Though it’s been more than 70 years since India’s Independence, with things like Article 17 of our Constitution (which abolished untouchability), and laws like the Scheduled Castes and Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1989, one may conclude that untouchability and the caste system is in the past. The reality, however, is far from that. People’s views on untouchability and caste system have not truly evolved despite changes in legislation.
You might think that I am exaggerating but pick up today’s newspaper and head to the matrimonial section or visit any matrimonial site, and you will see clear examples of casteism in place. Stalin K’s documentary titled “India Untouched: Stories of a People Apart” shows how, even today, high-class priests (I should say ‘elite class’ Hindu priests) like Batuprasad Sharma Shastri strongly believe and practice these customs and have specified a willingness to risk time in jail for them. He says, “I’ve been arrested several times under anti-untouchability act when chamars (Dalits) would enter the Vishwanath temple, we, the big scholars, would say that they would be sinning if they enter the temple, so we would kick them out! And I am not afraid to do that again.”
One of the elements that has fueled and powered the caste system in modern times, apart from intra-caste (endogamy) marriages and strict rules, is the enslavement of nonhuman animals and the further division of them also based on caste. The use of animals for various purposes, including food, clothing, entertainment, labor, and other forms of exploitation, defines how pure and high a caste is. Purity, in India, based on nonhuman animal casteism, is used as a reference to discriminate between different castes and uphold supremacist hierarchies.
Human rights activists use a specific term known as “Brahminical mentality” to name this type of hierarchical discrimination based on purity. However, the term is limited to humans only and does not reflect how nonhuman animals form a part of upholding casteism. In truth, the mainstream public has failed to recognize the fact that oppression based on caste, race, or religion is rooted in the same justifications and interconnections as the oppression based on species.
Yet, ‘casteist speciesism’ is a driving force that allows casteism to continue unchecked. Under this type of speciesism, nonhumans are given a value according to caste: cows are considered holy and sacred, while pigs are impure, filthy and dirty and should not be allowed anywhere near temples or upper-caste people. Horses are the pride and property of Kshatriyas only, while Dalits and Shudras are forbidden to ride horses and camels even today in parts of Rajasthan and Gujrat. Milk and milk products are considered pure and holy and represented as Lord Krishna’s or Shiva’s favorite food, whereas animal’s flesh is considered as ‘Chandal’s’ (devil’s) food, and associated with the “lower” castes.
Adding to the interconnections, we find that while some nonhuman animals have been deemed sacred, the pain, cries, and torture of others is unacknowledged and ignored. Other animals are entirely dependent on humans and their customs in a caste-based society that continues to thrive in India. Even those so called sacred nonhuman animals spent their entire life in pain, suffering and misery, all for the sake of ‘purity’, all for the sake of maintaining the speciesist caste based hierarchy of holiness. People who drink milk are considered ‘pure’, while people who consume cows’ and pigs’ flesh are considered dirty. Ever heard how babas, yogis, shastris and Veda philosophers insist on how important ghee is? Or the insistence on the “holy” importance of milk? What about the religious applications of honey? Milk, ghee, curd, honey, and butter are described as some of the purest offerings to God from humans. These same “godmen” use tiger skins because they are considered sacred. Similarly, bull horns are used as good luck charms, and some animals are even sacrificed to “rid” oneself of evil.
For many, riding a mare at one’s marriage is a caste tradition. Riding or owning a horse is allowed to only some upper-caste people such as Rajputs and Thakurs. Weddings, for example, are perfect social events where riding a horse through the streets just works as a status symbol and caste dominance. That is why many still continue to do so. Though in recent times people from various castes from Bahujan and Dalit communities have started following this tradition using this tradition as a tool to fightback casteism. In reality this is a clear example of casteist speciesism where an oppressed group (Dalits) is oppressing other marginalized group(non-human animal) to challenge the oppressors(Upper caste people).
Other upper-caste people do things like bullfights to show how strong a male from a caste is. At the same time, plant-based foods and many animal foods, such as, ghee, curd, milk, wheat, rice, corn barley etc are forbidden for the lower castes.
Even choosing what part of the animals should be used for what purpose reflects caste. Milk for Brahmins, farming for Vaishyas, hides and leather for Kshatriyas, and finally, flesh and other ‘waste’ parts for Shudras.
Dalits were basically denied their own lands and hence were unable to do farming on their own. It becomes apparent once we draw the lines that ‘Brahminical’ ideology, which is upheld through “Casteist Speciesism”, successfully keeps the caste system intact through a dependency on the oppression and exploitation of nonhuman animals.
