“India is a great place for backpackers who see what they come to see, but a difficult place for us cyclists who see it all.”
This was said by a fellow world touring cyclist, who, after visiting over fifty countries across five continents (over a seven year period) finds India to be the most difficult and frustrating of them all. This conversation, which I have now had several times with many different world touring cyclists (who all say India is their least favorite) got me thinking about what makes it so difficult.
India’s problems do not originate from poverty as many people believe, but rather from the harsh and despicable caste system which causes never ending inequality. Imagine being born into a low-caste and treated like a dirty dog from day one of your life. Imagine literally being called an “untouchable,” because the higher caste society around you avoids you at all costs. Imagine the never ending cycle of poverty and ignorance created from a system which puts you in your place from the second you enter into this world, which makes it clear to you from birth that you are not allowed to progress from the bottom rungs of society just because of your family’s name.
Now imagine you are born with an undue sense of entitlement because you were fortunate enough to be born into a high-classe. Imagine never working a day in your life because you have all the money in the world while so many people around you are condemned to destitute. Imagine the bossy, arrogant, and rude nature you acquire from the wealthy people surrounding you, and the sense of self-worth you use against those less fortunate than you.
Now put these together and you have the dramatic and unspeakable effects of the caste system, an artificial division which separates humans at birth due to their family’s worth. There are those who live their lives in absolutely poverty, unable to obtain an education or descent job because society has forbidden them to progress, while there are those living beside them who arrogantly think they rule the world though they have never done anything worthwhile in their lives. Though I knew in theory what the caste system was before coming to India, seeing the harmful effects, both through the poor and through the rich, has made traveling through such an unequal society extremely difficult and frustrating.
You may argue that this system is part of their culture, that the caste system is in part what makes India, “India.” But how could someone be proud of a system that creates such inequality, a system that allows Indian men to treat women like pieces of meat, a system that allows the rich to treat the poor like animals. It’s a system which, besides creating such a vast crater between the rich and the poor, creates a hopeless mentality on both ends of the spectrum which leads to daily violence, corruption, and inhuman treatment.
Take this for example. A friendly and generous high-caste wealthy family took a cyclist friend of mine to a gigantic three-day birthday party for their little girl. The event was catered by a group of low-caste Indians who, at the end of all their work, awaited their pay. The family who had so kindly taken in my friend for over two weeks turned their back on the workers and told them that since they were low-caste, they didn’t deserve the price they had agreed upon before the celebration began. The workers were left empty handed by this wealthy family just because they wanted to prove that their high caste status made them superior human beings. Not such a generous family anymore is it?
This system of oppression and lack of respect for individuals has led to the cold blooded stares that characterize India, to the inhuman treatment of women, and to many of the inappropriate comments and actions I find so difficult to deal with as a western women. They don’t value me as a human because so many times they have not been valued themselves. At the same time, I can no longer count the number of wealthy Indians on vacation who have demanded a photo with me, only to be absolutely shocked when I tell them no because as a high-caste member of society, they may have never heard that word directed at them. They are use to using their arrogance and position in society to get everyone below them to do their bidding in a heat-beat. Since the caste system has taught these people to act as they do it’s hardly each individuals fault, but rather their society as a whole, which has created this unlawful environment.
In North America we have this too, we have discrimination, and we still do have social classes, but lucky for us, they are not ingrained in everyone’s mind in the same unchangeable way as it is here. But it use to be. The people who lived in the States for centuries before the Europeans, the native Americans, the true “Americans” in every sense, have now been wiped out because of this mentality. And do you remember when the blacks in the United States were slaves? Remember when they couldn’t even drink from the same fountain as the whites? Remember when they didn’t have the same educational opportunities? And even today, crimes are still blamed on the blacks just because of their color. Hopefully in time India and the rest of the world will see what damage inequality causes, and will find a way to reverse this harmful way of thinking.