Caste in India Essay

Caste is a complex phenomenon which originated in ancient India and exists today as a controversial source and function of the Indian polity. Its significance has been heavily debated in academic circles. However, many scholars believe caste to be an over-riding dimension, in the same way that ‘race is to the United States, class is to Britain and faction to Italy’ ( Bayly, 1 ).

The definition of caste is also conentious, but is commonly agreed to be a hierarchical system which divides labour, religious ritual, social status and privelage amongst its respective groups ( Paranjpe, 5; Bayly 1 – etc. ). In the traditional caste society, affiliation with a caste provided an individual with a fixed social milieu; a ‘permanent body of association which controls behaviour and contacts’. Caste was the ‘trade union, friendly benefit society, state club and orphanage’ ( Paranjpe, 4 ).While it is integral to Hindu philosophy ( Paranjpe, 2 ), it does exist in varying grains across the broad spectrum of India’s communities, including Christian and Muslim ones. Caste was rooted in the function of traditional India, and it is important to understand its nature today in order to assess its impact. Caste continues to influence to identity and livelihoods of huge swathes of the Indian population, as I will demonstrate.

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India is not like England – a singular cultural linguistic entity around which national borders have been drawn. It is more comparable to Europe – a myriad of culturally differentiated nationalities around whom a single national boundar drawn due to long, complex historical process ( Gould, 1 ).This means that the impact of caste – necessarily a parochial, narrow-interest group – is potentially corrosive to a tenuously linked and diverse set of peoples. With the advent of independence and India’s subsequent integration into the global macro-institutions of capitalism, diplomacy, press and education, caste has been uprooted from its ancient Asian context and relocated into the garb of Western-orientated modernity. Caste has not been diluted; it has been ‘reincarnated’ into the more fluid caste association, which advocates internal cultural reform and external social change ( Rudolph, 981 ).The narratives of domination and power have coloured the caste system for centuries. While caste continues to shape individual fortunes, the new arenas of the centralised democracy and the global economy have increasingly remapped power resources away from caste and in order to fulfill a more egalitarian vision. It is on this point of contention – the balance of power – that caste has made its impact most felt.

Those systems which shape the power milleu of the population – economy, democracy and nationalisation – have endured the brunt of caste in the Indian political system.The Indian National Congress’ belief that it is necessary to the wellbeing of Indian society that it become a viable participant in the modern economic system, has led to the development of the policy of rapid, social-capitalist industrialisation.The success of such a policy is, to some extent, contingent on the removal of caste. In the Asiatic feudal and despotic society caste meant the distribution of labour along the lines of heritage ( Rudolph, 997 ). However, the modern economy, concerned with ability over birth, would require the dilution of any such irrational determinants.

‘I don’t care what colour the cat is, as long as it catches mice’ is Deng Xiaoping’s tribute to the necessarily caste-blind nature of capitalism. ( Ghosh, 99 ).Cate has inevitably diminished in a system which values meritocracy, and it has also increased upward mobility outside of caste determination. However, caste has shown signs of resillience. Ninety percent of municipal sanitary workers continue to originate from the untouchable (dalit) caste, while brahmins enjoy high class, intellectual professions. Furthermore, the 1979 Mandal Commission found that forward castes occuppied 90% of Class I Central Government services ( 113 ). As we can see, the traditional hierarchical system of exploitation has managed to be translated into the modern context: caste position factors into class position ( 114 ). In the rural context the link between tradition and occupation is particularly acute.

For example, in western Orissa Dalit women cannot sell puffed rice on the basis that they would receive no customers, since, for them, it is commonly agreed to be a taboo activity ( 100 ). The prominence of traditional value systems in the agrarian context is particularly problematic for development, since the majority of India depends on agriculture as a source of both subsistence and wealth ( Mukhopadhyay, 42 ). By pursuing an irrational division of labour, caste hinders the robust modernisation that India requires.

The Indian Constitution instills the notion of equality and rights, as well as advocating a socialist eco-political framework ( Rudolph, 979 ). The relevance of caste politics effects this vision for an egalitarian and democratic society.For the Indian National Congress, the process of social-levelling is largely narrated in material terms. It is believed that gaining ownership over the means of production would emancipate the deprived groups from the imperative of low caste depency ( Rudolph ). This requires provision of universal education, and also the distribution of land to those that work it. Although the success of such policies is contended, such a campaign has undeniably resulted in some dissipation of real economic power from the concentration of the upper castes, and outwards towards the lower castes and wider society. The dislocation of the traditional hierarchy under egalitarian reform has upset the power balance of caste relations; this has resulted in social polarisation alongside an unstable party system rife with both communalism and fantacism.

For example, in pockets of India land reform has allowed for greater equality among the castes. ‘Operation Barga’, implemented in 1978 throughought West Bengal, allowed surplus land distribution among the marginal, poor and backward. This provided the group with stable economic protection. In the urban, secular realm, affirmative action policies, such as positive discrimination, allow greater numbers of those from the Scheduled Caste are gaining positions in the government sector to the expense of the upper castes ( Chandra, 35 ). This is clearly a commendable achievement in a society which aspires towards modernisation and equality.

