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Laws Against Caste-Based Discrimination: History And Evolution

This article explores the history and evolution of laws against caste-based discrimination in India. It begins by highlighting the persistence of social disparities and discrimination despite the country's rich cultural diversity. The caste system, which divides Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups, is discussed as the foundation of social order and inequality.

The 19th-century social reform movements led by Prarthana Samaj and Jyotirao Phule are examined, emphasizing their efforts to challenge the caste system and advocate for social equality. The pivotal role of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar in the fight against caste-based discrimination and his contributions to the drafting of the Indian Constitution are also highlighted.

The current legal framework against caste discrimination, including provisions in the Constitution, the Protection of Civil Rights Act, the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, is discussed. The article concludes by emphasizing the need for societal attitudes and effective implementation of these laws to combat caste-based discrimination and ensure the upliftment of marginalized communities.

India is a developing nation moving towards creating a better society for all its people. It's a country rich in culture and diversity in its population. Although this unique feature makes it one of the most resourceful nations full of potential, it also results in several social disparities. Modern India aims to resolve the history of the country's inequalities and atrocities through numerous social reforms and the enactment of laws.

But even after 75 years of independence, we are still battling the evils of social, economic, and political discrimination. For centuries, caste has determined the aspects of the religious and social lives of Hindus. India deludes itself that discrimination based on caste is a thing of the past, yet many incidents in recent years have proven otherwise.

On February 12, 2023, Darshan Solanki, an 18-year-old Dalit chemical engineering student died by suicide on Powai Campus at IIT-Bombay. Solanki's family alleges caste-based discrimination to be the reason behind his extreme step. According to government data, 122 students from centrally funded higher educational institutions (IITs, NITs, IIMs, etc.), died by suicide from 2014 to 2021. Of these, 58% of students were from reserved categories and minority communities (SC/ST/OBC).

After India got independence in 1947, it was claimed that the stems of casteism have been eradicated with the abolition of untouchability and the zamindari system. But it still stands in the way of the prospects of nation-building, citizens' welfare, political empowerment, liberation, and economic advancement. Despite several laws and provisions against caste discrimination, crimes against the people of lower castes are rampant. Often these laws and provisions are ignored due to prejudice and fallacious doctrines which try to justify casteism.

The Caste System in India
The caste system in India segregates Hindus into rigid hierarchal groups based on the kind of work they professed. It divides Hindus into Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. The Brahmins, who were the teachers and intellectuals, were at the top of the pyramid. Then came the Kshatriyas who were then warriors. Thirdly were the Vaishyas or the traders and merchants and at the bottom were the Shudras. The caste system is acknowledged and justified as the foundation for the order and regularity of society in the ancient, ancient text Manusmriti, a source of Hindu law.

This system gave the upper castes many privileges while sanctioning the lower groups' repression.

In the nineteenth century, voices of social reforms emerged in India. In 1851 Jyotirao Phule questioned the discrimination in the social system which affected the lives of lower caste groups and opposed the dominance of Brahmins. In 1851, he opened up schools for girls belonging to the lower castes. In 1873, he founded the Satyashodhak Samaj, open to all castes and religions without discrimination. Ramakrishna Bhandarkar and Mahadev Govind Ranade both denounced the caste system and the practice of untouchability. They joined the Prarthana Samaj founded by Atmaram Panduranga in 1867.

The British put the oppressed caste under the "Scheduled Caste" list, which is still used today. In the 20th century, Dr. B R Ambedkar played a pivotal role in the fight against the caste system and for Dalit liberation. He was the face of the Dalit movement and made prominent efforts in abolishing untouchability. Being the chairperson of the Drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly, he played a huge role in making provisions that ensure social equality.

After British India's independence and the constitution's formation, many anti-discrimination laws came into force. Untouchability was abolished through constitutional provisions and the enactment of laws. The Constitution confers fundamental rights which protect against discrimination by the State. The four primary laws of India's legal system protect citizens from caste-based discrimination are - the Constitution of India, the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955 (PCRA), the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 (PoA Act) and its Rules, 1995, and the Prohibition of Employment as a Manual Scavenger and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013.

