Why the “I” in “India” Stands For “Identity”

By Nikhil Verma

The Hidden Indian ‘Apartheid’

In October 2015, two three-year-old kids were set on fire and torched inside a house along with eight adults of the same family in the Indian town of Ballabgarh, Haryana. [1]
Similarly, in 2010, a polio-stricken teenage girl was torched while she was sleeping, her elderly father who went to save her was also locked by an upper-caste mob until both of them were charred to death. The spokes of the rusty handicap tricycle which was meant to assist the polio-ridden condition of the obliterated girl laid darkened in the corner. These are not excerpts of stories from Auschwitz, these are everyday stories from Modern India – so-called progressive India.
These are narratives of caste-based violence and atrocities which occur without any fear of prosecution in India. In both stories, the perpetrators belonged to ‘Upper-Caste groups” i.e. the ‘Caste Elites of India’, whereas both the families on the receiving end belonged to the most socially stigmatised community of Indian society – “The Untouchables” which are now mostly recognized as “Dalits”. The word ‘Dalit’ means ‘broken’ or ‘oppressed’ (recognized as Scheduled Castes & Scheduled Tribes under the Indian Constitution).

In India, such heinous crimes against ‘Dalits’ are not an exception but rather a norm. Moreover, such crimes are committed with impunity which is made evident by the conviction rate which stands at 5.3%.[2] ‘Dalits’ cover almost one-fifth of the Indian population with 200 million people which is bigger than the combined population of Germany and France. Such a large population experiences caste discrimination in forms of sexual assault, physical violence, forced prostitution, manual scavenging, and denial of most basic human rights. This is tribalism of the highest order and the international community is not paying enough attention to it.

Despite the fact that caste discrimination is outlawed in India since 1947, it is omnipresent in India and the situation is not showing any signs of progress as the crimes against Dalits have increased by 66% and the rapes of ‘Dalit’ women doubled between 2007 and 2017, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

India is becoming for Dalits what Western Europe was for Jews’ notes Suraj Yengde, India’s first ‘Dalit’ PhD holder from an African university and postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Idea of India

The idea of India is filled with extrapolates about happy faces, peace among the chaos and a vibrant culture filled with colour and synergy.  The idea of India extends to its rich culture, diversity, multi-ethnicity and the craftsmanship of Taj Mahal. However, the romanticisation of India by “the West” quickly turns grey with the sight of absolute poverty, filth and juxtaposed slums.
However, the story of India is a story of ‘Caste’. The idea of India is filled with malevolence and hate – a stark difference from the projection as a welcoming liberal democracy which treats everyone with composition and respect.
The social stratification in India could remind of the one in Northern Ireland some time ago, where a few questions were enough to find out if you’re a Catholic or a Protestant. Similarly, in India, the surname reveals – “The Caste”.  It may feel innocuous to inquire about someone’s surname, I mean it wouldn’t really matter to you if you were John ‘Smith’ or John ‘Stewart’. However, this is only true if you have limited knowledge of Indian society.

Castes In India

Based on the notion of impurity and polluted human beings, the Indian caste system is divided among four social groups (castes), with ‘Dalits’ falling outside the caste system. They are considered so impure that they don’t even fall under the hierarchical ‘Hindu’ order. These social groups are determined by birth and cannot be transcended like the ‘Class’ which is based on metrics of economic success.
As an anecdote – Caste is like four-storey building with different floors representing different caste groups. The top floor by the virtue of position, not actions, is a supreme authority with the authority diminishing as you move down to the lower floors. However, there is a fifth caste group which is considered so impure just by the virtue of birth – it is not even allocated a floor in the building. However, the real evil and malevolence of the caste system is the absence of even just a door for the fifth ‘Untouchable’ group. If you were to create a door by force or through socio-political action – there would be no stairs.
There is no running away from your identity that is absolutely ingrained in your existence. It becomes nearly impossible to even exist because your existence is cursed by the virtue of your birth – if that does not equal slavery and if that is not considered the most inhumane form of oppression, then what is, may I ask?

