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Social and political Values and Systems in India.

Casteless society, caste-ism and caste as a system



In the modern political understanding of caste system, the element of caste is predominant and the element of system is less. There is a difference between ‘caste-system’ and ‘casteism’.

Criticism of caste-System – There are few sections of society especially modern youth, leaders and intellectuals belonging to backward castes, who hold caste system responsible for all the miseries of sumerged sections of society. They blame caste-system for discriminating and exploiting weaker, unprivileged sections of society and forcing destitution on vast number of people. They regard practices and values of caste system problematic and complicated, causing illiteracy, communal problems, escalating violence, crimes and corruption, disparities of power, wealth and culture and ultimately leading to disparities and disintegration.

Those very people, who caste-system vehemently, themselves cling to their caste identity very strongly. For politicians, it is a recipe for creating vote-banks. For others it is the base to enjoy special privileges/benefits of affirmative action programs initiated and implemented by the Government of India. Elite section amongst lower castes protects its turf under the banner of backward castes. The interest of all lies in keeping the majority of people ignorant, insecure and out of mainstream. And here lies the crux of present day’s casteist politics.

Issue – Roots of many present socio-political and economic ills do lie not in distant past, but only about 150 years back i.e. started with British Imperial rule in India. Before that the heart-burning because ofcaste and religion was  not as much as it was during British rule.

 Before forming any opinion or passing any harsh comment on caste-system, it would be better to understand the difference between ‘caste-system’ and ‘casteism’ and ‘caste-less society’ on the basis of ground realities that exist today.

Casteism – Entry of ‘caste’ into politics has led to unchecked growth of caste-ism. ‘Caste-politics’ needs to be arrested at its earliest. Rising expectations of people, political ambitions and economic interests have aroused the militancy among the discontented youths of different castes and communities all over the nation, which has divided the Indians into innumerable unbridgable groups.

Casteless society – Substituting caste-ridden Indian society with a caste-less  society is no solution for empowering weaker sections of society. Besides, supporters of caste-less society have not been able, so far, to suggest a better alternative scheme or thought of new support systems and norms needed to substitute caste-system. Common men in India is not sure about the effectiveness of proposed new systems to be created by the proponents of caste-less society. They are reluctant to replace or abandon caste system – an institution of proven value with a Caste-less society on trial and error basis. They understandably wish to make improvements in the tried and testes old system by removing deformities developed into it with time. A change is good for the growth of a society. But Changes must be based on constant interpretation of past experiences and opinions, present requirements and existing ground realities of the place and future prospects.

Caste as a system – Caste-system covers almost the entire social fabric of India. It gives Indian society a distinguished identity, a solid social structure with a system of thought, a way of life and a sense of direction. It commands respect and attention as a natural, valid and useful social institution not only of Hindus, but also of other sects living in India, with all their egalitarian faith, whether foreign or indegenous. Muslims or Christians, Sikhs or Budhist could not remain immune from its caste system for long. They also have been influenced and absorbed many of the systems and practices of caste-system. Even today, caste-system has not become obsolete despite all the criticism of its weaknesses. Otherwise, it woud have given place to other systems.

Basis of stratification in a society – Every society, anywhere in the world has always been classified into many groups, be it on basis of class, caste, religion, region, language or occupation. Individuals differ from each other in natural endowments, intelligence, aptitudes, attitudes, skills, personal needs and other innate characteristics. Such differences are apt to give rise to the formations of different social groups and systems. Different groups emerge in every society out of functional necessity. Each society devises its own principles for stratification, for coordinated functioning of all parts together, for keeping its whole system fit and functional as well as for taking care of the interests of its people as a whole.

Class as the basis of stratification in Western Societies – Western societies are usually stratified on basis of class. Its focus is on individual. Individuals of same economic and cultural level form one social group/class. Social status of a person depends on material success and control over power/authority. Wealthy class usually rules over poor classes in societies formed on class basis.

Caste as a basis of stratification – In India, stratification begins with a social group, called caste. Caste functions as an organic body. According to it, a society needs services of all its constituent members equally. And all its members are supposed to be independent, yet their roles complementary.

