I am reading “Untouchabe”, a life history of Muli (an Indian untochable). He is not an untouchable that has overcome his lot and ascended into the higher class (or caste – which one is correct now?). He was 40 and still living as an untouchable when the life history was recorded.

The longevity of the Indian caste system has intrigued me for some time. I am aware that anti-discrimination laws have been passed, and that caste-based discrimination has significantly decreased in the cities. But the practice still exists in many (if not most) rural areas. What intrigues me is not the ethics of this situation, but the social structures which enable it. In a modern society, in a progressive country, how is it possible that the caste system still operates on such a wide scale?

One of the more enlightning quotes from Muli comes in response to being asked why he never tried to become a skilled labourer.

If we try to become skilled, we may not do a good job. Then we would be dismissed and starve.I have no faith in our abilities. God has produced us to be like this. Why should we try more?

It is the same logic that keeps women in abusive relationships. If we are told that we are worthless often enough, we tend to believe it. And this particular caste has been treated as sub-human since ancient times. Given that, I am not sure why this quote shocked me, but it did. Why do people of this caste still think this way? Are there government initiatives aimed at undoing all of the damage caused by the caste system? Are there affirmative-action type programs? I am not judging here, I am interested in why these thoughts still persist. Why are there still a large number of people who believe that they are inferior?

And is that all there is to it ? Is it mainly the previously untouchables view of themselves that underpins the caste system’s longevity?

I recently watched a program chronicaling the life of untouchable women whose job it is to clean human excrement from houses in the community. Human aid workers are trying to introduce modern toilets in an effort to eradicate the need for this job. If modern toilets were implemented, and the untouchables were no longer cleaning excrement, would opinions of them change?

Of all modern day human rights issues, the Indian caste system intrigues me the most. Not because it is the most blatant, but because it appears to be the most accepted. And not by the majority of the Indian population (although that might be the case) but by the the opressed peoples themselves. I am very interested in how this has developed and why it’s grasp is as strong as it is.


~ by aikaterine on July 15, 2008.

One Response to “progress?”

  1. That is absolutely heartbreaking

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