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India's Caste System: History and Legacy


India is one of the most populous countries in the worldwide. Nearly three-fourths of Indians are Indo-Aryan, and a quarter of Indians descend from Dravidians. According to India's 2011 census, 79.8% are Hindus, 14% percent are Muslims and less than 5% of are Christians or Sikhs.[1] Pew Research Center surveyed a group of Indians in 2021 on their attitudes on the caste system. Most respondents claimed that they did not experience discrimination. Reality tells a different story. A quarter of participants stated that all their friends are in the same caste as them. A significant percentage of Indians are against inter-caste marriages. Most participants from Central India (82%) did not support inter-caste couples. On the other hand, only 35% of southern participants were against it. Many Indians (68%) define themselves as a member of a Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST), or Other Backward Classes (OBC). Less than 4% of Indians claim to be Brahmin.[2] 

Hinduism and the Indian Caste System

The Hindu Caste system began in Ancient India. Caste comes from castus, which means "pure" or "chaste" in Latin. The Portuguese utilized casta to define the Indian class system during the 1700s.[3] There are 3,000 main castes and 25,000 sub-castes.[4] The Indian hierarchy system includes four varnas, which means “color.” The Rigveda states, "The Brahman was [Virata Purusha’s] mouth, of both his arms was the Rajanya (Kshatriya) made. His thighs became the Vaisya, from his feet the Sudra was produced".[5] Brahmans are scholars and priests, and they are the highest varnaKshatriyas are warriors and politicians. Vaishyas are peasants and merchants. Finally, Shudras are artisans and laborers. Contact with impurities such as bodily fluids, grime, excrement, hair, and leather determined caste status. Hindus named people outside the system "untouchables", or Dalits. The Rigveda states Varnas differ from jatis, which means “birth.” The latter term refers to distinct subcategories or professions in a varna. A town could have 5-25 jatis, or 1-100 families.[6] Regions organize jatis differently.[7] 

Indians could rarely change their varna or jati, as they were legally stuck in their ancestors' caste. If a man was a Shudra, his descendants would also be Shudras. However, Sanskritization is the process by which a family can improve their status. Members of the Kshatriya and Vaishyas castes could move up a caste if they followed Brahminic ways. However, it would take one or two generations for a family to change castes.[8] Sanskritization did not apply to Dalits, who were less likely to believe in samsara, karma, and dharma.[9] Kathleen Gough asked a few Dalits about their perspective of rebirth, responsibility, fate, and death. When Gough mentioned reincarnation, an elder replied, "Brahmans say anything. Their heads go round and round" .[10] Dalits believe their status is due to trickery and misconceptions instead of karma, and castes are fluid.[11] The British influenced India’s caste system. They employed a census and categorized groups, which solidified the caste system. At the same time, the British also started affirmative action, which helps Dalits access government assistance, education, politics, and employment.[12] 


Thomas the Apostle and Bartholomew the Apostle introduced Christianity to Kerala and Maharashtra around 52 CE. The Portuguese, Italians, and Irish brought Roman Catholicism to the subcontinent during the 1500s. The British introduced Anglicism under British rule. There were approximately twenty-eight million Christians in 2011. Most live in Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Andhra Pradesh.[13] Violence against Christians began during the late 20th century and persisted into the 21st century. Officials reported attacks in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. During the summer of 2014, fifty villages prohibited minority religious practices. Three years later, Uttar Predesh's police interrupted a church meeting because Hindu Yuva Vahini, a Hindu group, reported forced conversions (Minority Rights).[14] In July 2022, Hindu radicals in Uttar Pradesh accused six Dalit women of forced conversion, and authorities apprehended the women.[15] Dalit Christians cannot access state benefits because they are not part of a scheduled caste.[16]



Dalit means "broken", "scattered", and "oppressed" in Sanskrit. Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi called Dalits Harijan, or "Children of God".[17] Three hundred fifty million Dalits and Adivasi (Indigenous people) live in India.[18] The International Dalit Solidarity Network believes there are 260 million Dalits globally. Some Dalits reside in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan.[19] Bhutan and the Maldives also have a caste system.[20] The Indian Constitution, Untouchability (Offences) Act of 1955, and The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act of 1993) improved Dalit rights.[21] However, Dalits still face issues. 


