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What’s your Jati?: An introspection of the Caste System in India

Today is 14th of April, birth anniversary of Baba Saheb Dr.Bhimrao Ambedkar, celebrated in India every year as Ambedkar Jayanti. The day is often celebrated by forwarding the same WhatsApp message and the media celebrates the occasion with photo-ops of politicians bowing to Ambedkar’s statue and offering garlands. The month of April is observed as ‘National Dalit Month’. The Constitution even provides reservation for Dalits in educational institutions and jobs. This should indicate that India is slowly but surely moving towards becoming an egalitarian society. But does it?

Crimes against members of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes communities increased by 7.3% and 26.5% respectively in 2019, according to the latest “Crime in India” 2019 report by the National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB). A total of 45,935 cases of crime or atrocities against Dalits and a total of 8,257 cases of crime against were recorded as per the report. A simple google search of the term “Dalit” will yield numerous news stories about crimes against the men and women belonging to the caste. The NCRB and the news seem unaware of the strides we are making through statues, showering flowers on said statues and assigning days and even months to Dalits.

Credits: The Hindu

So, who are Dalits for whom the constitution made so many provisions and most importantly why have these provisions been made? The Dalits, historically termed “Untouchables”, are an offshoot of the caste system of the Hindu Religious System. The caste or varna system is a system of occupational and birth hierarchy where the members of each caste follow certain rules and customs emanating from the Dharma Shastras. In Early Rig Vedic Society, the varnas were assigned on the basis of occupation, not birth, there were no restrictions upon interlining or intermarriage and the society was quite egalitarian in nature. It was towards the end of the Early Rig Vedic Period that we saw the emergence of a 4-tier system of hierarchical inequality in the form of 4 distinct birth-based Varnas which got further amplified during the Later-Vedic times. Every hierarchical order is an imagined order which requires some kind of legitimisation for its sustenance. Divine intervention and nature are usually the best tools for legitimisation and in this case, the Divine Purushukta Hymn of the 10th Mandala of Rig Veda was invoked for the justification of varna hierarchy. The hymn sates that when the “Purusha/Primeval Man” was sacrificed by Gods, the Brahmins formed his Mouth, the Kshatriyas his Arms, the Vaishyas his Thighs and Shudras its Feet. As such, people came to accept their status in the society since it was accorded to them by Gods based on their Karmas.

The Varnas slowly transitioned into hereditary, endogamous, birth based Jatis (Jati from ‘Jan’, meaning to be born). The expansion of Aryan network towards the end of the later Vedic period resulted in the assimilation of many non-Vedic tribes such as the Candalas and the Pulaksas, who were despised and looked down upon by the Vedic Aryans. The post-Vedic expansion of agriculture gave rise to differentiated economy leading to the stratification of society on class lines and further intensified the varna-jati structure. What is significant is that Untouchability developed in stages and the number of untouchable castes grew slowly. People born into “lower” jatis were forced to take up menial jobs such as manual scavenging, skinning dead animals, sweeping etc which made any contact with them “polluting.” They were not allowed to enter temples or study the vedic texts, drink water from the same well as an upper caste, even their shadow was considered foul and impure. Many notable writers, Ambedkar among them, have written about this practice and denounced it.

Credits: The Wire

The Constitution of India bans the practice of Untouchability, thanks to the efforts of Baba Saheb, but the ostracization of the so called “untouchables” continues to take place in India in subtle ways. Whether it is the 2016 Una Flogging incident of Gujarat or the more recent Hathras Incident, all of them reveal the centuries old hate harboured for them. The attitude of the police towards the investigation of such cases is even more shocking. Rural India is worst affected by these notions and even to this date you can see the Dalit communities being ostracized and living on the margins. Lynching, torching their houses and raping their women are some of the common punishments for not greeting the upper-castes with ‘Ram-Ram’ or for touching the bucket of an upper-caste Thakur. These are not made-up stories but actual facts which one can search for on the Internet.

It reeks of privilege when one bids for discontinuing reservations by seeing some upper-caste leader dining at the house of a Dalit. Reservation is nothing but one of the many reparations which we owe to them due to their century old exploitations, oppression and marginalisation by our forefathers which, sadly, continues on to this day.

Caste System is not merely division of labour. It is also a division of labourers.

— Annihilation of Caste, Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar

Butool Zehra is a student pursuing History from Jamia Millia Islamia.

Edited by: Nidhi

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.

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Written by Butool Zehra

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