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Is Social structure of India highly strarified?

Introduction

It is said that half cooked information, half truth, partial or incomplete knowledge is harmful. Many a time it raises controversy and causes great damage. Controversial/crucial issues should be rationally analyzed after viewing the whole scenario. One such issue is related to principles, reasons and rationale associated with stratification and ranking different sections of society in India.

Issue

Many Intellectuals, especially influenced by Western societies’ way of life criticize vehemently the social structure in India as highly stratified, especially its being based on caste-system. They say that it has perpetuated inequality and discrimination towards a majority of people through an elaborate, complex system of hierarchy by taking the help of scriptures, mythology and rituals. The system upholds the supremacy of Brahmins by giving it religious sanctity. Castes comprising laborers, cultivators, and craftsman etc had been accorded lower status, in-spite of their being the lifeblood of India’s great civilization. Their consciousness had been conditioned to accept their inferior status in hierarchy as natural order of things. Their deprivation had compelled them to get engaged in unclean jobs. How far this allegation is true?

Societies in ‘East’ and ‘West’ – Western societies, where the basis of stratification is ‘class’, have always associated ranking of different social groups with power, authority and social status. On the other hand, India was never considered a materialistic society. Its systems separated wealth from status, power from authority, pursuit and achievement of knowledge from temptations of worldly comforts. The greatness of a state was judged on the basis of the degree of righteousness and justice, with which the administration governed lives of the people, and not on the basis of its size, its treasury or number of people, it governs . Similarly, in the society, a person or a social group popularly known as ‘caste’ was ranked on the basis of knowledge, discipline and moral standards, and not on the basis of material success, or control of power.

Stratification of society and ranking of different social groups  in ancient India

The beginning of the formation of different social groups can be traced from the times of pastoral tribal society, when people started forming small groups.

Ranking in Pastoral Tribal Society –Initially, when people started forming small groups, they depended on nature for their subsistence.  Tribal society was nomadic or semi nomadic and egalitarian. There was not any disparity. They hardly possessed more than what they needed for their subsistence/survival. Institutions that existed were family, clan, village, tribe and a group of tribes. It was possible to have high ranks, but not high social classes.

Early Agricultural Society – Pastoral tribal society gradually transformed into a settled agricultural society, confining its activities and life within a small area or territory. The practice of cultivation, rise of crafts and iron tools transformed the egalitarian society into fully agricultural.

Possession of land, slaves and hired labourers started and society became stratified sometime during 6th century BC. During 6th century BC, the egalitarian society transformed into a stratified society sometime Possession of land, slaves and hired labourers started.

A simple class division existed in the social structure, i.e. nobility and the ordinary tribesmen. Fair skinned Aryans, being the conquerors, kept themselves on the top. The power of kings gradually increased. They collected people’s surplus yields. For regular collection, administrative and religious methods were devised. Still the difference in social status of different groups was

Agricultural society leisurely evolved its structures and systems over about 2000 years and kept on coping with the slow changes, time brought in. In the beginning a simple class division existed in the social structure, i.e. nobility and the ordinary tribesmen. It was during this period that Vedic values and systems evolved.

Vedic Society – With the entry of Aryans in India, started Vedic era Intermixing of indigenous people with Aryans evolved a social structure, based on the principles of “Varna”, “Dharma” and “Karma”. Principle of Varna had divided the society into four Varnas according to natural endowments and aptitudes. It specified position, specific work to do, rights and duties of each Varna. Stress on inter-dependence in social life and self-reliance and self discipline in personal life boosted the morale of the people and promoted social equilibrium and solidarity.

 The whole system of ranking was so conceived and developed by the sages that there was hardly any room for any Varna to consider itself, as being placed in greater or lesser disadvantageous position with reference to another. The segmental ranking was done according to relevance and real contribution of their activities to the society.

Classification of society in India

According to ‘Varna-system’, followed by ‘caste-system’,  Indian society has been classified into four functional groups known as “Varna” with innumerable castes and sub-castes or with numerous social groups within each Varna – be it racial, immigrants, locals, tribal, professionals or other groups. Their functions according to their attitude and aptitude were as follows-

  • Brahmins to learn and set norms of conduct for common men.  They are supposed to be the intellectuals and custodians of knowledge.
  • Kshtriyas or warriors to rule and defend the community,
  • Vaishyas to carry on the business and,
  • Shudras to do menial jobs for the society as a whole.

