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State of India’s caste system: views differ

State of India’s caste system: views differ

In the past week, both the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have featured vastly different takes on the caste system in India.

The Washington Post‘s headline:

A ‘Broken People’ in Booming India

Low-Caste Dalits Still Face Prejudice, Grinding Poverty

The Wall Street Journal‘s headline:

Caste Away

India’s high-tech revolution helps ‘Untouchables’ rise …

The Post is more pessimistic, saying “India may be booming, but not for those who occupy the lowest rung of society here.” It mentions the case of a Dalit woman (a member of the lowest caste, the “untouchables”) whose two children died after a health center refused to help them.

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Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal takes an optimistic tone, saying “… India’s rapid economic expansion—and its booming high-tech sector—are beginning to chip away at the historical system that reserved well-paying jobs for upper castes and menial jobs for Dalits.” It profiles the story of a Dalit man who is now a software developer and earns more in one month than his father did in a year.

So who’s right? It’s probably too early to tell, but one factor is sure to make a difference in the outcome: access to education. Many Dalits don’t get a decent chance at a quality education. Affirmative action plans, which have been in place for nearly 60 years, can help them get into universities, but if they aren’t academically prepared in the first place and have weak English skills, then it’s hard to compete.

Probably the biggest challenge, though, is lack of leadership. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the caste system “a blot on humanity.” But, unfortunately, the rest of the country’s elite doesn’t seem to have made egalitarianism a priority. As one publisher of books on caste says, “There’s not even the pretension to fight caste. It’s not trendy or a Bollywood star’s cause célèbre to say you care about the working-man untouchable.”