How do the British see Indian Dalits

How an «untouchable» could become the most powerful man in India

India's new president is a once untouchable one. Despite funding measures and constitutional guarantees, discrimination against the Dalit continues.

Tell me what your name is and I will tell you who you are. This is definitely true in India, as many surnames suggest not only family connections, but also caste affiliation. Those who are called Sharma or Banerjee, typical names from the priestly class of the Brahmins, generally have a higher social status than a Yadav or a Modi. India's current prime minister comes from a lower caste traditionally regarded as disadvantaged. The fact that he nevertheless succeeded in becoming the most powerful man in the country testifies to the at least fundamentally existing social mobility in the country.

Treated like a leper

However, the caste system is still present in India. This can be seen most clearly in the search for spouses, which is often limited to members of the same sub-caste (Jati). The dating advertisements in Indian newspapers are divided into dozens of these sub-categories. When choosing a career or, more precisely, continuing the job that has been pursued for generations, caste membership is also often central. This is also reflected in other life issues that are definitely identity-forming, such as eating habits. Brahmins are mostly vegetarian, members of the lower castes also eat meat, some subgroups of the Dalit, once known as untouchables, even eat beef.

What at first glance looks like harmless distinctions in living habits is an expression of a strongly hierarchical and ultimately discriminatory social system. One is born into a caste, social advancement is only possible after rebirth, in a new life. A central element in understanding hierarchical demarcation is the concept of purity. Meat consumption, but also manual work, are considered impure and stain the status of a Brahmin. They are therefore reserved for lower castes. Working with dead animals or excrement, which is only done by the lowest lower castes, is considered particularly dirty and stigmatizing.

The resulting social segregation determined life in India for a long time. Even drinking from a glass that a Dalit had previously used was considered polluting for members of higher castes and required a special cleaning ceremony. Dalit had to use their own wells or temples in the villages, sometimes even announcing their arrival with bells so as not to pollute anyone. The concept of untouchability was to be understood literally.

"Ideal social order"

Basically, these concepts only apply to Hindus. Members of other religious communities are outside the caste system, although there are pronounced social hierarchies in the non-Hindu communities of South Asia that are reminiscent of the caste system. Nevertheless, Dalits in particular have tried again and again to convert their innate inferior status to one another. The most famous example of this is Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the father of the Indian constitution, who converted to Buddhism with hundreds of thousands of followers.

The hierarchy of the castes is already indicated in the original legend in the Rigveda, the oldest Hindu text. According to this, the four main sets (Varnas) arose from the primordial being Purusha: from the head the Brahmins, from the arms the warriors (Kshatryas), from the legs the traders (Vaishya) and from the feet the craftsmen (Shudra). The Dalit, who are outside the actual caste system (English "outcaste"), were only mentioned by name later, when the ideal social order was described in the Manusmriti code of law.

To what extent this was also lived in ancient India is the subject of debate. It is relatively undisputed that the rigid caste system as it is known today did not emerge until much later. The demographic categorization and the corresponding unequal treatment among the British solidified the existing hierarchies - as in other colonized societies.

In the course of Indian independence, war was declared on the caste system. The Indian constitution, which was largely shaped by the Dalit Ambedkar, prohibits discrimination on the basis of caste membership. At the same time, an increasingly complex quota system was introduced from 1950, which guarantees members of disadvantaged castes and tribes representation in the administration and access to educational institutions.

This program of positive discrimination, which is the world's oldest, has certainly achieved success, but has also been criticized. It is primarily the elite of a lower caste who benefit from the privileges. The situation of the poorest and most vulnerable, who are not even eligible for the reserved positions due to a lack of educational opportunities, is hardly addressed. The program was also a source of envy because the quotas reduced the number of vacant positions and made access even more difficult for other disadvantaged population groups. Therefore, in addition to the “Scheduled Castes” and “Scheduled Tribes”, the additional support group of “Other Backward Castes” was later introduced, to which quotas are also entitled.

Which sub-castes fall into these categories differs from state to state and often has to do with electoral arithmetic. The quota system also explains why traditionally privileged castes demonstrate that they are considered backward. Because more and more positions are assigned on the basis of quotas - in some places more than half - the suitability of a candidate is also becoming less important.

A party for all Hindus?

Discrimination against the lower castes is certainly less obvious in everyday Indian life, especially in the big cities, than it was a few decades ago. Nonetheless, caste affiliations often still reflect social status, with a particularly large number of Dalits among the poorest. The structural disadvantage persists. The stigmatization of certain activities and the associated status has not disappeared, which should not least explain the often shameful treatment of domestic workers.

It is true that the Congress Party, which has long supported the state, is a political force dominated by members of the upper castes, under which the social hierarchies continued to exist. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's emphasis on India's Hindu identity leads in some places to a certain transfiguration of a traditional social order that can only be detrimental to the Dalits. Because many of the formerly untouchables are employed in the leather industry and are traditionally also responsible for skinning and disposing of cadavers, they, like Muslims, are among the victims of the radical cow protectors who are spreading their way.

This makes Narendra Modi's party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), increasingly ineligible for Dalits. This runs counter to the BJP's strategic goal of rallying the votes of all Hindus behind it in order to secure a comfortable majority. The election of Dalit Ram Nath Kovind as President must be seen against this background. Whether this will improve the situation of the once untouchable is another matter.