Just Society: Caste, still a critical constraint?

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It is a sad state of affairs that even after more than six decades of India’s Independence caste pervades every dimension of the Indian society, and has become a critical constraint on India’s pursuit of development. In other words, a mature and just society should be another major developmental goal for India but the realisation of this goal is constrained by the Indian caste system. This opinion emanates from a study conducted to evaluate the implementation of the National Food Security Act.

As a member of a student volunteer group who took part in a field survey, I travelled to the remote villages of Chattisgarh in June, 2016. NFSA was passed in 2013 and this survey was an attempt to understand the functioning of the same in six Indian states-Bihar, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Odisha and West Bengal. We were a team of seven. We travelled to six villages in two blocks of Chattisgarh, participating in a field survey. While conducting the survey and filling the questionnaires, I observed how caste is deeply rooted in the Indian society. I wasn’t surprised to see the extent to which caste matters.

Why the caste is mentioned at all? Is education a tool to impart caste-based studies? Are the school teachers comfortable with this redundant information painted on the walls that may affect the young minds?

Education is the best possible means to break the shackles created by the caste system and opening the narrow minds, but what if the same caste system is openly exhibited in an educational institute?

As mentioned, the survey was conducted in six villages. Caste related issues were observed by other team members as well. Madhya Pradesh team carried out the survey in Satna and Annupur District covering seven villages. They observed that the caste composition of the Gram Panchayatwas one of the major factors involving discrimination at various levels. As far as the Public Distribution System is concerned, the issue and update of ration cards was more difficult for the people belonging to lower caste and more so when the Sarpanch was an upper caste person.

In certain cases ineligible upper caste households had ration cards while the eligible lower caste poor households did not. As per the village residents, Sarpanch being an upper caste person was a major reason behind this bigotry. In Srinagar village of Satna Block, there were complaints about discrimination in the quality of food grains during distribution of ration on the basis of caste.

In this village the upper caste households were given preference for ration distribution. The residents complained that since the lower caste people are the last ones to receive grains they end up receiving left-out low quality grains.

In Jharkhand, the demarcation of the tolas (Residential areas in the villages) based on the caste was very evident. Caste structure in Muslims and the discrimination between upper caste Muslims and non-Hindus (dalitbahjun and tribe) was observed as well. Villagers’ enquiring about the caste of the investigators was a very common practice experienced by all the team members in almost all the states. For most of the villagers, caste establishes our identity. Sometimes it was a passport to let us use their bathroom; sometimes it was a criterion to form an opinion about us. Judgment based solely on our caste has no rationale whatsoever.
Amartya Sen describes Indian caste system as ‘anti-national’ dividing the entire nation and this experience has made me appreciate his words even more. Indian society is still burdened by the shackles of caste system. It’s imperative to remove these shackles to achieve the aim of being a just society. This field study gives us an expression that caste is dominant in every aspect of our society.

(The author would like to thank fellow volunteers who shared their field experiences; Kiran Thete, Naman Jain, Souparna Maji, and Aditi Priya. The author would also like to thank Dr. M.H. Suryanarayana for his valuable comments and feedback)

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Henna Kapoor is a PHD student with the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research