Conversation on caste today

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Conversations on caste today is based on interviews and interactions with five leading scholars of the region who have been working on different dimensions of caste; Gopal Guru, Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi; James Manor, Professor, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London; Sudha Pai, Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi; Ghanshyam Shah, former Director, Centre for Social Studies, Surat; and S.K. Thorat, Chairman, Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR), Delhi. The conversation was conducted by Surinder S. Jodhka with assistance from Ujithra Ponniah.


Surinder S. Jodhka (SSJ): Let us begin with a broad question. What do you think is specific about the current moment of caste and how could we best describe it? Is there anything different about the way we talk about caste today when compared to, say, the early 1950s or even 1970s?

James Manor: Perhaps the most significant feature of the current moment is that caste hierarchies have lost much of their power over the thinking and actions of people in rural areas where they have always been strongest. This change has occurred unevenly. It has gone further in some areas than in others. But we have enough evidence from ground studies in many regions to know that it is a very widespread trend. As has been argued by some scholars, ‘caste’ is increasingly becoming a ‘difference’ rather than ‘hierarchy’. This is one of the two most important changes to occur in India since Independence – the other being the emergence of a consolidated democracy.

Ghanshyam Shah: I tend to agree. In most parts of rural India, not to speak of urban India, ritual hierarchy has become almost irrelevant. Today, we talk about caste mostly in the context of assertion by ‘backward castes’ and Dalits against deprivation, social injustice… We could say that the present moment of caste denotes social identity in terms of power relationships than ritual hierarchy. Even the ‘village studies’ carried out by social anthropologists during the 1950s observed a great deal of variation in social ranking of local social groups and their socio-political relationship. The empirical situation was at variance from the textbook Hindu social order. It was (is) essentially power relationships, often expressed in terms of socially ‘high’ and ‘low’ status with a purity-pollution nuance. With adult franchise, frequent and competitive electoral processes and panchayati raj institutions, the ritual aspect of caste in social relationships has little meaning. But at the same time the caste ethos/mindset in terms of ‘high’ and ‘low’ continues. How do we read this? The answer to this question lies in engaging with empirical reality, probing empirical situations with comparative perspectives across the regions and time. However, we tend to fall back on the textual model (varna hierarchy). We need to address why our efforts to formulate an empirical theory of caste have not been persuasive? This is important for the sociology of knowledge.

Sudha Pai: I too agree with Manor and Shah on the declining significance of ritual hierarchy in the discourses on caste. This is not a sudden change; it had begun in the 1950s. The present day context of change is primarily in the arena of politics and society at various levels. First, ‘power’ relationships among caste groups at the village or local level are undergoing significant change. Here both collaboration and competition among dominant and lower castes takes place. This, at times, also results in cases of atrocity. In the rural areas of the country, the landed backward castes have emerged as the direct oppressors of the Dalits. Second, in politics, caste still matters in voting patterns. Third, there is greater awareness about sub-castes and they are playing a more important role than earlier. Fourth, there is increasing talk about the rise of a small but influential educated middle class generation of Dalits who are demanding a share in the fruits of development. In sum, there is now a greater diversity in the political and socio-economic position of caste groups particularly at the lower levels of the caste ladder.

S.K. Thorat: We all seem to agree that something about caste has changed but there is also something which persists. It is the latter that concern us. The continuity is indeed a serious issue, and so is its explanation. Some catch the tail of the elephant and others, the legs. The problem is further accentuated by an absence of empirical studies on different dimensions of the system of graded inequality.

The central feature of the caste system is the restrictions on various rights. These range from customary rights in property (land) to civic, cultural and religious rights being framed in a graded manner. Endogamy is an important source of exclusion and isolation. There have indeed been some changes. Lower caste and Dalits are no longer prohibited from owning property. They also enjoy civil and political rights. So, to that extent, the traditional rigidities and restrictions have come down. However, as the studies – particularly on the rural setting – show, elements of caste system have changed to different degrees in economic, social, cultural, personal and religious spheres. For example, we notice significant changes in the public domain regulated by law and relatively less change in the economic and civic domain, and far fewer in the private domain. There is hardly any change the practice of caste endogamy, particularly in rural areas, endogamy being the core of the caste system. The main challenge before social scientists is to develop an understanding of the dynamic of caste relations, the factors that induce or prohibit change. They also need to work on developing policies to promote forces and factors that induce positive change.

