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Caste-Away

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The Banerjees are entertaining. Courtesy of the ceiling fan, an exotic aroma wafts temptingly from the kitchen, through the doorway curtains and into our front room, where at the age of fifteen, I'm being asked how my progress into medicine is coming along. My grandfather is lambasting partition to a resounding oscillation of "acha" from a five foot five quartet of listeners, and although I haven't even finished my GCSEs yet, I'm informed that Mr. Patel's son has just got into Cambridge.

Most guests have arrived, at least two hours late, tupperware in tow, and if they have one, their Mercedes is parked purposely on double yellow lines. There's usually some discussion of the neighbours, cricket and how well India is doing on the world stage.

My grandfather's speech has moved on to money matters now. Europe's glory days are over he warns; private bank excesses and public sector legacy costs are poised to drag the continent, and America, down for generations. But India, he insists, is the rising star in this global predicament. She will recover, learn from the white man's mistakes and become an international powerhouse, displacing the West's global hegemony.

Five years on, his speech hasn't changed much and neither has India. She's still in a period of transition.

For all the potential, that is to say a sub-continental scale work force, and a pluralistic political system which serves dually to diversify culture and isolate crises state specifically, India remains hampered by a problem that economics alone cannot fix.

I'm not talking about the rule of babus, soul sapping bureaucracy or the free reign cows enjoy in bustling city centres, but rather a persisting sociological prejudice from which the world's largest democracy struggles to abscond - the caste system.

More than 50 years after caste discrimination was outlawed in India, millions of 'untouchable' low-caste Hindus remain subject to daily petty humiliations, police violence and institutionalised narrow-mindedness. Despite India's massive economic advances in the last decade, it is estimated that a crime is still committed against a Dalit every 20 minutes.

Dalit children are still forced to sit in segregated sections in schools while their parents are often denied a range of basic rights, including access to water, the right to stage marriage processions and entry to polling booths.

What is puzzling about the caste system is that it has endured without any legal force behind it. Unlike slavery, under which white land owners actively relied on authorities to maintain their slave holdings, the caste system is an informal, self-perpetuating institution that has resisted half-a-century worth of (ham-handed) government efforts to eradicate it.

There are two causes for this. Firstly, psychologically speaking, it is difficult for the higher castes to stop considering themselves 'higher' than the rest of the populous. Accustomed to years of privilege, there is still a lasting sense of entitlement however misguided, amongst the upper echelons of Indian society.

The second reason is seated in political pragmatism. India's largesse necessitates a pluralistic rule which in turn leads political parties to use caste to polarize voters in elections. Thus, divisions between multiple castes are actively encouraged. While half-hearted parliamentary schemes still reserve some positions for lower caste people, to my mind, disproportionate membership in congress suggests it is little more than tokenism.

India's caste system was abolished legally in the 1960s, but its influence remains heavily entrenched socially. Cross-caste marriages are still taboo, fair skin is still a commodity and there's a reason Mr. Binu chose to make a break for Britain rather than stay in India.

Rivalled only by China, whose opaque autocracy is its own sociological hindrance, to suggest India's economy is not a potential world beater would be nothing short of imprudent.

But for India to achieve her lofty ambitions as an international example there is still work to be done. The country must strike a balance between economics and sociology; attitudes must be revised and outdated religious restrictions must be discharged.

My grandfather concludes his speech, his toast rewarded by raucous approval from the band of Bengalis on our plastic covered sofa. In many ways, I admire his buoyancy, the proverbial ostrich with his head in the sand, but there is a tragic truth about our cosy little shindig.

Mr. Patel, Mr. Pradhan, Mr. Binu and Dr. Sengupta are guests in our home, and they are all of lower caste.

Behind the net curtains of Kentish suburbia, this minor detail hardly seems worth mentioning, but I wonder how long this motley crew would last in Calcutta.

Industrially and economically India is incredible, but still thousands of people leave the country every year. Why? So long as the caste system continues to promulgate this social hang up of 'birth not worth', outdated religious reservations will hinder sociability and India's presence on the world stage.