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Caste in modern India June 29, 2011

Posted by sandygordon in : Gordon, Sandy, India , trackback

Sandy Gordon

The idea that nation states possess a ‘strategic culture’ that directs their actions on the world stage was once popular.  George Tanham of Rand Corporation claimed that India’s international outlook was shaped by the hierarchical attitude deriving from caste and from the then brahmin domination of key institutions.  (Indian Strategic Thought: An Interpretative Essay, Rand, 1992).

Even today, it is common to associate India’s ‘culture of corruption’ with the sense of entitlement produced by familial and caste loyalties – loyalties that are said to trump objective service to the state of the Weberian kind. The watchdogs of the state intended to deal with such abuses are allegedly also beholden to the hierarchical structure of society and hence reluctant to bring high status offenders to book.  (See for example, B. R. Lall, a former Joint Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, in his book: Who Owns CBI?)

For many years now lower caste workers have migrated from rural areas to factories and workshops in India’s cities like Mumbai

Others argue that in today’s globalised world, culture is a fluid phenomenon and the role of caste in India is diminishing.  Economic liberalisation and urbanisation are said to have diluted the role of caste. Brahmin domination of foreign policy making has been overshadowed by India’s new ‘pragmatism’.  India’s innovative reservations policies have worked to overcome the effects of caste.  And India’s vibrant press and fearless civil society are challenging and changing the landscape of caste, privilege and corruption.

Against these views, however, there is convincing evidence of the persistence of caste, especially in rural areas.  A study by the Department of Education, University of Lucknow, as reported in The Diplomat,  found that in 40 per cent of schools across the sample districts of Uttar Pradesh, “teachers and students refuse to partake of the government-sponsored free midday meals because they are cooked by Dalits [former Untouchables]”.  In rural areas, caste and sub-caste associations (khap panchayats) still often dictate inter-caste marriage strictures and sometimes carry out horrendous, so-called ‘honour killings’.

Robin Jeffrey noted as early as 1994 that the vast unfolding of knowledge and information in modern India not only encourages equality but can also be used by political opportunists to reignite ancient ethnic, religious and caste divisions.  (What’s Happening to India, MacMillan 1994).  The increasing salience of caste-based politics in state like Uttar Pradesh lend credence to this view.  In his recent book, Contemporary India: Society and Governance (Transaction Publishers, 2010), Premchand wonders whether the policy on reservations enshrined in the Constitution has actually entrenched caste in Indian society.

So as India rises to power, it is, perhaps, worth asking just how caste is shaping the modern nation.

One important question is how caste might adapt to the needs of a modernising economy.  Will the fourfold varna, which defines the economic functions of major caste groupings (brahmin: priest, scholar; kshatriya: warrior, administrator, king; vaishyia: trader, agriculturalist; and sudra: artisan, servant) translate into equivalent categories in modern, capitalist society?  In other words, will Indian society find a modern outlet for its traditional ‘genius’?

At the risk of falling into the bottomless pit of the caste-class debate and of committing a gross over-simplification, one could claim that caste has a partial, if ill-defined, role in the modernisation process.

For example, in Western India, banyia (merchant, trader and money lender) castes historically had relatively high status.  In Gujarat they were wealthy and politically influential, while there was a saying: ‘he is as poor as a brahmin’.  Today these Western locations are the most advanced commercial and industrial areas of India.  Similarly, today brahmins have used their intellectual prowess to progress from the bureaucratic functions assigned to them by the British to dominate key intellectual endeavours such India’s space, nuclear and other research institutions and the higher levels of commercial enterprises.  The lower agricultural labouring and artisan castes are being sucked out of the villages to power the factories and workshops.  The middle castes either remain in modernising agricultural settings or, along with the kshatriya, populate the proliferating security arms of the state such as the police, paramilitary and military – and so on.

To the extent these gross generalisations have any truth, they give us a relatively optimistic long-term outlook on the role of caste in modern India.  As occurred in Meiji Japan, these seemingly pre-assigned roles are likely to prove to be way stations towards a more fluid society.  But that process is a long-term one.

Finally, what does the modern translation of caste tell us about how India is likely to engage with the world?