Gopal Guru: I look at the question of caste very differently. I am not sure whether ‘moment of caste’ is the right description here. The word ‘moment’ has an element of temporality to it, whereas caste is an experiential reality. It operates in its own universe with a sanatan quality to it. In its essence, caste remains sanatan even though it manifests some kind of change in its appearance. In fact, the changing appearance of caste suggests that it may have arrived at a different moment, which can be best described as chimerical. To put differently, caste in the way it expresses itself tends to acquire different and often mutually intersecting orientations. For example, at one level, caste as a lived or experiential reality continues to hit one hard. At another, caste is perhaps rendered completely opaque. The universe of caste involves both continuity in its essence and change in its expression. Second, the political expression of caste, particularly in the urban context, has undergone a perceptible change, and to that extent caste no longer remains as a potent factor that was used by the textile mill owners to fragment the working class movement in the 1930s. The changing nature of capital does not require caste as desperately as it once did during the 1920s.


SSJ: How do you look at ‘hierarchy’ and ‘inequality’ or the shift from ‘hierarchy’ to ‘difference’?

Gopal Guru: Inequality is a structural condition. Structures underlie and renew this condition. Caste as an ideology forms a part of this condition. Caste not only articulates this condition, but also makes the hierarchical condition applicable and effective. Caste continues to regulate the condition of inequality across time and space. Thus, in contemporary times, caste shows some signs of withdrawal from the public domain but at the same time also betrays its ‘soft character’ when it explodes into the most pernicious and obnoxious violence in the countryside. Difference, on the other hand, is basically defined against the cultural homogenization by the majority. Caste as a signifier of social hierarchy may operate within a cultural group which is seeking recognition of its cultural difference. Thus, cultural difference may subsume within itself elements of both material and social hierarchy. For example, each religious identity might subsume within itself a caste-based social hierarchy.


SSJ: Our second question is about how we should talk about caste? For example, social anthropologists in the 1950s looked at caste as a ‘Hindu tradition’, while political scientists later talked about caste as ‘vote-banks’ or caste associations as ‘pressure groups’.

James Manor: There are two things to note here. First, ‘caste’ means all of these things, but its role in social interaction and thus in local politics (power relations within and between localities) is changing; so we need to speak more tentatively, and to look for change as well as continuity. Both of those things can be found today. Caste, especially the institution of jati (that is, a group within which people usually marry their children), has never been unchanging. It continues to be strong because it has changed. It has adapted to forces like capitalism and democracy in ways that help it to remain potent. This is likely to remain true even as hierarchies wane in strength.

Second, we need to speak about the materiality of caste. This has always been true, and it remains important today. ‘Caste’ is not just something in people’s minds – it is not just an idea or an imagining. It concretely affects the lives of people. It can help people to gain tangible advantages, and equally, can prevent that. So it is not just ‘false consciousness’. Caste as a social institution (if by ‘caste’ we mean jati) remains quite strong, despite the declining power of hierarchical thinking. So it continues to affect the opportunities and capabilities that people have – for good, and for ill. As we discuss change and continuity, we need to keep the materiality of caste in mind.

Ghanshyam Shah: Yes, the caste system has essentially always been a power relationship where besides the economic power, ascribed status, and internalized value system of high and low, continue to influence our behaviour and interpersonal relationships. However, I also feel that it is not meaningless to talk about caste as a ‘Hindu tradition’ despite the increasing irrelevance of ritual ranking. For example, the Scheduled Castes continue to suffer discrimination, open or subtle, and often become victims of violence when they violate traditional caste rules. We need to re-interrogate ‘Hindu tradition’ with reference to the caste system.

I do not think that one can meaningfully understand contemporary Indian society by ignoring or downplaying caste. Though my main interest is in the political dimension of caste, individual and group voting, distribution of power/positions, pressure groups etc, I also need to understand its cultural and psychological aspects. Politics certainly does not function in a vacuum.

