“I can wash your plate,” my host whispered to me. Then, gesturing to the driver, he said: “But I cannot wash his. If people in the village find out, it will become difficult for us.” By the rules of caste, a vessel that has come into contact with the saliva of another person is contaminated. At that point, it cannot be handled by someone whose status is higher than that of the eater. My host wanted me to make this clear to the driver.
I was mortified. I had never had to tell anyone something so awful. I froze. I neither had the courage to upset their laws — and get up and wash the driver’s plate myself — nor the ability to tell him this terrible instruction. My host must have sensed my consternation, and so he went to tell the driver himself. The man crumbled at the mere suggestion of this transgression. “You are like gods to me,” he said. “I would never dream of …” I couldn’t listen. I walked away. A few moments later, I saw him washing his own plate in the light of a naked bulb.
Ancient Indian society was divided into four varnas, or categories: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants or traders) and Shudras (laborers). An unofficial fifth varna were the Dalits, or untouchables, a group so low that its members are assigned jobs like cleaning latrines, sweeping the streets, tanning hides and handling the remains of the dead.
These ancient categories are not the same thing as the caste system, but they undergird it. Caste is a religious notion of spiritual purity that defines one’s function on earth. It comes alongside strict restrictions on how a person can live and what a person can eat and whom they can marry. Caste, or jati, as it is known in Hindi, is a bio-spiritual identity, which has nothing to do with money or power, and offers no escape save for death or renunciation. As Octavio Paz, the Mexican writer and onetime ambassador to India, wrote caste is “the first and last reality.”
India’s last caste census was conducted in the early 1930s, when the country was still part of the British Empire. It found that while Brahmins constituted only some 6 percent of the population, the other lower castes, even without Dalits and the tribal people, who are not part of the caste system, came to as much as 40 percent.
In 2010, Vinod K. Jose, writing in The Caravan, conjectured that the shape of society was roughly the same, and “as a block, the Shudras and untouchables could reach 70 percent of the Indian population.” In 2011, the government conducted a “socio-economic census,” but its findings on caste were never released, in part because the issue is so explosive.
The modern Indian state has tried to correct the imbalances that caste creates. The Constitution bans discrimination based on caste, and the government has instituted quotas for low-caste people in government jobs and at universities. But the wound is so deep that even when this form of affirmative action throws up the odd success story, tragedy can quickly ensue.
The same week that my driver in Varanasi was forced to wash his own plate, the issue of caste roared back to the forefront of Indian political life.
Rohith Vemula, 26, was a Ph.D. student at the University of Hyderabad, in southern India. He was active in student politics, and part of a Dalit organization that frequently clashed with a Hindu nationalist group on campus. In August 2015, he was accused of assaulting a member of the student wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Hindu nationalist party that now controls the government. The group wrote a letter, which eventually made its way to the education minister, accusing Mr. Vemula of “casteist” and “anti-national” activity. The next month, Mr. Vemula, along with four other students, was suspended. In December, the university decided to uphold the suspension.
In January, Mr. Vemula, who had once hoped to become a science writer in the tradition of Carl Sagan, committed suicide, hanging himself from a ceiling fan. The suicide inspired protests across the country and forced Indians to once more confront this fundamental inequality.
Mr. Vemula should have been part of a national healing. Here was a student from among the lowest castes, attending one of India’s most prestigious universities. His story could have been about the country’s success in putting this terrible history behind it; instead it became a testament to its inability to do so. In a suicide note, he wrote that he could not move past “the fatal accident” of his birth.
The 2014 election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his B.J.P. emboldened every variety of Hindu nationalist group. The primary aim of these groups is an aggressive form of nationalism. But there is a contradiction at the heart of this ideology: As Mr. Paz wrote in 1995, the idea of the nation itself is “incompatible with the institution of caste.” It was not possible to want everyone to be homogeneous while at the same time believing them to be fundamentally unequal.
The contradiction presented by caste and nationalism was never clearer than in the searing images that emerged from Mr. Modi’s own home state, Gujarat, in July. They showed Dalit boys being stripped and beaten with iron rods. They were accused of killing a sacred Indian cow. But they claimed they were only skinning a cow that was already dead, work that is typically reserved for people of low caste. The irony could not have been more stark: It was caste on one hand that had forced this occupation upon them, and it was caste that was degrading them further.
Modernity should be the natural enemy of caste. And, in many ways, it is. Urban life, apartment buildings, restaurants — even something as simple as municipal water and housing — have the power to erase the prohibitions under which caste functions. Democracy, too, is an enemy of caste: The low-caste groups form a powerful voting bloc, and so politicians are obliged to be responsive to them. But by upsetting hierarchies, modernity can also exacerbate old tensions. It can make the higher castes, whose numbers are small, insecure about their place in the world and drive them to reinforce it.
The spread of modernity in India has certainly undermined caste, but it has also made the need to assert it more vehement. And the unfolding story in India is not one about the disappearance of caste, but rather of its resilience. Brahmins still have an outsize presence in intellectual life; the armed forces are still dominated by the martial castes; a majority of rich businessmen and industrialists are still of the mercantile castes; the lower castes still do the least desirable jobs.
In the cloistered, English-speaking world where I grew up, caste seemed hardly to exist. As a child in Delhi, I could no more tell a Brahmin name like Mishra or Sharma from any other. And even if I could, I would not have held it in regard. Our only category was class, and it was determined by privilege, education and how well one spoke English. But there are some categories so deep that they hold without needing to be enforced. What I didn’t realize was that in one very important respect, caste did exist among us: because the lowest castes were not represented.
For the last two years, I have been speaking with a Brahmin from Bengal, a philosopher and a teacher of ancient logic, a man conversant with both Eastern and Western intellectual traditions. I admire him in many ways — his immense learning, his defense of tradition in the face of Western influence — but when I questioned him about the prohibitions of caste he gave me an answer that turned my stomach.
“If a person is suffering from a communicable disease, you would not let him touch your utensils,” he said. “You have this one idea of contamination, but you refuse to accept that there might be certain spiritual conditions …” His voice trailed off. He seemed to know that he had lost me. As if wanting to clear the air, he said: “You have to understand that modern European culture is based on the idea that all men are born equal, and later become differentiated. The Indian idea is different. We believe that men are born unequal, but we are all — Brahmin, sage, cobbler, outcaste — heading toward the same destiny.”
It was a valiant attempt at a defense, but in the end absurd. It would mean that millions of lower-caste Indians, like Rohith Vemula, had to forfeit the aspirations of this life in exchange for the promise of some ultimate destiny, many lifetimes away, in which all differences would be obliterated.
Aatish Taseer is a contributing opinion writer and the author, most recently, of the novel The Way Things Were.