Reflections on caste and class, hierarchy and dominance


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THESE reflections arise from my reading of James Manor’s recent writings on the declining power of caste hierarchies in contemporary India (notably in his extended Epilogue to the new edition of Rajni Kothari’s classic edited work on Caste in Indian Politics.1 Manor’s argument, shared by other writers, is that caste increasingly denotes ‘difference’ rather than ‘hierarchy’. Historically caste has con-noted both hierarchy and separation between groups, or ‘segmentation’, but in the present era the latter, segmentation, has increased in relative importance while hierarchy has declined.

The ‘caste system’ has substantially ceased to be in rural India, he argues, following G.K. Karanth, who argues that this description implies the existence of greater order than is usually now present.2 Whereas it was generally the case that a particular jati exercised dominance locally – over land and labour, society and politics (it was the ‘dominant caste’, according to M.N. Srinivas’ classic description) – such local power has been substantially reduced and ‘into the breach [in the arena of local politics and in mediating the relations between village people and the state] have stepped in an army of local-level political entrepreneurs – small-time political "fixers" or "naya netas" (new leaders).’ At the same time, while caste today has much less strength than before as an hierarchical system, it has not lost, and may actually have increased, its salience in the public sphere in all sorts of ways, including in electoral politics – even though political identities have in general become more fluid than they were earlier.

I do not disagree in any fundamental way with this analysis – indeed I wrote of the Tamil village in which I lived forty years ago that the trends of social change were such as to see the persistence of caste difference and the decline of caste as an hierarchical system. Exactly as David Pocock had argued earlier in his analysis of ‘difference’ amongst Indians in East Africa,3 I thought that castes in rural Tamil Nadu would continue to exist but the caste system would cease to be.4 Nevertheless, I think that Manor perhaps underestimates the importance of the persistence of hierarchical values associated with caste as a factor in the way in which government works, and that he neglects the part these values play in class differentiation. Moreover, I suggest that he may have misjudged the extent of the reduction of the power of locally ‘dominant’ castes.


My starting point is that to pose ‘caste’ and ‘class’ as opposing or alternative ways of analyzing Indian society and politics is thoroughly misleading. Caste – which, as D.L. Sheth puts it, constitutes a sacralized power structure – entails an ideology that explains and legitimates the material differences of class and power relations. I have argued, for example, from my ethnographic research in Tamil Nadu, that agrarian production relations, when they have involved dominant caste landholders and Scheduled Caste/dalit labourers, have a significant religious dimension because of the religious services that dalits have also supplied historically – and still do, to an extent, in the present. Dalits functioned, as Harold Gould once put it, as ‘contra-priests’ in the context of the caste system, being responsible for services relating to the removal of polluting substance from others.5 So long as these ideas have an effect on the way people think, they will influence the ways in which class relations are experienced.


Such ideas may no longer have the power that they once had, and caste may no longer be so significant as an ideology that legitimates real differences of power and wealth, but it continues to be significant as a source of cultural capital that enters into the reproduction of class differences. I recall, for instance, the chuckle with which a social activist in North Chennai responded to my observation that there seemed to be distinct networks of NGOs and civil society organizations in the North and South of the city, with that of South Chennai being quite distinctly Brahmin dominated while that of the North is largely based on Christian groups .

‘Ah,’ he said, ‘so you have discovered that civil society, too, is not outside the world of caste!’ And he went on to tell me that, as he had observed it, the staffing of NGOs in Chennai had become increasingly ‘Brahminised’, as they had become more professional and with the increased importance of foreign funding and of international alliances. It was even true of his own organization, he said, which had always sought to recruit amongst people from lower class/caste backgrounds. Now, however, the more cosmopolitan manners of Brahmin young men and women, and their English language skills, gave them such advantages for certain kinds of jobs that he increasingly wanted to employ them.

