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Most people know that there is a caste system in India. India’s representatives do, however, their best to make us believe that it is part of the past and no longer determines people’s lives. If you listen to Dalits, you will hear another story – one of daily discrimination, oppression and violence.

According to the caste system there are four varnas, main castes, all coming from the God Brahma. The Brahmins are believed to come from the forehead of Brahma and were traditionally priests. Kshatriyas come from Brahma’s shoulders and they have traditionally worked as warriors or administrators. Vaishyas come from the thighs of Brahma and they have traditionally been farmers and merchants. Shudras come from the feet of Brahma and they were the labourers for the other varnas. Then there is a group, 15-20 percent of the whole population, considered not to come from God – they are below the system – they are the Dalits.

Dalits have been treated as untouchables as they, according to the caste system, are polluted. They have been forced to do the work considered to be dirty, such as cleaning toilets and taking care of dead animals. They have, through the history, been denied equal rights to education, health care, political influence and other areas. Still today, discrimination and even violence against Dalits is common. According to an Action Aid study in 550 villages all over India, Dalits are denied access to the wells in half of the villages. In other words, if you are a Brahmin or a Dalit decides what kind of live you live in India.   

It is important to understand that the suppression is systemic; people are born into this system and many accept it simply because they know nothing else. In other words there are plenty of Dalits who believe they are untouchable and polluted- do not nourish this belief! Understanding the caste system can be incredibly difficult, especially for a foreigner. It is not to be expected, either, so the solution is fairly simple: treat each and every person you meet with respect.

Brahmin or Dalit? - The caste system

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