The Caste System in India and the Oldest Form of Social Stratification

In recent times, India has been getting more frequent coverage of a woman getting acid thrown in her face or getting sexually assaulted by a group of men. These egregious crimes have been highly publicized in the local and international news making headlines all across the world. Laws have been put in place to protect these women from attacks from their male perpetrators but these laws have been proven to be ineffective as these attacks and acts of violence still remain prevalent and swept under the rug in India.

There’s no justice served for these women who have died or have suffered through the consequences of justice not being served.

India needs major reform for how they treat their women and how they go about incarcerating the criminals that harm the women who haven’t provoked them in the slightest. What the U.S. can do is partner up with India, make a new relation, a humanitarian/human rights relation, and start making and funding female friendly facilities like clinics, domestic violence centers, etc to help women in both countries.

History of how and why Indian women are treated the way they are goes all the way back to India’s hierarchical culture. A hierarchy is a system/organization in which a group of people are put into certain ranks in society according to status and authority. In America, a good example of this would be the socio-economic rankings of the citizens: The elite class at the top of the pyramid.

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This would be comprised of multi-millionaires and politicians.

Upper and Middle class individually filling up the next two tiers under the elite. This would be comprised of those who come from financially stable families and have bachelor degrees. Then the lower middle class filling up the tier after that. People in this tier would be blue collar and clerical workers. Then the poor, homeless, impoverished class. This where those who are often jobless or have multiple jobs and get government assistance. In India, their hierarchical system is called a caste system.

The caste system is one of the oldest, surviving forms of social stratification. The system which divides Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups based on their karma (work) and dharma (the Hindi word for religion, but here it means duty) is generally accepted to be more than 3,000 years old. This system came about when Manusmriti, a widely regard and authoritative book on Hindu law dating back at least 1,000 years before Christ was born “acknowledges and justifies the caste system as the basis of order and regularity of society”.

At the top of the hierarchy was the Brahmins, who were mainly teachers and intellectuals and believed to come from the head of Brahma, the Hindu God of creation, then Kshatriyas, who were warriors and rulers who are believed to come from Brahma’s arms, then it’s the Vaishyas, or traders, who were created from his thighs, and at the bottom being Brahma’s feet would be the Shudras doing menial work. Outside of the caste system would be the Dalits also known as the ‘untouchables’.

The surfacing of a patriarchal hierarchy can be traced back to India’s Pre-Vedic period, a time period in India where all of India’s oldest scriptures of Hinduism was composed called the Vedas dating back to the 1500 to 500 B.C.E, all the way to India’s post-independence. The beginning of civilization saw no legitimate gender hierarchy nor violence against women. During the Vedic age, more than 3,000 years ago, women were assigned a high place in society. They shared an equal standing with their men folk and enjoyed a kind of liberty that actually had societal sanctions.

Within this period, society started to become increasingly structured. Women were honored and considered sacred but this period saw the institution of marriage established. This held women back to be housewives and birth only sons. Following this period in Ancient India, this role for women became more cemented for women were considered both an object to control and one to worship; Requiring to serve both as a beacon of chastity and a submissive wife. Women soon became defined by those standards by their family members and husbands.

Entering the British period (1858-1947), sex became a taboo due to the rising conservatism in Indian culture. Indirectly, this perception offers cause for violence against women. Overall, the status of women in Colonial India was more so dependent on their men than on themselves. They were denied the opportunity of education and refinement. Except for a few women of the upper classes, the life of general women was not worth living. Before and during the rule of India by the British, India implemented a hierarchical caste system, which delegated certain groups of people into different levels of status.

The caste system was a patriarchal construct through which males observed overarching power over the female population, specifically females in a lower caste. The higher level of status denoted by the specific caste an Indian man was a part of, provided him with the ability to abuse women in lower castes without consequence. The women in lower classes were subjected to violence, intimidation, and public shaming in order to maintain the gender inequality. In each specific caste, the women associated were considered to be the bottom of that caste. Women in the lowest caste were literally the lowest members of society.

In short, the access to social justice and equality were denied to them. They were unaware of their basic rights as individuals due to illiteracy, ignorance and economic subordinate through the age. Women who took a very profound stand against the patriarchy she lived in was Savitribai Phule, who was a child bride who then later in her life created the first girls school in India, Tarabai Shinde, who wrote the first feminist text, and Pandita Ramabai, who criticized the patriarchy and caste system in Hinduism, married outside her caste, and converted to Christianity.

