Tragic truth about caste- Why even members of India’s lowest classes cling to unfair system
I frequently get asked in America why India’s caste system, a pre-feudalistic division of labor that assigns one’s line of work at birth, has persisted into the 21st century. I typically answer: the need of the privileged upper castes for cheap labor. But there is an even more tragic explanation, as I discovered during a recent visit to New Delhi while talking to Maya, the dalit or untouchable — the lowest of the four castes — who has serviced my family for 35 years. Maya herself clings to her caste because it still offers her the best possible life in India.
What’s puzzling about the caste system is that it endures without legal force. Unlike slavery, where whites actively relied on authorities to maintain their slave holdings, the caste system is an informal, self-perpetuating institution.
How? Consider Maya’s story.
Maya assigned herself to our house in 1977. We had no choice. If we wanted our trash picked up, bathrooms scrubbed and yards cleaned, Maya was it. Indians find dealing with other people’s refuse not just unpleasant, but polluting. Hence only dalits are willing to do this work, something that both stigmatizes them and gives them a stranglehold on the market. And they have transformed this stranglehold into an ironclad cartel that closes all other options for their customers.
When Maya got married at 16, her father-in-law paid another dalit $20 for her wedding gift: the “rights” to service 10 houses in our neighborhood, including ours. Maya has no formal deed to these “rights,” yet they are more inviolable than holy writ. Maya’s fellow dalits, who own the “rights” to other houses, can’t work in hers, just as she can’t work in theirs.
Doing so, Maya insists, would be tantamount to theft that would invite a well-deserved beating and ostracism by the dalit community. No one would help a “poacher” or attend her family functions like births, weddings or funerals.
This arrangement has guaranteed Maya a monthly income of $100 that, along with her husband’s job as a “gofer” at a government lab, has helped her raise three children and build a modest house with a bathroom, a prized feature among India’s poor. But Maya’s monopoly doesn’t give her just money. It also hands her clout to resist the upper-caste power structure, not always for noble reasons.