I come from India. I have much to be proud of. But I do not want to hide behind our glorious past any further. Frankly, there is enough to be ashamed of as well. The caste system in India has been the source of immense strife for many in the country. Unlike social classes where one could either rise or fall in it, the caste system is hereditary and fixed for life. One is born into a particular caste and one dies in it. The division of people into various social groups led to the establishment of castes and it has its roots in Hinduism.
At the top of the ladder in the system are the “Brahmins” or the priests while at the bottom rest the “Dalits” or the untouchables.* This has been the way for thousands of years and the untouchables, understandably, have suffered more than anybody else through the centuries through no fault of theirs. Imagine how helpless one would feel being born as an untouchable and knowing they would remain the same for life. Nothing, absolutely nothing, can justify such injustice. Yet, there is a truth even sadder. Untouchability continues to be rampant despite our society being more liberal today than they ever have been. It is a wound that has not healed and only hurts more and more as the time passes.
It is no longer an issue of laws and reforms. The Constitution of India abolished untouchability way back in 1949. Interestingly, the constituent assembly which drafted the constitution was led by an untouchable himself, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar, who rose through monstrous challenges to get where he did. So, the laws are in place but they only gather dust on paper. I make frequent visits to India and my own personal assessment, which has grown over the years through interaction on ground, is that untouchability is in fact condemned by most. I feel it survives today mainly due to two reasons. The first being the fear of social backlash. If tomorrow a Brahmin is to hug an untouchable, uproar in the neighbourhood is inevitable, so the fear of social rejection dampens any such intentions. Secondly, some people feel bound by age old superstitions and practices, and thus are unwilling to break the trend.
It would be unfair to say that there has been no progress at all over the years. Today, the lower castes including the untouchables, have found a political voice through parties such as the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party). The backward castes are also provided reservations for jobs and education by the government. However, that is not enough since there are still several heart rending instances of grave injustice around the country. Public places, especially temples in many places, have their doors shut for them and barbers often refuse to cut their hair. Insults are their constant companion. The fact is that they are still neglected and looked down upon.
The solution is not easy. Society has to change the way it looks at the untouchables and no, it is not going to happen overnight. But it has to happen someday. No change comes without challenge and we, the privileged, must offer our hand. We must be willing to bear any social backlash for the cause of greater good because on the right path, if we bleed, we bleed in the name of humanity.
*Note – For those interested, detailed information on castes can be found on the web. They are presented in a very simplified manner in the article to keep the main issue easy to grasp.
Sources: More information on the problems faced by the untouchables