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April 3, 2009
Indian nationalism begins to challenge caste destiny

Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi neighborhood, where most of the workers belong to the Dhobi (washermen) caste. Photo: Ben Piven

Multimedia reporter Ben Piven spent nine months researching and documenting for Caste in the City [PDF] on a Fulbright grant. He recalls his field research and the questions surrounding caste and Indian nationalism in the slums of Mumbai. Ben is currently completing his master’s degree in journalism at Columbia University.

Watch Worldfocus’ signature videos on Dalits in India.

The peppery aroma of snack carts permeated the humid air. Workmen gathered under a corrugated tin overhang to sip on mango lassis and sweet lime juice.

At the end of a long day of interviews in the scorching April sun, I was finishing up my fieldwork inside a predominantly Dalit slum called Ramabai Colony in eastern Mumbai. A passerby stopped to ask why I was conducting research on the relevance of caste in contemporary Mumbai.

“What is your caste?” he asked me in Hindi.

“We don’t have caste in America,” I responded abruptly. “America is different from India.”

I then paused for a few seconds, quickly becoming pensive. After 15 grueling interviews, I was not keen on explaining the nuances of American social stratification in my choppy Hindi.

On other days when I was in more edifying moods, I explained class distinctions in the U.S. and how the religion of my birth did not differentiate along caste lines. When folks demanded to know, I sometimes joked that I was a Hindu of the Hebrew caste.

To many ordinary Indian people, caste is a universal. Humans in every country must belong to a caste, they suppose. How could any society function otherwise? Some sanitation workers even believe that their filthy profession is predestined.

Across India’s biggest city, thousands of leather workers, washermen and rag pickers ply the same trade as their ancestors. But many of their children have become bureaucrats, factory workers and merchants. Dalits are members of the lowest rung of traditional Hindu society, and they are increasingly asserting their political and economic rights.

To be sure, the enigma of caste is not entirely unique to India. Yet its omnipresence on the subcontinent makes it as quintessentially Indian as curry, Gandhi, and the head wiggle.

Even so, some Indians place national unity far above caste. In front of the Bombay Stock Exchange – arguably the most important symbol of India’s 21st century prosperity – I interviewed a bank watchman named Yogesh Kumar Singh. A young migrant from poor, rural Uttar Pradesh in north India, he simply could not identify his own caste.

In a proud defense of his caste ignorance, he declared, “All castes are the same. We’re all basically just Indian.”

Singh turned toward the crowd of people who were observing the interview and said triumphantly, “The caste divide doesn’t matter because we’re all brothers.”

– Ben Piven

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Caste was used to divide labor, it was not racial nor was it used to oppress the “lower” castes. The caste system was actually solidified after the muslim invasions. India’s problems now are comparable to China’s problems during the KMT. So would that make confucianism another evil eastern faith suppressing the ordinary person? No, it has to do with education, economics, land reform etc.


Hay Ben keep this up and keep “Dalit” voice at international level.


Wow, I had no idea India was so intuned to the caste system, that even the sanitation workers would accept it as a decision of karma. Thank you Mr. Piven for such an informative article, I hope there are many more to come. You sir are a bright ray of sunshine thru an otherwise cloudy sky of wannabe journalists seeking street cred. Go Mr. Piven go.


Great Article.


When addressing the “caste” in India I love the quote by a leading Indian thinker (P. R. Sarkar): I often say that the caste system is hypocrisy – unreal. If you analyze the caste of human beings you will find that the ancestors of every human being were monkeys. In that case everybody’s caste is monkey caste. All this hypocrisy is to be given up. Is it that the ancestor of a Brahman-caste human being was a Brahman-caste monkey and that of a Rajput-caste person a Rajput-caste monkey?” (P.R. Sarkar, 1980)
I feel that nationalism can help in reducing the effects of the caste system, but it is not the final solution. The ideological circle of
(caste) is smaller than the ideological circle of (nationalism), but both are finite – the only difference in the length of their radius.
Nationalism results in much suffering and injustice as can be seen from the recent history of Europe. The universal infinite radius of (one family of humanity) cannot be applied completely with the walls of nationalism standing in resistance.
I hope that India will make progress to treat all humans as humans, but it is a global problem and the answer will come from the hearts of all humans as we consider the true nature of our universal family.

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