Similarly, Martin Webb in his study of transparency and accountability activists in Delhi, found that their greatest successes have depended upon the contacts and influence – the cultural and social capital – of particular individuals. Though the activists aimed to break down social boundaries in the pursuit of values of universal citizenship, the ways in which they themselves worked had the effect of reproducing social differentiation.6


The social and cultural as well as the educational capital that people from historically higher castes may possess gives them distinct advantages in securing the better kinds of jobs. The middle classes are certainly less exclusively higher caste than they were (as Manor argues, drawing on work by D.L. Sheth), but there is still strong evidence that those from higher caste backgrounds are often at an advantage when it comes to getting into good jobs, as in the IT sector. It is not because they are (say) Brahmins, but due to the social skills and attributes – the cultural capital – that they possess.

Thus, as the anthropologist Christopher Fuller who has written a history of Tamil Brahmins in the 19th and 20th centuries tells me, he has realized that he is actually writing the history of the formation of an important fraction of the middle classes in Tamil society. The analysis of Jat dominance in western Uttar Pradesh by Craig Jeffrey and Roger and Patricia Jeffery, similarly, shows how social and cultural capital, based on caste distinction, enters into the reproduction of class difference. They show that there is ‘a mutually reinforcing relationship between older forms of dominance rooted in control over land, access to urban social networks and privileged position within the Hindu caste hierarchy and social advantages based upon access to educational facilities and salaried work.’7

Hierarchical values associated with caste differentiation also enter, surely, into the way in which government works. I recall my Latin Americanist colleagues’ surprise at the finding in our survey of political participation in Delhi that poorer people frequently took action to tackle public problems, but that when they went to government offices in order to make claims they usually went with others in a group – if they did not rely entirely on the intermediation of a pradhan. This was in sharp contrast with the findings in our exactly comparable survey in Sao Paulo, in which it was found that when people took action they most commonly approached government officials directly and on their own.8 What was a puzzle for the Latin Americanists seemed wholly unsurprising to us who had worked in Delhi, and were aware of the disregard with which poorer people of apparently inferior social status, related to caste, are frequently treated when they approach government officers.


As Stuart Corbridge and his coauthors argue in their work on Seeing the State in India, ‘the state’ is experienced and understood in diverse ways by differently placed individuals: ‘A low-caste man who is treated with respect by a teacher or a block development officer might come to see the state in a very different way than an adivasi woman who is kept waiting for hours to see sarkar…’ and who may then be subjected to abuse and humiliation.9 And as Pratap Bhanu Mehta has argued, persuasively, much of India’s hierarchical ancien regime survived into the post-independence era, and in this context the impact of electoral democracy has been to see people from different social groups competing for position rather than pursuing agendas of societal transformation.10 ‘Declining power of caste hierarchies’? Maybe. But hierarchical values still exercise a very profound influence on the reproduction of class differentiation, and upon the ways in which the state works on an ‘everyday’ basis. Jan Breman has argued, from the studies in southern Gujarat that he has carried on over half a century, that ‘the idea of natural inequality continues to be the cornerstone of the social fabric.’11


What of another significant part of Manor’s argument, which has to do with the ‘decline of dominance’ – the idea developed so strongly in Francine Frankel and M.S.A. Rao’s important edited collection of studies of state politics,12 and also by Oliver Mendelsohn in writing on ‘the transformation of authority in rural India’?13 It is reflected, too, in arguments about the greatly reduced importance of the village as a fundamental social unit in Indian society (on which Dipankar Gupta has written).14

Caste hierarchies have declined in significance, no doubt, and landlordism too, with which caste hierarchy has historically been so closely linked, is generally less significant than it was (though not everywhere – there has been a resurgence of absentee landlordism and tenancy in areas such as coastal Andhra Pradesh).15 Still, there remains abundant evidence of the reproduction of local power, even though it may no longer be based as exclusively as it once was on land and ritual distinction. It is far from clear that ‘naya netas’ (new leaders) have generally supplanted ‘traditional’ power holders.


