Published on 12 December 2014

by Praful Bidwai

It’s fashionable in some circles to claim that discrimination based on caste has steadily decreased in India, as it’s bound to, thanks to modernisation, urbanisation and industrialisation. The character of caste is itself changing from a system of social hierarchy based on birth and ritual purity, to a political phenomenon. As India evolves into a “merit-based” society, the argument goes, there can be no place for untouchability vis-à-vis Dalits (Scheduled Castes) in it.

This argument is bogus. India has failed to industrialise significantly. And the modernisation process is slow, uneven and combines many pre-modern elements of culture and society, including caste, and sometimes reinforces caste-based deprivation and discrimination. We know this from daily experience and official reports. Hierarchy-obsessed India is nowhere near becoming “merit-based”.

Now, even the myth of the impending end of untouchability has been shattered by the India Human Development Survey (IHDS-2), conducted in 2011-12 by the National Council for Applied Economic Research and the University of Maryland, US. The largest pan-Indian non-governmental household survey ever, IHDS-2 covers over 42,000 households, representative of different classes, social groups and regions.

It reveals that untouchability thrives—six-and-a-half decades after the Constitution abolished it. More than a quarter of Indians admit they practise it. The survey asked a direct question: “Does anyone in your family practise untouchability?” If the answer was no, the respondent was asked: “Would it be okay for a Scheduled Caste person to enter your kitchen or use your utensils?”

Twentyseven percent of all households said no. The survey didn’t cross-check the answer with the actual incidence, which might be even higher. Yet, the voluntary admission rate is itself worryingly high. As might be expected, an even larger percentage of Brahmins (52) admitted to practising untouchability. So did 24 percent of other “forward” castes.

Less expectedly, a high proportion (33 percent) of Other Backward Classes, lower in ritual hierarchy than these two groups, practise untouchability. Even more “polluting” Dalits and Adivasis aren’t free of the untouchability taint: respectively 15 and 22 percent confess they practise it.

This speaks to the pervasive nature of casteism and its internalisation by its own victims. A significant proportion of Dalits both suffer caste discrimination themselves and inflict it upon still “lower” strata, such as the Valmikis (manual scavengers) or those who skin animal carcasses.

That caste engulfs and is deeply embedded in Indian society is borne out by the fact that untouchability incidence is 20 percent even in urban India, compared to 30 percent in villages. Among rural Brahmins, it’s a shameful 62 percent (39 percent in urban Brahmins).

Not just 30 percent of all Hindus, but respectively 35, 23 and 18 percent of Jains, Sikhs and Muslims, also admit to practising untouchability. Only tiny minorities like Buddhists, tribals and Christians show a low incidence of the practice.

Household income too doesn’t influence the incidence much. The difference between the poorest and richest households confessing to practising untouchability is a mere 2 percentage-points in villages and one percentage-point in urban areas.

Hindi-belt states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Himachal, and Uttarakhand have a 40 percent-plus incidence of untouchability, which speaks to the absence of a strong social reform movement in the past and their continuing social backwardness. The Hindi belt is India’s cultural backwater and a huge reservoir of social conservatism and reaction.

The Southern states, especially Kerala, perform far better according to the survey, whose region-wise results haven’t been fully analysed. But the reported figures for Maharashtra (four percent) and West Bengal (one percent) don’t fit the observed pattern of caste discrimination or anti-Dalit atrocities.

For instance, in Maharashtra, more than 4,200 cases were registered between 1995 and 2011 under the Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 (POA). Their annual incidence decreased from 343 (1995) to 136 (2002), but spurted to 304 in 2012. Maharashtra, where Dr Ambedkar pioneered the Dalit movement, has undergone enormous social retrogression. On top of recent massacres in Ramabai Nagar and Khairlanji, it witnessed the killing of three Dalits and dismembering of their bodies in October in Ahmednagar.

