Caste System

Vemula was a Dalit – a member of what was once known as the “untouchables,” at the bottom of the Hindu caste system.

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May 11, 2017 – Online MCAT CARS Practice

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On January 17, Rohith Vemula, a PhD candidate at the University of Hyderabad in India’s Telangana state, hanged himself. Even in a country of 1.2 billion people, a single death can have a major impact.

Vemula was a Dalit – a member of what was once known as the “untouchables,” at the bottom of the Hindu caste system. He was also a leader of the Ambedkar Students Association at Hyderabad University, seeking to promote Dalit rights. In death, Vemula has achieved something he could not have imagined: He has become a national hero, his tragedy emblematic of the toxic durability of caste in India’s development narrative.

Unlike race, caste is invisible: a person’s face does not indicate it. Yet it retains a powerful hold on Indian society, limiting the opportunities available at all stages of life. To be a Dalit is to wear an invisible stigma that dogs one’s daily interactions. Vemula’s death has reminded Indians once again that the more than 300 million who belong to the lowest castes, as well as the “tribals” or indigenous people, still face discrimination, prejudice, hostility, and even violence on each step of the social ladder.

To be sure, India’s government has made significant efforts to redress the situation. Nine days after Vemula’s death, India celebrated the 66th anniversary of the adoption of its constitution, which sought to combat the country’s rigid social stratification with the world’s first and most comprehensive affirmative-action program. Designated castes and tribes were guaranteed not only equality of opportunity, but also positive outcomes, aided by quotas for educational institutions, government jobs, and even seats in parliament and state assemblies.

These quotas, or “reservations,” were granted based on people’s (presumably immutable) caste identities. It was a small step toward compensating the millions of unfortunates who had suffered daily the injustices and humiliations of “untouchability.”
Over the last 66 years, politicians have maintained a strong commitment to affirmative action. Though originally intended to expire after ten years, the reservations have been extended for 70, with further extensions certain when they come up for renewal in 2020. The quotas remain the “third rail” of Indian politics; one touches it at one’s peril.

Yet Dalits feel only marginally better off than their wretched forebears. And, indeed, they remain behind the advanced castes in terms of all socioeconomic indicators, from education levels to family income.

Vemula was admitted to his university on merit, not through the reservation system. Yet he faced all the prejudice that would be directed at any Dalit. He left behind a passionate letter outlining his mistreatment at the hands of an insensitive and bureaucratic university administration. The ultimate indignity was the withholding of a fellowship on which he depended to support not only himself, but also his single mother – a punishment for his political activism. In fact, intensifying his letter’s pathos, he requested that part of the money the university owes him be paid to his family to cover debts he incurred as a result of being denied his fellowship. Clearly, reservations of public-sector jobs and college seats alone have failed to end the discrimination.

Vemula’s death sparked a wave of public protests, with leading politicians flocking to Hyderabad to add their voices to the growing clamor against not just the university, but also the government – especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who remained silent for nearly a week after the tragedy. Finally, Modi spoke emotionally at the Dalit-majority Babasaheb Bhimrao Ambedkar University in Lucknow (named for an iconic Dalit leader who had chaired the Constitution Drafting Committee), pleading that the issue not be politicized: “Politics has its place, but a mother lost her son.”

Yet politics is integral to the problems highlighted by the tragedy. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had hoped that caste consciousness would wither away after independence. But the opposite has happened. Because caste was such a powerful source of self-identification, it proved to be a useful tool for political mobilization in India’s electoral democracy: When Indians cast their vote, they too often vote their caste. Granting sops to various castes proved a major vote-getting tactic for India’s politicians.

If India is to eliminate the discrimination and indignities faced by members of its lower castes, it must transcend the politics of identity and focus on broader development goals and socioeconomic challenges. This will be no easy feat – especially as Indians compete for scarce opportunities in an overpopulated land. So long as prejudice persists, politicians in India’s contentious democracy will exploit it.

January 30 marked the 68th anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, who fought not merely for independence, but also for a more just, equal, and moral India. The country must see in the Vemula tragedy a reminder of the vital need to rededicate ourselves to Gandhi’s ideals, so that bright Dalit students are not driven to despair – or worse. It may be a pious hope, but it is the very foundation of Indian nationhood.

Adapted from Project Syndicate.

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Jack Westin
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31 Comments


  1. despite the effort of getting rid of caste system, example ‘reservations’, people especially lower caste are still suffering.
    author asserts that in order to move away from caste system is to transcendent politics of identity and focus on broader plans.

    Reply

  2. Caste system = negative impact on Indians/limits opportunities. Vemula orchestrated the fight against caste stigma and discrimination. Author hopes Indians implore Ghandi’s idea for better society

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  3. MI1: Indian government has been trying to change the caste system
    MI2: discrimination against those in the lower rungs persists

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  4. Vemula’s death raised awareness about caste system inequality but did not improve it significantly

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  5. MIP: Caste=govt wants to change, still persists

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  6. Caste system needs to be eradicated so everyone, especially the Dalit, can have equal opportunity. However, this is a challenging task as Indian government’s past effort on this issue has not been effective. India needs to come up with a more effective solution.

