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About casts and inequalities in India - Illustration

 To continue on the subject of untouchability and castes, I am often asked the question whether it still exists and is still visible. And I answer that either it doesn’t really prevails in my world (personal and professional), either it is too subtle for me – at the same time I don’t really dig because I find it a pretty abominable system – this being a personal point of view. 

However, below is something I witnessed last week.

I was having lunch with an Indian guy, fluent in English, a shrewd sales guy and a manager in an MNC. He is about 35 years old, 1.60m, 90 kilos, the type of guys who impose. Rather silent, he commands respect by his looks more than by what he says (since when he opens up it is often to say stupid things). 

A nice guy but completely devoid of humility (to put it simply, when I told him maybe he could work on his humility he had never heard the word…).

So I was at the restaurant (local joint) with Mister Me-Me-Me and he had just ordered a coke. The waiter brought the can and stood on the side.

My Indian fellow showed him to come closer and with a smile full of empathy asked him whether he was tired. I was amazed: it doesn’t look like him at all to worry about other people’s (whoever) health. Maybe it was an example that only stupid people never change??

The waiter answered he was okay. So my associate pointed at the can and said "so??'' The poor guy had not opened the can for him...

The whole point of this story is that due to the cast system in India there is a real rigor in the task division. There is a guy to wash clothes, one to iron, one to put in the cupboard etc.



About casts and inequalities in India - The big picture

The system of the castes in India dates back thousands of years. Hyper complicated but also quite simple in substance.

There are 4 varnas or “families” of castes (the most famous being the upper caste of the “Brahmins”) and then the out-caste known as “untouchables” and today called "scheduled class”. The varnas, representing the 4 parts of the God Brahma’s body (see diagram), are divided into thousands of castes, called jatis, which each have a specific role (more or less a profession). 


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 Every Hindu is born into a caste, shares its culinary habits, gets married within, and died within, hoping to get reborn in a higher caste. And people don't mix. Everyone at their place and the sheep will be well kept as we say in French...


The Indian Constitution prohibits discrimination based on caste.

That said it does not belong to the Government to abolish such a system because it is related to religion. As a matter of fact, the last census (2011) included a (optional) question about the caste.

Casteism is a pillar of Hinduism: "the fulfilment of one personal duty to the caste - and not a universal duty - and the system of reincarnation in a higher or lower caste as a reward for your good or bad actions are the two fundamental pillars of this religion until the final liberation and paradise."*). To the point that Dr. Ambedkar encouraged untouchables to convert to Buddhism in the 1950s.


To fight this discrimination, the Government has implemented quotas for access to education, civil servant positions, political seats. There even has been an untouchable president (K. R. Narayanan).

The problem is that today it is all mixed up and ultimately these quotas are based on the social status (caste) of people but not on the merit or the income. And as low and out-castes form a majority *, politicians are struggling to change this system...



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Besides, in the countryside, where 70% of the population still live, the caste system is still very much alive and rigid.

As Sampat Pal says*, " India has been a free and independent country for sixty years: yet the poorest people still don’t know what it is to live in an independent country. Laws are modern, but because of an administration rife with corruption, they are not applied. In sixty years, they have brought neither social justice nor improvement in the standard of living for the poor. Their daily life has not changed one bit." As I hardly go to the country side I can’t really comment on this but every day we can read stories of girls severely injured by their own gang and/or family for having wanted to marry a man of a different caste...


* In the shoes of an untouchable, Marc Boulet

* According to the latest census (source: the “untouchables” and tribes account for 30% of the Hindu population / 24% of the Indian population. And if we add the "feet" (the “kshudras” or lower castes) it gives us 54% of the population.

* I, Sampat Pal, head of the pink sari gang, Sampat Pal


To be continued in the next post…


About casts and inequalities in India - The pink sari gang

It is funny: I had just finished a book about poverty and inequalities in India, when my (foreign) colleagues started asking me tons of questions about untouchability and the moment I got back in India, I got stuck in many parades of untouchables...

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A parade with cars blasting music and displaying pictures of Ambedkar and Buddha (explanation in the next post)

First, I’d like to talk about the book. It is written in French and called I, Sampat Pal, head of the pink sari gang by Sampat Pal and Anne Berthold (2008).india,castes,casts,caste,system,untouchability,intouchables,pariahs,pink sari gang,sampat pal,ambedkar,inequalities,poverty,discrimination

This is the incredible story of a small shepherdess who skipped field work without authorisation to attend school at a time when girls had no access to education. And then the little shepherdess with a very strong personality grew up and began to learn to sew. She became self-sufficient, independent and even starting sewing to other people. She discovered that one can change things – which is far from being obvious in India, since the caste system is inseparable of an unquestioned sense of the order of things.


She rebelled against the injustices inflicted to lower castes by higher castes or to women by men, against corruption and stealing of subsidised food, lands, jobs which the Government reserves for the poorest.


Most notably she realized that fighting together is the only way to be heard and she gathered thousands of women: the gang of the pink sari (their website: here).


An uplifting read!


To be continued in the next post…