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India’s Caste System

relates to India’s Caste System
Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg
Updated on

For generations of Indians, the ancient code of social stratification known as the caste system has defined how people earn a living and whom they marry. Despite reform efforts, deep-rooted prejudices and entitlement hold firm among higher castes, while those on the lowest rungs still face marginalization, discrimination and violence. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a strategy that purports to look beyond caste and focus on improving the lot of all Indians. His approach has won overwhelming backing from voters, but critics say it risks exacerbating the plight of the most disadvantaged.

Seven decades ago, the founders of postcolonial India outlawed caste discrimination and enshrined affirmative action in the constitution. That included reserving government jobs and places in higher education for Dalits — a group at the bottom rung of the caste system who now number more than 200 million. Yet caste remains a significant factor in deciding everything from family ties and cultural traditions to educational and economic opportunities, especially in small towns and villages, where more than 70% of Indians live. Nearly a third of Dalits make less than $2 a day, and many don’t have access to education or running water. Most menial jobs are carried out by Dalits; few office jobs are. Hate crimes against Dalits have proliferated in recent years, prompting criticism of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party for allegedly stoking social divisions. The party is the natural home for Hindu hardliners, some of whom have attacked Muslims for eating beef and lower-caste Hindus over their links to the beef trade. (Hindus consider cows sacred.) Dalits have taken to the streets by the tens of thousands to demand protection of their rights. Yet, for the second straight election, Modi led the BJP to a resounding victory in 2019, even securing a larger share of Dalit votes. Parties with policies aimed in particular at promoting lower castes were trounced, as Modi’s appeal to a common Hindu heritage trumped caste consciousness.