Basis of ranking – Prestige and importance within the society were given to them on the basis of relevance of their tasks in the well-being of the whole of the society. Considerations of self-discipline, purity, hygiene, cleanliness, morality, knowledge, training required to perform their duties well and spiritual standards were the basis to give different amount of prestige and importance to different sections of society.

Tolerance – The system always kept common men reconciled, if not contented. It kept all sections of the society united under one umbrella despite their diversity and gave the society stability, continuity and prosperity. All people living in a village or city were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence.Instead of holding others responsible, Hindu Dharma taught that Adharma” (immoral behavior), “Alasya” (laziness) and Agyan (ignorance) were to be blamed for all evils, exploitation and miseries of people.

Self-restrictions – Every section of society was supposed to lead a self restraint and self disciplined life in all respects, be it in the matter of daily routine, occupation or inter caste relationship. Higher the castes, greater were the self-restrictions on behavior through rituals. Brahmins, pursuer of knowledge, were given the highest place in the society, were expected to be models of self-control. They were supposed to lead a simple life, devoted to the spiritual and intellectual pursuits and denied accumulation of wealth. Greater self discipline was expected to be observed by them.

Incentive to improve – There was always an incentive for the social groups who were accorded lower ranks. Their low ranking did not prevent them to rise in the scale of society or to earn respect of the whole of society. There always was an incentive for them to observe more disciplined and purposeful life for getting superior status. In many parts of the country, people belonging to lower strata earned respect of all local people or achieved positions of power.

Backwardness not an obstacle – Many individuals, who are called ‘backward’ according to present yardsticks got the attention or respect of the whole society like Nand and Yashoda (Lord Krishna’s foster parents). Lord Rama, a king, ate half-eaten berries of Shabri – an untouchable. They were revered as philosophers or spiritual teachers all over India like Vashishtha as principal of the conservative school of Brahmanism (son of a prostitute) or Vyasa of Mahabharata fame and Balmiki, the original author of Ramayana (both untouchables).

 During middle ages, Sant Ravidas, Namdev, Tukaram, Malika, Sunderdas and several other saints, belonging to lower ranks according to present standards earned the same respect as any higher caste saint. There had been instances of people of lower ranks becoming kings. Many warrior kings of Shudra and tribal origin sought Brahmins’ help to acquire Kshatriyas status for themselves.

No nationwide hierarchy of social groups – There was no nationwide hierarchy of social groups known as castes or sub-castes existing within each Varnas. The system has placed all the individuals, within a caste group – rich or poor – on the same footing. There was no nationwide hierarchy of castes.

Similar rights and duties – Similar rights and duties – All members of a caste had similar rights and duties, similar thinking process, similar customs, language, food habits, domestic routine, and style of dress and similar social status.

Closer interaction – A person’s relation with members of his Varna was closer and equal than with those belonging to other Varnas. Elders took care of maintaining discipline within the caste and helped the members, who were weak and helpless. All the members of a caste shared moments of joy and sorrow with each other. Each caste was an independent entity.

Disparity in the way of living There was not much difference or disparity in the way of living or in social or economic status of different Varns living in urban and rural areas. All local groups, whether high or low, living in an area mutually depended, cared and supported each other in fulfilling different kind of needs of the society.

Traditional ranking of different social groups in India was not done by putting different Varnas within a framework of hierarchical layers of social order, each fitting neatly below the other, but more or less as a series of vertical parallels. Concepts of forwards or backwards or feeling of exploitation of weak were almost non-existent at that time.

Controlling undesirable behavior – Ostracism was common for undesirable behaviour and activity. The society conferred some status on those with desirable behaviour. It also mediated and settled disputes without costs and delays of the formal legal and administrative system. It had involved and encouraged various groups in designing, implementing and monitoring schemes, which could be beneficial to the whole community.