Sudha Pai: I agree with Ghanshyam Shah that caste is still recognized as a Hindu tradition by people in India. It still serves as a social marker for individuals and groups, though other identities and roles have also become important. Caste remains embedded in the Hindu psyche despite the spread of the notion of equality.

Caste is also a vote bank, but not in the same way as it was earlier when Dalits formed the vote banks of mainstream parties. Today Dalits, and in some cases other lower castes, form the core constituency of Dalit parties and they are proud of it. Their support is on the basis of identity, and not on the earlier patron-client relationships which have broken down. While there are differences and rivalries among sub-castes, in so far as voting is concerned, in UP for example, they tend to vote for the BSP. They feel that by doing so they are putting their ‘own government’ in power. Similarly, caste associations are no longer simply pressure groups. In rural areas, Dalit panchayats and in urban areas, caste associations have emerged to help the community in various ways – obtain employment or education, legal help when the police harasses them and assistance in various ways.

S.K. Thorat: I think it is a difficult question, but an important one and needs to be placed in its proper context. Hierarchy and inequality are interlinked concepts. As Ambedkar has argued, the caste system is not based on inequality alone, but on graded inequality (you may call it hierarchical inequality). Except the Brahmins, every caste suffers from denial of equal rights, but suffers unequally, to the extent that the entitlement or assignment of rights reduces as one moves down in caste hierarchy from Brahmin to untouchables. All, except Brahmin, lose rights, but some lose more than others. Today, every individual has equal rights, legally speaking. However, in practice different castes face denial of equal rights to different degrees in different spheres. For instance, Dalits who were denied economic, employment and educational rights, continue to face denial and discriminatory access in various forms and spheres. The OBCs would face denial in a different way. So there is a difference in the way discrimination is faced by different caste groups/clusters. In other words, constraints faced by the Dalit are different from those faced by the OBC or Vaishya. The literature on caste has completely neglected this question. These variations also influence outcomes. It will be safe to assume that while barriers of hierarchy have been reduced, they nevertheless persist.


SSJ: Why the need to talk about caste? And who needs to talk about it?

Gopal Guru: Let us answer both the questions in the order in which they have been posed. There is a greater need to talk about the question of caste in contemporary times than ever before. This is because there are social forces that completely deny the existence of caste. To put it dramatically, for such people, ‘caste is a rumour’. Conversely, such an assertion about caste being a rumour is news for most of us. We need to talk about caste because we do not need to look for it, it confronts us. Those who confront it or tumble upon it as an unpleasant social experience will naturally talk about it. Their talking about caste is to expose the ‘ontological scandal’ which involves the denial of the very existence of caste experience. This denial is ontologically scandalous because caste does not form a part of the social being of those who seek its denial or fragment it into many discursive segments.

Sudha Pai: I would agree with Gopal Guru that we need to continue talking about caste. Though weakened, it has not lost its power in the political, social and economic spheres. It continues to affect the lives of Indians. There is an urgent need for scholars in the social sciences to not only talk about it, but do empirical research on caste. There are many gaps in our understanding of how caste functions and affects individuals, groups, politics and decision-making in various areas. Caste contacts still matter in getting on in life. It is not only the lower castes but also the upper castes who use caste to improve their economic and political status. The role of caste is different in different regions of the country and we do not know enough about it. The tradition of village studies among sociologists and anthropologists has considerably weakened. The relationship between caste and tribal identity remains unexplored. There are few studies on how globalization and liberalization have affected caste. Political leaders and parties still use it, and we need to understand how it affects governance.

S.K. Thorat: I agree with the view that caste must be talked about, because it exists in multiple spheres of life, not only in Hindu society, and has spilled over to other religions through conversion. The web of caste covers every aspect of life. Caste also has adverse consequences in multiple spheres of life. We need to be talk about them and deal with them. It is only by recognizing the problems, and not denying them, that we can move towards finding solutions. It is only through recognition and open dialogue that the negativities can be smoothened out.

James Manor: I too think that caste retains strength, even as hierarchies have become less powerful. We need to discuss it in order to understand social relations and power dynamics within localities, but also politics at higher levels in the political system where it continues to play a role. We do not know enough about how the declining power of caste hierarchies affects politics at district or state levels, making it more complicated, unpredictable and difficult to understand. Caste identities in people’s political behaviour may become more, not less, important as hierarchies wane. Politicians still think in terms of caste when they campaign for elections, but are less able to see what they are dealing with and what they should do. People who live in or study India’s democracy need to focus on this, but they should prepare to be frustrated by a lack of clarity about the impact of the declining power of caste hierarchies.


