How was the caste system formed in India?

Caste System in India: Discrimination against the Untouchables

New Delhi / Vienna - The statue had to go. A couple of Dalits had erected it on public land in a night-and-fog operation in the northern Indian village of Rudauli. The Dalits are the "untouchables", so they do not belong to the four traditional groups in the caste system.

Her idol was now enthroned on the square: Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar. He was a Dalit himself and was nevertheless the main author of the Indian constitution, which was signed in 1949. As an anti-Gandhi of the independence movement, he vehemently opposed the caste system and thus the Hindu system. The image of Ambedkar disturbed the high-class people in the village. If so, they would like to see a statue of the freedom hero Mahatma Gandhi.

The "backward castes"

Gangs of thugs went to demolish the statue. But hundreds of Dalits resisted. They cut off the arms of one assailant and beat another until unconscious. That was in 1997, fifty years after India became an independent state. To this day, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the lower castes party founded in 1984, finds that the statue incident was a good one: "People have finally understood that the underprivileged are dangerous," said a BSP -Activist.

According to tradition, Dalits are not allowed to eat or drink with high-caste people and are often not allowed to use the same fountain. Police violence and high-class violence are the order of the day. In 2015, 8,538 acts of violence against Dalits were registered in the state of Uttar Pradesh alone.

In 1997, for the first time, an untouchable woman was elected Prime Minister of Uttar Pradesh, the stronghold of the Dalits. In the same year the first untouchable president was elected. Until then, that was unthinkable in the largest democracy in the world. The new Dalit Prime Minister Kumari Mayawati seized the opportunity after her election: According to India researcher Nicolas Jaoul of the Paris École des Hautes Études, at least 15,000 Ambedkar statues were erected in 1997 alone. Because "their" India is not that of the Hindu elites, their father of the nation is not the high-caste Gandhi: their father of the nation is the untouchable Ambedkar.

The anti-Gandhi

Gandhi was against the caste hierarchy, but not against the caste division. He himself may have nonviolently led India out of British rule, but did he lead the underprivileged castes out of elite rule? That is what the followers of Ambedkar ask.

He, the Dalit, was in favor of the "eradication of the caste". This is also the title of one of his most famous works, a speech that he was not allowed to give. In 1956 he converted to Buddhism. Unlike Gandhi, Ambedkar celebrated quiet successes.

According to Martin Gaenszle from the Institute for South Asia, Tibetan and Buddhist Studies at the University of Vienna, Ambedkar, as the main author of the constitution, had a more lasting effect on Indian politics than Gandhi. To this day, a silent testimony of his work wafts over India. The wheel on the national flag goes back to a Buddhist symbol. Here he was able to prevail against Gandhi's (Hindu) spinning wheel. Most of the time he couldn't. Gandhi's Congress Party gained the upper hand after independence, India exported Gandhi to the west, Ambedkar was too common.

The radical Bhim army

Almost like a cartoon, the Ambedkar statues show a man in a blue suit. He holds the constitution under his arm, and thick glasses - often made of plastic - sit on his nose. This appearance makes him a pop icon of the underprivileged, the king of the ghetto, as the Indian writer Arundhati Roy calls him. The statues can be found in abundance, especially in the slums of India. But the more the Dalits were able to place their statue in public space, the more frequent it came to vandalism, which often resulted in violence.

For many high-profile people, so Gaenszle, Ambedkar and his representations are still a red rag. Today Ambedkar has made it to the center of power. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) integrates him into their Hindu nationalist politics in order to secure the votes of the large group of Dalits. But he is never portrayed as the "leader of the Dalits", but always as the "father of the constitution".

At the same time, some Dalits are radicalizing. Twenty years after Rudauli, the Bhim Army is up to mischief in Uttar Pradesh. Disappointed with the slow progress, they take their luck into their own hands. Only in May there were one dead and several injured in clashes in Saharanpur. And the disfigurement of statues is always part of the unrest. When she sees Ambedkar's smeared face, a Bhim Army supporter tells The Quint online magazine, "It's like slapping our father in the face." (Anna Sawerthal, August 15, 2017)