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Beena Pallical’s family didn’t really talk about caste.
Growing up in the sprawling city of Pune in India’s western state of Maharashtra, Ms Pallical was sent to a school run by Christian missionaries.
“My great-great grandfather converted to Christianity, probably to escape the caste system,” she told the ABC’s India Now.
It was only when she finished her education that she made a startling discovery.
“When I started working, I traced back my identity and I realised I was from the Dalit community, formerly called [the] Untouchables.”
Trapped in a rigid social hierarchy
Despite being outlawed in 1950, India’s caste system continues to dictate almost every aspect of Hindu religious and social life, trapping people into fixed social orders from which it’s nearly impossible to escape.
“Everything you do, from who you choose your partner to be, to where you’re working, to who your friends are, all is based on caste and we must not forget that,” said Ms Pallical, who is director of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights.
Established more than 3,000 years ago, the caste system — which pre-dates Hindu religion — divides Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups based on their karma (work) and dharma (duty).
Castes are ranked from highest to lowest, based on the different body parts of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation.
Brahmins are the holders of spirituality and are priests and teachers. Kshatriyas are the warriors and rulers. Vaishyas are the farmers and merchants. And Shudras are the labourers.
Below them are the Dalits, formerly known as “Untouchables”, who are often outcast by India’s society.
Dalit literally translates as “broken people”.
They are tasked with manual scavenging, cleaning sewers, toilets and streets.
“We are doing the work that nobody else wants to do and this system is sanctioned by the Hindu religion,” Ms Pallical said.
Caste discrimination is outlawed — but oppression persists
Independent India’s new constitution in 1950 outlawed caste discrimination and announced quotas in government jobs and educational institutions for scheduled castes and tribes.
India’s current President, RM Kovind, is Dalit and a previous president, KR Narayanan, elected in 1997, was Dalit.
Social activist and lawyer BR Ambedkar (1891-1956), who authored India’s new constitution and is the venerated leader of the Dalits, was also Dalit.
“BR Ambedkar is the Messiah for Dalit communities” Ms Pallical said.
“He’s the one who gave us hope.”
Despite affirmative action policies, the system continues to bestow privileges on dominant castes while sanctioning persecution and discrimination of oppressed castes.
India’s National Crime Records Bureau recorded 50,291 crimes committed against Dalits in 2020, but the figure is likely to be much higher because many crimes go unreported, due to fear of reprisal or intimidation by police.
Coming out as Dalit
“I remember feeling a ton of anxiety every time somebody asked me what my caste was,” Yashica Dutt, the author of Coming Out As Dalit, told India Now.
“I would tell the other girls at school that I was Brahmin, because Brahmin is the highest caste.”
When she returned home from school, her mother would ask: “What did you learn in school? Did somebody ask about your caste?”
“When I came out as Dalit, I was at a safe distance from the Indian community as I was by then living in New York,” Ms Dutt says.
“So, what I did was a really calculated and safe risk, as compared to somebody still living back in India.”
Caste travels with the diaspora
There have been recent high-profile cases of caste discrimination among the diaspora.
In the US, Dalit rights campaigner Thenmozhi Soundararajan, founder of Equality Labs, was scheduled to give a talk to Google News employees to commemorate Dalit History Month.
It was cancelled after she was accused of being “anti-Hindu”.
Google chief executive Sundar Pichai comes from a dominant caste family in India.
Tech worker activist Tanuja Gupta and Soundararajan went ahead with their talk and posted it on YouTube.
It’s time for change
“Once I came to know about my caste, I felt it was my duty to give back to my community, to my brothers and sisters,” Ms Pallical said.
“There are a lot of things that need to change in this country, but the people who are implementing these laws continue to be from a dominant caste and don’t think change is a priority.”
That’s where Ms Pallical says the struggle is, however, she and others will keep working to abolish the caste system and take India to equality.
ABC’s India Now, hosted by Marc Fennell, is a rich and entertaining look at news, culture and politics from India and the subcontinent. The show airs on the ABC on Monday nights at 9:30pm AEST or you can watch it anytime on iview.
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