Golden era

When the world was passing through the Dark Age, India was full of light. The first few centuries are recognized as the golden period of Indian history. During this period, arts, commerce, crafts, philosophy and knowledge flourished magnificently. Many travellers visiting India, from alien lands at different points of time, confirmed that India possessed huge wealth, knowledge, and quality of life. It was a cheerful land. Each person found a position in the social system. Its people reached a high level of intelligence having specialization in different areas.

Medieval Period

During medieval period, downfall of old Hindus values started. Hinduism and its system turned inwards. The conscious efforts to preserve its identity, indigenous culture, values and honour under foreign rule made people to follow rules and rituals rigidly and blindly. Many social evils, disparities and discriminatory practices took birth.

Disparity between the rulers and the ruled – Continuous invasions by Turks, Afghans and Mughals and their draining out nation’s wealth to foreign lands earlier and feudalistic attitude, arbitrary rule and extravagance and luxurious life style of Mughal rulers and those at the helm of authority increased the disparity between the rulers and the ruled.

Cultural endowments, basis of social status –  During medieval period also the ranking was not based on wealth or material gains or control of power, but on intellectual, spiritual attainments as well as on ritual purity. Cultural endowments formed the basis of social status. Though the ranking of Varnas remained more or less the same, the hierarchical order of different castes/sub-castes was not established over large parts of the sub-continent. The position of Brahmins was at the top and that of Shudras at the bottom, but in between the two, there was an ambiguity about the status of several castes, which was acceptable to all concerned. This, itself, gave a large element of fluidity in the system.

Gradation of social groups – Gradation of different sections of society was still based on its being clean or unclean. Unclean habits, undisciplined life-style, blue-collar jobs were looked down upon. Brahmins associated with unclean jobs like, Mahabrahmins performing last rites, were also treated, more or less like Shudras and were kept at the bottom of the social structure. It was only the learned Brahmins, who commanded the respect and their stronghold was the centres of learning.

Better position than Brahmins – In many parts of the country, like Punjab, Gujarat, and Marathi speaking areas of western India, tribal MP, Orissa, Bengal etc., people other than Brahmins held superior status than Brahmins. In Rajasthan, Rajputs and Kshatriyas served as models, with emphasis on personal valour and military skills. In large part of peninsular Gujarat, business community (Vaishyas) had overshadowed Brahmins in economic and political areas for several centuries. In Maharashtra, Brahmins were far behind the Maratha-Patils (village headman) and Maratha-Deshmukhs (regional administrators).

In Orissa, Brahmin influence remained confined to small areas around the royal palaces. Here too, warrior kings of Shudra and tribal origin sought Brahmins help to acquire Kshatriyas status. In Bengal Brahmins never acquired status of dominant group. It was among the last areas to come into contact with Brahminical Hinduism, when during the reign of Sen Guptas, Kanyakubja Brahmins from Varanasi were invited to settle there. In Punjab, it was Jats, that were politically and economically dominant groups. Thakurs held prominent status in the eastern region of present day U.P. The Ain-e-Akbari informs that in the year 1600 AD, Thakur Zamindars paid more than two third of the total revenue in the middle Doab, Awadh and eastern parts of UP. Rohailkhand and Doab were controlled by Jat Chief-tons and later by Muslim Zamindars. In Bihar, around Darbhanga region, Maithili Brahmins held political control, though they also continued their traditional occupations as priests and scholars of Sanskrit.

Local character – The local character of society during this period made close interaction and cooperation between different castes, a reality. All the activities of urban or rural areas were confined within a small area, having very little links with the outside world because of the slower means of transport. Only merchants visited different distant places. The local societies used to be self-sufficient mutually `supporting and caring” for each other. All castes, living in a village or city, were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence. Rituals required the participation of all castes. There were instances when non-Brahmins or Harijans served as priests of temples of goddesses like Sita or Kali, where all castes made offerings. People in power and position cared for lower castes in order to acquire and retain local followers.

Freedom in internal matters – People of a caste enjoyed a large measure of freedom in respect of their internal customs, rituals and life styles. There was hardly any question of all India tyranny of any group. There was not a single group identifiable as very strong-dominating all the others, or as an enemy to defeat.

