The caste-system is something that has been ubiquitously identified with Indian society. It has its roots in ancient traditions and has seen changes over time under various dynasties and regimes. However, the essential notions of assigning position in society by virtue of birth have more or less remained the same. This has led to lower-caste communities becoming victims of the whims of those above them, living lives in deplorable conditions, forced to work in menial jobs, and even considered untouchables who will pollute the higher castes and thus have to live on the fringes of society. Over time, many have fought against the caste system and worked for the upliftment of downtrodden communities who have been exploited and oppressed by those in power.
In the 21st century, many popular media narratives and discourses among privileged sections of society would make it appear that the caste system does not still have a hold in India’s societal structure. Many believe that with the Constitution giving equal rights to all citizens and abolishing untouchability, all caste-based discriminations have ceased to exist. Merit should be the basis for all opportunity, not caste or background, is a common objection. Others opine that it is greatly misused and many who are economically well-off use their caste in-order to get advantages. Still others say that it gives students of lower castes an unfair advantage in academic spaces and other situations. All of these anti-reservation voices work on the fundamental assumption that caste is not an issue in modern-day India. But if one is willing to look into how caste differences are manifested, it will become all too apparent within a very short period of time that this notion of caste-based discrimination still runs deep in our systems and our attitudes. It is a stark reality for millions in this country and is an evil that dehumanizes the individual.
Caste-based reservations exist in order to combat the effects of systemic discrimination and disadvantage that the lower castes have been and continue to be subjected to. Lower caste individuals are even today subjected to discrimination in all spheres from education to employment. Many of them struggle to afford basic education and are often the sole providers for their families by the time they reach college. However, they are faced with difficulties there as well, be it a background of education that has not been as good as that of their peers or even elitist hiring practices in universities that silently discriminate. They continue to face difficulties from various sides even after they enter campuses. Lower caste individuals have barely any representation in public offices and services. Upward mobility for the majority of them is still a dream too far away to reach, and they are continuously caught in structures that are designed to not accommodate them.
It is to improve economic status and living conditions, but also to correct the many wrongs they have been meted out with, and the denial of fundamental rights and opportunities, that reservations seek to address. When one argues that economic status should be the criteria rather than caste, one forgets that in a system fraught with biased attitudes, this will only lead to more higher-caste but perhaps economically backward individuals getting the reservation seats and lesser being available to those of the lower caste. While economic ability is an issue, it is not the same problem as caste issues and has to be dealt with separately even if the two might overlap. Condescending attitudes of apparent saviors who belong to higher castes but who speak ‘for’ the lower castes instead of creating an opportunity for them to speak for themselves is also a bane that has to be resisted.
The continuing existence of the caste system in India is a reality that many would rather not address or even acknowledge since it makes them uncomfortable. It is also this attitude that makes reservations and affirmative actions all the more important. They work towards ensuring a more egalitarian society and should not be done away with until we achieve the end goal of no discrimination. This will require empathy, understanding, and even giving up of privileges taken for granted by many middle- and upper-class folk unless you are able to make it accessible to all sections of society. Social reform, reservation, educating the masses, dismantling of structures designed for the elites, and public awareness of how rampant this issue is would propel this fight for change. We cannot heal wounds that have been inflicted over centuries overnight but we can work towards creating spaces for healing and also ensure that these scars are never inflicted again.