The argument about ‘naya netas’ comes from the work of Anirudh Krishna on village leadership and collective action in 69 villages located mainly in Rajasthan with a few in Madhya Pradesh. He documents the decline of Brahmin and Rajput power as a result, in part, of the modest impact of land reforms, but especially because of the influence of education, which has become ‘almost equal among different caste groups.’16 In this context, historically excluded groups have acquired much greater capacity for negotiation with officials and politicians, and ‘new leaders have arisen, who are more able to gain benefits and services from the state, and villagers look to these persons for assistance, regardless of caste and economic background.’17 It seems, however, from the data that Krishna gives, that in the villages he studied, the extent of differentiation in terms of land ownership is unusually limited. Indeed ‘land owned per capita’ amongst upper castes is evidently less than amongst middle castes.18 But we might reasonably conclude: QED. Power of caste hierarchy has declined.


But can the argument be generalized? Clearly not. There are huge difficulties with generalizations about the decline of dominance based on land control. There is enormous variation from region to region and from locality to locality even within one region. To refer to the point about the emergence of a new class of local leaders, this is noted, too, by Surinder Jodhka from Punjab. But Jodhka reports that there the new ‘political entrepreneurs’, though not necessarily rich, ‘are invariably from upper or dominant caste groups.’19 And the proposition that I offered in an essay on ‘Class and Politics’ for The Oxford Companion to Politics in India,20 that ‘land is no longer so important as the basis of status and power’ should certainly not be over-estimated.

There is a strong tendency for those who historically have been rural power-holders to invest outside agriculture, and in education, sometimes so as to secure employment in the public sector (see, for example M. Rutten on the former, and Jeffrey, Jeffery and Jeffery on the latter, as I noted above)21 – and through these means they have secured the reproduction of their power regionally, even if it may have been diminished in the village. In northern Karnataka, however, according to research by Jonathan Pattenden, the Karnataka farmers’ movement, the KRRS – lauded internationally as a mass movement against globalization – was ‘usually… controlled by dominant caste men often engaged in perpetuating caste and gender-based forms of domination [in their villages].’22


Similarly, the study of Andhra villages by V.K. Ramachandran and his co-workers from the Foundation for Agrarian Studies shows not only the resurgence of landlordism in coastal Andhra, but also the persistence of the landed wealth and power of, respectively, Reddys, Kammas and Kapus in different parts of the state. These communities have surely remained the principals in the politics of the state. In the villages, landlords have diverse assets and interests. They too have invested heavily in education, and they commonly have family members in professional positions in the United States.

It is said that for some of these families ‘land is not so much a source of income as of socio-political influence and power’, though it is also noted that for a variety of reasons in at least one of the villages, ‘there appears to be a certain loosening of the traditional social grip of the landlords over the day-to-day social life of the village.’23 The implication of these observations is that though hierarchy may no longer be nearly as powerful as it once was, this does not necessarily mean that economic and political dominance has withered away. Jats, Patels, Reddys, Kammas, Lingayats, Vokkaligas – and others, in different parts of the country – continue to exercise regional power.


Jan Breman has made a similar point from his observations in South Gujarat. In the village Gandevigam, for instance, he says that Anavil Brahmans, historically the landlords of the locality ‘told me that the current generation of Kolis [those who formerly were their sharecropping tenants] would not be willing to subordinate themselves as sharecroppers… [but]… In confidential conversations, the Kolis clearly expressed their frustrations about the undiminished hegemony and obstinacy of the large farmers … they admit that there is little else they can do in the shadow of this higher caste than to try to find adequate space to promote their own interests and autonomy.’24 Here, as elsewhere in rural India, those who have historically been poor have loosened ties of dependence but still generally exercise little leverage over the political space.

