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The Indian caste system: corrigé

Journalist: So Mrs Amman, could you please tell us a few words about the caste system in India?

S. Amman: Well, it has a religious basis, actually. It originates in the Hindus’ belief in reincarnation. As a matter of fact, they believe that our present life is conditioned by our previous lives, which constitute our karma – meaning purity. So according to our actions and attitudes in our past lives, we are reincarnated in one caste or another, depending on what we deserve. Those categories are called castes and constitute the whole structure of the Indian society.

Journalist: Could you give us a few examples, please?

S. Amman: Of course! Our society has a sort of pyramidal structure: At its very top, you find the Brahmans, who are priests and teachers. Then you find the Kshatriyas, who are the rulers and soldiers, the Vaishyas who are merchants and traders, and lastly the Sudras who are farmers. Now each of these castes is divided into thousands of sub-categories, related to professions, regions or dialects, for example.

Lastly at the very bottom of the pyramid you find the Dalits, what we used to call the Untouchables, who do not constitute a caste properly speaking, but nevertheless form a category. They form about 20% of the entire population of India, that means there are about 170 million Dalits in India today. They are outside the caste system and have the lowest social status. They are considered totally unworthy. Consequently the people of higher castes would not interact with them. They occupy the lowest jobs, such as scavengers, for example. They clean latrines and sewers, they clear away dead animals, those kinds of jobs. They are in charge of all the tasks that are considered unclean, and they earn very little money. Or they are agricultural workers, toiling for farmers. Many of them work to pay off debts they have inherited from their ancestors. They are the poorest group in Indian society.

 Journalist: But I thought the caste system had been declared illegal

S. Amman: You’re right, it is illegal today. Caste discrimination was abolished in 1950. Since then the government has made strong efforts to minimize the importance of caste through active affirmative action and social policies. But it is so deeply rooted in our society that it hasn’t been possible to really eradicate it yet. Some people consider the caste system as a form of racial discrimination. They call it India’s hidden apartheid. We can only keep hoping for a better future

Journalist: Well, thank you Mrs Amman. It has been fascinating talking to you.

S. Amman: It’s been a pleasure being here. Thank you.

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