Caste- system of India – Indian culture and caste are inseparably related each other by traditional customs. It is virtually impossible to think of one without another. Caste-system gives Indian society a distinguished identity and a solid social structure with a system of thought, way of life, and sense of direction. Being a very old and indigenous system, conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India, it is difficult for Westerners and non-Indians to understand what ‘caste system’ is and what caste means to a common man.

Caste system, as one of the most scientific social systems – Many intellectuals, sociologists and reformers regard Varna system its purest form, followed by caste system, as one of the most scientific social systems ever evolved anywhere in the world. Famous American sociologist, Don Martindale says, “… Caste and Hinduism succeeded in doing in India, what no state, no conqueror and no economy was able to do._ the establishment of a single unified system of society throughout the whole of India.” Through caste system, India has simultaneously accommodated “Itself to an almost endlessly varied system of semi-autonomous community and at the same time bring considerable unity, harmony and condition of peace.” It “succeeded in wielding an enormously varied plurality of semi-autonomous communities arising at many times and in many places and adopting themselves to many different conditions into a single system of society…”i.

How caste system was saved from erosion? – So far, adaptability and absorptive nature of caste system has saved it by erosion from within and assault from outside. It has given Indian society coherence, stability and continuity. It has held together for generations different castes and communities despite numerous foreign invasions and migrations. In the past, it has  assimilateded various groups at different points of time having diverse languages and practices. It has prepared atmosphere for co-existence of different castes and communities. It has held together for centuries, generations of different castes and communities despite numerous foreign invasions, migrations assimilation of various groups having diverse languages and practices and centuries of foreign rule, thus making unity in diversity a reality. 

Mixing up of numerous social multi-ethnic groups into a single cultural system – Caste system is a natural response of mixing up of numerous social multi-ethnic groups with indigenous people of the land into a single cultural system, coming from different parts of the world at different points of time in waves. Beauty of caste system lies in the way, it assimilated numerous social groups – immigrants, locals, tribal, professionals or others – into its mainstream. It assigned each incoming group a separate caste identity. Society remained stable, while offering a place to a new community. The system neither disturbed its existing internal social order nor prevented any new group to develop itself.

Beauty of caste system, assimilation without conversion – Without any conversion, caste system made new groups its integral part. It never tried to annihilate their faith, originality, internal order, customs, culture or language. Instead, it gave them freedom to prosper/make changes into their systems according to their internal rhythm.

Caste as a natural institution – Family, extended family, Kula, and Caste are fundamental social institutions in India. A common man regards caste a natural, and inevitable unit/institution widening the scope and contacts of a person in the society. An individual is a natural member of a family, which is the unit of an extended family, extended family of Kula (clan), Kula of a tribe (Vish) and a tribe of a Jana or Jati (Caste). Caste is second only to the family. To them, Caste, which is nothing else but a large extended family bonded by same language, customs, thinking, style of living, occupation and way of living. Rules of endogamy, ritual purity, interdependence, specialization used to be its important traits.

Caste as an organisation – Almost all principles of a good organization are found in caste system. It provided strong structure based on principles of ‘Varna, Dharma and Karma”, kept its members comfortable and satisfied, assigned duties to different sections of society according to their natural instincts and qualities and instills amongst people feeling of interdependence and team-spirit etc. It had provided mechanism for decentralized self-regulated systems were the mode in social, political, and economic life of the country.

Caste system based on principles – Varna system along with Caste-system believed in lofty principles like “Vasudhaiv Kutumbkam” (whole world is one family), “live and let live”, “Self restraint”, “automatic checks and balances” “division of labour” along with “to each according to his needs and from each according to his capacity” etc. etc.

The system separated wealth from status, power from authority and knowledge from temptations of worldly comforts. Its basic traits were interdependence and specialization.

Ranking in caste system – All individuals within a caste group – irrespective of ones financial position – were supposed to be equal having similar rank, rights and duties. Ranking of different castes/groups was done on the basis of their aptitude, in their being hygienically and ritually clean or unclean, nature and social relevance of their work, contribution of their work for social subsistence, efforts required to perform their duties and amount of self restraint/self discipline, they exercise.

