Caste system is a social, not religious, problem

All Canadians, based on their innate talents and skills, can be classified into four broad categories: creative thinkers and intellectuals; politicians and government employees; commercial employers and business people; and manual workers.

This is what ancient Hindu sages did when Hindu society was being transformed from a tribal to a settled society. They called it the varna vyavastha. In this social framework, each member of the society was free to choose an occupation according to his or her aptitude and attributes.

The Varna system had absolutely nothing to do with one’s birth, race, colour or creed. However, over the passage of time, it degenerated into a rigid, hierarchical and hereditary caste or jati system. Hindus now have 3,000 castes.

Those who fell outside the pale of the four-fold varna system were the outcasts, called achhoot or “untouchables” on account of the lowly jobs they held, like latrine cleaners, sweepers, scavenger and leather workers. These people had no rights or status in Hindu society. They were subjected to humiliating and inhumane treatment by the three upper castes. To an upper-caste Hindu, physical contact with an untouchable would be considered polluting.

The socio-economic status of untouchables did not change during the 200 years of British rule. They became an easy target for the aggressive proselytizing campaign of Muslim rulers and Christian missionaries, but Mahatma Gandhi championed their cause.

The mistreatment of the untouchables is a social problem and not a religious issue, as portrayed in the West. According to the Hindu scriptures, a person’s caste is determined by the occupation for which he or she is suited by virtue of natural aptitude and innate personal qualities, not by birth; each of the four varnas is equally important for the society.

Independent India, being a secular country, did not recognize the caste system. However, the discriminatory aspects of the caste system were considered incompatible with the principles of modern democracy. Under the Indian constitution, written by Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, an untouchable, it is illegal to discriminate on the basis of gender, caste, creed, race, occupation, religion and place of origin.

India also realized that outlawing discrimination alone would not improve the socio-economic status of low-caste citizens. Since independence, several social welfare programs and economic initiatives have been introduced for low castes and untouchables.

For example, 23 per cent of federal government jobs are reserved for untouchables and aboriginal people, now classified as scheduled castes and scheduled tribes respectively, and 27 per cent for other “backward” castes. The same quota applies to admissions to all government-funded universities, where they receive free education. In parliamentary elections, a certain number of constituencies are reserved for candidates from these categories.

Correcting the historical injustices inflicted on the weakest section of Indian society has been a national priority for every government in India.

The empowered low-caste Hindus and former untouchables of modern India, called dalits, have become organized and assertive. In northern India, they have formed their own political party. They wield enormous political clout and all political parties compete to woo their support. No government can afford to ignore them. As a result, now called dalits have produced lawyers, doctors, elected politicians, cabinet ministers, engineers, judges, ambassadors, professors and businessmen. India’s current president belongs to a dalit family. Before independence, such professions were the preserve of the three upper castes.

During the 53 years of independence, the most disadvantaged members of Indian society have made more progress than the native people of Canada have since confederation. Yet, the Western media and human rights groups rarely highlight this achievement. Canada can learn a few lessons from India in this respect.

However, the anti-discrimination laws and social welfare programs implemented by successive Indian governments have failed to touch the lives of many dalits living in certain rural areas. This is due mainly to corruption in local law enforcement agencies and not because of a lack of government will. Much has been done for the dalits, but a lot more needs to be done.

Dec, 15, 2001

Article By: Ajit Adhopia

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