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Changing Caste system in India by Andre Beteille

Changing Caste system in India by Andre Beteille

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Published by santoshjnu
Caste politics in India by Andre Beteille
Caste politics in India by Andre Beteille

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Published by: santoshjnu on Mar 01, 2012
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02/04/2014

 
India’s destiny not caste in stone
ANDRÉ BÉTEILLE 
Outside politics, there are other areas of life in which caste consciousness hasbeen dying down. Those who try to keep up with discussions on current affairs in the newspapersand on television may be forgiven if they conclude that caste is India's destiny.If there is one thing the experts in the media who comment on political mattershave in common, it is their preoccupation with caste and the part it plays inelectoral politics.Many are now coming to believe that, despite the undeniable demographic,technological and economic changes taking place in the country, the divisioninto castes and communities remains the ineluctable and ineradicable featureof Indian society. They also believe that to ignore those divisions or to drawattention to other divisions such as those of income, education and occupationis to turn our backs on the ground reality. The more radical among them addthat ignoring those realities amounts to an evasion of the politicalresponsibility of redistributing the benefits and burdens of society in a more just and equitable manner.Does nothing change in India? A great many things have in fact changed in thelast 60 years both in our political perceptions and in the social reality. Theleaders of the nationalist movement who successfully fought for India's freedomfrom colonial rule believed that India may have been a society of castes andcommunities in the past but would become a nation of citizens with theadoption of a new republican constitution. They were too optimistic. TheConstitution did create rights for the citizen, but it did not eradicate caste fromthe hearts and minds of the citizens it created. For many Indians, and perhapsthe majority, the habits of the heart are still the habits of a hierarchical society.
Inter-dining rules
Universal adult franchise opened up new possibilities for mobilising electoralsupport on the basis of caste and thus prevented the consciousness of castefrom dying down. Democracy was expected to efface the distinctions of caste,but its consequences have been very different from what was expected. Politicsis no doubt an important part of a nation's life in a democracy, but it is not theonly part of it. There are other areas of life in which the consciousness of caste
 
has been dying down, though not very rapidly or dramatically. The trends of change which I will now examine do not catch the attention of the mediabecause they happen over long stretches of time, in slow motion as it were. They are not noticeable from month to month or even year to year but acrosstwo or more generations.Let us start with the ritual opposition of purity and pollution which was acornerstone of the hierarchical structure of caste. The rules of purity andpollution served to mark the distinctions and gradations among castes andsub-castes. Characteristic among them were those relating to commensality orinter-dining. They determined who could sit together at a meal with whom, and who could accept food and water from whom. Only castes of equivalent rankcould inter-dine with each other. In general people accepted cooked food and water from the hands of their superiors, but not their inferiors. The ritual rules governing food transactions were rigid and elaborate until ahundred years ago. Nobody can deny that there has been a steady erosion of those rules. Modern conditions of life and work have rendered many of themobsolete. The excesses of the rules of purity and pollution have now come to betreated with ridicule and mockery among educated people in metropolitancities like Kolkata and Delhi. It is impossible to maintain such rules in a collegecanteen or an office lunch room. To insist on seating people according to theircaste on a public occasion would cause a scandal today.In the past, restrictions on inter-dining were closely related to restrictions onmarriage according to the rules of caste. The restrictions on marriage have notdisappeared, but they have eased to some extent. Among Hindus, the lawimposed restrictions on inter-caste marriage. The law has changed, but thecustom of marrying within the caste is still widely observed. However, what ishappening is that other considerations such as those of education and incomeare also kept in mind in arranging a match. At any rate, it will be difficult toargue that caste consciousness in matrimonial matters has been on the rise inrecent decades.
In politics, the media
 There continues to be a general association between caste and occupation tothe extent that the lowest castes are largely concentrated in the menial andlow-paying jobs whereas the higher castes tend to be in the best-paid and mostesteemed ones. But the association between caste and occupation is now moreflexible than it was in the traditional economy of land and grain. Rapid
 
economic growth and the expansion of the middle class are accompanied bynew opportunities for individual mobility which further loosens the associationbetween caste and occupation.If, in spite of all this, caste is maintaining or even strengthening its hold overthe public consciousness, there has to be a reason for it. That reason is to befound in the domain of organised politics. Caste had entered the political arenaeven before independence, particularly in peninsular India. But the adoption of universal adult franchise after independence altered the character and scope of the involvement of caste in the political process. The consciousness of caste is brought to the fore at the time of elections.Elections to the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabhas are now held all the yearround. For logistical and other reasons, elections to even the Vidhan Sabhasmay be stretched out over several weeks. There are by-elections in addition tothe general elections. Election campaigns have become increasingly spectacularand increasingly costly, and they often create the atmosphere of a carnival. Themobilisation of electoral support on the basis of caste is a complexphenomenon whose outcome gives scope for endless speculation.Even though for the country as a whole the election season never really comesto an end, the individual voter participates in the electoral process onlyoccasionally and sporadically. The average villager devotes far more thoughtand time to home, work and worship than to electoral matters. It is well knownthat the voter turnout among urban professional Indians is low. But even whenthey do not participate in the elections to the extent of visiting their localpolling booths, they participate in them vicariously by following on television what happens in the outside world. Television provides a large dose of entertainment along with a modicum of political education.Private television channels have created a whole world in which their anchorsand the experts who are regularly at their disposal vie with each other to bringout the significance of the “caste factor,” meaning the rivalries and alliancesamong castes, sub-castes and groups of castes by commentators who, for themost part, have little understanding of, or interest in, long-term trends of change in the country. These discussions create the illusion that caste is anunalterable feature of Indian society. It will be a pity if we allow what goes on inthe media to reinforce the consciousness of caste and to persuade us that casteis India's destiny.

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