The Hindu Caste System: Why should it Matter to You as Development Practitioners?

“In my view, the caste system is a vivid reality that continues to imprison the South Asian mindset and societies. It is one of the world‘s longest forms of socially embedded stratification practiced for over 2,000 years.”

~ by Damber Kumar (DK) Gurung, Ph.D.

India‘s economic growth has been watched and talked about all over the world for sometime. Beyond the popular media, analysts have provided deeper insight into what it means for India to grow economically at such significant rate (average quarterly GDP at 8 percent). However, underlying socio-structural factors that could make such growth vulnerable have not received similar attention. Based on my experience in the region, without further addressing social structural issues such as the Caste System, benefits of economic progress would be much less meaningful for the general population and consequently, economic achievements will be difficult to sustain in the long run. In my view, the caste system is a structural factor that cannot be overlooked in the development of South Asian countries such as India and Nepal. This hypothesis is explored here using the development experience in Nepal, a country ruled under the machinery of Caste System for nearly the last 240 years.

In my view, the caste system is a vivid reality that continues to imprison the South Asian mindset and societies. It is one of the world‘s longest forms of socially embedded stratification practiced for over 2,000 years. Within most villages or towns, everyone knows the relative caste rankings of each locally represented group, and people‘s behavior toward one another is constantly shaped by this knowledge. Urban areas and modern workplaces are not devoid of similar social landscape. The caste system wherein by birth one belongs to an upper (Brahmin, Kshatriya), a trader caste (Vaishya), a low-er caste (Sudra) or an outcaste (untouchable) as it has existed as a completely flawed system because the prescribed social division (Varna), as per the Bhagvad Gita – Hindu scripture, is based on quality (Guna) of individuals and not based on birth as practiced. The so-called upper caste people, due to their vested interests, have favored maintaining these social norms, as by design they had power and influence to do so. Caste groups and their respective behavioral tendencies can be summarized as follows:

● The upper caste Brahmin are deemed intellectuals by birth. They tend to look down upon and treat members of other castes derogatively, even inhumanly. The social systems and norms favor them on their pathways to become educated and successful. Only Brahmins are eligible to become Hindu priests who can serve in temples and perform religious and social rituals. For instance, Brahmins were Nepali rulers‘ priests as well as close advisors. Consequently, Brahmins tend to occupy powerful positions in administration and politics as well as in high salaried professions.

● The upper caste Kshatriyas, are defined as warriors or rulers by birth. They, like the Brahmin class, tend to look down upon and treat members of lower castes derogatively and inhumanly. Kshatriyas are not eligible to become Hindu priests, but are favored by the social system and norms on their pathways to become educated and successful. Consequently, Kshatriyas tend to occupy higher powerful positions in military, administration and politics as well as in high salaried professions. For instance, Kshatriyas (members of Rana and Shah families) ruled Nepal for more than 200 years.

● The Vaishyas are farmers or traders by birth. They also tend to treat Brahmins and Kshatriyas as people of status, and deal with members of lower castes in a derogatory way.

● The Sudras or lower class, are supposed to provide services, as manual workers or servants, to other caste people, and are usually treated inhumanly by all other caste people.

● The Untouchables or otherwise known as outcasts are required to perform tasks that are considered impure or unpleasant, like cleaning or leather tanning. In former times, elaborate rules were applied to avoid their “cross-contamination” with other castes. Even their shadows were considered polluted.