SSJ: Our next question is on the changing nature of caste over the last 25-30 years. Let us begin with the changes in social and economic sphere of life.

S.K. Thorat: There is change and continuity as far as caste relations are concerned. I am more familiar with the change with respect to the relationship of Dalits with others. As I mentioned earlier, the core feature of the caste system, ‘endogamy’, has still not changed much. Untouchability has declined, but more in public institutions, including political institutions, and less in religious and private spheres. There are hardly any studies on discrimination in urban areas, but selective evidence shows that discrimination in private employment, housing, and many other spheres of social life persists primarily because it remains organized around caste-based networks. We need a lot more research.

Ghanshyam Shah: Let me develop this point a little further. For a large majority of Indians, jati remains a focal point of social relationships in everyday life. This is their primary identity. Though mobility in the economic sphere has theoretically become possible, and by and large people are not debarred from occupations other than their traditional pursuit, mobility is largely cyclical in terms of socio-economic status. Those of the upper castes have more chances to move to new occupations which are better paid, and lower caste persons tend to get non-farm employment in the informal sector. And here too, caste networks matter. For even the tiny section of the backward castes which has moved out from the traditional economic activity into white collar jobs, their social networks tend to remain unchanged.

In village society in regions like Gujarat with a widespread market economy, inter-caste relationships in social and economic spheres have become more relaxed than in the past. However, social networking for supporting each other emotionally and materially, more often than not, remains confined to one’s jati mates. The ritual hierarchy does not matter a great deal in inter-caste relationships. People from lower castes, including Dalits, no longer accept status/dominance of upper castes on the basis of their ritual ascribed status. For them, dominance is a result of their economic power. This is a significant and widespread change. The Dalits and lower castes no longer accept their birth or past karma as a reason for their poverty and deprivation. They squarely blame upper or middle castes for their exploitation. However, the situation is complicated. Those who defy ritual hierarchy also invoke myths and symbols, and reconstruct their caste history in terms of their real or imagined upper caste status. While doing this, they invariably have in mind some other social groups that are socially and ritually ‘lower’ than them. On the other hand, the traditionally upper castes project their upper caste status because of their imagined ritual status.

James Manor: There is another important consequence of this continuity. As people at lower levels of the old hierarchies increasingly refuse to accept hierarchy and their subordination to formerly dominant castes, tensions develop between groups. This sometimes leads to violence as lower status groups challenge hierarchies and as higher status groups react. But in studying this, I was surprised to discover that more often than not, castes renegotiate relations. They find ways of adapting which produce uneasy accommodations – or at least tenuous understandings. For me, this dimension of social relations (there are others) is crucial.

Sudha Pai: I would also agree with James Manor. There is an age factor at play here. The younger age group is more aggressive than its parents, and no longer accepts caste hierarchy. The upper castes have also begun to realize that their position is being questioned. This often leads to terrible conflict and violence. But there are also situations where a new form of accommodation is worked out in which the two manage to co-exist with minimum conflict. This means that caste relations have adapted to new conditions, but the hierarchy has not broken down. This is true of both urban and rural areas.

Gopal Guru: The change is not confined to social position of Dalits; other castes have also changed. There is a reshuffling of opportunity structures. For example, the upper castes who were traditionally barristers or doctors have moved into more lucrative jobs in IT, and the ‘traditionally’ superior jobs are being taken over by the middle castes. But because of reservation, there is tension, which has now shifted from the Brahmin to the non-Brahmin and from the non-Brahmin to the Dalit.


SSJ: How should we look at changes that have occurred in the sphere of politics and representation?

S.K. Thorat: Political participation has significantly increased because of reservations, panchayats and other institutions. Initially, Dalits did not take reservation in these institutions seriously. But gradually they have recognized its value in terms of acquiring power. I think in Maharashtra and elsewhere, Dalits have gained. For example, a sarpanch who is elected with Dalit support, tends to implement schemes such as NREGA and giving them their due share. I think political participation has brought some empowerment. But we still do not know much about what is happening in states like Bihar, and in some other parts of India.

