Reason Writers Around Town: Shikha Dalmia on the Tragic Truth About India's Caste System

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In her latest column for The Daily, Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia explores a question she gets asked frequently in America: Why India's caste system, a pre-feudalistic division of labor that assigns one's line of work at birth, has persisted into the 21st century in definace of every civilized notion of justice and equality. The tragic truth, she found after talking to Maya, the dalit who has serviced her family for 35 years, is that it still offers untouchables the best possible life in India. Dalmia notes:

What's puzzling about the caste system is that it endures without legal force. Unlike slavery, where whites actively relied on authorities to maintain their slave holdings, the caste system is an informal, self-perpetuating institution.

How?

To find out, read Maya's story here.

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  1. See? Anarchy works!

    1. I don’t see anything here disproving anarchy. Gov’t officials are still allowed to discriminate as long as they’re discreet about it, and if people voluntarily take on the burdens of their caste, then as long as they aren’t being forced to, it’s a personal choice. Just because you don’t comprehend why someone would make that decision doesn’t invalidate it.

      1. I’m going to leave aside any notion of “disproving” anarchy, but to address your take on personal choices: Maya’s employers aren’t given much choice in the use of her services.

  2. I thought the caste system endured despite legal force. I’ve never been to India but I understand there’s a battery of laws promoting advancement of the backward castes that puts U.S. affirmative action to shame.

    1. My thought was that culture and informal practice matter a lot more than law sometimes. I was immediately reminded of the book By Duty Bound, by Brigadier General Ezell Ware. He describes growing up poor and Black in rural Mississippi in the 1950s. Although slavery was long gone, and maybe theoretically Black people had some legal protections, you never would have known it from the way people lived: as Ware describes it, Black people were virtual slaves; if a White person said, “Hey, boy, come here and do this”, you had to do it, because a White could do anything to a Black with no legal (or practical) consequences. Like I said, it’s about the culture, not the words on paper…

      1. “because a White could do anything to a Black with no legal (or practical) consequences”

        Doesn’t that implicate the law?

        1. Only in the same sense that Tim Cavanaugh cites.

          In every state of the Union in the 1950s it was in fact illegal for a white man to kill a black man.

          In practice, though, in several states when a white man killed a black man the police found ways to avoid arresting the white man. If the police were forced or shamed into making an arrest, prosecutors did not make charges. And if prosecutors did bring cases to trial all-white juries acquitted.

          So, no, it was not legal in any state to kill black people. There were, however, strong customs in many states (or portions of states) that said it was OK. This is not the same as the positive laws that existed pre-1865 that protected the practice of slavery and provided the legal framework that made it possible for humans to be held and traded as chattels.

        2. The Old Professionalism.

  3. In her latest column for The Daily, Reason Foundation Senior Analyst explores a question
    ———————————
    so I guess Reason has an opening for a proof-reader. The column cited is from a woman who is a Senior Analyst; one might think she also has a name.

    1. Since she comes from a society that assigns work roles at birth, that’s probably what’s on her birth certificate, no?

      1. I’m a delivery boy.

  4. what’s a caste system?

    1. Something to do with iron?

    2. It’s how I get bait.

    3. We comprende caste

  5. Great example of how law can exist without legislation, and how legislation is not law.

    Legislation and law are not synonyms.

    1. Rent seeking is still rent seeking.

      1. In the example the caste system is still law, though there is no legislation to back it up.

        Similarly, legislation that is ignored is not law.

  6. It persists because India still has a long way to go to modernise its economy, despite all the recent growth, large swaths of the country are still stuck in a very old moded economy. As the country grows wealthier and traditional work practices change, the case system will likewise no longer work either.

  7. Why India’s caste system, a pre-feudalistic division of labor that assigns one’s line of work at birth, has persisted into the 21st century in definace of every civilized notion of justice and equality.

    Maybe because, unlike “every civilized notion of justice and equality”, it actually works because it reflects reality?

    You can build all the castles in the air you like. Unfortunately trying to live in them is a ticklish proposition.

    I suspect the Indian caste system will still be operative long after western egalitarianism has crumbled into dust…

    1. I suspect the Indian caste system will still be operative long after western egalitarianism has crumbled into dust…

      I suspect it will last as long as it is better than the alternative.
      Which, as the total wealth of the country grows, will not be very long.

    2. Did you read the article?

      I’m asking because your comment implies that if you did read the article then you didn’t take much away from it.

      But you did have a comment on the blog post and you were able to apply your preconceptions to it, so I am very happy for you. I hope this means you are going to have a good day.

      1. Brown people begging for a chance to clean up lighter-skinned people’s shit?

        Slappy is probably so aroused he has to run to the handicapped stall to rub one out right now!

        1. Brown people begging for a chance to clean up lighter-skinned people’s shit?

          Slappy is probably so aroused he has to run to the handicapped stall to rub one out right now!

          OK tarran, that’s funny.

      2. Oh, I did indeed read it! What takeaway did you expect me to have? I’ll share another one with you…

        Upon retirement, she had planned to either pass her “business” to her children or sell it to another dalit for about $1,000. But about six months ago, municipal authorities started dispatching vans, Western-style, to collect trash from neighborhoods, the one service that protected Maya from obsolescence in an age of sophisticated home-cleaning gadgetry.

        Apparently, the alternative to the caste system is…..

        government services.

        1. You prefer a bullying cartel who takes advantage of their social standing, is that right?

          1. Ooops. Almost forgot:

            DEMAND KURV.

            1. I don’t blindly click links, so I have no idea what you’re on about. Give a summary in your comment as a courtesy, please.

    3. And just where do you think you fit in this caste hierarchy, you filthy outcast mleccha?

      Or are you under the delusion that you are Aryan because Himmler said so?

  8. We should send in the Army to straighten this out for them. Operation (Actual) Indian Freedom : This Time No Genocide!

  9. It’s articles like this that proves Shikha Dalmia is the best writer that REASON has.

  10. It’s how I get bait.

  11. It’s how I get bait.

  12. It’s how I get bait.

  13. It’s how I get bait.

  14. It’s how I get bait.

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