Automatic systems of checks and balances – The plurality of Hindu society provided automatic checks and balances and controlled the arbitrariness or unbalanced growth of power of any group. Indian peasantry in UP, Bihar and MP were armed. In fact, non-Kshatriya peasant provided leadership of most armed bands, which were numerically predominant and economically and politically strong at the village level. The monopoly of powerful peasant was a reality of the rural life of Medieval India. The Brahmin strongholds were the centres of learning.

Escape from caste-rigidity -The floating population, consisting groups like Gujjars, Bhattis, Rajput rangers remained outside caste system. They were so strong, that they terrorized settled agriculturists for centuries. Till the 18th century, forests with arable land in size and importance, gave shelter and food to large sections of society and served as havens for those in search of escape from society.

IStratification of Indian society in modern period

Before British rule, despite everything, the image of India as a whole, as described by Alex Von Tunzelmann in Indian Summer (p.13) was of “a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth.” As against it, the condition of England was described as “an underdeveloped, semi-feudal realm riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses.

During British rule

Earlier rule of East India Company and then British rule in India (beginning roughly after the revolt of 1857) brought impoverishment for all Indian community. Lower segments of society like peasants suffered due to heavy taxation and in-debtness at heavy rates, skilled craftsmen due to Company’s policy to promote British goods and discourage handicrafts, and upper segments due to the loss of their source of income due to British policies of annexation and expansion, who became unable to work, ashamed to beg and condemned to poverty.

Rule of East India Company – After Monarchy was restored in England, by 1670s, King Charles gave enormous powers to East India Company through five Acts without responsibilities like maintaining its own army, acquiring new territories on their own terms and impose its own civil and criminal law. Alex Von Tunzelmann says, “This private empire of money, unburdened by conscience, rampaged across Asia unfettered until the 1850s. Guided only by market forces, it was both incredibly successful and incredibly brutal.” ( p17)

Position during Imperial rule – Position during Imperial rule – Apathy of British rulers towards indigenous skills, knowledge and occupations and the process of modernization and industrialization has made many traditional occupations obsolete or less paying or were regarded more hazardous and more time consuming. It pushed millions of rural artisans, craftsman and small scale farmers, for whom work was essential for survival, backwards in a very subtle manner.

Discrediting traditional values and systems – It loosened the sanctity of traditional values and systems. It resulted in discrediting many traditional occupations and in destruction of Indian handicrafts and cottage industry. It scattered efforts, sense of direction and manufacturing skills of millions of artisans, craftsman, weavers etc. The economic exploitation, economic drain and repressive attitude submerged the masses in ignorance, enfeebled by diseases and oppressed by wants.

Importance of White-collared jobs – White collared jobs gained importance and along with them of formal education and degrees. Modernity taught people to escape from menial work and discredit manual work. More, a person withdrew from physical labour, more civilized, honoured and qualified he was regarded by modern society. Rat-race to get hold on modern occupations led to inter-caste rivalries, social tensions and group conflicts among Indians.

Position of common-men – Only a few of them could join modern occupations. Majority belonging to different groups 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.

Masses had no option, but to either join band of agricultural labourers, industrial workers, and marginal labour and increase number of poor and unemployed. Outcome of such a change has been casualty of workers first, after-wards their work style, commitment, motivation and culture.

New system of stratification – After consolidating its position, the British Government in India made an effort to know about the people, whom they want to rule and chalk out strategies for the colonial governance.

British rulers noted “The entire framework of native life in India is made up of groups of castes and tribes, and status and conduct of individuals are, largely, determined by the rules of the group, to which he belonged.”

Listing of castes – For the first time, the government officially recognized caste as a base for the purposes of governance. It had changed completely the complexion of ‘caste’. Political expediency and imperial designs to keep balance of power got victory over rational thinking.

In 1885 itself, E J Kitts, a British ambassador in Azamgarh listed, for the first time, backward castes and tribes, from 1881 Census. The objective was to give them financial assistance and preferences in education and Government employment at local and provincial level.

Fossilization of caste systemIn 1901 census, census commissioner Risley recorded numerous caste groups. He put them “in hierarchical order like modern Manu had fossilized, imparting it a solidity, it did not have earlier.” “The census operations divided all the castes and communities into following groups – Brahmins, Non-Brahmins, Muslims, Anglo-Indians, untouchables, non-Hindu Communities and backward castes”.