Clear specification of rights and duties –The principles of Varna, Dharma and Karma clearly specify duties, privileges and restrictions of each role separately and managed relationship with others. It encourages self-discipline, self-control and self-direction. Stress on one’s responsibilities/duties rather than on rights, combined with principle of inter- dependence provides its own system of checks and balances over arbitrary use of one’s authority and leads to automatic decentralization of authority.

Keeping pace with changing times – Caste system has adapted itself well with the changing times. It took different shades and meaning with changing times and places. Once changed, it never returned to its original form. Its character during Indus Valley Civilization was altogether different from what exists today. It is still in a transient phase. It is different in context of village, locality, region or religion. 

Acted as a shield – During medivial India, caste system acted as shield for Hindus to retain their cultural identity while living under alien rule. It was a major force for failure of Islam, Christianity and other religions to make headway even after mass conversion, whether it was Mughal’s, Portuguese or British. Islam and Christianity had received substantial state patronage for sufficiently long period. However, this was the time, when many evil practices and deformities had developed in the system. British rulers missed no chance to highlight those weaknesses. They carefully avoided telling its strong points or reformative measures taken during late nineteenth century and beginning of twentieth century.

British rulers and caste system – Caste-ism and communalism were fanned by British imperial power for political reasons. Before British rule India was largely free from caste wars or clashes despite all its feudalistic background and caste-ridden character. 

An ideological attack on Indian society – British rulers made purposely an ideological attack on Indian society. They developed a complex in the minds of Indian intellectuals about efficacy of caste system. British rulers portrayed caste-system as “discriminatory,” “iniquitous,” “exploitative,” “oppressive” “barbarous,” “uncivilized” and “highly stratified”. They held caste system responsible for evil social practices, feudalistic attitude, backward thinking, belief in dogmas and superstitions sustained by a unique set of rituals, and whimsical concept of purity and pollution.

Cut-throat competition for scarce positions of power – The cut-throat competition for scarce positions of power and prestige under British Raj was the starting point. Granting of separate Muslim Electorate through Govt. of India Act.1909 (Minto Morley Reforms) made the numbers important. brought the idea of communal electorate to the forefront in the minds of all those communities, which feared their submission in government run by the dominant Hindu Community.

Patronage to non-brahmins – The powerful voice of Non Brahmin leaders and patronage of British rulers to them led government to establish strongly the principle of special attention on the basis of caste, was strongly established in the South at provincial level, which ultimately gave birth to the policy of reservation.

Electoral policy, censuses and Reservation Policy together were responsible for the rise of casteism and weakening of caste system. It also gave caste an entry into political life of the country, which was non-existent hitherto.

Division of Indian society into uncompromising groups – Around 1909, the non-Brahmin Community, which resented the Brahmins hold in modern occupations, was divided into two Backwards and untouchables. For the first time the lowest strata of Hindu Community was conceptualized under the name of untouchability in the political circles. Importance to Untouchables in political circles – The suggestion of Census Commissioner to exclude untouchables  from Hindu fold in the coming 1911 census immediately increased the importance of untouchables in political circle, in social circle, and in their own eyes too.

Emergence of lower castes as powerful pressure groups – The leaders of the downtrodden like Mahatma Phule, Ambedkar or Gopal Ganesh taught the lower castes to get united and work for their liberation; abolition of caste system, which to them, was responsible for treating them as lesser human beings; engaging them in forced labour, unsavory jobs imposing many restrictions on them; preventing them from joining the mainstream of the society; and the subjugation of lower castes with the help of religion. They vehemently criticized its hierarchical structure, and regarded untouchability as an inevitable concomitant of caste system.

Therefore, eradication of caste system became their major plank. Dr. Ambedkar made it abundantly clear that, It was through political power that untouchables were to find their solution, not through acceptance by Hindus.

Official acknowledgement of lower castes as ‘Backward’ – Till 1932, the British rulers avoided itself from stigmatizing any group by official acknowledgement of their low social status and considered it unfair. “Owing to the social disabilities, to which members of the depressed classes are exposed, it would be in the highest degree undesirable, that any official authorization might appear to extend such qualification. The fluidity of social distinctions and the efforts of the classes lowest in the scale, aided by social reformers, to improve their status make it more desirable, that government should abstain from doing anything which would tend to give rigidity to these distinctions.”