Education does make some difference to the practice of untouchability: 69 percent of Brahmin households with education limited to Class IV indulge in it, but “only” 45 percent of households do which have at least one adult who is a graduate. But even this is alarmingly high, twice the average national incidence of untouchability. So much for our “education”!

Untouchability is casteism’s most obnoxious and ritually (and scripturally) sanctioned aspect, which regards Dalits and other low castes as too “polluted” to be allowed into the kitchen, the supposedly “purest” part of the house. It’s accompanied by other humiliating practices such as assigning separate plates and cups to low-caste people, or getting them to wash the upper-castes’ dishes.

Equally distastefully, young people in India lack the freedom to choose their life-partners across caste barriers. Thus only five percent of marriages in India are inter-caste, according to IHDS-2. This speaks to an ugly social pathology based on despotic control of people’s private lives.

As does the fact that 46 percent of women in India are married before they attain the legal minimum age of 18. They move straight from girlhood into motherhood, altogether skipping adolescence, the most exciting period of self-discovery in a woman’s life-cycle.

To return to casteism, notions of ritual purity and pollution based on birth are deeply ingrained in family practices and customs and unquestioningly carried over to school and society. A recent study by Human Rights Watch throws light on how Dalit, Adivasi and Muslim children face systematic discrimination at the primary-school level and are given a “stigmatised identity”.

They are asked to sit separately from the rest of the class, forced to bring their own utensils for mid-day meals so they don’t “pollute” others’ plates, made to clean toilets, and reprimanded and punished harshly. Thus, differences in skills and performance are artificially created through stigmatisation and segregation among children who are identically endowed. These later translate into lower incomes and poorer life-chances.

Discriminatory practices persist in higher education and are carried over even to medical colleges and other elite institutions which often segregate students according to caste. A survey of first-year students at the Indian Institute of Technology-Mumbai, which doesn’t segregate students, says that 56 percent of SC-ST and OBC students nevertheless experience discrimination.

The larger society too deprives Dalits, Adivasis, OBCs and Muslims of social entitlements, including fair access to healthcare, drinking water and nutrition, indeed even municipal facilities like sewage, garbage clearance and proximity to milk booths. These subaltern groups face persistent and multiple forms of discrimination, which rob them of the ability to develop their basic human potential.

Casteism is thus not unjust and unethical in itself. It is incompatible with human dignity, elementary civil and political rights, and causes cruel destruction of precious human potential and capabilities. It also leads to periodic violence calculated to punish low-caste people who assert their rights.

The Indian state and society have failed to address caste discrimination and empower Dalits through special-component Plans, from which funds are routinely diverted, or to protect them through the POA and other instruments at their disposal. The POA conviction rate is less than four percent.

Dalits, Muslims and Adivasis are further victimised by India’s skewed justice delivery system. According to a new study by the National Law University and National Legal Services Authority, of 477 prisoners who face the death penalty, these groups account for 75 percent. By contrast, of the more than 1,500 people hanged in Independent India, only three were reportedly Brahmins.

India’s state and society have become complicit in the violation of the Constitutional mandate to abolish untouchability, and failed to combat casteism and the injustices it entails. This calls for comprehensive and imaginative remedies, including a thorough reform of the education system, with revision of school syllabi and teaching practices, and non-segregation of children based on caste.

It’s not enough that school textbooks highlight Ambedkar’s role as a great leader of oppressed people and a principal drafter of the Constitution. They must also educate children on the inhuman nature of the caste system and the persistence of Dalit oppression in contemporary India. Caste-based segregation in schools must be punished by amending the POA.

Perhaps the most effective way of combating casteism would be to restrict the appointment of cooks for the Mid-Day Meal programme in schools to Dalits alone. Upper-caste parents who wish to prevent their children from eating such meals would have to pull them out of school.

Similarly, all restaurants and food-stalls must publicly announce through well-displayed notices that they follow a policy of non-discrimination on the basis of caste both towards their employees and customers—as a precondition for getting a licence. Fighting the entrenched caste system won’t be easy. But that’s no reason to give up.