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Terminology Corner

Caste and casteism

Caste discrimination is one of the most systematized and ideologically bound forms of human rights abuse in the world today. Through a hierarchical system, the assignment of basic rights among various castes is highly unequal, with those at the top enjoying most rights coupled with least duties, and those at the bottom performing most duties while also being denied equality in dignity and a bundle of human rights. This system deprives more than 260 million people worldwide, relegating them the lowest caste as “untouchables” (or Dalits, in India). The system is maintained through the rigid enforcement of social ostracism (a system of social and economic penalties). Casteism is the adherence to and/or support of this rigid form of social hierarchy and discrimination. More generally, any system of negative discrimination based on menial work and descent can be considered casteism.

A caste is any of the ranked, hereditary, endogamous social groups, often linked with a particular occupation, that together constitute communities within traditional societies in South Asia, particularly among Hindus in India. Although sometimes used to designate similar groups in other societies, the “caste system” is uniquely developed in Hindu societies (India and west Nepal). However, a similar form of casteism is practiced in other countries, as in the case of the marginalized Akhdam (Arabic for “servants”) in Yemen, the neeno in Senegal, the Osu in Nigeria and the Buraku in Japan. Groups affected by these practices include the Dalit or “untouchables” in India and Nepal, the neeno in Senegal, the Osu in Nigeria and the Buraku in Japan. These castes experience discrimination in numerous areas of social life, including housing, marriage, labor rights, provision of social services and distribution of wealth.

The term “caste” is used to characterize social organization in South Asia, particularly among the Hindus since the middle of the 16th century. The common term derives from “casta,” a Portuguese term derived from the Latin castus, meaning “chaste”, in the sense of purity of breed. Portuguese traders in India used the term to describe the division of Hindu society in western and southwestern India into socially ranked occupational categories. With the purpose of maintaining vertical social distance, these groups practiced mutual exclusion in matters relating to eating and, presumably, marrying. Subsequently, cast, or caste, became established in English and major European languages (notably Dutch and French) in the same specific sense. Caste is generally believed to be an ancient, abiding, and unique Indian institution upheld by a complex cultural ideology.

Referred to in most Indian languages as “jati” (broadly meaning a form of existence fixed by birth), caste identity is essential to distinguish between large-scale and small-scale views of caste society, which may respectively be said to represent theory and practice, or ideology and the existing social reality. On the large scale, contemporary students of Hindu society recall an ancient fourfold arrangement of socioeconomic categories called the varnas, which is traced back to an oral tradition preserved in the Rigveda (dating from between 1500 and 1200 BCE). The Sanskrit word varna has many connotations, including color, description, selection, and classification.

Indo-European-speaking peoples migrated probably about 1500 BCE to northwestern India (the Indus valley and the Punjab Plain). Since the mid-19th century, some scholars have identified these migrants as “Aryans”; this term, derived from the Sanskrit word arya (“noble” or “distinguished”), is found in the Rigveda. Some scholars postulated that these alleged Aryans encountered or conquered the indigenous people, whom they called daha (“enemies”) or dasyu (“servants”). The fact that varna may mean “color” has led some scholars to posit that these so-called Aryans and the dasyus—alleged to have been light-skinned and dark-skinned, respectively—may have been antagonistic ethnic groups divided by physical features, as well as by culture and language. Since the mid-20th century, however, some scholars have pointed to textual evidence that the distinction referred to ritual practices and not to skin color; further, the term arya may have been a term for nobility rather than an ethnic self-identification. In addition, it is also likely that the daha included earlier immigrants from Iran. Therefore, the tendency of some 20th century writers to reduce the ancient bipolar classification to racial differences on the basis of skin color is misleading and no longer in vogue.

Some key characteristics shared among those affected by casteism, regardless of geography or historical origin, include:

  • The concept of “purity pollution,” whereby certain groups are viewed as being “dirty,” and thus contact with them is considered to be polluting (either ritually or physically);
  • An inherited occupational role, typically the most menial and hazardous work within society, and in some areas an inherited status as a slave;
  • A restricted or complete inability to alter one’s inherited status;
  • Socially enforced restrictions against intermarriage;
  • A segregated location in which to live and restricted access to and use of public places;
  • Subjection to debt bondage; and
  • A generalized lack of respect for human dignity and equality.

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution (1947) guarantees that the state shall not deny equality to any person before the law, or equal protection of the laws within the territory of India. Article 15 prohibits the state from discriminating against any citizen on ground of any religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.

Article 17 states that untouchability is abolished and its practice in any form is forbidden. The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 was the first Indian law that came into force to provide punishment for the preaching and practice of untouchability and for any mater connected with it. In 1989, the Government of India enacted the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, which recognized various kinds of acts of violence and discrimination inflicted upon the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes by non-scheduled castes and non-scheduled tribes as punishable offences. It also provides for provision of special courts at the district level to try the offences under this Act.

Sources: Britanica, Vikaspedia, Dalit Solidarity Network UK, Human Rights Watch.  



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