Evolution Of Laws Against Caste-Based Discrimination

19th Century Social Reforms
Prarthana Samaj 1867

On March 31, 1867, Atmaram Panduranga founded the Prarthana Samaj. It was a leading society for socio-religious reform which became popular after Mahadev Govind Ranade joined the organization. In the 19th century, exposure to the democratic and individualist liberal Western ideologies gave rise to several socio-religious reforms and movements.

Although all the members of Prathana Samaj were Hindus and devoted theists, they did not accept Vedas as divine or infallible. It developed under the umbrella of Brahmo Samaj but it was not as radical. It promoted monotheism and social reforms to stop religious evil practices and customs. It denounced idol worship and accepted the teachings of various religions such as Christianity and Buddhism.

Prathana Samaj played a significant role in the fight against the caste system and untouchability. It was staunchly the division of society. It encouraged inter-caste marriages, widow remarriages and advocated for the rights of women and the interests of Dalits. Although Prarthana Samaj did not attack the Brahmanical power, it functioned as a secret society to spread liberal ideas and break caste and communal barriers.

After the demise of Ranade, Gokhale separated from the Samaj and established the Servants of India Society in 1905. Despite this, Prarthana Samaj did commendable work and greatly impacted Maharashtra.

Jyotirao Phule
Born in the Satara district of Maharashtra, Jyotirao Govindrao Phule was a prominent social reformer, activist, and thinker. He was a radical thinker and challenged the racial theory of caste and gender discrimination. From coining the term "Dalit" to opening the first school for women, he played a crucial role in the upliftment of the weaker sections of society. Phule believed that the subjugation of Dalits was due to the lack of access to education.

They were kept from speaking, reading, and writing Sanskrit by the Brahmins who controlled Indian society. Hence, he set up a school for Dalit men and women in 1848. This laid the foundation stone for the fight against caste-based and gender-based exploitation. In 1851, he opened another school for girls and asked Savitribai Phule, his wife, to teach the students. He gave huge importance to education as the key to solving the problems of Dalits and their survival and success.

Satya Shodhak Samaj 1873
On 24th September 1873, Jyotirao Phule found the Satya Shodhak Samaj in Pune, Maharashtra. He believed Brahminical dominance to be the root cause of the suppression of Dalits and the unfair caste system. He disapproved of Vedic culture, Upanishad philosophy, and the domination of Aryan society..

Through the Satya Shodhak Samaj, Phule intended to put an end to the exploitation of Shudras and Dalits by the Brahmins. The samaj influenced people to believe that they should obey and follow only one God as they were all the children of one omnipotent. Deenabandhu Publication was the mouthpiece of the Samaj and played a significant role in the movement.

After the death of Jyotirao Phule in 1890, Shahu Maharaj, a Maratha ruler of Kolhapur, carried the movement forward. Eventually, Satya Shodhak Samaj dissolved in the 1930s and the leaders started joining the Indian National Congress.

20th Century British India
Dr. B. R. Ambedkar

The first person to explain caste inequity in Indian society was Dr. Ambedkar. Nothing, in his opinion, can be constructed based on caste. But he also pushed for the "annihilation of caste" since he thought that anything based on caste would engender inequality. With its caste system, which is the primary cause of inequality, India cannot advance.

Dr. Ambedkar significantly contributed to the improvement of the oppressed. He was viewed as the messiah for the oppressed class because he is a member of the untouchable community. He addresses the problem of untouchability since he was subjected to caste prejudice since he was a young child. Many leaders speak up for India's underprivileged, but Ambedkar's acts were by far the most significant and eminent.