Towards the end of British rule, women increasingly found their marginalization and inequality to be unacceptable, and so began to fight for position in mainstream society. Upon India’s independence in 1947, many women participated in a large push-back against the patriarchy, viewing the emancipation as an opportunity to pursue progress.

Girls have been eliminated in India for centuries. In the past getting rid of girls was harder and was accomplished after birth by strangling the infant girl, also known as female infanticide. During British rule over India in the 19th century, however, female infanticide was recognized as a social evil and was outlawed by the Female Infanticide Prevention Act of 1870. This Act was applicable to the North Western Provinces and Punjab but the Act was spread to all of British Ruled India. The law authorized the creation of a police force to maintain records of birth, marriage, and death registers, and conduct censuses of the district at its discretion.

The Act also stipulated a prison sentence of six months, pay a fine of 30,000 rupees (which equates to roughly about $466.00 in U.S. currency), or both on anyone who disobeys or obstructs the police from enforcing the Act. Female infanticide still occurred despite this Act put into place and still continues today, the leading cause being that there’s high preference for sons so that they can ‘extend the family lineage’. In modern times, according to an article by Al Jazeera in 2013, “As far back as 1991, the economist Amartya Sen pointed out that Asia was missing 100 million women because of sex-selection and the poor attention paid to women… In 1991, the Indian census showed an unprecedented drop of women in the sex-ratio.

After running tests to check whether women had been under-counted, they found that a massive explosion in sex-selection during the 80s had led to a sharp drop in the number of girls being born. A report by Action Aid in 2009 (“Disappearing Daughters”) found that in some villages in the state of Punjab, there were as few as 300 girls for every 1,000 boys.”

This affected the laws made in India relating to this topic by the Government of India creating the “baby cradle scheme” in 1992 by women voluntarily giving up their female infants up for adoption without having to go through the formal procedure. While this scheme possibly saved the lives of thousand female infants, it was criticized by human rights groups for ‘encouraging child abandonment’ and promoting the low status of women in their society. The Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu added an incentive to give money to those who have more than 1 daughter.

In 2000, the scheme was deemed a failure when there were more female infanticides but later got reinstated back the following year, declining the rate of female infanticides: “In May 2001, the CBS was reintroduced. The new version of the scheme was initially launched in five districts (Salem, Madurai, Theni, Dindigul and Dharmapuri) and was soon extended to the entire state… Consider that according to our analysis post-birth daughter deficit fell from an annual shortfall of about 4,500 during the period 1996-99 to about 1,800 in 2003 – a decline of about 2,700.

Over the 6.5 years between May 2001 and November 2007, on an average, the scheme received about 370 female babies per year. These figures suggest that the CBS may have directly accounted for about 14% (370/2700) of the reduction in post-birth daughter deficit observed between 1996-99 and 2003.”(12) Due to the overwhelming amount of infanticides of female babies, programs and laws have been put in place to help these female infants live to see another day.

Another case of violence against women would be the infamous 2012 New Delhi rape case. The 2012 New Delhi rape case became known worldwide when the New Delhi attack occurred on Sunday evening on December 16th, in the southern rim of the capital. The woman, a 23-year-old medical student, had been out with a male friend; At 9:10 they both looked for a ride to Palam, a bus soon pulled over and they boarded the bus. The police said the man and woman were tricked into believing that the bus was part of the city’s public fleet: one of the suspects was posing as a conductor, calling out for passengers. Instead, the bus was part of a fleet owned by a private charter company.

One of the suspects worked for the company by day, driving a bus for a private school. As the bus began moving, three young men confronted the couple and began harassing the woman, the police said. Her friend tried to intervene, but they beat him with an iron rod and then repeatedly raped the woman with that rod, the police said. “It appears to be that a rod was inserted into her and it was pulled out with so much force that the act brought out her intestines… That is probably the only thing that explains such severe damage to her intestines,” said a doctor at Safdarjung Hospital where the woman is being treated.

Eventually, the two were stripped of their clothing and thrown out of the bus onto a national highway on the southern outskirts of the capital. The rape victim, 23 year old medical student Jyoti Singh, unfortunately died two weeks later due to her injuries. In a briefing on Tuesday afternoon, the Delhi police commissioner, Neeraj Kumar, said the suspects had taken the bus after an evening of drinking and eating. “The idea was to have fun,” he said.

