The Untouchables: From India to the U.K., the Caste System Still Violates Human Rights

Earlier in January, thousands of Dalit people, low-ranking citizens in India's rigid caste system, demonstrated against alleged violence by far right Hindus in the Maharashtra state.

Protests erupted as Dalit had gathered in the state's capital of Mumbai to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the battle between British forces, aided by Dalit fighters, and the Peshwa, armed forces of the Maratha Empire, which ceased to exist in 1818.

Dalit people alleged members of two Hindu national groups attacked those gathered to commemorate the event. Violent clashes erupted and at least two people were killed.

The event cast light, once again, on the caste system, which is still embedded in Indian society, in spite of the fact the 1949 constitution abolished it.

What is the caste system?

It is a form of social stratification that is thousands years old. It divides Indians among four classes:

  • Brahmin: The highest ranking in the system, they include priests, teachers and scholars.
  • Kshatriya: Military and ruling class.
  • Vaishya: Traders, farmers and merchants.
  • Shudras: Artisans and laborers

The Dalit are outcast people and are sometimes referred to as "untouchables". They include people involved in activities considered as "polluting", such as fishermen, sweepers, latrine cleaners, scavengers, people who eat the flesh of cattle or of domestic pigs and chickens.

The Dalit people have faced discrimination for centuries. In spite of social advancement in recent years, many still live at the margins of society, particularly in rural areas.

The Indian government has introduced a quota system to ensure a number of government jobs and university seats would be granted to people from lower castes and groups classified as "Other Backward Classes," "Scheduled Castes," and "Scheduled Tribes".

The caste system has declined in Indian urban areas and inter-caste marraiges have become more common.

However, in some areas of the country, the Dalit are still banned from accessing temples and houses of upper-class people and cannot share the same utensils. Some people still regard the Dalit as untouchable and refuse to touch anything that has come into contact with them.

Indian demonstrators hold placards as they take part in a rally in New Delhi on July 18, 2017, in protest over a spate of assaults against Muslims and low-caste Dalits by Hindu vigilantes in India. AFP PHOTO / SAJJAD HUSSAIN

In January 2016, Dalit activist and university student Rohit Vemula became the symbol of the fight against the oppression of the Dalit after he took his own life.

Vemula, a researcher at the University of Hyderabad, killed himself after he and four of his Dalit friends were expelled from the university campus over allegations that they had attacked a member of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

His suicide note read: "For some people life itself is a curse. My birth is my fatal accident. I can never recover from my childhood loneliness. I am not hurt at this moment. Not sad, just empty. That is pathetic. That is why I am doing this."

A report by a judicial commission concluded that Vermula did not kill himself because of the way the university treated him, but because he was frustrated and unhappy and had "his own problems".

Rights activists have argued that the discrimination, which impedes Dalit from breaking the cycle of poverty they are born into, amounts to human rights violations.

"Caste, or descent based discrimination affects the most basic rights, where people live, their access to basic resources like water, who they marry, what jobs they perform," Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Newsweek.

"Caste based discrimination violates the Indian Constitution, which considers every citizen to be equal. Both Dalits (who belong to the so-called untouchable caste) and tribal communities have historically suffered human rights violations and atrocities."

HRW reports claimed that authorities sometimes engage in discriminatory practices against people from lower groups, such as scavengers, and tend to protect those who are in more powerful positions.

"Even the police can act on prejudice, refusing to file complaints or humiliating those belonging to marginalized communities. We have seen such prejudice even in schools, where children from marginalized communities, often first time learners, are excluded," Ganguly explained.

Dalit caste
Indian college students hold placards of the deceased Hyderabad University student Rohit Vemula during a protest demonstration in Bangalore on February 1, 2016. Rohith Vemula, 26. was an Indian PhD student at the Hyderabad Central University, whose suicide on January 17 sparked protests and outrage from across India and gained widespread media attention as an alleged case of discrimination against Dalits and low status caste classes in India. MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/Getty Images

Caste system in the U.K.

Caste-based discrimination has also been documented among diaspora communities who no longer live in India. In the U.K., a debate on whether to outlaw caste discrimination is ongoing.

In 2015, an Indian woman recruited to work in Britain as a domestic worker was awarded £184,000 ($261,475) in compensation in one of the U.K.'s first caste discrimination cases. Permila Tirkey, born into a poor and low caste family, was paid as little as 11p an hour and forced to work 18 hours a day, seven days a week by her employers in Milton Keynes.

Priyanka Mogul, Producer of the documentary Caste Aside—which sheds light on the extent of caste-based discrimination among British Indians— believes the phenomenon is prevalent in the U.K.

"The main aspect of the caste system is how sticky it is. You're born into a 'lower caste' and you can't move up or down this social hierarchy. We have seen this to a greater extent even here in the U.K.," Mogul told Newsweek.

"Over the years, Dalit rights groups in the U.K. have come forward to speak about how caste discrimination has followed them overseas. They find that within Asian communities here, people from higher castes still treat them as 'untouchables'.

"In Caste Aside, we heard the story of a young woman who owned a shop and had a customer who refused to take change from her hand because she assumed her to be from a 'lower caste,'" said Mogul.

"Unfortunately, this social hierarchy hasn't proved easy to break out of and we're now starting to see its implications here in the U.K."

In 2016, the U.K. government announced it would undertake a public consultation on a proposed clause for the 2010 Equality Act that would explicitly prohibit caste-based discrimination. Results of the consultation are still pending.