The Archetype of Modern India

‘Class’ can be climbed by the virtue of hard work, education and dedication. That is the beauty of the Western world – it values individualism rather than collectivism. The mere idea that everyone on the top floor is superior to everyone below them is the sheer outcome of collectivism – an exercise to assert authority and power despite the fact that individuals may differ in terms of capacity and talent.
By this example – if Albert Einstein was born as an ‘Untouchable’ – there would be no ‘Albert Einstein’ because his identity as an ‘Untouchable’ would have overshadowed his identity as a talented scientist. Even if he was to excel somehow, his identity would be of paramount importance in the socio-political Indian Context. The only way he could excel to the level of genius would be through prominent social movement like the ‘Civil Rights Movement’ which is incomprehensible in the Indian context as the social ethos of the West and the Indian subcontinent is simply inequitable.
Ambedkar vs Gandhi‘Caste’ is the archetype of modern India. The only Meta-Hero for the downtrodden and broken people – ‘The Untouchables’ was Dr BR. Ambedkar. He was the only saviour for the ‘low-caste’ communities in the history of over two millennia of oppression. He was the first ‘Untouchable’ to attend a high school. He later obtained a master’s degree from the London School of Economics and also earned a doctorate from Columbia University in New York. He was the leading social reformer and activist who worked for abolishing ‘Untouchability’ or ‘Caste-Based Discrimination’ in India. He also served as the first Minister of Law in Independent India and Chairman of the drafting committee of the Constitution of India.
His demands for separate electorates for ‘Untouchables’ was vehemently stalled by ‘Gandhi’ who rather proposed reservation for ‘Untouchables’ in the general electorate. This gave birth to the concept of modern-day ‘Reservations’ (affirmative actions to reserve seats for “Dalits’ in various sectors) in India, a hot topic which is used by ‘Antagonists’ to demean Dalits as freeloaders. The idolisation of Gandhi in the international community is rather callous ignorance of his treatment of his own country’s second-grade citizens i.e. ‘Dalits’.

The Extent of Discrimination

Caste discrimination in India is not only limited to society but it is institutionalised. It is evident as soon as you enter any Indian University. You are already categorised as ‘Dalit’ without your individuality being even considered. Casual discrimination is rampant – instances of you being called a ‘Chamar’, which equates the ‘N’-word in terms of insults, is extremely common in real life. Hate speech fueled by anti-reservation[3] sentiments can be observed on social media with posts that use caste-ist slurs and caste-ist connotations. Can you even imagine the uproar if something like this was to happen in a European or an American University with a ‘black’ or ‘coloured’ student?
I believe this clearly represents the social order in India. There is no sense of compassion and acceptance, on the contrary – the sense of hate and malevolence runs high, with physical violence being a threat if someone tries to impart any sense of equality in form of objection or even asserting their basic rights of human dignity – the right to share the same canteen, the same premises or the same classroom. Even the most renowned Indian institutes are guilty of caste bias.
Dalit ChildTake the case of the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ)[4], one of the most prestigious journalism college in India. Its diversity projects to offer caste-based scholarships to ‘Dalits’ generated outrage among the upper caste students and influential upper caste alumni network who make a crushing majority in every private English-Medium premier institute in India. These aspirants who had generations of privilege behind them were against only a small affirmative action to socially include the most vulnerable group of Indian society.
There are increasing cases of suicides directly related to caste discrimination in India. The suicide of Rohit Vemula, a PhD student who hanged himself in his dorm room at the University of Hyderabad is one of many examples. His suicide note read: “My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness.”  In the past decade, at least 22 other Dalit students from top Indian universities have reportedly committed suicide.[5]
The discrimination remains institutionalized and is further aggravated when teachers discriminate and fail students unduly. In 2010, 35 medical students, all Scheduled Caste candidates were repeatedly failed in Physiology at Delhi’s Vardhman Mahavir Medical College, a committee[6] later reported that the department resorted to caste-based discrimination. Such a holistic system of discrimination is enough to prevent any uprising.

