India's social systems are engineered to serve a high-caste minority, far from the imagined secular and egalitarian nation. Casteism is fully embedded in the structure of Indian society to violently oppress and discriminate against perceived "lower" castes.
Caste is a system of apartheid endemic to South Asia, and South Asian diasporas around the world. It endows a small handful of people access to wealth, land, education, and food while completely stripping the wider majority access to these same resources. For some, caste doesn’t just deprive them of access to resources but also from the essential human necessity to touch and be touched-rendering them untouchable. Yet for all its palpable depravity, the system of caste is so seamlessly folded into South Asian cultures that many lack the willingness to accept its existence in the contemporary realities of India.
The system of caste codifies people according to the family they were born into, and the work that they do. Unlike class-based hierarchies the caste system does not allow for people to move up or down in caste. A middle-class person can amass a fortune in their lifetime and be considered upper class within a matter of years. But a caste oppressed person will always be forced to accept the status of “low caste” no matter the amount of education, wealth, or power they accrue. A person’s birth into a particular caste-whether it be privileged or oppressed-is considered their Karma. If they are born to a family that is ostracized from society, forced to do menial work then it is their karma to endure this-they must have done something in their past life to bring the suffering upon themselves.
This concept of a person’s suffering being the fault of an individual’s spiritual failures helps maintain the caste system-ensuring that generation after generation resources remain within particular caste communities while others remain impoverished. As a result, the Dalit people (formerly known as "untouchables") continue to be the most marginalized and oppressed group in the subcontinent.
The foundations of caste were laid thousands of years ago. Evidence of the caste system can be seen in scriptures like the Manusmriti which date back to 2nd and 3rd century BCE. The Manusmriti instructs the highest of castes, the Brahmins, to have happy joyful names while an untouchable’s name should be something contemptible and related to service-hence the term “untouchable” to refer to them. It also outlines that oppressed caste people should not have access to education, nor should they be invited into a Brahmin’s home-setting the foundations for social and economic apartheid. It states that an uneducated Brahmin can interpret law and impose judgements but even an educated untouchable cannot be allowed to lead civic affairs in this way. Along with these social apartheid guidelines the Manusmriti also advises that oppressed caste people have their tongues ripped out or hot nails be thrust into their mouth for so much so as expressing contempt of higher caste people. These violent ideas are the basis of the caste system, and though they were formed thousands of years ago the legacy of these scriptures live on even today. A statue of the man who wrote the Manusmriti-Manu-can still be seen out front the Rajasthan High Court. He is revered by many, including state institutions.
Though the caste system sees its origins in the Sanatan Dharma (commonly referred to as “Hinduism”) it has over the centuries become imbedded in all religions, and regions of South Asia. Forms of caste apartheid are practiced in Muslim, Christian and Sikh communities-despite none of their scriptures sanctioning caste.
One of the most common ways caste is maintained in India is via arranged marriages. People are pressured to marry within their caste communities, and often the consequence of marrying outside of your caste is death. Love jihad laws which deter Muslim Indians (85% of whom are oppressed caste people) from marrying non-muslim’s are used to police and terrorize this historically caste oppressed community. The push for anti-intercaste marriage laws can be seen to this day across India including Kashmir.
The removal of patients who die of COVID-19 infections is predominantly carried out by caste oppressed communities, the rape epidemic of India continues to be carried out by upper caste men on the bodies of oppressed caste women and children, institutional power continues to rest in the hands of upper caste people-including the supreme court bench which is predominantly Brahmin/upper caste.
The ground reality of India is that it is an apartheid state. Sometimes this apartheid is portrayed as Islamophobia, other times it is reported simply as sexism-but in all cases it continues to be the oppressed caste people who are kept from resources and treated with cruelty. It has become far too easy to romanticize India and whitewash its history of systemic oppression, without taking the time to learn about the everyday consequences of the state sanctioned apartheid that exists there.
India's caste system enables a social hierarchy that allows upper caste members to brutalise members of lower castes. A horrific part of this lived reality includes terrifying sexual violence against women.
India's gross negligence in the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has moved the incredible burden of social order onto Dalit lives. Dalit communities remain on the frontlines with no governmental or social support.