Brooke Goes Global: The Caste System

Goodbye has inevitably arrived.  Its long awaited arrival has brought gifts of humbleness, compassion, and independence.  Here I am and here I go with faith in the process of hellos and goodbyes.  Goodbye, India.  Hello South Africa.

Still, feelings of bitter sweetness and surrealism consume my mind as I prepare for the next adventure.  Something as simple as a plane ride becomes my gateway to a new and exciting experience, moment, life.  My reality becomes the categorization of the past, present, and future.  India my past and South Africa my very near future.  And for the present — it lives in its own purgatory, fighting for the existence of both realms of the past and future.

This state of temporary madness causes the past few weeks to stir in my head.  My mind connects this with that, analyzes this, questions that, and ponders everything.  It bullies the rest of my body as all physicality fights to keep up.  Fighting the jet lag.  Fighting the weather conditions.  Fighting the sickness.  Fighting the need to sleep.  Yet my mind continues to grow, expand, and explore.  It needs not to fight any barriers.  It’s the one pushing me to keep going.  Temporary relief of my body’s contradiction only comes when writing.  So here I am, writing as my fingers become the newest victim of my brain’s wandering.  My mind thankfully settles into a steady pace as it chooses a topic of choice for my last post in India.  A topic that stirs up controversy, history, and oppression.  A topic that even Indian natives are unable to fully comprehend the consequences to.

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Before I begin, I want to remind my listeners that my writing originates through the eyes of a female, an American, a student, and an outsider.  By no means do I claim to have a overarching understanding of the complications of the Indian culture, but I do claim the right to share my experiences and interpretations of what constituted my life for the last month.

So I dive in, and here I emerge, knee deep in a 3,000 year old system of oppression — the caste system.  The caste system is unique to the Indian sub-continent.  Although other oppressive hierarchies, based on uncontrollable factors, have existed across the world and across time.

The caste system has roots in the Hindu religion.  In which more than 80% of the Indian population claim to practice.  The religion’s core foundations teach special individuals were formed from a particular body part of the Hindu god, Brahma.  Each body part represent a certain status within the earthly society.  For instance, the priests and teachers of the Hindu population were said to have been born from the head of Brahma, the highest honor.  The warriors and rulers were born from the shoulder of the god.  The farmers, traders and merchants were born from the stomach.  And the laborers were born from the foot.  This foundational teaching of the religion created a social hierarchy, justified by faith and culture.  The caste system expanded past the Hindu religion and spread to other religions including Islam and Christianity in India.   Over time, people’s occupation no longer determined caste.  Today, people are born into a caste.  They remain in this particular caste for the rest of their life and then pass it down to their children.

To go over some basics, the first three caste tiers are called Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas — born from the three highest places on the body.  These three tiers constitute the upper caste.  The lowest tier is called Shudras.  These four castes are born from the god Brahma and so deserve the corresponding respect and dignity paralleling this official status.  Then there are people who are considered the least pure in status.  They have not been birthed from the god Brahma.  These people make up what is called the scheduled caste.  This is the politically correct term for the Dalit caste, Untouchables, and tribal individuals.  The majority of the Indian population is part of this scheduled caste.

All of these individuals were deemed “untouchable” by the government, by religion, by society.  The scheduled caste was not permitted to use the same silverware as the upper caste.  They were segregated from the rest of the world because their “impure” bodies would contaminate the upper caste’s so called hygienic and luxurious life.  Culture decided the majority of the population did not deserve to be treated like a human because of a social label.  The scheduled caste became victim to horrendous and heinous crimes because of the nation’s caste hierarchy.  Massacre of the unarmed Untouchables in their homes became justified.  Rape of Untouchables became justified.  Brutalization and abuse of Untouchables became justified.  Police turned a blind eye well thousands suffered.  All justified through the caste system.

