Memorial for Rohith Vemula Saikat Paul/Pacific Press via ZUMA Wire

How India’s Caste System Survives

India has been shaken by the suicide of a Dalit student in Hyderabad – a stark reminder of the durability of India's rigid, caste-based social stratification. Why, despite constitutional guarantees of equality and affirmative action for lower-caste Indians, have these divisions endured?

NEW DELHI – On January 17, Rohith Vemula, a PhD candidate at the University of Hyderabad in India’s Telangana state, hanged himself. Even in a country of 1.2 billion people, a single death can have a major impact.

Vemula was a Dalit – a member of what was once known as the “untouchables,” at the bottom of the Hindu caste system. He was also a leader of the Ambedkar Students Association at Hyderabad University, seeking to promote Dalit rights. In death, Vemula has achieved something he could not have imagined: He has become a national hero, his tragedy emblematic of the toxic durability of caste in India’s development narrative.

Unlike race, caste is invisible: a person’s face does not indicate it. Yet it retains a powerful hold on Indian society, limiting the opportunities available at all stages of life. To be a Dalit is to wear an invisible stigma that dogs one’s daily interactions. Vemula’s death has reminded Indians once again that the more than 300 million who belong to the lowest castes, as well as the “tribals” or indigenous people, still face discrimination, prejudice, hostility, and even violence on each step of the social ladder.

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