Gopal Guru: The question of representation has become intense within the sub-castes of the Dalit cluster. This acuteness is often reflected in mutual hatred within some Dalit groups all over the country. The only difference in expression is that some forms are acute, particularly in the South, while being less so in the North. In the realm of politics, due to pragmatic politics of the mainstream parties, one comes across some kind of percolation of opportunities flowing down to the next level social groups. For example, in Maharashtra, the Mahars are sidelined as compared to the Chamars and the Matang in the domain of electoral politics. But in the administrative spheres, the other sub-castes still find that they are the latecomers as compared to Mahars to the process of modernity. The question of skewed representation has a regressive fallout in that it leads to a discharge of emotions rather than reason.

Sudha Pai: The change is indeed complex. On the one hand we have Dalit and Backward caste-based parties that have come to power. The spread of the power of the vote is also real, and voting levels among the weaker sections have risen tremendously over the last few decades. However, this does not mean that these social groups have achieved political voice, representation and empowerment. Only some sections, the better-off among Backwards and Dalits such as Yadavs and Jatavs respectively, have benefited; others have not. Two reasons are responsible. The process of democratization is moving downwards to the smaller and poorer sub-castes, but at a slow pace; hence their inclusion and levels of political participation still remain low. Also, governments such as the BSP have not succeeded in reaching out to and improving the social and economic position of these groups. Nor have reserved seats helped, as Dalits who win from such positions have not been instrumental in improving the political position of their community. Mobilization of civil society by Dalit leaders has had much greater impact. While mainstream parties, including the Congress, have few leaders from the Backward and Dalit groups, most of them find a place in lower caste parties. Hence, social deepening has taken place but its impact remains uneven.

James Manor: This is made even more complex by the lack of empirical research in different regions. A few of us are studying it, but there is a major opportunity for scholars to investigate how political representation and participation are changing as hierarchies wane. The main changes appear to be occurring at the local level, for example, in the politics of gram panchayats. We may see less change when we consider state or national politics. As ‘caste’ increasingly denotes ‘difference’ rather than ‘hierarchy’, the numbers game that politicians play (counting the number of people in different castes, and seeking to appeal to enough voters to gain power) may not change that much. But the nature of their appeals to difference castes – jatis and cluster of jatis – may need to change. The declining power of hierarchies may even make politics more fluid and create new opportunities for parties of the Left or the Hindu Right, but there is little sign of that happening so far.

Ghanshyam Shah: Caste is being mobilized as identity. Such mobilizations lead to ever increasing participation of the deprived communities in the democratic political processes. A major thrust of their participation is to have dignity in everyday life and improve their material condition for better life chances. However, such processes have their own contradictions and tensions. Most of the jatis who managed to create a large configuration for political objectives are heterogeneous in economic condition. Stratification among them and within the jati has sharpened with economic development. In the process, the gap between the representatives (elected or others who proclaim to represent ‘caste interests’) and their caste mates has increased.


SSJ: Finally, where do we go from here? What are the critical challenges faced by groups located at the receiving end of the traditional caste system, such as Dalits and lower OBCs?

James Manor: I think we also have a problem of knowing what is happening on the ground. We know far too little about the implications of the declining power of hierarchies for social interactions and for politics at both the local and higher levels. We need quite basic studies of these things. We need to consider why Dalits and other disadvantaged groups have suffered violence from formerly dominant groups in some places but not in others. We need to understand how uneasy accommodations have been created between these groups in many localities. If there are actions which governments can take that assist in promoting accommodations, they should be encouraged. For example, the threat of punitive action under the Atrocity Act has persuaded formerly dominant groups in many places to restrain themselves from violence. Dalit influence within gram panchayats has also helped to promote restraint and accommodation in many (but not all) places, so that some leading Dalit intellectuals who are strong followers of Ambedkar now think that panchayati raj (which he opposed) may hold a real promise in the changed circumstances of today. But there is much more work to be done to understand the many issues that your question raises.

