Stop Pretending Caste Doesn’t Exist

Wake up. The caste system is alive and well, and here’s how to dismantle it.

Kiran Misra
ZORA
Published in
10 min readMay 15, 2020

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A photo of Indian protestors holding a candlelight march.
AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) workers during a candle march against BJP Minister VK Singh over his remarks on the Faridabad Dalit burning incident, at Jantar Mantar, on October 25, 2015 in New Delhi, India. Photo: Ravi Choudhary/Hindustan Times/Getty Images

Growing up as a Brown girl in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, people were as likely to think I was Native American or Mexican as they were to guess that I was Indian. Once I clarified that I was Indian American, rather than American Indian, two of the most common questions I received were whether my family worshipped cows (we did not) and whether there was still a class of people regarded as “untouchables” in India. I laughed off the latter question as easily as I did the former and wondered how my classmates could have such regressive opinions about South Asians. Caste was a thing of centuries past, or so I had always been led to believe.

When I was working in India between undergrad and graduate school, I heard the word “Dalit” for the first time. It is a 100-year-old community moniker chosen and adopted by activists as a replacement for a variety of terms including untouchables or scheduled castes — names that had been used to describe people outside the traditional Hindu caste system. “Dalit” literally translates to “divided, broken, or scattered.” Over time, however, it became associated with self-determination and opposition to caste oppression as the community nomenclature chosen and used by Dalits themselves.

In the Hindu caste or varna system, there are traditionally four castes, which historically corresponded with a group’s profession — Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra. Because these groups are a part of the varna system, you might hear them referred to as “savarna.” Groups like Dalits and indigenous Indians, or Adivasis, aren’t just the lowest castes in the system, they exist outside of it altogether as “avarna.”

While I was in India, I found the realities of casteist violence were inescapable. That summer, gau rakshas or “cow protectors,” mostly upper-caste Hindu fundamentalists, attacked Dalit workers in the state of Gujrat, leading to protests across the country. In New Delhi, where I lived, university student and Dalit activist Rohith Vemula’s high-profile suicide was often attributed to institutional discrimination and casteist attacks. In India, it was clear this prejudice was still a visible and contentious issue.

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