Frequently Asked Questions

Caste system  is  a form of social and economic governance that is based on principles and customary rules that:

  • Involve the division of people into social groups (castes) where assignments of rights are determined by birth, descent and work  are fixed and hereditary.
  • The assignment of basic rights among various castes is unequal and hierarchical, with those at the top enjoying most rights and privileges coupled with least duties, and those at the bottom are forced to perform  most duties considered  impure  coupled with no rights.
  • The system is maintained through the rigid enforcement of social ostracism (a system of social and economic penalties) in case of any deviations.

The doctrine of inequality is at the core of the caste system.

Those who fall outside the caste system are considered “lesser human beings”, “impure” and thus “polluting” to other caste groups. They are known to be “untouchable” and subjected to so-called “untouchability practices” in both public and private spheres.

“Untouchables” are often forcibly assigned the most dirty, menial, filthy and hazardous jobs, such as cleaning human waste, sewage, removal of corpuses and garbage. The work they do adds to the stigmatisation they face from the surrounding society.

The exclusion of ‘caste affected communities’ by other groups in society and the inherent structural inequality in these social relationships lead to high levels of poverty among affected population groups and exclusion from, or reduced benefits from development processes, and generally precludes their involvement in decision making and meaningful participation in public and civil life. Their right to property and education continues to be violated.

Read about caste discrimination and the human rights violations that inevitably follows

No. The division of a society into castes is a global phenomenon not exclusively practised within any particular religion or belief system. In South Asia, the caste system originally emanated from  the Hindu religion and caste discrimination is today still deeply engrained in  the Hindu  society. Supported by philosophical elements, the caste system constructs the moral, social and legal foundations of Hindu society. Dalits are ‘outcastes’ or people who fall outside the four-fold caste system consisting of the Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vysya and Sudra. Dalits are also referred to as Panchamas or people of the fifth order. However caste system and the ensuing caste discrimination have spread into Christian, Buddhist, Muslim and Sikh communities.

Caste systems are also found in Africa, other parts of Asia, the Middle East, the Pacific and in Diaspora communities around the world. In Japan association is made with Shinto beliefs – Buraku people – concerning purity and impurity, and in marginalized African groups the justification is based on myths.

Caste discrimination affects approximately 260 million people worldwide, the vast majority living in South Asia.

Read about where caste systems and caste discrimination occur

Dalit means “broken people” and is the name the “untouchables” of India have chosen for themselves to signify a growing movement of empowerment, assertion and challenging an oppressive system and the oppressors.

Affected communities in other South Asian countries have followed and Dalit is now a term widely used in South Asia.

Affected communities in Africa and other places have different names.

Learn more about the terminology for caste-affected groups

Scheduled Castes is the official term found in the Constitution of India and Pakistan for those who fall outside the caste system. “Scheduled tribes” is the official Indian constitutional term for the indigenous tribes of India. More popularly known as “Adivasi”, they often suffer from poverty and discrimination, but they do not suffer under untouchability practices.

The “Harijans” is the term used by Mahatma Gandi for “untouchables”. It means “children of God – Hari”. The word is also related to the word “hari” which in Pakistan is used for the Dalit community of mud hut builders. “Harijans” is largely perceived as patronizing and is no longer used as the term is widely objected and challenged by most Dalits.

Learn more about the terminology used for groups affected by caste discrimination

The ordering of a society into castes and the ensuing caste discrimination is found in several cultures around the world. Because caste discrimination involves certain practices prohibited by international human rights instruments, such as the practice of untouchability, the state has a responsibility to protect its citizens against such violations, to punish the perpetrators, and to ensure that they do not take place under its jurisdiction.

Caste discrimination can and should be eliminated, but it requires action on many levels – from the grass roots level to state and national level, as well as to the international level. Legislation, its implementation as well as the change in the people’s mindsets should be looked at.

Caste discrimination is not an internal matter, which only the state is obliged to act upon. The international community has a responsibility to act because caste discrimination is a global human rights problem – one of the biggest and most overlooked of our times – which acts against the universal principles of non-discrimination, human dignity and equality.

Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar(1891-1956) from India was an Indian scholar, political leader and chief architect of the Indian Constitution. Born into an “untouchable” community, he spent his life fighting against the Indian caste system. He has embraced Buddhism as a protest to Hinduism and he is the icon of Dalits and his birthday 14 April is every year celebrated as Ambedkar Day.

“Jai Bhim” means victory to Ambedkar and is used as a greeting among followers of Ambedkar in the struggle against caste discrimination.

Caste discrimination is recognised by the United Nations as a contemporary form of racial discrimination, although casteism cannot be said to be the same as racism.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination,

“the term “racial discrimination” shall mean any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.”

Because discrimination based on “descent” is central in caste discrimination, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) adopted General Recommendation no. 29 to confirm the legal interpretation of the term “descent” in article 1(1) of the Convention. This General Recommendation reaffirms that caste-based discrimination falls within the scope of the Convention:

“Strongly reaffirming that discrimination based on “descent” includes discrimination against members of communities based on forms of social stratification such as caste and analogous systems of inherited status which nullify or impair their equal enjoyment of human rights […]”

Read more about caste, race and descent

The struggle against caste discrimination is a struggle for dignity and human rights.

While the caste systems in South Asia are originally linked to Hinduism, it is today a deeply rooted cultural phenomenon that is practised in varying forms within many different religious communities such as Sikhs, Muslims and Christians.

The struggle to eliminate caste-based discrimination condemns upholding the caste system and its discriminatory practices, which constitute serious violations of basic human rights. Thus, it is not Hinduism as such that is attacked, but practices that constitute violations of human rights.

In the words of Dr. Ambedkar:

“For ours is a battle not for wealth or for power. It is battle for freedom. It is the battle of reclamation of human personality.”

The term affirmative action describes many policies intended to promote access to education or employment for historically and socio-politically disadvantaged and non-dominant groups. The motivation for affirmative action is to redress negative effects of past or current discrimination that has negatively affected the possibilities of discriminated groups to participate in society on an equal footing with other groups.

Some countries in South Asia have affirmative action programmes in the form of reservation of seats for Dalits in electoral bodies or in public universities, as well as jobs in the public sector.

These programmes exist to compensate for the disadvantage that Dalits face due to discrimination experienced in almost every sphere of life.

Likewise, special measures are necessary in social, development, health and education programmes to make sure that Dalits and other groups subjected to caste discrimination are not excluded due to the deeply rooted culture of discrimination.

In the draft UN Principles and Guidelines on the Elimination of discrimination based on work and descent, a number of recommendations can be found on special measure to avoid ‘discrimination by default’ in contexts where caste discrimination is deeply rooted in culture.

Read the draft UN Principles and Guidelines