When You Are Casteist and You Know It: A Survey

A new survey by Social Attitudes Research India (SARI) documents just how prevalent prejudice and caste-based discrimination is in India.

Collected in 2016, SARI is a phone survey where respondents report the discriminatory behaviour that they or someone in their household carried out. 

The survey interviewed representative samples of adults in Delhi, Mumbai, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. 

Diane Coffey, Payal Hathi, Nidhi Khurana, and Amit Thorat analyse quantify and analyse "explicit prejudice" in their special article in the Economic and Political Weekly’s Vol LIII, No 1, published on 6 January 2018. They define "explicit prejudice" as beliefs and behaviours to which people openly and readily admit and that reinforce the lower social status of people in oppressed groups.

The authors point to an interesting aspect of the research: many people did not see anything wrong with saying they practice untouchability. 




Interestingly, the 2011 India Human Development Survey results had showed that more than half the non-Dalit Hindu households had members who practised untouchability in Rajasthan and in rural Uttar Pradesh, together home to over 200 million people.

SARI data suggests this fraction has not improved in five years. Reported untouchability is lower, but still high, for metros like Delhi and Mumbai, 

Except Delhi, where reporting of untouchability among SARI respondents is roughly double of what it was in the IHDS, results across surveys were similar for all of the places that the authors studied. 


Support for Laws Against Intermarriage

One domain in which higher castes have consistently and unapologetically discriminated against Dalits is in arranging marriages for their children.

SARI asked non-Dalits the question:


“In your opinion, should there be a law preventing high caste and low caste people from marrying each other?”


The proportion of non-Dalit adults who support such a law ranges from 60% in rural Rajasthan to about 40% in Delhi. 27% of men in Mumbai support laws against Intermarriage; in Delhi 35% of men support laws against intermarriage. A point to note is that inter-caste marriage was explicitly legalised soon after India’s independence by the Special Marriage Act of 1954.


Attitude to Reservations 

Despite these high levels of explicit and caste-based prejudice, there is relatively high support for reservation policies. For people who had heard of reservations before the interview, the survey asked their reasons for supporting or opposing caste-based reservations. Among those who supported reservations, 32% respondents in Uttar Pradesh and 43% respondents in Rajasthan cited development of the castes as a reason for their support.  Among those who opposed reservations, 59% of respondents in Uttar Pradesh said that there should be a merit based system.  The following table lists the reasons in support of and against reservation policies among respondents.

The following table lists the reasons in support of and against reservation policies among respondents. 


Groups that have reservations today have historically been denied access to education, land, assets and business ownership among other things and the reasons for supporting caste-based reservations among respondents relate to the policies’ potential to correct past injustices. 

One of the main reasons for opposing reservations is that seats should be assigned based on merit. This reason paints reservation as a form of unjustified redistribution, as opposed to a policy mechanism for ensuring representation of people from the lower castes in government and state services.

Support for reservations is lower among forward castes and Brahmins, although still relatively high.

Support is lowest among forward castes and Brahmins in the two major cities of Delhi and Mumbai.

The authors noted that many people in the representative samples were not familiar enough with reservation to give clearly stated reasons for supporting or opposing these policies.

Even people who do not express explicit prejudice nevertheless often behave in ways that reveal their implicit biases, which have important consequences for oppressed groups. The authors suggest that it would be useful, therefore, to track both social attitudes and to develop ways of measuring implicit bias in the Indian context.


The paper also highlights discrimination against women and presents evidence of two discriminatory behaviours that threaten women’s autonomy and health. To read more from the paper, click here.


Curated by: Vishnupriya Bhandaram [vishnupriya@epw.in]

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