India's Untouchables reach for power and change: The caste system is being challenged as never before, writes Tim McGirk in New Delhi

FOR MORE than a millennium, a rigid social hierarchy has dominated in India, with the priestly upper-caste Brahmins on top, followed by the warrior Kshatriyas, and the Vayshyas, who are farmers and merchants. Beneath them are the Sudras, the manual workers, and lowliest of them all, the outcastes or Untouchables, who do the foulest jobs, sweeping latrines and disposing of carcasses.

Even today, 30 years after caste discrimination was declared illegal, it persists, unofficially but pervasively. The President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice, army Chief of Staff and opposition party leader are Brahmins. So are most of the highest echelons of government bureaucracy and politicians. Yet the Untouchables make up over 20 per cent of India's 870 million people.

But at last the Untouchables are beginning to assert themselves politically, ending aeons of mute subservience. Led by Kanshi Ram, a balding former explosives-maker in his sixties, his party of outcastes, in coalition with socialists, are sweeping into power in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and politically crucial state. 'My goal is social transformation,' said Mr Ram, who lives in spartan quarters in New Delhi and refuses to attend weddings or funerals because, he says, it distracts him from fighting for the oppressed Untouchables.

It has been a gruelling battle. Caste, in some forms, exists among Indian Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and of course Hindus. The sacred Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads, declare: 'Those whose conduct on Earth has given pleasure can hope to enter a pleasant womb, that is the womb of a Brahmin or a woman of the princely class. But those whose conduct on Earth has been foul can expect to enter a foul and stinking womb, that is, the womb of a bitch or a pig or an outcaste.'

Such religious prejudices against the Untouchables - or Dalits, as they call themselves - are difficult to uproot, as Mr Ram and his socialist partner, Mulayam Singh Yadav, will find when they try to reform the state machinery in Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh. A daily, the Pioneer, commented: 'The biggest challenge would be to keep the bureaucracy (dominated by the upper castes) united and to prevent the caste divide from widening further in rural areas . . . which may lead to a sharp exacerbation of social tensions.'

Indeed, clashes have already flared in the neighbouring state of Bihar, where the Chief Minister, Laloo Prasad, who also comes from a lower caste, enraged Brahmins recently by appointing several Untouchables as priests. In many rural areas Untouchables are banned from even entering a Hindu shrine, never mind conducting the rites. In Bihar many worried upper-caste landlords have formed private armies for defence against what they view as the inevitable uprising of the downtrodden castes.

Success by the socialist-outcaste coalition in Uttar Pradesh and their strong showing in the Madhya Pradesh state elections could signal a major upheaval in Indian politics. Hardest hit is the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the leading opposition party, which had tried to rally Hindus, who make up the vast majority of Indians, to their banner of religious extremism. Mr Ram showed that the support for Hindu nationalism never trickled down beyond the Brahmins, Kshatriyas and merchant classes. Social justice was a stronger lure for India's downtrodden than the BJP's attempts to reforge a rigid Hindu hierarchy.

The Congress party, whose towering presence has overshadowed India since independence and which now rules in New Delhi, is also shaken by the rising power of the lower castes. Romela Thapar, a historian, said: 'Congress has always counted on the poor, the Muslims and the backward castes to win in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar but they've lost that base now.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager - South East & East Anglia

£60500 - £65500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global leading software co...

Recruitment Genius: Junior IT Technician

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you want the opportunity to ...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Support Worker

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Home Care Support Workers needed in the Hastin...

Recruitment Genius: Home Care Support Worker - Car / Bike / Moped Drivers

£7 - £11 per hour: Recruitment Genius: NEW branch opening soon in Worthing fol...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent