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India's caste system - the oldest social order in the world - divides society into four castes, and thousands of subcastes - based on traditional occupations. Below the four castes are the "untouchables" (now known as Dalits) like Sister Sudha Varghese's students, whose traditional occupations are deemed so polluting that religious doctrine said they could not share food or dishes with caste Hindus, use the same barber or laundry, or enter their homes. Discrimination based on caste was outlawed more than 60 years ago, but the system endures and continues to shape life in much of India, especially rural areas.

Annie Namala is a Dalit activist who works to end caste discrimination and directs the Centre for Social Equity and Inclusion in New Delhi. We sent her your questions about caste. Here's what she had to say.

Q: This may be a naive question, but how are members of a caste identifiable? As in, how do children learn to recognize people from different castes? If it is due to surname, what's to stop people from just changing their name and lying about their caste? – Jessica Ellis

A: In general it is difficult for any outside person to identify the caste of a person, as it is based on particular features or skin colour. As insiders we recognise the caste of the other person through surname, family and village connections, food habits, rituals and ceremonies and general enquiry into one's family and background. It is not offensive for people to even directly ask about one's caste affiliation in India.

One identifies one's caste in government records to access affirmative action and is a category in most government records. While more generic names are being adopted now particularly for the younger generations, changing names or hiding surnames is a superficial and temporary way of denying ones caste identify. It may invite more humiliation and violence when it is ultimately recongised, which happens in many cases.

Q: What kinds of health services or welfare programs does the government provide for Mushahar/Dalit people? I noticed they had good teeth in the photos. – Andrew

A: There is an extensive health care system designed under the government, with health outposts, primary health care centres and referral centres. The state health care system is starved of funds, skilled personnel and adequate infrastructure, which results in about 80 per cent of the health costs being "out of pocket" expenses even for the poor.

Parallel is the highly costly and state-of-the-art private health care system where even people from other countries seek treatment. In addition to the lack of various facilities, those from the Dalit and Mushahar communities also face discrimination with health care personnel refusing them treatment, providing poor treatment and outright discriminating against them in treatment. While a number of studies report the deplorable conditions of the government-managed health care system, some also report on discrimination issues.

Q: Is it only people in the worst caste who are shunned? Are all other castes now intermingling, intermarrying and facing no barriers? Or do barriers exist between all castes? – Jeanette Falkenstein

A: Various levels of barriers and disabilities are built into the caste system as mentioned earlier in a graded manner. Thus while greater inter-mingling is possible above the line of touchability, issues like inter-caste marriages are not commonly accepted. One may have to pay with one's life for intercaste marriage, especially if it is across the touchability line. The Supreme Court of India has come down strongly against honour killings more recently.

Q: Women's rights seem paramount for improving the lives of these people. What access do they have to birth control? Are there cultural or social barriers as well? – Andrew

A: Gender equations here too are skewed against women as in most societies and women in general have little say on reproductive issues. In addition there are strong pressures on women to marry early, have children immediately, that these decisions are most often taken by the husband and family than the women themselves. While there are no cultural barriers against birth control, the poor access to health care, lack of information and the absence of health personnel to guide them give women very little real choice or opportunity, particularly in the remote rural areas or urban poor areas to which the Mushahar community belongs.

Q: A question that has always nagged me is how an advanced spiritual system such as Hinduism can support the huge inequality of the caste system and the disrespect it showers on life. Based on my very brief research, it seems that not everyone agreed with the original Varnas, or categories of occupations, which excluded the untouchables. The system of varna or caste system has been regularly challenged from the time of Buddha with opposition noted in the Upanishads and by religious figures since that time. Why has it remained? Because it is a multi-layered issue mired by historical circumstances? – Brenda Piquette

A: What you mention is true; on one hand Hindu religion has enunciated some very complex philosophies in the realm of spirituality. These do not however reflect in the realm of human relationships and rights. In the every-day life the system of caste hierarchy and exclusion dominates every aspect of personal and social life. In some ways, one can compare it to how Christian religion – despite its very progressive teaching – considered it right to relegate women as the handmaids of men.

Anti-caste movements are also of old, from religious and reform movements to continued protests and religious conversions. While some changes have also come about, owing to the Constitution overturning the caste structure legally with affirmative action built into it, much has not changed in social life. Even while caste-based disabilities have been legally abolished, accessing justice is still a struggle as the social and mental attitudes are still dictated by caste.

In my thinking, the caste system continues to hold sway, because it is more than religion, it is the way of personal and social life – directing and guiding every aspect of life from where you live to what you eat to whom you will get married to. It prescribes one's economic, occupational and even political affiliations. The system survives because it vests multiple privileges – religious, social, economic and political power with those at the top of the ladder and naturally has no interest in changing the system. The graded inequality within the system also provides a strong incentive for those at various layers to maintain the system having others below them that can be exploited and those above whom they can aspire to reach.

