Caste systems still wield power over everyday life in India. While the collective culture presents a façade of attempted change, the actual effort to achieve such change has been inadequate and habit prevents the social structure from changing. Society as a whole still considers caste to be important, and generations of tradition endow a form of legitimacy to the caste system. While the Indian government has tried to limit the caste system by instituting an affirmative action program, those adjustments have been insufficient to break through fortifications of a system in place for hundreds of years. Individuals themselves also continue to empower the now-technically-illegal system. They refuse to allow the government to institute even the minimal changes it has instituted because that would upset their own current advantageous circumstances. Overall, despite attempts to evolve away from it, India’s caste system still plays an important and unfortunate role in society.
Castes in India are still very prevalent because of the importance that society endows upon them and the interest that people have in them. Knowledge of the intricate system of social classes is still considered to be important: there are thousands of subcastes (“jati”) to memorize. Originally, jati determined a person’s profession and family name. While this is no longer true, social hierarchy still plays an important role in everyday lives. Individuals of higher castes are typically wealthier than those of lower castes and it is even considered impolite to exhibit one’s caste if one is of a higher caste, because it is considered showing off. Adhering to caste is a simple habit. Indians are used to having predetermined opinions of others based on their social status because they are born into this system. Because knowing about castes is so important, they are, for now, an irreplaceable part of Indian culture.
The caste system remains active in part because the government in northern India allows it to be so. Like the slave-owners of the antebellum American south, the people who have power in northern India recognize that the caste system is beneficial to them and will not give up its advantages, regardless of the moral issues involved. Since the people in power are almost always the people who agree with the caste system and since it has presented them with benefits, they continue to allot powerful positions to people like them who will in turn support them. In the north, caste was of such great importance that the people rallied to have identification of caste be included in the national census. Even if this practice may have some benefit—since it may protect jobs for specific caste members—overall it is more likely to support the status quo and keep jobs out of the reach of disadvantaged people. While the caste system has been illegal for many decades, the government was still forced to accept inclusion of it in the census. This capitulation displays the ongoing power of the caste system and the way in which hierarchical levels define the people of India. In addition, even positive government actions have been unable to prevent the underlying bias against lower caste members that is so deeply engrained in Indian culture. When the government added an affirmative action system, it was regarded by the upper castes as an unfair affront to the idea of rewarding merit, rather than an attempt to correct centuries of injustice. While the government tries to take a stand, their edict is not strong enough to lessen the importance of caste systems.
The social class system has not waned because the people of upper classes refuse changes in the system that involve what they consider to be obstacles for themselves. Members of upper castes refuse affirmative action, because they consider it unfair and overly advantageous for members of lower castes. This refusal of affirmative action could prevent ex-untouchables from receiving educations and having productive professional lives. Since the ex-untouchables don’t have opportunities the way higher caste members do, they will continue to revolve in the same circle generation after generation without hope of upward mobility. Additionally, the people prevent the end of the caste system by voting within their caste. Individuals elect members of their caste into office in hopes of benefits for themselves. The electors in turn support their caste by providing them a better school district, for example. This unfortunate inequality of power further separates the abilities of those at different tiers of the hierarchy and because the upper castes take advantage, the caste system still proves to be prevalent.
Despite attempts to change it, the caste system remains a strong force in Indian society. Caste defines individual citizens as it defined their ancestors. A system that was this crucial to everyday life less than a century ago could not have been easily abolished. The importance society endows upon castes, the limited efforts of the government to prevent castes and the actions of individual people continue the cycle of ranking and the predicament of the underprivileged.
Kaley Pillinger, Age 14, Grade 8, Hunter College High School, Silver Key