Skip to main content

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.

We hope you're enjoying Project Syndicate.

To continue reading, subscribe now.

Subscribe

Get unlimited access to PS premium content, including in-depth commentaries, book reviews, exclusive interviews, On Point, the Big Picture, the PS Archive, and our annual year-ahead magazine.

https://prosyn.org/kMxTk1k;

Handpicked to read next

  1. benami155_ Ilia Yefimovichpicture alliance via Getty Images_netanyahu Ilia Yefimovich/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

    The Last Days of Netanyahu?

    Shlomo Ben-Ami

    In Israel's recent parliamentary election, voters stopped Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's leadership of the country toward xenophobic theocracy. But Israel now faces a period of political deadlock, and it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu really will be politically sidelined.

    2
  2. oneill66_getty images_world Getty Images

    The Return of Fiscal Policy

    Jim O'Neill

    With interest rates at record lows and global growth set to continue decelerating, there has rarely been a better time for governments to invest in infrastructure and other sources of long-term productivity growth. The only question is whether policymakers in Germany and elsewhere will seize the opportunity now staring them in the face.

    1

Cookies and Privacy

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. To find out more, read our updated Cookie policy, Privacy policy and Terms & Conditions