THE CASTE SYSTEM
In the Middle Ages we had guilds; in Britain we had a class society, and in India they had castes. The guilds were groups that you joined if you worked in a certain job or trade. If you were a carpenter, you joined a carpenters guild. The guild would protect your rights, and help you find clients. Much later guilds became Unions.
Caste started out the same way. The system started around 1500-1600 AD. A person was placed in a caste based on what job they or their family did. You could say that a 'caste' means 'category' or 'group'. Over time, the caste system became a way to isolate certain people and keep them poor. We call this discrimination. Officially, the caste system was ended around 1960, but the practice still continues.
Indian society has five main castes:
1. Priestly Caste (Brahmins). These were the highest rank. Many leaders and politicians would also be from this no1 caste. There were only a few people in this powerful caste.
2. Rulers (Kshatriya) This caste was for governors, administrators, and military. This was a very important caste, but the Rulers were still second the Brahmins.
3. Business Caste (Vaishya) These were business people; traders, managers and shop keepers.
4. Labourers (Shudra) This caste was for manual labourers, servants and farm hands. Many people belonged to this caste.
5. Untouchables (Dalits) These were the people who had no caste ranking. They were mostly very poor and had to do the jobs that other people refused, like collecting garbage. They also worked as slaves. Around 16% of the population belonged to this caste.
The rulers thought it would be good to have a system for such a big country as India, a system that would tell you what job you could have.
The caste system helped the rich. Now they did not have to fight so hard to keep their nice jobs: Every body was safely kept in their caste, and nobody could cross the line. However, the system was bad for the poor people. They were imprisoned by their caste! Let us look at the example of a young man called Sagar.
Sagar is a 20 year-old plumber. He has not had a lot of education. He belongs to the Labourers (Shudra) Caste. He does not like the caste system.
People are looking down on him. The ‘higher’ castes treat him as a ‘low’ and ignorant person; someone of less value. The problem for Sagar is that his caste decides his value. He can not change his value.
His caste was decided before he was born. Caste is family based. Sagar’s father was a Shudra, Sagar is a Shudra himself, and his children will also be Shudras.
Caste ranks like a ladder. But it is a ladder that nobody can climb, because caste can never be changed. Sagar can go to college, and work hard every day, but his caste is fixed, he has to remain a Shudra.
Sagar can only marry a girl from his own caste. Maybe he would like to marry a girl from a different caste, but he will not be allowed. Shudra’s marry Shudra’s. Also, Sagar will be expected to make his friends inside the Shudra caste.
A CHANGE OF LAW
You can understand that the low caste people became very angry over time. From 1800 to 1950 there were many violent struggles and protests from the lower caste people. They would shout: ‘Set us free! Cancel the system!‘ One of the first educated Untouchables (Dalits) was Dr. Ambedkar. He fought for the Dalits, and even worked on the Indian Constitution. Finally the caste system was cancelled after 1960. Today, caste may not be in the law books, but it is still present in the mind: ‘caste thinking’ still carries on as before. Nowadays nobody will ask you in India: ‘What caste are you?’ But many people will ask you for your surname. Your surname will tell them what your caste is.
Since the 1980's, the government of India tries to place many people from the low castes in university. The politicians feel bad about all the injustice of the past. Officially, to discriminate against anyone because of their caste is now against the law.
In today's large Indian cities, people of all castes meet socially and for business. Some even have started to marry across caste lines.