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Macwan: Unjust caste system needs change

John Cameron | Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The injustices of the caste system have plagued Indian society throughout the 3,000 years the system has been in place, but scholar and activist Martin Macwan said he believes the time is coming for a change.

Macwan presented a lecture Tuesday, hosted by the Kroc Institute, at the Hesburgh Center for International Studies, titled “Annihilating Caste Discrimination: The Silent Revolution of India’s Dalits,” in which he addressed the causes and potential remedies for caste conflict and its consequences for the Dalits, the lowest caste group known as the “untouchables.”

Macwan, the founder of the Navsarjan Trust, said he hopes to apply his organization’s scholarly census research to combat the very real issue of social injustice in India’s caste system.

“It’s a systemic issue, and if you want to address systemic issues, you need a broad-based organization,” Macwan said. “The question is, is there a link between research and action? I’m trying to create the synergy between the academic and the grassroots action.”

Macwan said the “systemic issue” of castes needs to be addressed on all of its political, social, economic and religious elements.

Macwan said a major problem is the disproportionate prevalence of the upper-castes in high government positions. He said 78 percent of the judiciary comes from only one class: the Brahmans.

While the caste system is originally drawn from Hindu teachings, it has become an institution within other major religions in India, including Christianity and Islam.

“Essentially the caste system is part of Hinduism … it is sanctified by the religion and scripture,” Macwan said. “Even today, though, you’ll find separate churches for Dalit and non-Dalit Christians.”

The social element of the caste system, Macwan said, is how the caste system has been perpetuated for so many years.

“Part of it is socialization, which is how the system is taught from generation to generation,” he said.

Perhaps the most central of the problems fueling the caste system is the pervasive economic inequality in India, especially regarding land and employment.

“In many cases, they have legal possession, but they don’t have the actual land, it’s being encroached on,” he said. “Most people are employed by caste-based occupations, and the self employment rate among Dalits is less than one percent.”

The solution to these pervasive and complex problems, Macwan said, is large-scale action starting from the bottom.

“We realized social movements are effective when they are led by grassroots efforts,” he said. “Our program is going from village to village, telling people they are equal and there is a law.”

Ultimately, Macwan said real change will come as more of the Dalits become aware of the backward nature of the caste system and become engaged in the movement.

“It’s very important that the change is led by the people that have suffered from untouchability,” he said. “The counterrevolution is coming from the value that people are equal … the struggle is on because people believe it is their right.”