This case has gained so much negative attention for what has happened but more people were even angrier at how the rapists themselves and politicians responded to this case and to rape in general. According to Mukesh Singh, the driver of the aforementioned bus and rapist, stated that “A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy… Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20% of girls are good… People “had a right to teach them a lesson” he suggested – and he said the woman should have put up with it. “When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape.

Then they’d have dropped her off after ‘doing her’, and only hit the boy,” he said. This is the case of victim blaming, blaming the victim for whatever traumatic event happened to them when it wasn’t in their control. The statement said above plays into the respectability politics that are present in the culture and how they are damaging women. This ultimately comes down to the basic idea in the caste system, the pure and the impure. A ‘pure’ woman wouldn’t go around at night roaming about unlike the ‘impure’ girl who only wants to party and go to bars.

This can also play into the caste system due to the fact that lower-caste women are still subjected to sexual atrocities by the dominant upper-caste employers. Casteism is so entrenched in certain sections of society that a judge dismissed a case of rape against a Dalit by a group of upper-caste men on the grounds that “an upper caste man could not have defiled himself by raping a lower caste woman,” as happened in the widely debated Bhanwari Devi case.

In Indian culture, as stated from one of the lawyers that defended the rapists/murderers, “…we never allow our girls to come out from the house after 6:30 or 7:30 or 8:30 in the evening with any unknown person… You are talking about man and woman as friends. Sorry, that doesn’t have any place in our society. We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman.” Hearing the previous statement from a lawyer isn’t surprising since politicians and parliamentarians have made sexist and misogynistic remarks of their own when talking about gender violence.

A minister from the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, Babu Lal Gaur, from the BJP, said while discussing the Badaun rape case, “Rapes are sometimes right and sometimes wrong.” The head of the ruling party in Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav, said, “Boys commit mistakes. But should they be hanged for it?” Abu Azmi, a Samajwadi Party leader from the state of Maharashtra, said, “Under Islam, rape is punishable … any woman if, whether married or unmarried, goes along with a man, with or without consent, should be hanged.” Twenty-one percent of the newly elected parliamentarians have serious criminal cases against them, including crimes against women.

Protests erupted in New Delhi on December 17th where Singh and her friend had waited to board the bus. Day by day, the protests swelled from hundreds to thousands to tens of thousands; young and old, men and women marching to India’s seat of power, jumping over barricades, braving the water cannons in New Delhi’s December cold. No one expected it to become so big. Some even called it the “Indian Spring. The government was shaken to its core.” Upon being aware of the protests, on January 3rd, the police identifies all the men involved and charges them with murder, kidnapping, gang rape, unnatural offenses, destruction of evidence, criminal conspiracy, and common intention.

On February 5th, the trial begins, on March 8th, the suspect involved, Ram Singh is found dead hanging in his jail cell; Suicide and foul play being alleged. On April 2nd, a more stricter sex-crime ordinance comes into effect, increasing punishment to either a life sentence or the death penalty if the victim is left in a vegetative state or has died. Gang rape now a minimum of 20 years. On September 3rd, the judge closed the trial over the course of seven months.

On August 31st, the juvenile suspect, who was noted to be the most brutal of all the suspects, was given a sentence of three years then serve 28 months in a reform home. This sentence sparks outrage. The rest of the suspects has been convicted of rape and murder and sentenced to death on September 13th, a penalty rarely handed down in India.

Following the December 2012 gang rape and subsequent mass protests, the Justice Verma Committee was formed to review rape laws. Among its recommendations were police reforms and rehabilitative measures for survivors. The committee also insisted on the need for gender sensitization of the police, dominated by male officers and governed by archaic colonial laws, and for the recruiting of more women officers.(17) According to the Crime in India 2014 from the National Crime Records Bureau Ministry of Home Affairs publication, on chapter 5 it states, “A total of 36,735 cases of rape under section 376 IPC (Indian Penal Code) were reported during 2014 (excluding the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012). An increasing trend in the incidence of rape has been observed during the periods 2010 – 2014.”

