You are on page 1of 8

If you live with something long enough, it ceases to shock you. Thats caste in India.

I rant and I rage at the injustice of it, the sheer cruelty of it. But Im not shocked by it. In India, the modern class system borrows liberally from the British; we learnt our lessons well, taking over from where the colonial masters left off. So in India we have both traditional caste and modern class well and truly in place and even the most liberated people flaunt it albeit discreetly when it suits them, to prove a point: to tell you who they are. A brief history of caste Perhaps the only class-free society in India was that of the indigenous or adivasi people who still today manage to practice equality with a wisdom that is truly humbling. Yet this lack of acquisitiveness, this disregard for hoarding, has earned indigenous communities sobriquets like uncivilized or primitive. Then came caste, a system devised by Machiavellian minds to keep an entire sub-group in bondage forever. Caste was invented by the Hindu Brahmin or priestly group some 2,000 years ago. They took what were essentially divisions of labour and dictated that everyone had a predestined, preordained station in life. To ensure that this diktat was obeyed, they created an elaborate religious system which insisted that your birth in this life was directly related to your sins or good deeds in the last one. Hence everyone had to accept this rigid system which controlled society and totally prohibited social mobility. Knowledge was closely controlled by the Brahmins. Disobedience could mean death or worse. For example Manu, the Hindu lawgiver who codified a great deal of caste-dictated social behaviour into rigid laws, decreed that a Dalit (person below or outside the caste system) who listened to the chanting of the Vedas (holy texts) should have molten lead poured into his ears. The system benefited the upper castes who had what amounted to slave labour for centuries. Even Muslims, Sikhs and Christians in India have internalized this system. They cling to the castes they were born into and, though less rigid about the polluting effect of the lower castes, tend to keep to their caste sub-groups when it comes to arranging marriages. Caste thus became a system set in stone. The Muslim Mughal Empire that conquered and ruled India in the 16th and 17th centuries was feudal, and the people who converted to Islam from the upper Hindu castes thus became part of the feudal lite. However, there was a certain amount of upward mobility for anyone who caught the Mughal Emperors eye. Enter class Then in the 18th century came the British. In the 1830s Lord Macaulay introduced English as the language of education in India to provide the empire with the clerks and administrators it needed. He certainly succeeded in creating a cadre of brown sahibs,

Indians who sought to emulate British dress, customs and language. Upward mobility was linked to the way you spoke and wrote English. Today, getting a decent job without a good grasp of English is still almost impossible in India. Needless to say, almost all those who made it to the upper classes were of upper-caste origins because very few of the lower castes received the privileged education available in the best schools. The exception to this may be Christians in India who received a better education in missionary schools than others from similar economic or social backgrounds. Among Christians, those who converted from Brahmins kept their caste customs the missionaries did not tamper with this. Thus Syrian Christians in Kerala, converted in the first century AD from the Brahmin community, are a powerful landed gentry who had few scruples about owning bonded labourers. In Goa and Mangalore too, surnames identify the rung in the Hindu hierarchy from which people were converted. The Protestants, with an inherent sense of equality born of their struggle with the Catholic hierarchy, were somewhat better than the Catholics at treating all their converts as one.

Contemporary or modern Indian society refers to the post-independence period characterized by heavy industrialization, urbanization and apparent weakening of the traditional family and social structure. The impression held is that caste in its old form is irrelevant and cannot exist in the modern or contemporary Indian society. The traditional hold of caste has weakened but this research aims to find out if caste continues to play a role in Indian society, albeit in different ways. Introduction In the post-independence period, attention had turned to studying tribes as the general impression among anthropologists of the era was that caste was irrelevant in the free India of industries and factories. It was MN Srinivass book, Caste in Modern India and other essays that brought the focus back onto caste. Srinivas believed that caste was a fluid and dynamic social institution. While caste might not necessarily play the same role it did in the olden days, its fluid character ensures it has adapted to play a role in contemporary society as well. It is unanimously agreed that the role of caste in three major areas of social life is declining. These are observance of rules regarding purity, marriage rules and caste-based occupation. On the other hand, Sanskritisation has strengthened over the years and caste has permeated into other fields such as education and politics which have increased caste consciousness and kept caste relevant in contemporary Indian society. Weakening of Caste rules The most conspicuous rule among the caste rules regarding purity was that of commensality or rules regarding eating and drinking with or accepting food and water from other castes. Earlier, due to a stagnant occupational and social setup in the village, these rules were applied stringently. Post-independence, industrialization, education and urbanization, amongst