Buddhist, Christian, Jain, and Sikh Dalits cannot enter Hindu worship, burial, and cremation sites.[22] There were 8,802 recorded crimes against Indigenous people by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The organization also recorded 50,900 cases against Dalits in 2021.[23] Crimes against Dalits and Adivasis rose by 1.2% and 6.4%, respectively.[24] The NCRB received 428,278 reports of violence against women in 2022. Most of the victims lived in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Jammu, and Kashmir.[25] Perpetrators frequently go unpunished by India's legal system.[26] 


Dalit children also encounter discrimination. School administrators rejected Dalit kids' admissions to schools due to their status. If they were admitted, the institution limited their actions. Kids had to show caste documents, sit in the back of classrooms, and sometimes clean toilets they could not use. Dalit children could not pray, eat, or sit with their classmates. Some instructors did not correct Dalit kids' homework or give them snacks.[27]




Adivasis comes from Hindi "adi" (earliest times; from the beginning) and "vasi" (inhabitant; resident). The term refers to Indigenous groups living in India. Legally, they are known as scheduled tribes. More than two hundred groups live on the subcontinent. The 2011 census recorded 104.3 million Adivasis, which almost makes up ten percent of India's population. Scheduled tribes usually live near mountains and hills.[28] 


Before Britain's invasion, villagers traded with tribes. After the British conquered India, Europeans began to threaten Adivasis' land. During the mid-1800s, tribes rebelled against the invaders. As a result, the British drafted legislation to protect Adivasis' wishes. Unfortunately, businesses and individuals tried to buy and sell their land. Nearly all Adivasis reside outside of cities, and a substantial percentage rely on forest produce. However, the British and Indian governments nationalized parts of tribal lands. Consequently, Adivasis are punished by the state if they use forest produce.[29]


Even though Adivasis receives affirmative action benefits, most Indigenous people do not hold high-level political offices. The Panchayat (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 impacted Adivasis representation at the grassroots level. Indigenous groups can meet to respond to local problems and create their own political institutions. In 2006, Delhi passed the 2006 Forest Rights Act to give Indigenous groups more land rights. However, the legislation has not been properly implemented or enforced.[30] 


In 2022, Telangana Indigenous farmers fought against the state's Forest Department. Agriculturists claimed that officials ruined their crops and attempted to dislocate locals. During August, law enforcement apprehended twenty-three farmers because they attempted to forcefully regain their land. A month earlier, five Indigenous women were arrested for throwing chili powder at police.[31]




One hundred seventy-two million Muslims are living in India. Most are Sunni Muslims. They live in Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Kerala, and Assam. They speak Urdu, which is only an official language in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Telangana, West Bengal, and Delhi. Muslims lack representation in India's armed forces, legislative branch, and educational institutions, partly because Muslims do not receive proper training. Unlike Dalits, they do not get educational or employment benefits unless they are part of the Other Backward Class.[32]

Arabs brought Islam to northern India in 712 A.D. when they invaded Sind. The foreigners invaded the Indian subcontinent during the 1000s and 1100s. Five hundred later, Mughal emperors ruled parts of India. Emperor Akbar tolerated non-Muslims and gave them autonomy. Some Dalits converted to Islam to escape the Hindu caste system.[33]

During England's rule, Muslims ignored British culture due to religious values and a lack of need. Consequently, Muslims did not gain crucial and influential positions. At the end of the 1800s, Muslims asked for their own political representation. The movement eventually led to the creation of Pakistan. The partition led to conflicts between Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. India's Muslim population decreased from 25% to 10%. As a result, Muslims became an even greater minority. Hindu extremism grew during the 20th century.[34]


More Indian Muslims moved to Pakistan to escape discrimination. The immigrants tended to have a better educational background and more influence. During the 1970s, India forcefully sterilized Muslims in the northern region. Muslims asked for a civil code, but Islamist extremists and Hindus fought against it. In 1992, Hindus destroyed the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya. Numerous Muslims migrated to Gulf countries for employment. However, some came back to India after the Gulf War. Terrorists attacked Mumbai in 2008. Consequently, police profiled and arrested Muslims. Some of the prisoners were innocent and targeted due to their religion. Police brutality and human rights abuses occurred in Jammu and Kashmir.[35]


As a result of discrimination, some Muslims are poor, illiterate, and unemployed. Shiv Sena and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangha claim that Muslims are not loyal to India. At the same time, Muslim extremists want followers of Islam to live differently than non-Muslims.[36] Hindu nationalists target Muslims who work with cows. Forty-four deaths between 2015 and 2019 were related to cattle.[37] At the beginning of 2022, Muslim women's photographs were added to an app, which said the women were available to purchase.[38] Khalida Parveen, an activist, had her photo uploaded to GitHub. Rana Ayyub and Barkha Dutt, two Washington Post writers, were targeted on the Tek Fog app.[39] The perpetrators posted the pictures to embarrass and scare Muslim women.[40] 


The Indian government bulldozed Muslim critics' homes in 2022. In April, the North Delhi Municipal Corporation retaliated after religious violence by destroying the homes of Muslims and Hindus. Two months later, officials in Uttar Pradesh destroyed a Muslim activist's home because a protest he planned became violent. Authorities claimed Mohammad's property was "illegal" and imprisoned two of his family members.[41] During the autumn of 2022, Gujarat officials believed that a group of Muslims disrupted a Hindu festival. Consequently, the police flogged the men. In Madhya Pradesh, During a Hindu performance, officials thought that Muslim men threw rocks. As a result, the authorities destroyed their homes. Madhya Pradesh's home minister stated that "houses that [participated] in stone pelting will be turned into rubble" .[42] 


