The problem

back to issue

IN common sense terms there is something very simple and obvious about caste. For most of us caste is a traditional social institution of India. Its association with Hinduism gives it a ritual and religious flavour. However, caste is not confined to the Hindus, or to ritual/religious life. It has influenced, even shaped, the social, economic and political life of almost all communities in the subcontinent since ancient times. The most common description of castes invokes the idea of four (or five) varnas, around which the social and personal life of a typical Hindu/Indian was organized in pre-modern times. The classical ‘Indian village’ was the social universe in which the value frame and social structure of caste was reproduced.

Notwithstanding its omnipresence, the modern day conceptualization of caste and its popular understanding draws heavily from the Orientalist discourses on India and Indian-ness, arguing that the system of caste hierarchy existed everywhere in India, without much difference across regions of the subcontinent. Caste, in this understanding, also did not change for a very long time. It was only during British colonial rule, when western-style modern ways of organizing the economy and administration were introduced, that India began to change.

The popular theories of social change were also imported from the West and drawing on the western experience, translated into an evolutionary model of progress. According to this theory or model of social change, modern technology was the key to progress. Industrial development ushered in a civilizational change, marked by modern values and rational institutions.

The Indian translation of this classical model of evolutionary change could be best seen in the Nehruvian framework of development. Caste, along with the village community and joint family, was a part and parcel of traditional social arrangements, typical of pre-modern societies. The processes of industrial development and urbanization were expected to weaken the traditional frames and give way to secular, class-like, associational groupings based on individual interest and identity. In other words, caste was to disappear and disintegrate on its own, without any direct political or developmental intervention. Untouchability, however, was abolished by law; not the caste system. Similarly, quotas for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes were targeted programmes for the upliftment of India’s ‘weaker sections’. Yet ‘backwardness’ or underdevelopment was not conceptualized in caste terms. It was calculated by economists in purely economic terms. Caste, in their view, was an ideological and cultural hangover, not a material fact.

Over the last six decades and more, India’s economy has indeed developed. Industrial production and urban centres have grown manifold. Though a large proportion of Indians continue to live in rural areas, the old village society has been slowly disintegrating. In other words, even when the demographic identity remains rural, the social and economic life of the Indian village is fast merging with the urban economy through increased circulation of workers and commodities, steady expansion of roads and electricity, and growing use of television and cell phones. The old ‘laws’ of Manu have been replaced by a secular Constitution.

Field studies from different regions of the subcontinent show a clear decline of the caste-based framework of social organization, the jajmani system and the social/ritual hierarchy. Not only has political representation increased, local level political institutions too have become far more inclusive. We now no longer hear about polling booths being captured by the armies of dominant landlords in the hinterlands of India. Politically speaking, India today is a thriving democracy, almost as ‘modern’ and representative as any other secular country of the modern/developed West.

While it is hard to ignore some of the ‘radical’ changes that Indian society has seen over the last century or so, the reality of caste has certainly not disappeared. In fact, many would argue, and for good reasons, that the public presence of caste – in both popular and political discourse – is much more pronounced today than it was during the 1950s or 1960s, when the institutional hold of caste was perhaps much stronger.

Some of this increased public presence of caste is indeed linked to the rise and consolidation of caste-based identities and identity-based politics. However, the reality of caste survives and thrives beyond the domain of electoral politics. Available analyses of official data on poverty and productive assets clearly show significant variations across caste lines. Those located at the lower end of the traditional caste hierarchy tend to be significantly over-represented among the poor and the marginal. The positive correlation at the other end is equally strong. Those at the upper end of the caste hierarchy are far less likely to be present among the economically depressed categories. In other words, even when ideologically caste has weakened, the process has so far not produced any kind of levelling in Indian society. Not only do the traditional inequalities continue to be reproduced in the economic domain, the emerging opportunity structures at different levels of the labour market and urban economy also tend to be skewed against the traditionally underprivileged and socially marginalized. Today, even as it is hard to find an unapologetic advocate of the traditional system of caste hierarchy, those who accept/believe in the values that support caste hierarchy are still heard loud and clear.

How should we then engage with caste in contemporary times? Even though the classical Orientalist understanding has been the subject of much criticism, we have yet to move away from it in any significant manner. The popular discourse on caste continues to speak of caste in a singular mode, in the varna model of hierarchy. Even the radical Dalit politics seems to operate within such a framework.

Caste indeed has a strong ideological flavour. However, it has also shaped economic and material life in the subcontinent, and in turn has been shaped by the regional histories of economic and political processes. More importantly perhaps, the materiality of caste cannot be reduced to its ideological façade. It is through such historically and empirically grounded frameworks that we need to revisit the subject of caste today and make sense of what has changed and what remains of it. We also need to understand afresh its operational parameters in the present-day urban society and economy.

We need to raise fresh questions, such as, Who needs caste today and for what purpose? Why do Dalit groups, who have been victims of the caste system, insist on caste based identity politics? Is there a case for caste based public policy and what might be the implications of such a policy for building a secular democracy based on the idea of citizenship and equality? We perhaps also need to revisit caste based quotas and reservations in order to understand the role they have played in enabling social mobility among its beneficiaries and changing social relations across caste communities. Finally, how does the reality of caste play out in modern day labour markets, in the informal sector and in the corporate economy?

This issue of Seminar attempts to engage with some of these questions and other related issues.