The discourse on caste in India is frequently met with a curious response, mostly from the educated and middle classes: don’t divide us on the basis of caste. However, the findings of a phone survey conducted in 2016 in Delhi, Mumbai, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh and published in the Economic and Political Weekly in January show the reality is that Indians are already divided by caste.
The study focused on finding the prevalence of prejudice against women and Dalits among respondents. It did so by asking three questions with regard to the status of women: approval of women working outside the household when their spouses could afford to support them, prevalence of veiling (ghunghat) among Hindu women, and whether the women ate after the men in the household.
Veiling has reportedly been found to indicate the ability of the woman to make decisions, while women eating after men had implications for their health. The responses revealed a prevalence of discriminatory attitudes towards women. On Dalits, the survey looked at: prevalence of untouchability in the respondents’ households, views on reservation and crucially, support for legislation against inter-caste marriage.
Untouchability was found to be widely practised, and support for legislation against inter-caste marriage was found to be high, especially from rural respondents. There was significant support for reservation. But the respondents—those for and against it—did not fully understand how it functioned.
The prejudice against Dalits and the status of women are linked. One of the ways in which caste boundaries are maintained is through the control of women’s sexuality. Maintenance of these boundaries, however, are detrimental to Indian society—affecting the economy, human development and well-being of communities. The educated and the middle classes must stop living in denial of the horrors of caste and take active efforts to confront the realities of caste, unpleasant and discomfiting as they may be. India will be the better for it.