other factors made the applicability of some of these rules unfeasible. Different castes worked alongside in large factories and shared food and water, students of different castes, unaware of commensality rules freely ate with each other in school and at large public gatherings such as marriages, inter-caste mingling happened without commensality rules being adhered to. Adrian Mayers study of a village in central India from 1954 to 1992 showed that while old rules of commensality still remained, their observance by men as well as women had become more relaxed. Marriage rules are an important component of caste system. In India, these rules are very stringent, intricate and closely dependent on caste rules. Earlier, partners would be matched not just due to caste but according to sub-caste, or even sub-subcaste. A marriage between two different types of Brahmins would be considered an inter-caste marriage. Increased education has resulted in weakening of certain marriage rules. Inter-caste marriages have become fairly common in urban areas and towns. Now that marriage is also a result of free choice of two partners, castes role in determining the match is declining. However, caste endogamy still persists as is evident by the large number of caste matrimony associations and websites. According to the Indian Human Development Survey 2004-05, 95% of female respondents married into their own caste. Thirdly, the very base for castes existence- occupations based on caste, have started to weaken. Caste-based occupations initially did allow for some flexibility. A caste involved in making certain crafts could venture into agriculture but not into the domain which was the specialty of a particular caste. Industrialisation has changed that, for it has brought with it a variety of new, caste-free professions. More and more youngsters in the current generation have opted out of their family and caste occupation for better opportunities. Potters sons might become bank officers or a tanners daughter might become a doctor. It is safe to say that caste in its traditional form with its stringent rules has all but disappeared but the question to be examined is whether it continues to persist in different forms. Sanskritisation: Decline of caste or not? Caste customs have endured but are carried out mainly during ceremonial occasions and dont permeate as much into everyday life. Srinivas believed that Sanskritisation was strengthening. Sanskritisation is where the lower castes seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes. According to Beteille, Sanskritisation enlarged the scope of ritual in ceremonial life even while the force of purity and pollution was being reduced in everyday life, in the school, the office and the marketplace.Sanskritisation has only intensified in years that have passed since independence. For thousands of years, the higher castes were identified with the customs that they followed. Since Sanskritisation involves lower castes emulating the higher castes and their customs, the distinction between the two became less pronounced. Over generations, some lower castes were able to closely adapt the customs of the higher castes in the regions and were gradually accepted as being higher castes themselves. Sanskritisation results in mobility but no structural change. That is, if a caste moves up, another necessarily goes down. The system itself does not change.

Thus Sanskritisation leads us to the larger question, If caste is weakening in contemporary India, why is Sanskritisation strengthening? Sanskritisation is a result of the aspiration of lower castes to climb up the hierarchy by imitating Brahmin customs. This aspiration shows that caste awareness, an implicit awareness about apparent Brahmin supremacy and as a corollary, of the lower-standing of other castes, exists. This awareness only increased caste identity and consciousness. Indeed, Sanskritisation is sustaining the continuance of caste system in contemporary India. Castes continuing influence Sanskritisation has been seen as sustaining the caste system in India. In his article, The Peculiar tenacity of Caste, Andre Beteille talks about the traditional role of caste being eroded but new forms of influence opening up. Caste has permeated into the political arena with castes representing easily identifiable vote banks. Through politics, it has seeped into education as well, in the form of reservation for the lower castes. This web of caste influence finishes a complete circle with reservations in jobs as well for the scheduled castes. All of these factors have contributed to an increased caste consciousness and resulted in the continuance of caste influence in contemporary Indian society. Caste in Politics After independence, Political parties justified using caste as a pragmatic measure to get electoral support. This practice has continued till today. Caste was chosen over class as identities of caste are much clearer than class and almost everyone can say which caste they belong to. Class is a lot more ambiguous and harder for people to identify with. As a result, political parties started using caste garner votes and this led to the concept of a vote bank. Vote bank is another term introduced by MN Srinivas and holds particular relevance in the current Indian political scenario. According to Guha, it connotes to the general tendency of individuals to vote in herds or groups, whether these herds might be defined in terms of caste, class, language or religion. It is improbable that only one factor would constitute a vote bank but it is safe to say that most vote banks have caste as a base or as one of the determining factors. When political parties emphasis the caste of their candidates and propose reforms benefiting those belonging to the same caste as their candidate, it increases caste consciousness. The Bahujan Samaj Party initially focused on the Dalit vote bank by projecting their leader Mayawati as a sort of Dalit Messiah who would bring the downtrodden Dalits up in life by giving them increased opportunities. After Mayawati coming to power, various Dalit monuments were set up in an effort to boost Dalit pride. This increased caste consciousness amongst Dalits as well as non-Dalits. That is, Dalits became more aware of their caste as did other castes become more aware of being non-Dalits. What this has done has made castes think collectively and this self-identity has kept caste alive in modern Indian society. Interestingly, a study by the IHDS (Indian Human Development Study) shows that Dalits are far more politically aware and active than the forward castes. This shows that Dalits are taking initiative and being selfdependent which augurs well for Indian society. One could say that at the political arena, equal opportunities exist for all castes. However this does not mean that caste has become irrelevant. Caste hierarchy might not play a role in politics but caste consciousness does.