But pessimistic commentators remark, in the spirit of high caste protesters, that such measures simply ‘increased poverty among the many’ while destroying those few zones where prosperity had once existed ( The Times of India ).While the lower castes have been presented with opportunity and mobility, the upper castes have been only handed the prospect of loss. Small landowners of the middling castes have found that under the New Economic Policy, with its emphasis on corporate and commercial farming, they have been pressured to sell their lands to foreign firms ( Ghosh, 96 ). Previously independent peasants have become disposessed wage labourers, like their counterparts from low-caste groups ( 102 ). At the same time, in the urban, secular realm lower castes feel restless at the economic opportunity open to them but the the weight of the social glass ceiling preventing them. For example, Chandra cites the ‘typical’ story of Rattam Ram – the son of a brick layer who obtained an education and eventually became a government clerk.

Despite his skills, this mas still found that he was refused promotions on the basis of his caste ( 36 ).The mobilisation of caste in the political system threatens socialist goals by pursuing particularist aims ( PC, 397 ). The upper-castes have a vested interest in maintaining the socio-political status quo; the lower castes have something to gain from a changing map of opportunity. The parochialism of caste disregards the collective, left-leaning ‘desires and efforts indispensable to social advance’ ( PC, 997 ). In comparison, Gould remarks on the importance of caste lobbies in ensuring the rightful allocation and use of social policy. The political stalemate between socialism and capitalism in the 20th century led to a cleavage within the governmental fabric of India.

Enough money was raised to finance the public economy, but the government lacked the corresponding political power required to guide their caste and class destination. This social structural dillemma was ultimately alleviated by caste lobbies that successfully voiced their socio-economic position and their requirements ( p.397 ).Beyond destabilising the goals of socialism, the parochialism of caste also impacts the basic contours of the democratic, unified nation.Paranjpe cites how in a caste society the group precedes the individual, whilst in the democratic society the individual precedes their ethnic group (1970). The massive natural association to caste weakens identification with the ‘leaders, ideas and institutions’ that characterise the state. Indeed, Rudolph goes so far as to say that the existence of caste destroys prospects of a modern civil society ( p.

986 ). The rise of communal parties and linguistic states only seem to serve the narrow interests of caste.However, party-based caste rivalry over the socio-economic resevoir in itself is the very indication that caste does not compete with the broad, national framework; it conform conforms to it. Rudolph and Paranjpe show how caste identity has been adapted to state identity. Caste identity involves a natural association of birth; this promotes the distribution of resources according to ascription. The state identity, however, is a volunatry association which promotes distribution according to achievement, and indeed for the Indian system, a socialist ideal. What Rudolph perceives today, however, is the evolution of caste into ‘caste association’: a voluntary category which is usually adopted when it suits political objectives ( 976 ).Indeed, Indian tradition has been mobilised and reshaped meet the rapidly changing post-colonial world ( Gould, 391 ).

In this way, caste has learned to exist with the economic, democratic state system. It even enhances it: in a society full of dichotomies between old and new, feudal and capitalist, rural and urban, the politicisation of caste has allowed the state to penetrate the village ( Rudolph, 985). The combination of caste and state has brought about the ‘modernity of tradition’ ( Rudolph ).

Caste parties harness the politics of identity with the effect of making democracy both meaningful and relevant to the tradional mass.Although, as Gould points out, in times of hardship the existence of caste presents the possibility of a fierce ‘throwback’to old values. For example, problems of lagging economic growth, government corruption and Chinese border issues have allowed for the growiing support of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh ( 242 ); a party which seeks expand caste to envelope Hindu religious line ( 243 ). In this sense, whilst the rise of parties congruent to identity differences upholds democracy by crystallising a party system of competition and ethnic-identity representaiton, the threat of extremism by resorting to strong, parochial sentiments is always a possibility.Caste defines electoral outcomes in the Indian political system. The ethnic template of caste, religion and language, shapes political creativity in India ( Chandra, 30 ), and indeed, the numerical strength of castes in some districts have provided the political entrepeneur with a golden career ladder ( Gould, 31 ).

‘Ethnic politiking’ based on caste is therefore an effective strategy for those who wish to gain posts ( Chandra, 27 ). Ghosh laments that caste-representation is merely a tool which guarantees a vote bank for parties: to win votes, it is ‘easiest’ to appeal to caste or separatist sentiments ( 95 ).The power of the ballot in the Indian political system has allowed for mobilisation and strengthening of caste identity among voters. Representatives of castes which dominated an area were incorporated into the Congress party. Chandra points out how in cases where Congress has ‘incorporated new groups’ there have been ‘clear electoral incentives’ to do so ( Chandra, 52 ). This policy In the Punjab, Congress has historically contended with the prominent Akali Dal – a Sikh party which gains support primarily from the Jat Sikhs.

