India Must End the Acceptance of Caste-Based Discrimination as Social Norm

Democratic governments must consistently, not opportunistically, recognise and censure social norms that celebrate inequality and discrimination.

The author describes Ahmedabad as notorious for its caste and religion-based segregation. Credit: Emmanuel Dyan/flickr/CC BY 2.0

The author describes Ahmedabad as notorious for its caste and religion-based segregation. Credit: Emmanuel Dyan/flickr/CC BY 2.0

In modern India, caste-based discrimination continues to remain one of the rare and unfortunate social practices to be unanimously embraced by all major religions.

A few weeks before cow protection vigilantes in Gujarat inflicted horrific public humiliation on Dalits, a reputed Ahmedabad-based NGO was castigated and violently attacked for releasing a controversial advertisement – a recruitment poster that gave preference to upper-caste and the so-called General Category Hindu, Muslim and Christians for the post of sweepers and toilet cleaners in the organisation. A certain section among both Hindus and Muslims joined hands in condemning the advert. Upper-caste Hindus called it an attempt at “polarisation”; insulted Barelvi Muslims announced that “direct descendants of the Prophet” don’t clean toilets.

Sure, the advert was naïve – inviting applicants from non-reserved categories to take on sweeping and swabbing is unlikely to resolve or reduce the deeply institutionalised caste-based discrimination in this country. Even so, it quite successfully mocked the nonchalant acceptance of the notion that Dalits are the sole champions of menial jobs in India.  The poster did so by opening the doors of opportunity to those who would otherwise never have the chance to clean someone else’s bog.

Indeed, the NGO was not attacked by those most likely to lose out on the job, as one would assume, but those being provided the preferential treatment.

When social exclusion becomes a social norm, certain actions become not only acceptable but mandatory. Dalits are supposed to clean toilets because that is what they do, that is what the norm dictates. A non-Dalit who violates this norm would bring shame upon themselves, an outcast within their own ‘higher’ caste.

Dalits are also believed to be the “foot-soldiers” in riots – a common refrain I come across in my research on Hindu-Muslim violence in Gujarat. Conversely, my analysis demonstrated that the worst attacks on Muslims occurred in those towns and rural areas in Gujarat where Dalits and tribals were a proportionally small part of the population. A good amount of legal evidence on the caste composition of Hindus convicted in riots finds that the allegedly disproportionate role of Dalits in riots an exaggeration as well.

But facts make little difference to belief when social discrimination is legitimised.

There is a kind of convenience in the creation and perpetuation of social hierarchies because of the privileges they render to sections of society. This is one of the reasons why religious conversion as a solution to caste discrimination has not helped much. Dalit Hindus adopting Christianity and Buddhism do not cease to be perceived as social outcasts; Christians continue to be referred to as “Dalit Christians”. Few Indian Muslims take offence to casteism within their community – the so-called upper-castes or Ashraf differentiated from the Ajlaf – although the practice is not sanctioned by the Quran.

At the same time, one expects democratic societies to comply with egalitarian norms. This means mandating equal worth and dignity for all, regardless of social identity. It is true that not all individuals behave in agreement with social norms. Prejudiced attitudes and behaviour can occur even when society proscribes the public expression of such attitudes; just as it is likely to have some individuals showing tolerance even amid discriminatory norms. That is why a democratic society needs to frame and abide by laws. But it is also incumbent upon democratic governments to consistently, not opportunistically, recognise and censure social norms that celebrate inequality and discrimination. It does not take long for conflict to turn violent when discriminatory attitudes are condoned, especially by the state.

For example, before the 2002 riots, many upper-caste Hindus in Ahmedabad – a city notorious for its stark caste and religion-based segregation – largely camouflaged their housing biases on the basis of eating habits, telling potential tenants, “no non-vegetarians please”. Perhaps people felt a sense of shame in explicitly refusing to sell or rent property to Muslims or Dalits because of their religious and caste affiliations. This, however, visibly changed after the Hindu-Muslim violence of 2002. The redlining of neighbourhoods turned more explicit and normalised. The segregation rose to the extent that the city hailed India’s “first-ever Muslim property show” to facilitate the buying and selling of property by Muslims, but within the confines of their ghettos. The complicity of the state in the violence and lack of public regret thereafter, is likely to have routinised the discrimination sanctioned by society.

Returning to the attack on the NGO in Ahmedabad, ironically, a local political leader had threatened to violently agitate against the advertisement using methods that were “not Gandhian”. Surely, one does not remember Mohandas Gandhi, the baniya, apologising for cleaning his own toilet? Seems the only legacy we choose to remember him by is prohibition, given that non-violence has long been booted out from many parts of the country, especially Gujarat.

Raheel Dhattiwala is a sociologist, alumna of Oxford University.