Official recognition of the term ‘Backward’ While ranking different sections of society, British rulers forgot all the reasons and rationale of ancient system of ranking, which encouraged common men to observe more disciplined life style to improve their social status. They gave lower ranking to groups/castes, which could not benefit from the opening up of economic social, political and cultural opportunities.

On recommendations of Miller Committee, Mysore recommended (A 1921 GO referring to the 1911 GO), all communities other than Brahmins were declared backward. It included untouchables, who were not adequately represented in the public service. It was around 1909 that the lower strata of Hindu community were conceptualized as ‘untouchables’ around 1909.

Separation of ‘Untouchables’ from ‘Backwards’ – Earlier untouchables had clubbed their political activities with backward classes led by the Justice Party and South Indian Liberation Federation. Untouchables were described as “The oppressed of the oppressed and lowest of the low”.

Census operation, introduction of electoral politics and suggestion of the Census Commission for 1911 Census, to exclude untouchables, (comprising about 24% of Hindu population and 16% of the total population in 1908) from Hinduism, made their position prominent in Indian political scene. In 1930, Starte Committee suggested to sub divide the backward classes into untouchables, aboriginal hill tribes and other backward classes.

Stigmatizing of some social-groups – Until 1932, the British Government at national level consistently refrained itself from stigmatizing any group, by official acknowledgement on the grounds that it would be unfair to stigmatize any group by official acknowledgement of their low status. It considered it unfair because, “Owing to 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 to 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.” (Indian Statutory Commission, 1930, VI)

Until 1932, the British Government at national level consistently refrained itself from stigmatizing any group, by official acknowledgement on the grounds that it would be unfair to stigmatize any group by official acknowledgement of their low status. It considered it unfair because, Owing to 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 to 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. (Indian Statutory Commission, 1930, VI)

Unbridgeable compartments – Earlier, the Hindu Society was classified into four Varnas embracing numerous castes and sub-castes within its fold. The British divided it into five and created new unbridgeable compartments within Indian social structure. – Backward caste, upper caste (caste Hindus), untouchable or scheduled caste, scheduled tribes and minority.

Through legal process, Poona Pact gave each one a new separate and distinct identity. It changed the older system in a fundamental way, giving rigidity to social stratification and hierarchical ranking.

Outcome of New ranking system – During British rule, caste-wise and class-wise division of society rule had generated a feeling of alienation in Indian masses. Cut-throat competition had started for a few places in modern callings. The whole society is divided into irreconcilable parts – “we” and “they”. Upper segments of Indian society became quite powerful both in urban and rural areas. It was ahead of others in matter of modern education and employment. The large lower segments comprising the artisanal castes became poorer and helpless.

After independence

After the Independence, the Preamble of the Constitution of India assured all its citizens – “JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution confers Fundamental rights of “Equality before law.” Article15 prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Article 16 assures equality of opportunity in matters of public employment. Article 17 abolishes untouchability and Article 18 abolishes titles.

Politics of backwardness – Despite equal status given by the Constitution, the division and their ranks envisaged by Risley remains the by-word for political leaders of Independent India.  Electoral policy, Census Operations, and Reservation Policy, together, changed the basis of ranking. Socio-economic position of different social groups forms the basis of various development plans.

Outcome – A section of society opines that formation of the new infrastructure has resulted in sidetracking the upper castes from participating in the administration of the country. Also, it has encouraged backward classes to stick to their caste identities strongly, because it provides for them a path of least resistance to upward mobility. Reservation on the basis of caste offers them an opportunity to enter into politics. Through reservation, they get access to political institutions, government jobs and admissions in the institutions of higher learning, what they could not get through normal channels.

Position of upper castes in Independent India – There is a feeling among some people that common men belonging to upper castes are being treated as second rate citizens in their own country, because they are scattered. As against it, backward classes are united and organised. In addition to it, they have the advantage of their numerical strength. In such an atmosphere, it is easy for the political authorities to deprive deserving candidates of upper castes from opportunities and bestowing them on the “backward classes”. Such an attitude of government is not necessarily helping the really needy persons belonging to lower strata of society. It has resulted in brain-drain.