1.1 Caste as a Status Hierarchy

One of the reasons caste has excited sociological imagination is because it is seen as a representation of pure status, based on religious and ideological grounds (Milner 1994; Dumont 1980; Weber 1958) with class inequalities being epiphenomenal to caste. This disjunction between the sacred and the profane gives the Indian caste system a sociological character that sets it apart from other forms of social inequality based on material resources. Weber lays out the essential characterisation of the caste system as opposed to affinity groups that has undergirded much of the sociological discourse on caste: A status segregation grown into caste differs in its structure from a mere `ethnic segregation; the caste structure transforms the horizontal and unconnected coexistences of ethnically segregated groups into a vertical social system of superordination and subordination ethnic coexistences condition a mutual repulsion and disdain but allow each ethnic community to consider its own honor as the highest one; the caste structure brings out a social subordination and an acknowledgement of more honor in favour of privileged castes and status groups (Gerth and Mills 1946: 189). Status theories of caste hierarchies have a tendency to focus on ageless and timeless India as represented in vedic traditions, partly because they draw upon the religious foundations of caste. This focus often ignores modern India, particularly urban India, in which concepts like purity and pollution are difficult to implement in day-to-day life. As Andre Beteille (Dumont and Beteille 1987) remarks in an acerbic exchange with Dumont, Dumonts lack of ease with modern India is writ large in his work, although it does not shine as brightly as his enthusiasm for traditional India, which is partly an India of his own construction. Modern India, in Dumonts construction, is not made of whole cloth, it is a thing of shreds and patches (Beteille: 675 in Dumont and Beteille 1987). While there seems to be a general agreement regarding social differentiation between castes based on visibly recognisable symbols, including rituals, dress, tonsorial styles and a host of other behavioural markers, whether this differentiation translates into social hierarchies in modern India is far from clear (Gupta 2000) and some intriguing studies have documented declining salience of caste over time even in rituals and food habits (Mayer 1997; Kapur et al 2010). However, even the advantage of a relatively better education does not put a child in the same league as her classmate from a privileged class or caste background. Having illiterate or semi-educated parents is one drawback. The conversation at the dinner table is rarely intellectually stimulating. That little extra push needed to get the right library book to take the child one step ahead is missing. And so all but the rare genius who would forge ahead anyway, or the child who has a caring teacher or mentor, fall by the wayside. The upperclass boy has the money and backing to become an engineer or doctor. The lower-caste boy may become a supervisor in the factory, a step ahead of his slum-dweller playmates. The girl may become a nurse, better than her mother who washed dishes, but never a doctor. Getting to the top of the economic ladder is a rare achievement for the average lower-caste or -class child.

Violence ordained Though they frequently intersect, caste and class are different. Mobility within the class system is always a possibility. The British aristocracy have kept their ancestral homes going by marrying money, even if they do look down their aristocratic noses at Kelloggs fortunes and the like. Not so with the caste system. In India, the few Dalits who make it to the top are nevertheless often humiliated. Take the story of an upper-caste judge whose predecessor happened to be a Dalit. Before assuming office, he ordered the judicial chamber and seat to be purified by ritual washing with sacred cow dung water to cleanse it of the polluting Dalit presence. A Dalit former District Collector told me of the insults he routinely had to endure. A Collector is monarch of the district he surveys, the supreme civil service authority there, yet the lowliest Brahmin clerk would feel it was his right to snub him in little ways known throughout history to little minds. If the highest luminaries of the judiciary and the executive can be treated so, you can imagine the fate of the poor Dalit in her village in remote rural India. The evil religious sanction accorded to caste makes the perpetrators of caste violence feel they are ordained by the gods to have the lower castes serve them. So it is their duty to punish anyone who dares to defy them. The Dalits are told they are destined to be serfs because of karma, because in the cosmic order they are paying for their past sins and misdeeds.