Officials prohibited hijabs in one state. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh won another term despite his Islamophobic rhetoric. Consequently, Hindu supremacists felt emboldened. Hindu hardliners and the Bharatiya Janat Party (BJP) believe that India is a strictly Hindu nation instead of multi-religious or secular. Certain politicians support discrimination of minority groups for political reasons. Hindu extremists have persuaded Dalits and Adivasi to fight against Muslims. Economist Jean Dreze notes that the elites' actions "[are] a ploy that enables [the upper castes] to [remain in power]...[the situation] makes it [...harder] for Dalits and other exploited groups to question their own oppression by the upper castes and revolt against it".[43]

Some Hindu Temples still ban Dalits from entering. However, members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) want Indigenous peoples and Dalits to convert to Hinduism. Mohan Bhagwat, the leader of the RSS, claimed that India's caste system prevented unity and "every Indian [is] a Hindu".[44] After some Dalits convert to Hinduism, they are exposed to Islamophobia and expected to fight against Muslims. Bhanwar Meghwanshi, a former RSS member, wrote I Could Not Be Hindu: The Story of a Dalit in the RSS. Meghwanshi states, "We were trained to hate Muslims [...] so we could be RSS foot soldiers in anti-Muslim riots".[45] Indian Muslims are divided and ununified. There are three subgroups: ashrafs (nobles), ajlafs (commoners), and arzals (despicables).[46]



India's Hindu caste system has endured for more than a millennium, bringing order as well as violence. The Indian government took steps to reduce caste discrimination. However, Muslims, Christians, Dalits, and Adivasis still face poverty and prejudice in Indian society. Societal norms and biases do not disappear overnight. Hopefully, Indians can question and reduce their prejudices towards different groups of people. At the same time, the Indian government should draft and enforce laws to help minorities.



[1] Central Intelligence Agency ‘India’ (2023)

[2] Pew Research Center ‘Attitudes about Caste’ (29 June 2021)

[3] Deepa Bharath ‘What is India’s Caste System? Is it Contentious in U.S.?’ (20 Feb. 2023) Associated Press.

[4] S. Majumdar ‘With Religious Tensions Worsening in India, Understanding Caste is More Urgent Than Ever’ (06 Apr. 2022). Time. https//

[5] Rigveda (1500-1000 B.C.) ‘The Hymns of the Rigveda’ (1890) trans. By Ralph T.H. Griffith (Trans.) 2nd Ed. Kotagiri (Nilgiri) India: Benares, E.J. Lazarus and Co. RV X.90.12; M.R. Vallabhaneni ‘Indian Caste System: Historical and Psychoanalytical Views’ (2015) American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Suppl. Special Issue: The Intertwining of External and Internal 75 no. 4 p. 363

[6] Encyclopedia Britannica ‘Caste of India’ (n.d.) Encyclopedia Britannica.

[7] Bharath (n 3)

[8] V.M Goghari and M. Kusi ‘An Introduction to the Basic Elements of the Caste System in India (2023) Frontiers in Psychology 14. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2023.1210577.

[9] Goghari & Kusi (n 8)

[10] Goghari & Kusi (n 8); K. Gough ‘Harijans in Thanjavur’ in Imperialism and Revolution in South Asia eds. K Gough and H.P. Sharma (1973) p. 234

[11] Goghari & Kusi (n 8); R. Deliege ‘The Myths of Origin of the Indian Untouchables’ (1993) DOI: 10/2307/2804238.

[12] Bharath (n 3)

[13] Minority Rights Group ‘Christians’ (n.d.)

[14] Minority Rights Group (n 13)

[16] Minority Rights Group (n 13)

[17] Encyclopedia Britannica (n 6)

[18] Majumdar (n 4)

[19] Un Office of the High Commissioner ‘The Dalit: Born into a Life of Discrimination and Stigma’ (19 Apr. 2021).

[20] Bharath (n 3)

[21] Goghari & Kusi (n 8, p. 4)

[22] Bharath (n 3)

[23] Human Rights Watch (n 15)

[24] Ibid.

[25] United States Department of State ‘India 2022 Human Rights Report’ (20 Mar. 2023)

[26] UN Office of High Commissioner (n 19); U.S. Department of State (n 25)

[27] U.S. Department of State (n 25)

[28] Minority Rights Group. ‘Adivasis’ (n.d.)

[29] Minority Rights Group (n 28)

[30] Minority Rights Group (n 28)

[31] U.S. Department of State (n 25)

[32] Minority Rights Group ‘Muslims’ (n.d.) Minority Rights Group.

[33] Minority Rights Group (n 32)

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Human Rights Watch (n 15)

[38] Ibid.

[39] U.S. Department of State (n 25)

[40] Human Rights Watch (n 15)

[41] U.S. Department of State (n 25)

[42] Human Rights Watch (n 15)

[43] Majumdar (n 4)

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

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