Liberalization and globalization – Liberalization and globalization has opened up a new vista for the upper segment of society. They do not prefer to join government services. They either join private sector or multi-national companies or go abroad in search of job. Information technology or software industry is full of such people. The private sector takes good care of them.

Inter-caste and intra-caste rivalries – The present scheme of stratification of society has ignited inter-caste jealousy. Inter-caste and intra-caste are increasing everyday. There is a demand of fixing quotas for different backward sections of society in private sector as well.

Conclusion – There was a time when despite lower ranking, people thought it a stigma to be called ‘Backward’. Numerous caste groups clamoured for higher caste status in Census operations of 1901, 1911, and 1921 and supported their claims with different factors. But the political acceptance of Reservation as a tool of social engineering has glamorized backwardness. Now at the threshold of 21st century, reversed trend is seen. Backwardness has become a status symbol. Different groups vie with each other to be included, preferably in SC list, failing which in OBCs list.

In 1955, First Backward Class Commission noted, “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 and anything that undermines it, will be expected and brought to book.” (BCC I, para IV)

“It would be well, if representatives of the Backward Classes remembered that whatever good they find in the Constitution and the liberal policy of the Government, is the result of the awakened conscience of the upper classes themselves. Whatever Government is doing by way of atonement is readily accepted and acclaimed by the nation as a whole. The upper classes have contributed their share in formulating the policies of the Government Removal of un-touchability, establishment of equality and social justice, special consideration for backward classes, all these elements found place in the Constitution without a single voice of dissent from the upper classes.” (BCCI, para III)

“It is not enough to prove that one community is regarded inferior by another. The Christians may look down the Jews and the Jews may retaliate with the same feelings. The Brahmins may regard Banias as inferior and the Bania, in his turn, may regard the Brahmin as a mere social dependent. Such opinions and prejudices do not come in the way of the full growth of the backward communities either educationally or economically; if backward communities have neglected education, it is because they had no use for it. Now they have discovered their mistake. It is for them to make necessary efforts for their prosperity. They will naturally receive whatever help is available to all citizens.” (BCCI, para VII & VIII)

In a democracy, there is no place for unequal identities. No section of society should get lesser attention or no group should get better treatment. For giving equal opportunity to all, there should be transparency. No plan or policy of the government should be based on prior biases.

Stratification of society in ancient and modern India

Societies in ‘East’ and ‘West’

Western societies have always been associated ranking of different social groups with power, authority and social status. On the other hand, India was never considered a materialistic society. Its systems separated wealth from status, power from authority, pursuit and achievement of knowledge from temptations of worldly comforts.

The greatness of a state was judged on the basis of the degree of righteousness and justice, with which the administration governed lives of the people, and not on the basis of its size, its treasury or number of people, it governs . Similarly, in the society, a person or a social group popularly known as ‘caste’ was ranked on the basis of knowledge, discipline and moral standards, and not on the basis of material success, or control of power.

Issue

Many Intellectuals, especially influenced by Western societies’ way of life criticize the caste-system vehemently saying that it has perpetuated inequality and discrimination towards a majority of people through an elaborate, complex system of hierarchy by taking the help of scriptures, mythology and rituals.

The system upholds the supremacy of Brahmins by giving it religious sanctity. Castes comprising laborers, cultivators, and craftsman etc had been accorded lower status, in-spite of their being the lifeblood of India’s great civilization. Their consciousness had been conditioned to accept their inferior status in hierarchy as natural order of things. Their deprivation had compelled them to get engaged in unclean jobs.

It is said that half cooked information, half truth, partial or incomplete knowledge is harmful. Many a time it raises controversy and causes great damage. Controversial/crucial issues should be rationally analyzed after viewing the whole scenario. One such issue is related to principles, reasons and rationale associated with stratification and ranking different sections of society in India.

Historical background of Ranking

What was the position of different social groups?

The beginning of the system can be traced from the times of pastoral tribal society, when people started forming small groups.

Ranking in Pastoral Tribal Society –Initially, when people started forming small groups, they depended on nature for their subsistence.  Tribal society was nomadic or semi nomadic and egalitarian. There was not any disparity. They hardly possessed more than what they needed for their subsistence/survival. Institutions that existed were family, clan, village, tribe and a group of tribes. It was possible to have high ranks, but not high social classes.