Ghanshyam Shah: While I agree that we need more research, we can say with some confidence that, on the whole, the socio-economic condition of the Dalits and lower OBCs as social groups remains marginal and excluded from the process of economic development. Over a period of time, the system of reservation has helped a few, a tiny section, to improve its conditions. But reservation – political and employment – cannot uplift the majority of them. It is meant for those who have some assets and marketable skills, technical and/or higher education. And, for such education, one needs material support from one’s family. A majority of them do not have these prerequisites. Moreover, employment in the public sector is both limited and declining. The private sector (a few exceptions apart!) under a neoliberal economy will not entertain such a policy of reservation. And, more important, reservation has created competition and rivalry among them. Notwithstanding the importance of certain positive contribution of reservation, which no government will (and cannot) revert back, its utility for further transformation seems low.

There are other emerging challenges. The increasing privatization of education, preventive and curative health services, and other essential services, will make it even more difficult for marginalized groups trying to come out of destitution. Even as their political mobilization over the last three decades or so hae sharpened their identity, but that is not enough. What they need is quality education, health services, decent work for livelihood and social security. There is a need to universalize these basic services so that everyone can get ‘equal quality’ and opportunities to improve their life chances. Identity politics has reached its limits.

Sudha Pai: I agree with Ghanshyam Shah that Dalits and OBCs who are the receiving end of the traditional caste hierarchy face tremendous challenges in their social, political and economic life. In the social sphere, untouchability and other forms of discrimination – some in subtle forms – remain. For example, the conflict over sharing temple honours, the right to enter panchayat bhavans and sit on the sarpanch’s chair after being elected continues in Tamil Nadu, despite high educational attainments among Dalits and the long anti-Brahmin and Dalit movement in the state. In Orissa, Dalits had recently protested against being denied the right to enter temples. In the political sphere while there has been improvement as mentioned earlier, it is only in some states that Backwards and Dalits have benefitted. It is in the economic sphere that the most critical challenges lie. The groups at the bottom of the ladder remain deprived of basic needs such as quality education, healthcare, employment, housing and drinking water. The large majority remain within the informal economy. Not many own land or any assets. The middle class among them, who have been able to use protective discrimination and obtain jobs, remains very tiny. Moreover, public sector jobs are shrinking and obtaining employment in the private sector requires high educational attainments and skills. Aspirations and a desire to improve their socio-economic status are rising sharply.

S.K. Thorat: No, not at all. The lack of clarity about the forces influencing change in caste relations also brings ambivalence on the policy front. The ambivalence relates to the nature and priority about the policies to reduce caste disparities and discrimination. We have used dual policies, namely economic and education policies for all (including discriminated groups) and affirmative action policy for discriminated groups. However, there is a view which perceives the policy of affirmative action as a substitute for general policy (in either or mode) and not as necessarily complementing the general policy to address the group specific problem of discriminated groups. It is necessary to recognize that general policies of economic and education empowerment are required both for Dalits and non-Dalits. But for Dalits, beside a general policy, we also need additional policies to overcome discrimination. Much of the confusion that we see on this issue is due to our failure to draw a distinction between the problems of non-Dalit poor and Dalit poor.


SSJ: You do not you think reservations have outlived their role?

S.K. Thorat: No, not at all. Reservation is required as a safeguard against discrimination.

Gopal Guru: To answer this we should ask, Why is caste relevant? For whom is it relevant? I would say it is not relevant for those who are its victims. Caste persists because there are no opportunities. In some sense, it is a moral-ethical problem. The spirit of practising constitution in civil society is really important, which we have not taken seriously. So there are two ways – one is to provide the facilities to people so they don’t really require caste. The other is to reform yourself morally so that you do not reproduce the feeling of caste. The circumstances emerging from civil society makes one depend more and more on the state; there is no succour in civil society. Civil society is hostile, whether in rural or urban India. To get ahead, people do not have to appear in the public sphere with one’s caste identity. For SC, ST or OBC, caste is a source of anxiety. Will people be looking for my caste? Freedom from anxiety is an important freedom. Who can really grant this freedom? Not the people who are its victims, but those who ascribe meaning to it.


SSJ: This would keep us tied to community?

Gopal Guru: It has to be an act of communities. An acknowledgement of guilt is necessary and then there are several ways of rectifying it.