Unless one makes a concerted effort to understand it, even experts can overlook the implications of structural issues such as the Caste System in development practices. In my view, Nepal is a shinning example of such a failure. During 1970s and 1980s, Nepal used to be called a Shangri-La even by international development experts despite its economic and social woes buried under the Government‘s development plans and official reports. It has been grossly overlooked until recently that Nepal has been ruled under an umbrella of a caste system with over 109 different castes, in which an individual‘s abilities are pre-determined by birth. With the machinery of the Caste System, Kshatriyas (Shah and Rana) ruled Nepal as a Hindu Kingdom for 240 years until 2006. Selected Brahmin family members advised the rulers on political system, state governance, military, bureaucracy, and even regional and international relations. Whereas selected higher caste family members benefited immensely from the system and by design, other higher caste groups generally benefited from the system. Unfortunately, this exclusionary culture expanded to systematically exclude women, ethnic minorities (that make majority of the population) and people from certain regions (plains and remote areas) from the extremely narrowly defined ―mainstream‖. Analysts have estimated that about 15 per-cent of the population maintained monopoly control over Nepal‘s resources for the last two centuries. An Anthropologist, Dor Bahadur Bista analyzed how a corrupted culture of nepotism and favoritism developed under the Caste system in Nepal. In its constant attempt to exit from this social cage and from the consequent impoverished situation, the excluded majority of Nepal supported the Maoist insurgency movement that brought about an end to the 240 years of rule by the Hindu Monarchy and a rise of a republic of Nepal in 2006.

The lion’s share of this unjust Caste system falls on Dalits (Sudras, Untouchables) as more than 200 million Dalits live under the horror of this system every day in India and Nepal. A few indicators of discrimination and exclusion are as follows:

● Dalits cannot touch other caste people‘s food and water. If they did, the food or water will be considered impure, considered unfit for upper caste consumption and will be discarded.

● Dalits cannot use essential common facilities – drinking water wells, even a walking trail in parts of Nepal when upper caste people are using it.

● Dalits are not allowed in other caste people homes.

● Dalits are not allowed in places of worship.

● Dalits live in separate village areas, usually occupying marginal land areas, and are segregated from other groups

The Caste system is legally forbidden as per the constitutions of India and Nepal, therefore practicing untouchability or discriminating a person based on his/her caste is illegal. Along with this law the governments allow types of positive discrimination of oppressed classes. For instance in India, three categories – Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Backward Castes, as per the central government policy, have reservations in the government jobs and students admitted to universities – 15% for Scheduled castes, 7.5% for Scheduled Tribes and 27% for Backward Castes.

Over the decades, the South Asians have become a bit more flexible in their caste system customs. In general, the urban people are less strict about the caste system than the rural. However, sometimes there are violent clashes in villages or in the cities related to caste tensions. Amidst India‘s significant economic growth fueled by world class businesses launching every month and other highlights such as the nuclear agreement with the United States and the Indian Space Research Organization successfully launching its new satellites, we do have a stark reminder of another India that based on the Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), at least eight States – Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jhar-khand – are considered worse than in some of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa. As per Dr. Sabina Alkire, Director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, the MPI for the Scheduled Tribes is the highest indicating 81% of the sub-population poor, almost same as Mozambique. The MPI for the Scheduled Caste indicates 66% are considered poor, only a bit better than Nigeria. Based on MPI, among 104 countries, Bangladesh ranked 73. India ranked 74, and Nepal 82 (UNDP, July, 2010). A Wall Street Journal article (Caste Away, June 23, 2007) chronicles rare success of two Dalits in India‘s High Tech industry and provides evidence that India‘s 200 million Dalits have extremely limited access to skilled jobs.

Experts predict that by 2030, two out of three people will live in an urban world, with the most explosive growth occurring in developing countries including India. Some may argue that economic growth and urbanization will gradually eliminate South Asia‘s Caste System. The evidence however (a glimpse of which is presented here), indicates that an elimination of the caste system is not in sight. Gradual improvement in the system may occur if concerted efforts are made. It is my view that as international development practitioners we cannot lose sight of social fundamentals such as the Caste System in South Asia. A clear and comprehensive understanding of caste system and its implications for long term social development is essential. Deeper understanding of the system can enable and empower us to leverage current resources in advocating necessary reforms and policies that can assure sustainable future development in the region.

Source: ‘The Summit‟, which includes news, profiles and events for and about ICAP, December, 2010, Number 3, Volume 1

Originally published at on Thursday 3 February 2011.Shared with permission.

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