In 1950, the Indian government abolished the practice of “untouchability”.  It is 68 years later, and here I am, visiting a country with a rich history of violent inequity.  And 68 years later, the stigma and physical violence against the scheduled caste has decreased tremendously.  Nevertheless, I argue structural violence against the scheduled caste still exists.  It is perpetuated by institutions repressing the social rights of a large portion of the population.  This top down systemic violence causes a normalization of oppression and persecution for people of the scheduled caste.  History explains the present, so it is important to understand the context of the caste system.  I remind myself this as I try to understand the perspective of an upper caste, upper class individual who so blatantly told me that if you are educated in the least bit, you know the caste system does not exist.  But, here, I write out my contradiction to this statement. 

Today, more than 98% of manual laborers in India are people of the Dalit caste.  To illustrate the day of a Dalit worker as a manual laborer, I describe the job of a sewage worker.  In nothing more than a t-shirt and khaki pants, they are lowered into an underground pool of shit.  They submerge every inch of their body into the city’s cumulation of poop, piss, and toilet paper.  Diving into this disgusting mess of feces, they are forced to unclog the sewage pipes.  Two to three individuals die a day doing this work.  Yet, the caste system does not exist.

I had the opportunity to talk to an individual who worked at the National Dalit Campaign for Human Rights.  This individual was an advocate and activist for the Dalit community.  He was able to overcome persecution from his own country and climbed the economic ladder while still inevitably remaining at the bottom of the social ladder as a Dalit.  He now has a master’s degree in sociology and continues to fight for Dalit human rights every day.  His life trajectory, nonetheless, is much easier said than done.  He grew up during a time of post-abolition “untouchability” laws.  Yet, still labeled as a Dalit, he faced incredible instances of prejudice and bigotry.

He had successfully completed his senior year of high school.  This in itself is a great feat for someone of the Dalit caste.  Too often they are forced to drop out because they can no longer withstand the mental and physical abuse they receive from upper caste classmates and teachers.  Or too often their family decides the child will contribute more to the family by dropping out of school and working instead.  This was not the case for this determined student.   During the last week of his schooling, his teacher informed him he would be graduating as top student in the class.  He would graduate as Valedictorian.  When he read the list of names posted on the school wall, to his surprise his name had been printed next to number two.  The school refused to have a Dalit as their Valedictorian.  The school refused to let a Dalit represent their academics.  His studies, effort, determination, and intelligence had been invalidated because of a societal label.  Yet, caste does not exist.

During our week long visit to the rural Indian district of Bahriach, we stayed in the neighborhood’s private elementary school.  Here, a Dalit cleans the bathrooms.  He has worked as the school’s janitor for 4 years and has worked for the community municipal building as a street cleaner for 9 years.  Nine years ago, his family asked him to stop attending school and to instead find a job.  At the age of 14, he was the only one in a house of two parents and 4 children who brought in an income.  In 9 years at the municipal building, never has he received a promotion.  In 9 years, never has he received a raise.  I asked him, “do you feel your job compensates you fairly for the work you do?”.  I watched as he took a moment to comprehend the translator’s interpretation of my question.  His eyes shifted as his lips created foreign sounds unfamiliar to me.  Then, the translator spoke, “Anything they give me, I am thankful for.”  I stood in shock as I attempted to digest his heartbreaking response.  He doubts his ability because his employer, school, society, religion, and government have all told him he is nothing.  He is replaceable.  He is unsuccessful.  He is not a worthy member of the Indian society.  Structural violence has shattered his self-confidence and his self-worth.  Systems and institutions all play a role in oppressing his life.  He has lived in a state of structural violence for so long he sees no path towards opportunity.  Yet, caste does not exist.

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Bahriach

The caste system does not exist, but no one I talked to married outside of their caste.  The caste system does not exist, but official government forms still ask for your caste.  The caste system does not exist, but Dalits are still experiencing structural violence every day.

We’re six weeks into the program and in six weeks my life has been turned on its head.  My standards of normal have been challenged.  My culture has been ignored as a new one forcefully replaced it.  And the funny part is, it’s happening again today as I move to South Africa.  And then again, in one month when I move to my final country of Brazil.  But this is what I asked for.  I asked for a challenge and an adventure.  By all means, I have not been disappointed.

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