Communal Award, Poona pact of 1932 – Communal Award of 1932 created a permanent split in Hindu Society and perpetuated casteism further. It made impossible the assimilation of different castes under one fold. Dr. Rajendra Prasad said, ‘the principle of dividing population into communal groups, which had been adopted in the Minto Morley reforms had been considerably extended, even beyond what had been done by Montagu Chelmsford Reforms… The electorate in 1919 was broken up into 10 parts, now it is fragmented into seventeen unequal bits… Hindu community was further weakened by giving separate representation to Scheduled castes. Division on the basis of religion, occupation and service were made. Every possible cross division was introduced by the British. The Communal Award strengthened the roots of casteism in politics.

Census operations responsible for giving rigidity to caste system – Through Census operations British rulers divided Indian social structure in a fundamental way and gave rigidity to social stratification and hierarchical ranking. The older four Varnas, embracing numerous castes and sub-castes within its fold were divided into five new unbridgeable compartments – Backward caste, forward caste (caste Hindus), untouchables or scheduled caste, scheduled tribes and minority. Through legal process, each one got a new separate and distinct identity. It gave rigidity to social stratification and hierarchical ranking. Caste was a flexible and fluid unit of Indian society. Census operations codified the castes and standardized the system by placing all the jatis into four Varnas or in the categories of outcastes and aborigines.

Middleton, a Census Superintendent remarked, “We pigeonholed everyone by caste and community. We deplore its effect on social and economic problems. But we are largely responsible for the system…Our land records and official documents have added iron-bonds to the old rigidity of caste. Caste, in itself, was rigid among the higher castes, but malleable amongst the lower…The government’s act for labels and pigeon-holes had led to a crystallization of the caste system, which, except amongst the aristocratic caste, was really very fluid under indigenous rule.” Thus, the Census operations destroyed the flexibility of caste system, led to an all-round hardening of social-system and to frantic effort by each group-for upward mobility. It led to caste-ism in politics. In nineteenth century, introduction of Modern education by modernization and industrialization, census operations and electoral politics brought a major changes in the scene. 

Census operations instigated caste consciousness, caste animosities and made caste a tool in political, religious and cultural battles that Hindus fought amongst themselves from now onwards without any sign of relief even as of today.  

Reasons for poverty of masses – It was not the caste system which was responsible for pushing millions of people towards poverty. With the beginning of industrialization in India under foreign rule, many traditional occupations became obsolete or less paying or were regarded more hazardous and more time consuming. White collared jobs gained importance. More, a person withdrew from physical labor, more civilized, honored and qualified he was regarded by modern society. It resulted in discrediting many traditional occupations and in destruction of Indian handicrafts and cottage industry.

This very change in occupational pattern had scattered efforts, sense of direction and manufacturing skills of millions of artisans, craftsman, weavers etc. Very few of them could join modern occupations. Majority belonging to different castes could neither enter modern sector, nor could stick to their traditional occupations considering menial work derogatory and lost their creativity, sense of achievement and pride. Such people added the numbers of poor agricultural laborers, industrial workers or marginal labors or unemployed. Outcome of such a development has been casualty of workers first, afterwards their work style, commitment, motivation and culture.

Introduction of modern education – Great national leaders, reformers, intellectuals had welcomed rationality of Modern education. They wished to build a modern, open, plural, culturally rich, prosperous and powerful India out of a fragmented, poverty stricken, weak, indifferent, backward and inward looking society.

However, many social reformers got worried about the erosion of rich ancient Indian Culture and tried to revive it through Sanskritisation. To them, traditional system of living was like an anchor, which had kept the boat of Indian society in safe harbor, so far. They felt that in absence of that anchor, the boat would be left at mercy of wild waves on a stormy ocean. Therefore, they advised masses not to be swayed away by glamour and materialism of alien culture. They advised people to remain firmly rooted to Indian Culture and then move forward, to stop all forms of exploitation, inequality and injustice and to remove social evils like Sati, Polygamy, child marriage, un-touchablity or inhuman treatment to women etc prevalent at that time because of ignorance, superstitions.

They criticized numbo-jumbo of rituals and superstitions created by vested interests to entangle the ignorant and poor masses. They also advised people to fight with “Abhava” (Scarcity), “Agyan” (Ignorance), “Annyaya” (Injustice), and “Alasya” (Laziness), as these were the causes of all evils.

