Untouchables: My Family’s Triumphant Journey Out of the Caste System in Modern India
by Narendra Jadhav
If you want to understand India and how to be effective in accelerating impact on poverty there, you need to understand the caste (pronounced “cast”) system and how it affects how the vast majority of people think in India. For outsiders, the caste system is often perceived as a thing of the past. For, wasn’t the caste system abolished when India declared independence from Britain over 50 years ago?
To see the caste system in action, all you need to do is open up any Indian newspaper and turn to the classifieds section for people seeking marriage partners. Almost all of the ads are explicit about the caste system of the ad buyer as well as the caste requirements of the spouse they are looking for. The explicit caste recognition is less front-and-center in other social spheres, but it is very much there under the surface and affecting how people think about themselves and each other.
This book is a biography of a dalit family living through The Great Depression, the India independence movement and up to today. Dalits are also known as the out-castes or untouchables. They are lower than the lower-castes as they are below the caste system. It is a story of triumph and yet a call to continue to fight to break the caste slavery system.
Narenda Jadhav, born in 1953, says that the caste system is still very much in place. It is still in people’s minds and affects how they see the world every day. Jadhav is a very successful economist and is the chief economist for the Reserve Bank of India (India’s central bank.) And Jadhav is a dalit.
Dalit is the more politically correct name for the out-castes or untouchables. These are people who are so low-on-the-totem-pole that they are not even in the caste system. They are lower than the lowest caste and therefore have no caste. This “matters” in India because castes are connected to occupations. For instance, there is the sweeper caste (who sweep streets), the milk caste (who raise animals to produce milk), the merchant caste (who conduct trade), etc. Historically, and still in much of India, people work in their caste occupations hoping to do a good job so that they when they are reincarnated they will move up to a higher caste. You can find out what caste people are from by asking their name.
The problem with the dalits is that they don’t have an association with an occupation type. So they are relegated to the most demeaning type of occupations including picking up cow dung, begging, scavaging and the like. They are treated like dirt by everyone including the lower caste peoples. They are denied education because they are considered too low for it.
In this book, Jadhav shares the story of his parents growing up through the depression era and through the Indian independence movement. His parents, dalits of course, were illiterate, extremely poor who were born in rural India and moved to Mumbai (formerly Bombay.) You get to see inside the lives of a family on the economic edge and without justice. Yet you see their determination to have their children have a better life.
His father, Damu, catches the dream and becomes a follower of Dr. Ambedkar (affectionately known as Babasaheb) who himself a dalit became a central person in defining the constitution of the new, independent India. Through the biography, Jadhav tells the story of how Ambedkar rallied dalits (now estimated at some 400M+ in India) to assert themselves. He first tried to work within the Hindu religious system for equal rights for dalits. He later gave up this approach and led a mass conversion (literally millions of people) of dalits to Buddhism as an act of liberation. Jadhav provides very interesting color commentary on what that looked like from the eyes of an ordinary dalit.
Damu followed through with Ambedkar’s personal recommendation to educate his children in order for them to escape the tyranny of the caste system. Damu followed through on this and many of his children even went on to college and to having prominent roles in the new India.
While I think that Jadhav has done us all a great service by telling this story, I think you must view the unique success of Jadhav (and his siblings) as an anomaly, not the norm. Just like we can find success stories of African-Americans, this doesn’t mean the equality and justice has been and is being served to all African-Americans in the USA [or pick your own example in another context.]
The caste system is, unfortunately, very much alive and well in India today and is a form of slavery as powerful as other slavery systems in history. About 100 years ago, Jotirao Govindrao Phule, wrote a book called Slavery which articules the how the Hindu religion (he calls it Brahminism) initiated and perpetuates the evil caste system in India. Dr. Ambedkar praised this book: “Mahatma Phule, the greatest Shudra of modern India who made the lower classes of Hindus conscious of their slavery to the higher classes and who preached the gospel that for India social democracy was more vital than independence from foreign rule.” That is, Ambedkar, Phule and others believe that the more important independence which India needs is liberation from the oppressive caste system.