CW: violence, rape
Before beginning this piece, I want to recognize that I am speaking from a position of privilege; my family has benefitted from the caste system for generations, and many of the opportunities we have been afforded are not as easily accessible for some. In writing this piece, I do not intend to speak for or over a community that I do not belong to. My main purpose is to raise awareness about the detriments of the caste system in today’s day and age.
On Sept. 14, a Dalit woman in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh was gang raped by four men. Two weeks later, she died from the severity of her injuries. The men were identified as being from upper castes, with a history of violence targeted towards minority groups in the Indian community. As of this past Thursday, the investigators claimed that “she was not raped” and the woman’s body was reported to be cremated without her family’s consent. The caste system has been integrated into Hindu society for centuries, forcing the community into an abstract hierarchy that determines how a person is treated in the world, both in their personal lives as well as professionally. While some families do not consider their caste any longer, many still refuse to marry outside of their caste and hold this classification as a point of pride.
Incidents of violence against Dalit women are not few and far between. About a month earlier, a 13 year old girl died in the same region, and in 2018, a girl was beheaded in southern India by an upper-caste male. In a country that prides itself on being a booming modern society, why are these acts of inhumane violence so prevalent against Dalit women? Why are they so normalized?
Many people, including those living in the Western hemisphere, like to brush away caste as something outdated; legally, the caste system was outlawed in 1950, but this was never effectively enforced. Those with privilege in the Hindu community act like it doesn’t exist because they benefit from it constantly; for families whose entire identity and sense of pride revolve around some arbitrary, ancient label, it’s easy for them to forget that not everyone has that privilege. While higher castes love to tout their status and look down at those who are “other,” they rarely pause and consider that the same system that gives them this privilege destroys the lives of those who don’t have that status. The United Nations Human Rights Council, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, among various other human rights organizations, all identify Dalit women as a vulnerable population for violence and mistreatment. Why, then, does the majority of the Hindu community continue to perpetuate and uphold the caste system?
Perhaps it is because they are afraid of losing the power that they have held for centuries. Perhaps, like so many of the systemic issues we are seeing in the world, it’s difficult to come to terms with the fact that your privilege should not be normalized.
The Hindu community needs to stop using the excuse that the caste system is illegal, because this gives people a way to brush aside these murders as isolated incidents. Putting something into law does nothing to uproot centuries of discrimination, violence and hatred that still persists today. Our families walk around saying the caste system is illegal while still refusing to marry our children outside of our castes, while looking down upon those who aren’t the same caste as us, while turning a blind eye at the countless men, women and children who lose their lives every year for something they don’t control, something that should not even exist in the first place. Even now in the 21st century, the caste system continues to perpetuate harm and pain to those who have done nothing to deserve it. A person’s right to education, employment, even to life itself should not be determined by an outdated system that predetermines a person’s level of success at birth. In this day and age, the Hindu community must move away from this assumptive, ancient system of classification that essentially degrades a person to less of a human.
I don’t think anyone has a clear answer to how to effectively get rid of the implications of the caste system. As the world has observed throughout the past few months, changing something at the cultural, systemic level takes time, energy and frustration. It takes stepping out of our bubbles of ignorance and opening up outlets of expression for those who have been barred from them in the past. It takes having the humility to understand that your own privilege means nothing if others do not have the same privileges as you.