In sum, while I find much in James Manor’s arguments about the declining power of caste hierarchies to be persuasive, I believe that it is most important not to lose sight of the continuing significance of hierarchical values, both in the way in which people ‘see the state’ and in the reproduction of class differentiation; and to note that ‘the declining power of caste hierarchies’ is not necessarily to be equated with the decline of local power based in part, at least, on control over land, nor thought necessarily to connote the rise of subaltern classes.



1. James Manor, ‘Epilogue: Caste and Politics in Recent Times’, in Rajni Kothari (ed.), Caste in Indian Politics. Orient Longman, Delhi, 1970/2011.

2. G.K. Karanth, ‘Caste in Contemporary Rural India’, in M.N.Srinivas (ed.), Caste: Its Twentieth Century Avatar. Penguin Books, Delhi, 1996.

3. D. Pocock, ‘ "Difference" in East Africa: A Study of Caste and Religion in Modern Indian Society’, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology XIII(4), 1957, pp. 289-300.

4. J. Harriss, Capitalism and Peasant Farming: Agrarian Structure and Ideology in Northern Tamil Nadu. Oxford University Press, Bombay, 1982, p. 255.

5. Ibid., pp. 235-244.

6. M. Webb, Boundary Paradoxes: The Social Life of Transparency and Accountability Activism in Delhi. PhD Thesis, University of Sussex, 2010.

7. C. Jeffrey, P. Jeffery and R. Jeffery, Degrees Without Freedom: Education, Masculinities and Unemployment in North India. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2008, p. 61 (emphasis added).

8. John Harriss, ‘Middle Class Activism and the Politics of the Informal Working Class’, Critical Asian Studies 38(4), 2006, pp. 445-465.

9. S. Corbridge, G. Williams, M. Srivastava and R. Veron, Seeing the State: Governance and Governmentality in India. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005, p. 8.

10. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, ‘The Politics of Social Justice’, in Business Standard India 2011. BS Books, Delhi, 2011.

11. J. Breman, The Poverty Regime in Village India. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2007, p. 438.

12. F. Frankel, and M.S.A. Rao, Dominance and State Power in India: Decline of a Social Order. Oxford University Press, Delhi, (two volumes), 1989, 1990.

13. Oliver Mendelsohn, ‘The Transformation of Authority in Rural India’, Modern Asian Studies 27(4), 1993, pp. 805-842.

14. Dipankar Gupta, ‘Whither the Indian Village: Culture and Agriculture in "Rural" India’, Economic and Political Weekly 40, 2005.

15. V.K. Ramachandran, V. Rawal and M. Swaminathan (eds.), Socio-Economic Surveys of Three Villages in Andhra Pradesh. Tulika Books, Delhi, 2010; V. Vakulabharanam, N. Prasad, K. Laxminarayan and S. Kilaru, ‘Understanding the Andhra Crop Holiday Movement’, Economic and Political Weekly 46(50), 2011, pp. 13-16.

16. Anirudh Krishna, Active Social Capital: Tracing the Roots of Development and Democracy. Columbia University Press, New York, 2002, p. 39

17. Ibid., p. 33.

18. Ibid., p. 39, Table 3.1.

19. S.S. Jodhka, ‘Caste and Power in the Lands of Agriculture: Revisiting Rural North West India.’ Paper presented at the Conference on Changes in Caste Hierarchies in Rural India and Their Political Implications, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 2011, p. 16.

20. N.G. Jayal and P.B. Mehta (eds.), The Oxford Companion to Politics in India. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2010.

21. M. Rutten, Farms and Factories: Social Profile of Large Farmers and Rural Industrialists in West India. Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1995.

22. Jonathan Pattenden, ‘Trickle-down Solidarity, Globalisation and Dynamics of Social Transformation in a South Indian Village’, Economic and Political Weekly 40(19), 2005, p. 1979.

23. V.K. Ramachandran, V. Rawal and M. Swaminathan, op cit., pp. 27-28.

24. J. Breman, op cit., p. 37.