Tuesday, November 13, 2001

Indian caste rules still apply

Jodhpur, Rajasthan - In Bawrala, a medieval village in the Indian desert state of Rajasthan, a Dalit or low-caste Hindu can spark a riot simply by drawing water from the same well as a Brahmin or Hindu priest.

Village headman Lado Singh from the upper caste Hindu feudal Rajput community said he maintained peace in his strongly caste-divided village of 8 500 people by ensuring everyone knows their place.

"Here there is no contamination of drinking water," said Singh.

"The low-caste Meghwals (cobblers), Dewasis (camel-herders) and Bhil tribals drink water from the village pond along with our cattle. They do not come anywhere near our wells. Things are peaceful here. Everyone knows their station in life.

"I have made it clear I will not tolerate any inter-caste marriages or subversion of our ancestral way of life."

Singh is a staunch upholder of India's 3 000-year-old caste system, a pernicious practice that discriminates against nearly a fourth of the country's billion-plus population.

The caste system was described in Hinduism's ancient sacred text, the Rig Veda, as a social order intended to maintain harmony in society. It divides people into four main castes.

The Dalits, the lowest rank, account for around 16 percent of India's overwhelmingly-Hindu population.

Although the caste system is supposed to have been abolished in India and discrimination on the grounds of caste is illegal, it continues in thousands of villages like Bawrala in Rajasthan.

"I still have to take off my 'jhuttis' (shoes) everytime I cross a house belonging to a thakur (warrior Rajput class)," said 50-year-old Batsana Ram, an impoverished Bhil tribal farmer.

"As a child I would sometimes forget to take off my shoes and get slapped for insulting the thakur. But now I do it automatically," he added. "One learns to live with the system."

Even the 1 800 hamlets in Bawrala village are segregated along caste lines. The Brahmins (Hindu priests) at the apex of the caste system live in blue-coloured houses with green windows. They "tolerate" Rajputs only as their neighbours, said villagers.

Ram, who is at the bottom of this social hierarchy, lives furthest from the Brahmins and the Rajputs in a cluster of 40 mud huts belonging to his tribesmen.

"We live on the fringes of the village. An upper caste Hindu will never drink water or eat food in one of our houses," said Ram.

Devi Singh, a Rajput from Bawrala village, who works in a big hotel in Jodhpur city, 25 kilometres north of Bawrala said "All these ancient dos and don'ts are odious".

"My village is caught in a time warp," said Singh.

"In Jodhpur I make friends without looking at their caste. I eat food with all my colleagues in the hotel. Some of them belong to the lower castes but it does not bother me. I just have to hide the fact from my mother or she will faint."

Singh pointed out that in the cities caste distinctions become blurred.

"The anonymity of urban life - taking buses and working in offices and factories - helps push caste to the background."

However, in rural India where nearly 75 percent of Indians live, caste dominates where people live, who they can marry and the work they do.

Upper caste Hindu Brahmins and feudal landlords are accused of using private armies to terrorise poor peasants and lower-caste Hindus so that they stay at the bottom of the socio-economic scale.

Under the traditional Hindu social system, so much as the shadow or touch of a lower caste Hindu was considered unholy and dirty. - Sapa/AFP

Source: News24.com, November 13, 2001