[Editor's Note: This is the third installment from guest blogger Isabel Rutherfurd, who is a volunteer teacher at Shanti Bhavan.]
In India, the caste system has long been ingrained in society, and has been causing problems for the lowest castes all the while. The system is an archaic social order that segments the Indian population into social classes based on roles and status in society. The Brahmin caste (or the priest class) is the highest ranked, and the dalit caste, or the “untouchables,” is the lowest. The Indian Constitution rejected the concept of an untouchable caste in 1950—but although no longer officially sanctioned, the idea of untouchability remains alive in much of rural India. Members of the lowest castes are forced to drink from different wells, attend different temples, and stay in different parts of the villages. The government has made efforts to combat caste-based discrimination by providing members of the lowest castes with a fixed percentage of federal jobs and reserving a proportion of seats in parliament, but it hasn’t been successful in eradicating the generations of discrimination against these people.
The senior class at Shanti Bhavan, like most students here, is comprised of students from the lowest castes. Each one of them has taken steps to get closer to fulfilling dreams of attending law, business, and medical schools; dreams that are still ground-breaking for someone from their caste. But despite federal laws prohibiting caste discrimination, the students face a harder time going through the college application process than peers of a higher background.
The entrance exam for medical school in India requires the lowest castes pay additional fees to take the examination, and the college applications require identification numbers that many of the children have never been issued. Identification numbers (like the Social Security numbers we have in the United States) help the government prove an individual’s identity and keep a record of them. To this day, the majority of Indians do not have a uniform and sound way to prove their identity and existence, though there has been much headway in recent years (check out this link to learn more about the UIDA and India’s Identity Scheme). When national institutions bound by law to provide equal educational opportunities charge the poorest citizens more money to take entrance exams and require proof of identification they have no access to, the discrimination in play becomes incredibly obvious.
Since there are so few members of the lower castes applying to medical schools and colleges, there has not been enough demand on the national institutions to effectively change their procedures. In recent years, private organizations have realized this grave mistake on the part of the Indian government and have been working closely to have these discriminatory practices eliminated. In the future, we hope (and are working hard to make this a reality!) that many more children will be able to break the cycle of poverty in their families, and apply to any and all universities, regardless of their background. We can provide these brilliant, driven students with what they need to overcome these obstacles and achieve their dreams.