Article 14 of the Indian Constitution confers absolute equal rights for women,(15) but yet the women of India are still getting discriminated against regardless due to the caste system, the institution of marriage, etc. When it comes to the area of crime, sexual assault more specifically, neither the police nor the judicial system is seen as adequately protecting them. A Thomson Reuters Foundation expert poll last year ranked India as the world’s fourth most dangerous country for a woman, behind only Afghanistan, Congo and Pakistan.24)

According to U.S. RAINN, just over half of rape cases that are prosecuted in the U.S. each year leads to a conviction, a much higher rate than in India. But, as Ms. Vrinda Grover, an Indian Supreme Court lawyer, says, none of this number crunching makes Delhi’s streets any less dangerous. Ms. Grover says she feels much safer on New York’s subway system than on Delhi’s buses, for instance. In New Delhi, Komal, a doctoral student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, stated that she regularly took buses and often felt unsafe traveling in the capital region. Being sexually harassed is an “everyday experience,” she said.

Women are constantly followed by men and groped while on public transportation. On the road to reform on sexual assault in India, Delhi ordered the use of so-called fast-track courts in several sexual assault cases in the capital, and established the first special court to handle crimes against women. The court is staffed and run entirely by women—a forum that officials hope will encourage more female victims to come forward… In March 2013, the Indian Parliament passed a law that criminalizes sexual harassment, voyeurism, stalking, and the death penalty for repeat sex offenders if their victim dies.

On the topic of female infanticide, even though the practice is outlawed, 300,000 to 600,000 female fetuses are aborted every year in India because of the preference for boys, according to a 2011 study by The Lancet. And the discrimination that begins while in the womb continues throughout a girl’s life.

Women’s rights activist and Supreme Court lawyer Kirti Singh says there is a marked difference between how many parents treat their daughters and their sons. She says girls aren’t given the same kind of food, they’re not educated in the same manner, and they’re only raised to become someone’s wife. Sumanjeet, a 25 year old mother, says that when she was pregnant with her baby girl Khushi, relatives would “cry and yell, ‘What are you doing giving birth to a girl? Push her off the roof of the building, kill her! Why are you keeping her?”

When it comes to the blatant sexism that girls face during childhood, Sumanjeet says she sees it all the time. “They send boys to good schools, they give them good food, nice clothes to wear. They treat them well. They say, ‘Oh, it’s my son.’ To the daughter they say, ‘Get the cow dung, sweep the floors. What will you do with an education?”” To counteract the way girls in India are treated, some Indian and foreign nongovernmental organizations are engaging with the male community in an effort to elevate women in society.

For instance, in Bihar state, a village planted mango and lychee trees to celebrate the birth of a girl, with the idea that profit from the fruit would help support the family and discourage the community from marrying off its daughters at young ages. Of course, law alone won’t help to change the way Indian society thinks of girls, but talking about social attitudes, cultural practices can help also but one would have to realize that those don’t change overnight.

America and India are both allies to each other. India and America have military and economic relations. However, violence against women is an epidemic in all countries regardless of relation. In America, in 2008, approximately 500 women were raped every day in the U.S., according a National Crime Victimization Survey.

Domestic violence was highlighted as “an extremely underreported crime.” When reported, it is rarely prosecuted and investigated, and has a low conviction rate. This is a global truism. What America can do is partner up with India, make a new relation, a humanitarian/human rights relation, and start making and funding female friendly facilities like clinics, domestic violence centers, etc. Possible push back from this would be the new government under Trump.

There are challenges that the U.S-India ties face with Trump as president: the isolationist “America First” ideology and foreign policy, which can make Indian leaders doubt that America would be a reliable partner in the future and Trump’s persistence to build a wall, which can greatly diminish the 23 billion trade balance America and India has made together back in 2015.(26)

Another possible pushback would be the Indian leaders disagreeing with the fact that women should be more elevated in their society because it can go up against India’s social customs and cultural practices. This can cause friction due to the long history of how women are traditionally treated in India, dating back to the Vedic period as mentioned earlier.

With that, India can state that America is trying to fully ‘westernize’ them and erase their culture. But if the Indian leaders don’t see any problem with making women more equal in their society and the President loses that isolationist ideology and preserve the 23 billion trade balance, we make the world a better place for women, girls, and for everyone for many generations to come.

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The Caste System in India and the Oldest Form of Social Stratification. (2023, May 16). Retrieved from

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