UN Human Rights Council

Also, the Indian stance on moral and social rights has been positive lately – with path-breaking verdicts on de-criminalization of homosexuality in the country and further enforcement of women rights by giving them legal right to enter a 12th-century Hindu temple, for instance. However, India’s record is extremely dismal when it comes to the rights of the most marginalised people in the Indian society – the Indian Consortium to the UN has repeatedly opposed the inclusion of caste discrimination in the UN Human Right Council. India has continuously argued since 1996[7] that caste falls outside the scope of International Convention for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). It is clearly evident India leverages its historical position as a tolerant nation as a camouflage of compassion for their true intent which is to tear down any tryst for equality by the lower castes i.e. ‘Dalits’.

However, India cannot deny the fact that each day three Dalit women are raped, each week thirteen Dalits are murdered and five Dalit houses are burned. Furthermore, 48.9% Dalits are denied access to water due to their status as “untouchable”, 45% Dalits are illiterate and ⅓ of Dalit houses don’t have basic facilities according to the National Human Rights Commission Report (NHRC).

The Future & Identity

Dalits India 2As someone aptly said that “Actions speaks louder than words”, Modi government’s decision to reduce allocations by 60% meant for Dalits in higher education clearly shows its stance on social justice in India, reports the International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN). The future for social justice looks bleak in India. Poor social and economic indicators of Dalit emancipation are disheartening even after 72 years of independence. Also, the nationalist Modi Govt. which is expected to stay in power until 2024 isn’t helping ‘Dalit’ mobilisation. Their ideology of a Right-Wing Nationalist Hindu Rashtra or “Hindu Nation” disregards the constitution and believes in Manusmriti – the source of propagation of caste system in India. It is the manual that reaffirms the caste system rather than renouncing it.
Evidently, the success and growth story of India since the liberalisation in 1991 is only the success story of the dominant Indian castes. The growing inequalities in India is also a worrying factor. According to a report by World Inequality Report (2018) – India ranks as the second most unequal country in the world.
Anthropologically – inequality breeds revolution. Notably, the likes of the historic French revolution and the Russian Revolution. The fault lines in the India society are dangerous and have tremendous implications. Caste in India represents the worst of India, it shatters the whole idea of India. The real question is when will India free its conscience from the guilt of modern slavery and experience a much-needed social revolution?


[1] “Dalit atrocities: Harayana carnage not isolated, here are some of the ….” 22 Oct. 2015, https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/dalit-atrocities-harayana-carnage-not-isolated-here-are-some-most-brutal-caste-crimes. Accessed 30 Sep. 2018.
[2] “Conviction rate in crimes against Dalits abysmally low: MHA report ….” 19 Apr. 2018, https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/conviction-in-crimes-against-dalits-is-abysmally-low-mha-report/articleshow/63833473.cms. Accessed 30 Sep. 2018.
[3] “Reservation in India – Wikipedia.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reservation_in_India.
[4] “Indian media wants Dalit news but not Dalit reporters | India | Al Jazeera.” 2 Jun. 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2017/05/indian-media-dalit-news-dalit-reporters-170523194045529.html. Accessed 30 Sep. 2018.
[5] “If there’s no caste bias, why are Dalit students killing themselves ….” 22 Jan. 2016, https://www.hindustantimes.com/india/if-educational-institutions-are-inclusive-why-are-dalit-students-killing-themselves/story-ozKpBOjBtd1XLNgttSiApN.html. Accessed 30 Sep. 2018.
[6] “Report bares bias against SC/STs in Delhi medical college – Rediff.com.” 22 Oct. 2012, http://www.rediff.com/news/report/report-bares-bias-against-sc-st-students-in-delhi-medical-college/20121022.htm. Accessed 30 Sep. 2018.
[7] “Statement by Shri Omar Abdullah, Minister of State for External Affairs” Accessed 30 Sep. 2018.


Featured picture: Manual Scavengers of Lucknow, by Sharada Prasad CS.

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