Some of social reform movements were “Arya Samaj” (1875 onwards) initiated by Swami Dayanand or “Achutodhar” by Gandhiji. “Rama Krishna Mission” founded by Swami Vivekanand, Theosophical Society of India “Brahma Samaj” founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy in 1928. They inspired people of Bengal, Maharashtra, UP, Punjab, Madras and other provinces to form similar organizations and interpret everything rationally.

Caste is no longer a barrier in Independent India – With the efforts of reformers of nineteenth and tentieth centuries and constitution-framers, spread of education, process of modernization, industrialization and growth of awareness among people, traditional caste barriers and evil practices developed into the system started breaking slowly but steadily after the Independence.

Caste system quite liberal socially – Socially caste system has become more liberal and less restrictive. The system now allows its members a greater degree of freedom in all walks of life. It no longer enjoy legal or religious sanctions. Expulsion from castes means little, while, earlier it meant complete social ostracism. In metros and cities of almost all the states in India nobody asks for anybody’s caste. The old style of authority and power of caste-elders in every day life has already diminished.

In all the metros and cities throughout India nobody asks for anybody’s caste. Restrictions or interactions between different castes arising due to considerations for purity and pollution are fading away from public life even from rural areas. Earlier caste related issues were – who ate with whom? Or who married whom? The traditional barriers on marriage, hereditary occupations and commonality are loosing its importance slowly but steadily with the spread of education and awareness of masses.

Caste single most important factor in present politics – In present politics, Caste has found a new lease of life in different form. It has become the single most important factor in politics.

Lower castes becoming assertive – Lower castes are more tenacious on the subject of their caste than the higher. Many castes grouped together and increased their numerical strength. These groups have become very vocal and assertive. Politicians find it easier to sway them emotionally on the grounds of caste and fear to annoy them. Therefore, all political parties concede to their demands openly or discreetly, while in power. Of late, Dalits, backwards and Muslims are being wooed with vigor by all the political parties. Even Naxalite groups find in Dalits the allies, as most of their action squads are formed of Harijans.

Winding up

In a democratic country, discrimination in any form – be it positive or negative – or anywhere is the most objectionable thing. It has become one of the big challenges before the government to reconcile the claims of growth with the claims of equity. The rising aspirations and demands of people, with the spread of education and awareness, has created added problem for the government. The needs and aspirations of the people as a whole should be handled for the nation as a whole, not for any specific section of the society.

First Backward class Commission’s Chairman Kaka Kalelkar had very wisely commented in mid fifties, that “National solidarity in a democratic set up demands Government to recognize only two ends – the individual at one end and the nation as a whole at the other. Nothing should be encouraged to organize itself in between these two ends to the detriment of the freedom of the individual and solidarity of the nation. All communal and denominational organizations and groupings of lesser and narrower units have to be watched carefully, so that they do not jeopardize the national solidarity and do not weaken the efforts of the nation to serve the various elements in the body politic with equity. Mutual help, mutual respect and mutual trust are the touchstone, on which all communal and denominational activities will be tested A strong political will and courage is needed to bring to an end caste-ism and with it all kinds of discriminatory attitudes, repressive laws and practices. Reservation or fixing up quotas everywhere for different social groups also can not be a solution of all the problems. At present, there is complete centralization of control systems in the hands of a few Individuals, families and groups irrespective of castes or creed, having money or muscle power or support of the criminals. They control destiny of millions and have say in almost every walk of national life. Attempts for social changes make a virtue of narrow loyalties of caste and religion, generating sub-cultures like favoritism, lure for easy money, nepotism, parochialism, communalism, regionalism, bigoted sentiments and irresponsible comments, spreading in-discipline in the society. Caste and communal conflicts are increasing. There are sectarian and regional imbalances generating social and psychological tensions. The work culture has been degenerated. Under-currents of caste politics have made the government incapable to solve the burning national issues. It has made the task of governance of the nation ineffective. It has made difficult for upright persons survive and virtually impossible to live with dignity and honour. The net result of such developments have turned the vision of national development into an empty dream.

i Don Martindale, India since 1947, p 39.


November 16, 2009 - Posted by | Social and political values and systems |


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