India’s world-view can be characterised as optimistic about the nation’s resurgent place in the international order.  This optimism is more likely dictated by knowledge of India’s great population and potential and by the confident, even brash, views of a rising middle class, than by any vestigial notions of international hierarchy dictated by caste, as suggested by Tanham.  In this, India is somewhat similar to China, with its determinedly nationalistic ‘netizens’.  This sense of entitlement is driven not only by consciousness of size and potential, but also by the perceived need to rectify past wrongs.

So caste is definitely still a major factor in Indian society.  But it is one that works in different ways in different places and at different levels of society. Despite the obvious depredations still associated with caste, the record is not necessarily all on the negative side of the ledger.  It is a complicated picture as befits a complex and changing nation.




1. Mark Jones - June 30, 2011

Many new social forces are at work in India not the least of which are the modes of globalisation where merit, skills, education, enterprise and success transcend the conservative structures of caste. Labour contractors in the Gulf care little about the caste of their workers and are intolerant of attempts to create divisions based on it. The wealth of such guest workers on their return and remittances they send back when on contract often transform the lives of their families and completely change their status in their village. Similarly the global service industries such as call centres, programming houses and pathology labs remunerate and promote on the productivity of their workers. In a workplace where people are known only as Bubbles or Pinkey how can caste be used as a mode of oppression? The caste of the people who buy into the new apartment blocks of Gugaon is unknown to the agents selling the properties, they care only that you pay. How can this not create multicaste neighbourhoods?
The forces of globalisation have achieved little in India’s great central darkness but they have certainly are transforming the vibrant cities and outward looking regions of the periphery.

2. Vikas Kumar - July 4, 2011

“The middle castes either remain in modernising agricultural settings or, along with the kshatriya, populate the proliferating security arms of the state such as the police, paramilitary and military”

Sastric injunctions notwithstanding, Brahmins have always been an important component of Indian armies. This is true of Muslim (Mahmud Ghazanvi to Aurangzeb every Muslim ruler had Brahmin soldiers as well as commanders) and British (recall Mangal Pandey, etc) periods as well. In post-1947 India, defence as well as police forces abound in Brahmins, mostly, from Hindi and Marathi regions. A number of Brahmins have headed the forces.

In short, it is misleading to try to map castes and occuptations. I am not denying the continued link between ritually pure/important (temple services) and impure (sanitation services) jobs and caste hierarchy. But such jobs have always been a small part of the labour market. Rest of the jobs, including those in the armed forces, have always been outside the ritual sphere and have been open to all upper castes. Interestingly, Manu, the mythical author of an eponymous Dharmasastra, recognized the weakness of the caste-occupation linkage outside the ritual sphere (see, for instance, Book IV, Verse 6 in Patrick Olivelle’s Critical Ed).

3. Samosa Khan - September 5, 2011

The question is what do we mean by caste? Caste is a foreign Spanish word for a racial hierarchy found in South America, and it’s clearly used to many contradictory things in the context of India. For example, the arguments here seem to be that Caste=Varna, which is ofcourse not true in the way it’s used in India. Varna is a concept that’s never really been strictly applied in India, for example so called Brahmins as soldiers or anyone as merchants/farmers. Varna is similiar to the Confucian castes, (The four castes—gentry, farmers, artisans and merchants—are combined to form the term Shìnónggōngshāng)
Caste, in the way it’s used in India is mostly for Jathi, which is tribe/ethnicity. And there are not 4 castes but hundreds when used in this context. So the discrimination found in rural areas are between two tribes that have lived side by side each other for thousands of years and it’s localized, not some national Indian or Hindu group. The 3rd modern meaning of caste system is the Indian affirmative action system which is not necessarily a bad thing if used properly (although it should be based on class/income not tribe/ethnicity). In this 3rd identity, caste groups are where the hundreds of tribes have put into a category based on wheterh the government perceived them to be backward or forward based on the situation in the early 1950’s (i.e., not really accurate based on today’s condition)
First we need to define what we mean by caste system. The West has it’s own agenda when talking about caste in the Indian context, usually religious (As in wanting to convert the “heathen” Hindus to Christianity). The crusader types usually ignore Dalit Christians for example.