Lower Castes Still Stuck On India's Bottom Rung

An 'untouchable' was elected president last month. But barriers, class violence remain.

When K.R. Narayanan was sworn in as president last month many Indians had good reason to feel proud.

Mr. Narayanan was the first head of state to come from the ranks of the "untouchables," the lowest possible social rung in India's centuries-old Hindu caste system.

Traditionally, untouchables have been ostracized from the the community and forced into occupations like cleaning latrines and streets and disposing of the dead, all considered unclean by orthodox Hindus.

Now, in India's 50th year of independence, an untouchable had broken the barriers of prejudice and had made it to the highest office in the land.

Narayanan wasn't the first untouchable to make an impression on the political landscape. The author of India's 1950 Constitution was B.R. Ambedkar, a Columbia University-educated lawyer and statesman, who was also an untouchable.

Dr. Ambedkar tried to root out the worst excesses of the caste system by making discrimination against untouchables a criminal offense. He also wrote into the Constitution the world's first affirmative-action program. This system of "reservations," or quotas, gave untouchables, as they were officially known, and other underprivileged groups, proportional representation in legislatures, government jobs, and educational institutions.

This has given the untouchables and underprivileged "tribals" - now known officially as "Scheduled Castes and Tribes" - enormous power, says M.N. Srinivas, a sociologist at the National Institute for Advanced Studies in Bangalore. "Now no political party, no government ministry, no local government structure can afford to ignore the demands of the scheduled castes," he says.

Untouchables have not been the only underprivileged group demanding equal rights. One rung up on the social ladder are the 3,743 castes officially defined as the "Backward Classes." Together with the "Scheduled Castes and Tribes" they account for just over half of the total population.

Made up of farmers, craftsmen, and others whose traditional occupations have kept them socially and economically disadvantaged, the backwards are a potent political force particularly in the densely populated north.

In 1990, the Janata Party government of former Prime Minister V. P. Singh tried to woo this massive vote bank by dusting off the recommendations of an 1980 government report known as the Mandal Commission.

Overnight Mr. Singh doubled the percentage of government jobs and places in universities "reserved" to 52 percent. His move led to a violent backlash from upper-caste students, with dozens attempting self-immolation in protest against the dwindling number of places open to them. It also thrust caste-based reservations to the forefront of the national agenda.

"If you take reservations in the public sector there has hardly been a single case where it has benefited the caste community it was meant to," argues Braj Kumar Nehru, one of India's most distinguished former statesman.

Detailed surveys on the effects of reservations are surprisingly sparse in India, but Mr. Nehru's assertions are backed up by a 1990 study that found that half of the top posts in the bureaucracy were still filled by Brahmins, who also occupy the highest rung in the caste hierarchy.

Professor Srinivas agrees that reservations alone will never end the inequalities so deeply rooted in Indian society today. "Reservation has its value but it also perpetuates injustices. Even within castes you have segments who are using the system to obtain maximum benefits for themselves, leaving a lot of others very dissatisfied."

An inevitable outcome of the increasing demands of untouchables and backward castes for social justice, Srinivas warns, will be an upsurge in caste-related violence.

In Bihar, India's second-most populous state, clashes between landlords and lower-caste peasants have killed more than 100 people this year.

"We are left to our own fate, we have no protection," says Radha Kuhun Goswami, whose wife was murdered along with seven other untouchables in Ekawari earlier this year's by members of a private, upper-caste militia.

The scenario in Bihar shows just how far India still has to go before the injustices of the past are finally ironed out.

According to a recent study, the lower castes, about two-thirds of the state's population, own only 18 percent of the cultivatable land. What little development funding filters down goes mainly to the landed gentry, whose private armies preserve the status quo. Disputes over wages, land ownership, and even the right to draw water from an upper caste's well, are often seen as a matter of honor and flare into open conflict .

Whether for honor or equality, caste violence looks like it will remain a fact of life in India for a while. "This will not be a short and bloody revolution. It will be a long and bleeding one," Srinivas says.

"But I don't see any other alternative because equal rights are enshrined in the Constitution and there will always be resentment among the upper castes who feel their privileges are being threatened," he says.

Because caste and economic deprivation are so closely linked, Srinivas argues, real equality will only be achieved if the government tackles poverty. "The only way we can get out of the caste syndrome is to have an honest fight against poverty. Its a sink or swim situation," he warns.

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