Early Agricultural Society – Pastoral tribal society gradually transformed into a settled agricultural society, confining its activities and life within a small area or territory. The practice of cultivation, rise of crafts and iron tools transformed the egalitarian society into fully agricultural.

Possession of land, slaves and hired labourers started and society became stratified sometime during 6th century BC. During 6th century BC, the egalitarian society transformed into a stratified society sometime Possession of land, slaves and hired labourers started.

A simple class division existed in the social structure, i.e. nobility and the ordinary tribesmen. Fair skinned Aryans, being the conquerors, kept themselves on the top. The power of kings gradually increased. They collected people’s surplus yields. For regular collection, administrative and religious methods were devised.

Agricultural society leisurely evolved its structures and systems over about 2000 years and kept on coping with the slow changes, time brought in. In the beginning a simple class division existed in the social structure, i.e. nobility and the ordinary tribesmen. It was during this period that Vedic values and systems evolved.

Vedic Society – With the entry of Aryans in India, started Vedic era Intermixing of indigenous people with Aryans evolved a social structure, based on the principles of “Varna”, “Dharma” and “Karma”. Principle of Varna had divided the society into four Varnas according to natural endowments and aptitudes. It specified position, specific work to do, rights and duties of each Varna. Stress on inter-dependence in social life and self-reliance and self discipline in personal life boosted the morale of the people and promoted social equilibrium and solidarity.

 The whole system of ranking was so conceived and developed by the sages that there was hardly any room for any Varna to consider itself, as being placed in greater or lesser disadvantageous position with reference to another. The segmental ranking was done according to relevance and real contribution of their activities to the society.

Classification of society in India

According to ‘Varna-system’, followed by ‘caste-system’,  Indian society has been classified into four functional groups known as “Varna” with innumerable castes and sub-castes or with numerous social groups within each Varna – be it racial, immigrants, locals, tribal, professionals or other groups. Their functions according to their attitude and aptitude were as follows-

  • Brahmins to learn and set norms of conduct for common men.  They are supposed to be the intellectuals and custodians of knowledge.
  • Kshtriyas or warriors to rule and defend the community,
  • Vaishyas to carry on the business and,
  • Shudras to do menial jobs for the society as a whole.

Basis of ranking – Prestige and importance within the society were given to them on the basis of relevance of their tasks in the well-being of the whole of the society. Considerations of self-discipline, purity, hygiene, cleanliness, morality, knowledge, training required to perform their duties well and spiritual standards were the basis to give different amount of prestige and importance to different sections of society.

Tolerance – The system always kept common men reconciled, if not contented. It kept all sections of the society united under one umbrella despite their diversity and gave the society stability, continuity and prosperity. All people living in a village or city were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence.Instead of holding others responsible, Hindu Dharma taught that Adharma” (immoral behavior), “Alasya” (laziness) and Agyan (ignorance) were to be blamed for all evils, exploitation and miseries of people.

Self-restrictions – Every section of society was supposed to lead a self restraint and self disciplined life in all respects, be it in the matter of daily routine, occupation or inter caste relationship. Higher the castes, greater were the self-restrictions on behavior through rituals. Brahmins, pursuer of knowledge, were given the highest place in the society, were expected to be models of self-control. They were supposed to lead a simple life, devoted to the spiritual and intellectual pursuits and denied accumulation of wealth. Greater self discipline was expected to be observed by them.

Incentive to improve – There was always an incentive for the social groups who were accorded lower ranks. Their low ranking did not prevent them to rise in the scale of society or to earn respect of the whole of society. There always was an incentive for them to observe more disciplined and purposeful life for getting superior status. In many parts of the country, people belonging to lower strata earned respect of all local people or achieved positions of power.

Backwardness not an obstacle – Many individuals, who are called ‘backward’ according to present yardsticks got the attention or respect of the whole society like Nand and Yashoda (Lord Krishna’s foster parents). Lord Rama, a king, ate half-eaten berries of Shabri – an untouchable. They were revered as philosophers or spiritual teachers all over India like Vashishtha as principal of the conservative school of Brahmanism (son of a prostitute) or Vyasa of Mahabharata fame and Balmiki, the original author of Ramayana (both untouchables).

