In April 2019, a 21-year old Indian man by the name of Jitender was beat up by a group of upper-caste men in the state of Uttarakhand. 9 days later, he died in a hospital from his intensive injuries. His crime? Sitting on a chair and eating food at a wedding. The food had been prepared by upper caste men rather than lower caste members of society. Out of the hundreds of guests at the wedding, no one was willing to reveal any information. The inspector on the case stated that the incident took place when the food was being distributed and people took notice of the man sitting on a chair. He left the scene after the beating in an emotional state but was later ambushed on his way home and the atrocities continued, even more violently. After the second beating, his unconscious body was dumped outside his front door. That was the state his mother found him the next morning.
For thousands of years, for many Hindus in India, their caste has dictated most of their lives. What they wear, what they eat, their housing and their job, it’s all determined by a single sanskrit word. The existence of these hierarchical groups have been deeply embedded into Indian culture and are the root causes of the most severe and prominent cases of caste discrimination in India. According to Hindu mythology, the creator God, Brahma, made all humans using his 4 body parts. From his mind, he created the caste, Brahmins, who are intellectuals, priests and teachers. Lower, from Brahma’s shoulders, are the Kshatriya. These are warriors, rulers or soldiers and politicians. The third distinction is the Vaishyas typically containing merchants and businessmen. It is said that the fourth caste, Shudras, were formed from the Lord’s feet and therefore completed labour intensive roles such as maids, cooks etc. However, there is a caste lower than the Shudras, a caste that is subject to one of the worst forms of discrimination and hatred in the country. Previously known as the “Untouchables”, the Dalit caste falls at the very bottom on India’s unforgiving and rigid hierarchical structure.
That was the caste of Mr. Jitender, and that was the only reason for his death.
Unfortunately, the occurrence of acts like this are not very uncommon among the Dalit caste. Any opportunities to move up the social ladder are often met with violent consequences. Many activities that we consider to be mundane, such as sitting and eating food at a wedding, are the very causes of their demise. Loved ones demanded justice for this hate crime against Mr. Jintender were met with little support from the minority Dalit community in the area. Dalits in the area are heavily reliant on the upper-caste men and they work under their provision. The upper-caste men denied these allegations and instead concocted their own version of the events that took place that fateful night. They claimed that Jitender’s death was a “conspiracy theory” against their family and that the victim “was embarrassed he got beaten up” and took some pills that lead to his death.
How did this devastatingly discriminative system become a common norm in the Hindu culture?
The earliest evidence of the caste system in literary works appears in 1500 BCE in the Vedas, a Sanskrit language text. Another text, known as the “Rivgeda” which dates back to 1700-1100 BCE mentions nothing of the system implying that social mobility was common during that period. Later texts like the “Bhagavad Gita” and “Manusmriti” solidify the belief that the Caste system started being reinforced between 1000-200 BCE. Since then, the system has evolved with over 200 existing castes, 25,000 subcastes and the caste prejudice and social segregation that began to percolate into society.
The Caste System wasn’t as rigorous as it is today in Indian history. Many rulers, like the well renowned “Gupta Dynasty” belonged to the Vaishyas caste rather than Kshatriya. During the 12th and 18th centuries, India was ruled by Muslims. A lot changed in these 6 centuries as the Muslim rulers actively reduced the rights held by the upper caste citizens, the Brahmins who had to resort to farming after the rulers failed to fund Hindu temples. Lower castes in anti-Muslim and rural areas resorted to their caste to regain a sense of identity among the uncertain world. When the British conquered India in 1750, they exploited the caste system to their benefit in order to gain social control over the country. They allied themselves with the Brahmins after restoring their lost prestige and returned the rights stolen by Muslim rulers. However, the British soon saw fault in some of the discriminatory Indian customs against the “Scheduled Castes” and began outlawing them during the 1930s and 1940s. An abolition of untouchability began in 1928 when the first temple welcomed Dalits to worship alongside the upper class members of society.
After India gained independence in 1947, the newly established government introduced laws to protect the Scheduled Castes and aid their wellbeing. The laws included quota systems and affirmative action that ensured that prejudice against the people could not hinder their right to get the same level of education and government positions.
So, where is India now?
In 1948, Anti-Brahmin protests broke up across India to avenge the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi by a Brahmin man. In 1968, 44 Dalit villagers in Tamil Nadu were murdered by a gang, marking the Kilvenmani massacre. In the 1990s, a militia group by the name of Ranvir Sena consisting of high caste men committed violent acts against the scheduled caste communities. In Rajasthan, an Indian province, there were on average 5024 crimes against Dalits each year with 46 killings and 138 rape cases between 1999-2002. In 2012, 268 dwellings, which were home to Dalits, were torched by higher-caste men.
These incidents happen almost every single day in India. Most don’t make it to mainstream media. Most don’t make it to documentation. Most don’t even make it to justice. There are over 200 million Dalits living in India. ⅓ of them make less than $2 USD a day. The most menial of jobs are carried out by Dalits, very few office jobs are. Even with a degree from prestigious universities, their caste follows them like a shadow. As cases of the banned discrimination continue to surge, criticism of the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), a party known to be a haven for Hindu hardliners, have been called as they have been allegedly stoking the segregation. Dalits have taken to the streets on multiple occasions to fight for their rights to no avail as the BJP won their elections for 2 consecutive terms.
The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stated that he only believes in two castes: the poor and those who work to eradicate poverty. This ideology put him at an advantage during elections over parties with policies promoting the lower castes. However, by skirting the issue of caste, he risks allowing violence against the scheduled castes and Muslims to continue. The plan also obscures the economic hardships experienced by members of the caste. Numerous studies have shown, including one conducted by the Paris School of Economics, that India has been failing to close the gap within the caste structure as well as the lack of education is just putting them more behind than ever before in this race for growth.
However, despite all this, change can be seen as more Indians transition to cities from rural areas for better work opportunities as well as to distance themselves from the suppression. As well as that, studies have noticed that a generational shift has started to occur in India as the young people start to break the traditional molds set by their ancestors and become more independent and open to inter-caste romances.
The road to justice can be long, but it’s the journey that makes the difference. This is the showdown; this is the test. What India does now, in a time where the whole world is fighting against racism and discrimination could determine its course for decades to come. India needs to find the courage to say goodbye to traditions that do more harm than good and finally turn the page to a new chapter in history instead of repeating it, so that people like Mr. Jitender can sit and eat at weddings without it being their last meal.