Manusmriti was known for advocating casteist and patriarchal rules that belittled women and Dalits, took away all of their fundamental liberties, and left them at the mercy of affluent people. Dr. BR Ambedkar burned the "Manusmriti" on December 21, 1927, during the well-known "Mahad Satyagraha," which took place more than 90 years ago. This, known as the "Manusmriti Dahan Divas," was carried out in opposition to religious principles that support untouchability against the lower classes. He gathered masses to protest against the controversial text called 'Manusmriti'.

It was infamous for its casteist preachings that promoted injustice against the Dalits. Over time, the historical significance of burning the Manusmriti has grown in importance. While some criticize him for making this choice, many others affirm his relevance even today.

Throughout his life, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was viewed as having a contentious personality. He was a great nationalist, but his fellow citizens didn't understand him very well. However, his value could not be denied for long; throughout his life, the Indian people have praised him as a great patriot. In the course of the memo that he and Roa Bahadur K. Srinivasan of the minority committee of the round table conference submitted, he had taken several initiatives.

He had outlined the terms and conditions on which the depressed classes will consent to place themselves under majority rule in a self-governing India as follows:
  • Equal citizenship and fundamental rights outlawing untouchability as a social construct.
  • Unrestricted exercise of equal rights, safeguarded by sufficient constitutional remedies.
  • Defence from discrimination.
  • Enough legislative representation for the underprivileged classes. They must be able to use universal adult suffrage to choose their representative.
  • Sufficiently represented in the services.
  • The legislative branch and the executive branch should be held accountable for failing to adequately fund the depressed classes' access to education, clean water, employment opportunities, and other opportunities for social and political growth.

Ambedkar was asked to do an outstanding duty as the head of the constituent assembly's drafting committee and a minister of law in the Nehru Cabinet. He was given the task of defending the rights of every Indian, especially those from underprivileged areas. a cursory review of the clauses included in parts III, IV, and XVI of the Indian Constitution.

He established the Bahishkrit Hitakarini Sabha upon his return to India in 1923 with the primary goal of promoting education and enhancing the economic standing of the downtrodden classes. The social movement led by Dr. Ambedkar had as its motto "Educate-Agitate-Organized," and its objectives were the eradication of caste and the reconstruction of Indian society based on human equality.

He organized the march in Mahad, Maharashtra in 1927 to support the untouchables' right to access the public Chawdar Lake for drinking water. As a result, the anti-caste and anti-priest campaigns began. The temple entry movement, which B.R. Ambedkar started in 1930 in the Kalaram temple, is another significant moment in the struggle for political, social, and human rights.

Regarding the fundamental rights and guiding principles of state policy inscribed in the Indian constitution, Dr. Ambedkar made one of his biggest achievements. The fundamental rights provide liberty, equality, and the elimination of untouchability, as well as remedies to guarantee the advancement of rights. Fair wealth distribution and improved living conditions for all were highlighted in the guiding principles.

He was the one who abandoned his lofty position, stooped to their level, extended a helping hand, and elevated them to human stature. Ambedkar is no longer known to Indians as Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a historical figure. He has already undergone a metamorphosis into a symbol, one that represents their shared ambition and serves as an emblem of the idea of their independence. Such emblems abound in human history; in fact, they make up a considerable portion of it.

Current Legislations In The Indian Legal System

Constitution Of India

Article 14:
Equality Before the Law:
According to Article 14 of the Indian Constitution, no one should be denied treatment as an equal before the law or the equal protection of the laws on Indian territory.All individuals, whether citizens or non-citizens, statutory corporations, businesses, registered societies, or any other sort of legal person, are granted the right.

Article 15:
Discrimination Is Prohibited:
According to Article 15 of the Indian Constitution, no citizen may be subjected to discrimination by the State solely based on their religion, race, caste, sex, or place of birth.

Article 16:
Equality of Opportunity: Article 16 of the Indian Constitution provides that all citizens shall have the same opportunities while applying for jobs with the state. No citizen should be disqualified from holding any position under the State solely based on religion, race, caste, sex, descent, or place of birth.

Article 17:
Untouchability is eliminated: According to Article 17 of the Constitution, untouchability is eliminated.