1.2 Caste as a System of Exclusion and Exploitation

Research on caste as a system of exclusion and exploitation stands in sharp contrast to the Weberian focus on status hierarchies, in which the subordinate groups accept their low status. Given the occupational underpinnings of the varna system and the linkages between occupation and income, it is not difficult to see caste as a system of material inequality. Even in modern India, scheduled castes (SCs) continue to dominate the ranks of the sweepers (safai karmacharis). SCs form nearly 60% of the sweepers in central government compared to only 18% of other Class D workers (GoI 2006). An interesting analysis of the Indian Administrative Services (IAS), shows that as late as 1985, about 37% of the IAS officers selfidentified as being brahmin (Goyal 1989), a disproportionately large number since brahmins form only about 5% of the population. Moreover, since a substantial proportion of the applicants do not provide caste information, this number is undoubtedly an underestimate. Consequently, it is not surprising that many studies have found a strong link between caste and economic status (Deshpande 2000; Thorat and Newman 2009) postulated to be a function of exclusion from access to productive resources such as land and education as well as discrimination in the labour market. Two aspects of caste inequalities deserve attention: inequality of opportunity and inequality of outcome. Centuries of caste-based social organisation have left a legacy of inequality in access to land, education, business ownership and occupation. These processes lead to unequal access to productive resources and thereby lead to material disadvantages. However, caste-based

inequalities are not simply limited to inequality in opportunity. It has also been argued that even highly qualified members of lower caste face social and economic discrimination resulting in inequality of outcomes (Thorat and Newman 2009). The distinction between inequality of opportunity and that of outcome is not straightforward; inequality of outcome in one generation may lead to inequality of opportunity in the next but this distinction remains important from a public policy perspective.

1.3 Caste in Transformation

However, these linkages between caste, occupation and income are not accepted uncritically. It has sometimes been argued, the relationship between caste and occupation has been much misrepresented It is doubtful that there was at any time a complete correspondence between the two. At any rate, even before independence many castes, and probably most, had more than half their working members in occupations other than those specifically associated with their caste (Beteille 1992: 40). In an independent India the link between caste and occupation has weakened considerably. The jajmani system has all but vanished, allowing for market-based pricing for services rendered by the workers (Commander 1983). Additionally a variety of forces have disrupted the link between caste and occupation. Land reforms transferred landownership to many former share-croppers, most of whom belong to the middle castes (Dantwala 1950); declining incomes of artisans and influx of mass-produced goods have led to declining caste-based occupations among potters, weavers and other artisans who must now rely on manual labour for subsistence (Bayly 1999); and increased requirements for education among modern professions have led to influx of people from a variety of castes into modern occupations (Sharma 1999). All of these trends would suggest that the link between caste and economic status in modern India is marginal at best. In an analysis of the numerically preponderant dominant castes in south India, noted anthropologist M A Srinivas found that certain peasant castes enjoy numerical superiority as well as political and economic power, although they remain middle castes by the varna schema (Srinivas 1987). Politics of affirmative action has further strengthened the power of lower castes with reservations in government jobs and higher education (Beteille 1992). Recent studies further document the dilution of the role of caste in shaping economic well-being and suggest that migration, expansion of dalits in non-traditional occupations and changes in agriculture combine to improve the relative position of dalits in recent years (Kapur et al 2010).

And there are existing beacons of hope for change. The southern state of Kerala used to have the most vicious caste system in India, but for several decades it has been one of Indias most egalitarian, thanks to a combination of education, good governance and peoples movements that released Dalits there from the worst excesses of the caste system. West Bengal too is free from caste-based atrocities, thanks mainly to a long tradition of leftwing local government.

As the Dalit movement grows in power and consciousness, I can see the caste system becoming weaker. I can see the law at last punishing those who kill, abuse or oppress Dalits. Class is another matter, though. Class evolved through the possession of wealth and property. The rich were the upper class and the poor were their servants. It is less threatening because it is less extreme. So it does not evoke the same anger and sense of oppression that the worst-case caste scenarios do. With the waning of communism and socialism, the sense that economic equality was a human right has become history, a concept ridiculed and thrown into the dustbin of the 20th century. I do not see, in the near future, a New World Order where there is even a semblance of economic justice for the poor, for those of the supposedly lower classes. So I do not see the class system disappearing. I hope I may be proved wrong.