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I was involved in a very interesting discussion last week. The matter of debate was “Does caste based discrimination still exist in India? Is it common?”

My feeling? YES. It is very common and it is probably not going away any time soon.

“Kaun jaat ho?” (which caste do you belong to?) has been a question that has been asked me countless times outside Maharashtra, the State in India that I come from. It is not that those in Maharashtra have transcended caste barriers, just that they did not need to ask since my family name was a dead give away. I still haven’t figured out an appropriate response for this one; especially if the questioning is relentless. 

Caste is an interesting social construct and found nowhere else except South Asia. You cannot ‘acquire’ caste; it is what you are born into. There are elaborate processes to determine which caste you would belong to if your parents came from different castes themselves. There is a very strict hierarchy that you cannot transcend though you may transcend socio-economic class.

While one may not be casteist, it is almost impossible to escape into a caste-less world in your interactions. For instance, I know which caste I come from; I often know which caste my interlocutor is from. It does not make a whit of difference to my interaction (I hope) but my subconscious mind does register it.

Most educated & upwardly mobile Indians like to believe that this is an outdated concept but, sadly, it is not. You can see caste dynamics play in almost every field education, jobs, access to resources and politics. The biggest area where caste dominates decision making is in the matter of marriages. In a land of arranged marriages, caste is an important factor.

It does not matter which part of India you are from – Caste matters. In most places your family name will nail down the caste you belong to – no one has to even ask. Even those who have converted to Islam / Christianity / Buddhism cannot shake off the caste factor; which leads to an incredible category in India called “Dalit Christian” (Dalit in this case is a term that loosely means oppressed; it was adopted by social activists who thought that Gandhi’s term Harijan was patronising. Another term in use is Bahujan). 

Talk to professionals, who have gained from the affirmative action policies and have achieved very good quality education in world class institutions – you will find that they are discriminated against.

Politics is still played, to a large extent around the caste card giving rise to the old joke that in India you do not cast your vote, you vote your caste. The cases where ‘development’ and ‘governance’ have trumped caste are far and few in between.

Untouchability may have been outlawed but it took as late as 1989 for Government of India to wake up to the fact that discrimination and atrocities were being practised across India on those people, who were termed to be from the lower castes (I am using the word ‘lower’ and ‘upper’ not because I believe them to be so but because frankly there are no alternatives). That is when the Scheduled Caste Schedule Tribe Atrocity (Prevention) Act came into being.

In the State I come from, Maharashtra, lower caste houses cannot be located to the West of any village since the Westerly breeze passing through them to the main village would be polluting. This is not from the 18th century, I am talking of the present day.

Even today lower caste women are raped with impunity. Even today lower caste people are not allowed to access water points meant for the upper caste (at least 3-5 people get lynched every year on this issue). Even today lower caste people are denied entry into many temples. Even today girls who marry lower caste boys get killed by their families who want to maintain / redeem their lost ‘honour’ – honour killings these are called.

Incredibly, affirmative action in form of caste based reservations  in educational institutions and government jobs, that was aimed at social re-engineering, has deepened the discrimination giving the upper castes another reason for grievance. There is now a significant section of the upper castes which feels discriminated against – wither meritocracy they cry. Do not want to get into the merits / demerits of this affirmative action here. May be some other time. 

Is there discrimination on basis of caste?

Hell YES. I know that there has been a slight reduction in overt discrimination in urban areas at least in superficial interactions over the last decade. That has mostly to do with urban living and working conditions more than mind-set change. That, the mind-set change, may take a long long time.