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  7. MIP: caste system leads to discrimination + political… need to transcend identity politics; tone = neutral

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  8. RV death = revealed the toxic hold the caste system has on India + the effort to get rid of it did not do much and India govt = need to go back to Gandhi’s idea = equality

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  9. The caste system persists + holds power over an individual’s identity in India, despite progress from independence and ‘reservations’.
    Vemula’s death spurred a movement, but politics of identity, and exploitation of prejudice by politicians is standing in the way of the country being able to find a solution to this issue.

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  10. It seems as if despite the public and governments attempts at an equal and fair nation, the caste system is still exploited for its prejudice to promote one’s own well-being.

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  11. MI: Caste System = negative, Suicide of V leads to more awareness and increase wanting of change

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  12. govt took action against caste system, caste system still powerful

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  13. caste system=discrimination and leads to tragedies in smart and educated people like Vemula

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  14. caste system created inequality, discrimination and violence. The government tried to eliminate the caste system but the system was still powerful.

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  15. Cast system injustices, prejudices, and discrimination persist to this day and the government must supercede their political ways of thinking to end this discrimination to lower caste members.

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  16. Vemula’s death reminded the need to rededicate Indian foundation of nationhood to wither away the caste system as well as the discrimination and politics of identity while changing its focus to equality among all.

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  17. Caste system identifying people is discrimination and bad politics. Need to focus on social goals

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  18. Caste = Invisible + Powerful => Threat to nation’s future. Focus should be on socioeconomic issues in order to devalue Caste.

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  19. MIP: Prejudice against caste = exists; government trying to combat; politicians exploit caste

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  20. caste = invisible + limited opportunities + discriminated
    social stratification = combated however caste = powerful and tool for political mobilization
    author = negative

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  21. Caste system = powerful even though the government is trying to change it. Lower caste = prejustice + limited opportunities.

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  22. Main Idea: To argue that India has to promote social change in regards to its discrimination because of caste systems. The author mentions that the constitution to promote equal rights to lower caste individuals has clearly not worked and that India should reflect the moral ideas of Ghandi.

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  23. Theme: A poignant appeal by the author to end the caste system that has been so deeply ingrained in India’s culture and why it is necessary to abolish this system if India hopes to progress as a nation. Caste has been a powerful stigma since its inception (powerful hold on Indian society, limiting the opportunities available…dogs one’s daily interactions…still face discrimination…on each step of the social ladder) and it is impossible to shake it off. Indian government has taken big steps to address the problem (affirmative-action program…..positive outcomes, aided by quotas…….small step toward compensating…..politicians have maintained a strong commitment) yet nothing much has changed (remain the ‘third rail” of Indian politics….touches it as one’s peril…only marginally better off than…they remain behind the advanced castes….reservations ….alone have failed to end the discrimination) (central).

    Vemula was admitted based on merit (not even with the help of the reservation system) and he still faced all the prejudice (withholding of a fellowship …..a punishment for his political activism).

    Testable: Irony that caste consciousness was hoped to have withered away post independence yet it was still blatantly exploited by politicians hoping to seek the people’s mandate in elections. Caste system has shown to be too attractive and powerful a tool to not exploit in politics (association). Politicians will continue to exploit caste system for their benefit as long as prejudice exists.

    Testable: know that scarce resources and opportunities in India’s burgeoning population makes it difficult to implement affirmative-action policies too. Even with improved socioeconomic opportunities for the low castes, it is still prevalent in politics. Politics and limited resources are attributes to the problem (algorithm).

    Tone: Poignant, sad, despair, painful reminder of the deep-seated prejudice in India’s highly stratified society. Earnest appeal (reminder of the vital need to rededicate…to Gandhi’s ideals) to nation building in India (pious hope…..foundation of Indian nationhood).

    Reply

  24. MIP: caste (Dalit) = discrimination; gov policy = fail + politics

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  25. Vemula death = impact on future of Caste System. Caste system has improved, but discrimination still exists, especially in politics.

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  26. MP: There was a hanging that is a reminder that we need to remove the importance of the cast system that leads to discriminations

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  27. MIP: caste system = relevant + discrimination + violence. caste = political + need to change

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  28. V’s suicide events reminds the problem of caste systems in India. Such systems, discarded on the legal side, still exists in people’s mind. It negatively influences the national politics and development.

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  29. The suicide of Vemula illustrated how the caste system still prejudices and discriminates against those of the lower castes. Though acts of affirmative action and such have attempted to improve equality, the inequality persists. This occurrence instigated individuals to protest for a more moral and equal India.

    Reply

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