Q: Can people who grew up in India generally tell what caste someone belongs to by looking at him/her? Are there physical qualities that suggest a person's caste? Or would you have to learn the person's surname or other information about him/her to know? If there are no physical traits, perhaps with education and migration, the caste system could disappear within a few generations. – Jeanette Falkenstein

A: As explained earlier, we in India can and generally identify the caste one belongs to. However, an important demarcating line is the "line of touchability," which separates the Dalit community as those who are outside or below the line of touchability. They are worst sufferers under the caste system. As those above the line of touchability are not prohibited by untouchability practice, intermingling is easier among them. There are norms of commensality, but inter-marrying continues to be a taboo. While legally there is no bar to inter-caste marriages and the state even makes provisions, it remains on paper. Marriages are most often arranged within one's caste and sub-caste ensuring that many other norms are also followed.

The deeply entrenched caste norms do not make it easy for even educated progressive thinking people to cross caste boundaries in matters like marriage. Even when young people studying in universities may consider marrying across caste, sooner or later they realize the impracticalities of it – that inter-caste marriage is very rare. Sunday columns in Indian newspapers have long lists of advertisements seeking brides and grooms by caste, religion, language, culture, class, education and multiples of them. The progress in the information and communication technology has upgraded them to caste-wide ""

Q: I have two questions: one, given that the caste system is defended by a set of religious beliefs that have endured for millennia, do you need to change those beliefs before you can stop discrimination? Or is the religious component just a smokescreen to allow one group of people to oppress another?

Second, what role do diaspora Indian communities play in maintaining the caste system? Are they harder or easier to break from its habits? – Shaun Narine

A: Dr. Ambedkar had propounded the need for 'annihilation of caste' and after much effort, he declared that the only way to overcome the disabilities was to change one's religion to Budhism. The caste system also maintains multiple privileges to the dominant sections of society and hence the resistance to changes. With the global resistance movements, it is now clear that denying one's identity is not the way to eliminate discrimination, rather acknowledging and recognizing identity and hence there is considerable movement among Dalits to assert one's identify. It is very interesting to note Lalmaty, one of Sudha's prodigies, said, "now that she knows so much about caste she is able to handle it."

The Indian diaspora has also not been able to shake off caste, particularly when it becomes a matter of engaging across the touchability line. There are reports of discrimination against Dalits even among the diaspora. In some ways, the diaspora loses touch with the everyday life and practices of the community in India and likes to retain nostalgic feelings about the country and its culture. Despite their long years of living outside the country, engaging with other cultures, they do not have much influence in changing the system in their families or community.

Q: With reference to the Mushahar girls and their education... if through their continued educational development, they eventually find meaningful employment, would that "Dalit" label from their inception be lifted and forgotten by those around them who haven't come from the same "beginning"? Also, if they were to leave the rural areas and migrate to a city, do they ever have to tell anyone (i.e. job application) about their caste position in their village? – Cari Main

A: It is interesting to hear the response of Poonam's mother, who says whatever she studies or whoever she becomes, she will continue to remain a Mushahar, the identity-based discrimination continues to haunt one. With the provisions of reservation, one comes across first and second generation Dalits who have accessed education, moved to the cities and even hold good positions. In some cases, they would rather not identify themselves as Dalits and may even be able to manage many parts of life so. However, when issues like marriage or ritual ceremonies come up, their caste identity may stand as a barrier.

As caste is the basis of affirmative action, most Dalits are identified in their educational institutions and employment spheres. There have been a number of reports of caste-based discrimination in premier educational institutions over the past decade, to the extent of Dalit students being driven to committing suicide. There is a general decrying of students that gain admission under affirmative action as being devoid of "merit" without consideration to the generations of cumulative deprivation they faced.

Q: It was suggested that the Dalits would have benefited by a separate electoral system proposed by Bhimrao Ambedkar. How would this have helped? It sounds like a continuation of separation rather than an integration into regular society. – Mike Baron

A: Babasaheb Ambedkar cautioned that political democracy is under threat without social democracy reflecting the need for social reforms. Recognising the stronghold of caste in all matters, he wanted to protect Dalits's space in political decision-making through the separate electoral system. This would have put power in the hands of Dalits to elect their own political representative, in addition to the person elected by all including the Dalits. Through such a process, Babasaheb sought to make the Dalit elected representatives accountable to the Dalit voters.

At this point, in keeping with the reservation policy, Dalit representatives are elected by all persons and hence do not feel any compulsion to meet the needs of their Dalit constituency. Gandhi's fast unto death over this made Ambedkar give up this demand. The separate electoral system may have served the Dalit constituency in ensuring their share in governance as well as development. One need not necessarily look at this as a divisive process as it is important to realistic stocktaking of the power dynamics and evolve institutional mechanisms for greater power sharing. The separate electorate would have served such a process.