Article 46:
Promotion of Educational and Socioeconomic Interests: Article 46 of the Constitution mandates that the State shall promote with particular care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.

Article 335:
Claims of Scheduled Castes: According to Article 335, when filling positions in connection with the affairs of the Union or a State, consideration for the claims of those who belong to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes must be given while maintaining administrative efficiency.

Article 330 And 332:
Reservation in Legislature: The Constitution's Articles 330 and 332, respectively, set aside seats in the House of the People and the State legislative assemblies for members of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.

Reservation in Local Bodies: The Constitution's Part IX, which deals with Panchayats, and Part IXA, which deals with Municipalities, both provide for and envisage reservations for SC and ST in local bodies.

Protection Of Civil Rights Act 1955

The Protection of the Civil Rights Act of 1955 is a federal law. This legislation states that no law may be implemented by Indian governments if it infringes the rights of any person. ICRA stands for a right that a person has as a result of "untouchability" being abolished by Article 17 of the Indian Constitution. It is comparable to the US Constitution in that it protects individual freedom against activities by the federal government. Let's examine the 1955 Protection of Civil Rights Act.

It was imperative to make modifications due to the rise in anti-untouchability discrimination. Even while caste discrimination is still present in some regions, these regulations have helped eliminate it. The disparity between the higher and lower castes was significantly lowered because of these rules.

It gives lower-level or lower-caste individuals the freedom to exercise their rights and lead regular lives alongside everyone else. They experience isolation and feeling violated by the practice of untouchability. They are treated cruelly by those of higher status or caste, which has a bad effect on society. With the passing of this Act, cast-based discrimination in India is no longer an issue.

Scheduled Castes And Tribes (Prevention Of Atrocities) Act In 1989

To stop atrocities against SC/STs, the Indian government passed the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act in 1989. The Act was intended to stop atrocities and aid in the social integration of Dalits into society, however, it has fallen short of expectations.

The Act became operative on January 30, 1990. The purpose of this legislation is to stop crimes against scheduled castes and scheduled tribes from being committed by people who are not members of such groups. Atrocities perpetrated against Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes are punishable under the Act.

The 1995 notification of Comprehensive Rules under the Act includes standards for relief and rehabilitation. The relevant State Governments and Union Territory Administrations are responsible for carrying out the Act's provisions, and they get the necessary government support through the Centrally Sponsored Scheme.

Prohibition Of Employment As Manual Scavengers And Their Rehabilitation Act 2013

Manual scavenging is thought to be the worst indication of being an untouchable that is still there. According to the International Labour Organisation, it mostly involves cleaning and maintaining septic tanks, sewers, and gutters as well as disposing of human waste from open-air dry latrines. While this practice is common in other regions of the world, it is most widespread in India. The majority of those that work on this statue typically belong to lower castes like Dalits.

About 20 years after The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, The Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act became operative in 2013. The current legislation places a strong emphasis on restoring the rights and human dignity of manual scavengers, in contrast to the previous act, which was written from the perspective of cleanliness.

There are 39 sections and 8 chapters in this statute. The regulation stipulates a time limit for manual scavengers to find alternative occupations and receive rehabilitation. Additionally, it forbids the construction of unhygienic latrines and the physical cleaning of septic tanks and sewers without safety equipment (Sections 7 and 9). Maintaining and installing unhygienic latrines has now been elevated to the status of crime and delinquency. So, by this Act, employment for manual scavenging is prohibited.

India has made significant progress in identifying caste-based discrimination as a social evil and passing legislation to combat it. But there is still a long way to go until rules are effectively put into practice. Such social issues cannot be resolved by laws alone. Here, the citizens' attitudes and willingness to follow the law are very important.

It is also important to note that the majority of SCs and STs are still socially and economically marginalized, which makes them more susceptible to atrocities given that they lack access to legal remedies. Though this battle began in the 19th century, crimes against the scheduled castes continue to occur. Hence, the worries raised by Dalit organizations about the supposed weakness of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act are not wholly unfounded or irrational.



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