‘Accordingly’ Sikhs have been incorporated within Congress ( 53 ). This also allows for a competitive, democratic party system where each caste is able to influence the legislative body through party representation and electoral influence.Whilst Congress has played a ‘coded’ card – avoiding the rhetoric of identity or exclusivity – other parties have chose to ‘capitalise on differences’ in line with political calculation ( Rudolph, 984 ).The Bahujan Samaj Party ( BSP ) epitomises the significance of caste-based politics to electoral fortunes. Like the Congress Party, seeks to appeal to the broad electorate.

It has come up with an effective campaign capable of countering the enormous Congress Party support. Whilst the Congress Party avoids the language of caste and purports the material, economic basis of inequality, the BSP adds to this the importance of mental and psychological concepts of pride and humiliation which govern caste and class differences ( Chandra, 37 ). It cites notions of esteem and pride as paramount to Brahmin dominance. The party notes how objective conditions have improved as a result of economic improvements, but, for example, in areas such as Hoshiarpur, the Scheduled Castes are still segregated due to social stigma. Indeed, the party has branded the Congress as a non-multi ethnic upper-caste party ( p.39 ). Caste has been re-aligned along party political lines, and has effectively become a tool which legitimises both power and rule.

Linguistic states also do not indicate the corrosive nature of caste to the Indian nationality. In the Indian polity caste panchayats have become subordinate to the federal nation-state. Indeed, with the increase in roads, railroads and communication tools villages are no longer the disconnected, self-sufficient atoms like they were in colonial India ( Rudolph, 979 ). The creation of states according to caste and language blocs are fully in line with the national democracy and its aims for adequate representation.Caste is compatible with the nation. However, it is arguable what sort of nationalism a continuing culture of caste contributes to. Caste, although waning today, has been a long-term feature of Indian social organisation. It has inevitably left a profound influence on Indian political culture.

Gould argues that the centuries old prominence of caste interest has meant that Indian citizens perceive security and want in terms of the personalistic ties among members of social groups. The Bhratiya Jana Sangh mobilises this personalistic tendency towards the creation of one caste of Hindus, against other religious groups ( 234 ).The caste mentality therefore has the effect of disrupting the secular Indian nation-state in favour of a nation rooted in the Hindu tradition .

This is dangerous in a country riddled with diversity. While caste is prevalent across the broad spectrum of religions in India, Ali argues that for non-Hindu communities caste bears much less impact. In Muslim communities, for example, caste is a weak source of economic, political or social resources.

Furthermore, the egalitarian, non-hierarchical leanings of Islam make caste even less relevant for its follower ( 133 ). In this way, we can see that the politics of caste is contingent on its relevance within a religion. This means, then, that caste prominence in Hindu communities has engendered the rise of Hindu national parties counter to the secularism of the ruling Congress party.In conclusion, the impact of caste in India is wide and varied. Economically, caste is hindering growth by focusing on birth rather than ability. However, with an increase in education and the policy of job reservations for lower castes, there is an increase in upward mobility. Concerning socialism, caste politics has been polarised.

The lower castes appreciate a greater distribution of power into their hands, whilst many upper castes despise the breaking down of their ancient monopoly. However, whilst this may seem destabilising to the collective aim of egalitarianism, the rise of caste lobbies to represent respective socio-economic interests is infact a boon to this. It has allowed the government to adequately allocate resources and gain advice for policy aims.On a national level, the parochial nature of caste has caused some disunity; specifically with the rise of linguistic states and, as I have already mentioned, social polarisation manifest in the broad spectrum of communal parties. Whilst this does contribute to a weakening of the national identity, it is fully in line with democratic leanings. Indeed, this spells out the Indian polity as a multi-ethnic: one which is always balancing, protecting and respecting ethnic interests.In this way, caste has contributed to multicultural form of nationalism. At the same time, however, there has been a rise in Hindu nationalism in tandem with caste identification.

Whilst this currently remains at the margins of the political system, it has the potential to be a threat for the secular character of India. In this way, caste has the two-fold and contradictory effects of supporting both a multicultural and monocultural state. Over-all, caste is a paramount dimension of the Indian political system, legitimising parties, influencing the economy, shaping ideals and identity politics.BibliographyAli, S, ‘Collective and Elective Identity’ Sociological Forum, Vol. 17, No. 4 (Dec.

, 2002), pp. 593-620Banarjee, N., ‘Disparity in Operation Barga not declined’ The Times of India, 5 January 2002, Retrieved on 10th January from:, S., Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age, Cambridge University Press, 1999Ghosh, A, Dalits and Peasants: The Emerging Caste-Class Dynamics, Delhi, Gyan Sagar Publications, 1999Gould, H.A, Politics and Caste, Delhi, Chakya Publications, 1990Paranjpe, A.C, Caste, Prejudice and the Individual, Delhi, Lalvani Publishing House, 1970Rudolph, I.L, ‘The Modernity of Tradition: Democratic Incarnation of Caste in India’ The American Political Science Review, Vol.59, p.975-989, 1956Chandra, K, ‘The Transformation of Ethnic Politics in India’ The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol 59, p.26-61, 2000


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