I frequently get asked in America why India’s caste system, a pre-feudalistic division of labor that assigns one’s line of work at birth, has persisted into the 21st century. I typically answer: the need of the privileged upper castes for cheap labor. But there is an even more tragic explanation, as I discovered during a recent visit to New Delhi while talking to Maya, the dalit or untouchable — the lowest of the four castes — who has serviced my family for 35 years. Maya herself clings to her caste because it still offers her the best possible life in India.
What’s puzzling about the caste system is that it endures without legal force. Unlike slavery, where whites actively relied on authorities to maintain their slave holdings, the caste system is an informal, self-perpetuating institution.
How? Consider Maya’s story.