In India, a caste is a hereditary group in a traditionally and rigidly stratified society. People belong to a caste because they are born into one, because their parents belong to one. Mobility is minimal.
The different castes each have a ranking in a social hierarchy, or a social status, and people from lower ranked castes are generally perceived to be inferior and are often the object of discrimination. One of the reasons of this discrimination is the fact that lower castes are often associated with certain degrading professions, such as disposal of the dead… Especially the Dalits or “untouchables” (literally “the downtrodden”) worked or still work in unhealthy, unpleasant or polluting jobs. Physical contact with them requires bathing and other purification rituals. Lower ranked castes also suffer more poverty.
The caste system is generally identified with Hinduism (the “varna” or class system in Hinduism assigns people to different hereditary classes according to their profession). However, some Hindu scholars reject the religious basis of the system and point to evidence that the origins of the system are probably more closely related to:
- Early migration flows
- Social or economic practice and
- British rule, which linked the existing caste system to British class society and solidified and integrated it into the imperial system of rule (for example through enumeration, codification and census).
The system is similar to segregation, Jim Crow and apartheid, but not identical. The caste system is not state-sponsored, and it cannot be racism since there is no discernible difference in the racial characteristics between castes. The law in India makes caste-based discrimination illegal, though especially in rural areas it still exists and in many villages even a Dalit’s shadow is believed to pollute the upper classes. Dalits are often not allowed to drink water from the same source as others, or to worship in the same temples. In smaller societies, it is relatively easy to track the caste lineage of individuals and discriminate accordingly.
Although historically the system may have had some advantages (division of labor, order and security through interdependence, belonging, identity), it is an anachronistic and gross violation of human rights. The Indian government tries to remedy the situation through diverse measures, including positive discrimination through quotas in education and jobs. The situation has improved dramatically during the last decades (inter-caste marriages, for example, are now relatively common), but the system remains deeply entrenched in Hindu culture.
It’s also possible to give a Marxist reading of the system:
Some observers felt that the caste system must be viewed as a system of exploitation of poor low-ranking groups by more prosperous high-ranking groups. In many parts of India, land is largely held by high-ranking property owners of the dominant castes that economically exploit low-ranking landless labourers and poor artisans, all the while degrading them with ritual emphases on their so-called god-given inferior status. (source)