laughing as this elderly white man horrendously stumbled over the pronunciations of the different caste levels. He, too, reiterated the same generic statement my parents had given me about what the caste system was. Unfortunately, he also failed to mention the darker side of the caste system.
India’s caste system is one of the world’s oldest forms of social stratification. It is a hierarchical division of Hindus, the predominant religious group in India. Its four sectors in order of rank consist of Brahmins, the intellectuals; Kshatriyas, the warriors and rulers; Vaishyas, the traders; and Shudras, the menial laborers. There is also a group of people known as Dalits, or untouchables, who are outside of the caste system and, as a result, are treated very poorly. Even at its most basic level of who fits into what caste, this is an inherently problematic system that sets the stage for an inequitable society.
You are born into your caste, and you remain in that caste until death. People in upper castes benefit simply because of who their family is, while those in lower castes suffer for the same reason. Whatever reasoning caused the system to emerge in the first place is vastly outdated, yet people continue to face immeasurable hardships simply because they are labeled by their caste. In many ways, this is reminiscent of racial tensions in the United States as race, just like caste, is not something you get to choose — for better or for worse. In India, you can easily be identified as a member of your particular caste simply by providing your last name. Similarly, in the U.S., you can be labeled as different based on the color of your skin.
The cycle of poverty we see in America is very similar to the experience of the Shudras and Dalits in India. Both groups are provided with limited opportunities, the majority of which are low paying. It is incredibly difficult for these individuals to obtain the financial means to move up in social standing. Extreme poverty has other ramifications in terms of limited access to healthcare, and higher rates of disease and infant mortality. These are especially prevalent issues in light of high rates of COVID-19 infections that both of these countries have.
In India, there is strong societal pressure to marry within your own caste, and those who go against it are often met with immense disapproval from their families. They can be ostracized by society, and this situation can even result in violence. In the U.S., there is certainly pressure, either explicit or implicit, to marry within your own race or socioeconomic class. Not only are these practices a breach of free will, but they concentrate wealth in the upper classes or castes, which makes it even harder for those lower in society to experience any social mobility.
The societal issues in India and the U.S. may seem insurmountable, but there are steps we as individuals can take to play a role in dismantling these systems.
Like in the U.S., the Indian government has attempted to introduce reforms to reduce the socioeconomic gaps created by the caste system. India’s quota system follows the same basic principles as our affirmative action system in the sense that it is designed to give educational opportunities to those who have been previously denied them. However, there needs to be more than a quota system to undo the damage of the caste system. In both countries, the quality of education that is available to individuals in low-income communities or lower castes is severely lacking. To reduce the gaps in income disparity and ensure that society does not remain segregated, there needs to be equal access to education. People from poorer backgrounds are often told that they will not be able to attend college or get any job above minimum wage. This will continue to be an issue if those who need it are prevented from receiving an education that is more than simply adequate.
The societal issues in India and the U.S. may seem insurmountable, but there are steps we as individuals can take to play a role in dismantling these systems. It’s not enough to just talk about checking your privilege. For that phrase to have any value, those of us who have been afforded advantages, myself included, need to be doing this continually. There are also important resources to educate yourselves more on these issues. For instance, Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” is a novel about the caste system in America, and Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” is a book about how systems of oppression never fade — they just replace one another. It’s up to you to decide what action you feel comfortable taking from that point on. Whether it’s calling your local member of government, having frank conversations with family members or donating your time or money to an organization that works to end mass incarceration, any little bit helps.
In terms of my experience as a member of an upper caste, I never considered it to be a significant part of my identity because I was raised in the U.S., and issues stemming from the caste system were not part of my daily life. However, that is a privilege in and of itself because my parents both had the financial means to come to this country largely due to the caste they were a part of. It took me a long time to look into the history of the caste system which was a significant mistake on my part. I thought Brahmin was just a silly title that had no meaning, but I could not have been more wrong. I have benefited from a system that has caused so many others to suffer, and that is something I will have to reckon with for the rest of my life.
Surya Swaroop strongly believes that any form of a caste system, regardless of what country they are in, should be dismantled.