It was considered a sin for a Dalit to own any of these. In order to survive, they turned to ‘unholy’ and ‘impure’ sources of food. Generations after generations when people are forced to eat certain foods or live in certain ways, it becomes their lifestyle. So, many dalits even today are dependent on such foods. After Independence many things changed; many dalits are now given lands and everything by government to practice, but the mindset of upper-caste people still remains somewhat same.
Today, even after so many steps taken by the government and law enforcement to curb casteism, upper-castes still consider it a sin if a Dalit owns or touches whatever they aren’t supposed to: entering the temple, owning a cow, riding a horse. Manual scavenging is one the biggest and most ignored problems in India. The biggest because majority of waste collection in India is done manually, and mostly involves only Dalits.
In a recent event, a protest happened at Jantar Manter (New Delhi) to end manual scavenging which has killed more than 1,000 sanitation workers over the past year – 11 in the week before protest itself. All present were Dalits. The event was covered by Jayashree Bajoria of The Wire. She interviewed one of the persons, named Bablu, who had come to that protest. He said, “We don’t get any other job no matter where we go. I have tried. I know this is discrimination, but what can I do? I was thrilled when I secured a job interview in a hotel because I wanted to train as a waiter. But as soon as the manager heard my caste, I was hired instead to clean toilets. Others with a similar education who were not Dalit, got the waiter jobs.” Bablu soon quit the hotel job and was compelled to take up manual scavenging for his survival.
Often, we hear people say that they treat the other animals in their life “like they are family members”. However, when we truly look at the relationship between humans and other animals, this isn’t the reality. These animals are beneficial assets –property. When a cow or buffalo is healthy and well, they are used for the milk they produce intended for their calves. The calves, however, are committed to a life of farming or impregnated again for their own milk. This system is kept in place to satisfy the request of Brahmins to buy and consume the “purest” form of what is animal exploitation. These “pure” milk products are also made as offerings in temples and also keep the cycle of hierarchy and inequality running.
Countless number of cows, bulls, oxen, buffaloes, horses, chickens, pigs, donkeys and elephants die serving different purposes for different caste groups. When these animals become ‘useless’, Dalits are expected to clean the ‘mess’. Dalits are also given the task of slaughtering them to sell their flesh and peel off their skins, wash, dry, and clean them for leather, which Vaishyas then purchase for very little money in order to mold the skins into leather shoes and musical instruments. These, by the way, are “end products” of a hierarchy-based chain that traditionally and according to Vedas only Brahmins are allowed to use.
Other departments, such as the railway department, hire Dalits, specifically, to clean things like railways tracks and to pick-up and dispose of deceased human and nonhuman animal bodies. During an interview for the “India Untouched” documentary, one of the workers said, “I belong to Dom (Dalit) caste. My whole neighborhood works for the railways on contract basis. We dispose of all dead bodies found on the railway tracks. A speeding train cuts the body into many pieces. So, we pick up those pieces from here and from there and put the body back together, photos are taken and then its sent for post mortem.” Another worker said, “We carry rotten bodies on our shoulders, even after ten days, stinking smell doesn’t go. We work as daily wage or on contract but are never directly hired by the railways.”
During the interview, General Secretary and priest Batuprasad quoted something from the Vedas and then described how people who do not follow Vedas and its principles are “dumb”, like animals, and “inferior” while those who follow Vedas are superior to all animals and humans. According to his views, only people from higher castes, specifically Brahmins, can read books like the Vedas. He continues a belief system that insists that people from lower castes, including Shudras, aren’t allowed to be near anything which is ‘pure and sacred’ at all, leave alone touching it. This is what he said the interview: “God created Shudras, Kshatriyas, Brahmins and entire universe. He has prescribed specific jobs for everyone. Why did you get the birth as a Shudra? Why did you get the birth of a woman? Why do you have black skin or white skin? All these are the results of the karma of our several births. A Dalit doesn’t have the right to education, he cannot understand what’s written in Vedas or shastras or other rights which are only meant for other castes. Our Veda and Shastra are orders. Obey it, you have no right to judge it. It is written in our shastras that only animals follow intelligence, humans follow shastras.”
In essence, taking nonhuman animals out of the equation, and embracing a vegan lifestyle, hurts the caste system and destabilizes its whole structure. It would help animal liberation movement to gain much pace and strength. Adopting a vegan stance would be a way to remove hierarchies that distinguish between ‘pure’ and ‘impure’, between both humans and nonhumans. Eliminating nonhumans from our own speciesist hierarchy would disallow the use of ‘food’ politics, which keeps the human caste system in place.