 During middle ages, Sant Ravidas, Namdev, Tukaram, Malika, Sunderdas and several other saints, belonging to lower ranks according to present standards earned the same respect as any higher caste saint. There had been instances of people of lower ranks becoming kings. Many warrior kings of Shudra and tribal origin sought Brahmins’ help to acquire Kshatriyas status for themselves.

No nationwide hierarchy of social groups – There was no nationwide hierarchy of social groups known as castes or sub-castes existing within each Varnas. The system has placed all the individuals, within a caste group – rich or poor – on the same footing. There was no nationwide hierarchy of castes.

Similar rights and duties – Similar rights and duties – All members of a caste had similar rights and duties, similar thinking process, similar customs, language, food habits, domestic routine, and style of dress and similar social status.

Closer interaction – A person’s relation with members of his Varna was closer and equal than with those belonging to other Varnas. Elders took care of maintaining discipline within the caste and helped the members, who were weak and helpless. All the members of a caste shared moments of joy and sorrow with each other. Each caste was an independent entity.

Disparity in the way of living There was not much difference or disparity in the way of living or in social or economic status of different Varns living in urban and rural areas. All local groups, whether high or low, living in an area mutually depended, cared and supported each other in fulfilling different kind of needs of the society.

Traditional ranking of different social groups in India was not done by putting different Varnas within a framework of hierarchical layers of social order, each fitting neatly below the other, but more or less as a series of vertical parallels. Concepts of forwards or backwards or feeling of exploitation of weak were almost non-existent at that time.

Controlling undesirable behavior – Ostracism was common for undesirable behaviour and activity. The society conferred some status on those with desirable behaviour. It also mediated and settled disputes without costs and delays of the formal legal and administrative system. It had involved and encouraged various groups in designing, implementing and monitoring schemes, which could be beneficial to the whole community.

Golden era

When the world was passing through the Dark Age, India was full of light. The first few centuries are recognized as the golden period of Indian history. During this period, arts, commerce, crafts, philosophy and knowledge flourished magnificently. Many travellers visiting India, from alien lands at different points of time, confirmed that India possessed huge wealth, knowledge, and quality of life. It was a cheerful land. Each person found a position in the social system. Its people reached a high level of intelligence having specialization in different areas.

Medieval Period

During medieval period, downfall of old Hindus values started. Hinduism and its system turned inwards. The conscious efforts to preserve its identity, indigenous culture, values and honour under foreign rule made people to follow rules and rituals rigidly and blindly. Many social evils, disparities and discriminatory practices took birth.

Disparity between the rulers and the ruled – Continuous invasions by Turks, Afghans and Mughals and their draining out nation’s wealth to foreign lands earlier and feudalistic attitude, arbitrary rule and extravagance and luxurious life style of Mughal rulers and those at the helm of authority increased the disparity between the rulers and the ruled.

Cultural endowments, basis of social status –  During medieval period also the ranking was not based on wealth or material gains or control of power, but on intellectual, spiritual attainments as well as on ritual purity. Cultural endowments formed the basis of social status. Though the ranking of Varnas remained more or less the same, the hierarchical order of different castes/sub-castes was not established over large parts of the sub-continent. The position of Brahmins was at the top and that of Shudras at the bottom, but in between the two, there was an ambiguity about the status of several castes, which was acceptable to all concerned. This, itself, gave a large element of fluidity in the system.

Gradation of social groups – Gradation of different sections of society was still based on its being clean or unclean. Unclean habits, undisciplined life-style, blue-collar jobs were looked down upon. Brahmins associated with unclean jobs like, Mahabrahmins performing last rites, were also treated, more or less like Shudras and were kept at the bottom of the social structure. It was only the learned Brahmins, who commanded the respect and their stronghold was the centres of learning.

Better position than Brahmins – In many parts of the country, like Punjab, Gujarat, and Marathi speaking areas of western India, tribal MP, Orissa, Bengal etc., people other than Brahmins held superior status than Brahmins. In Rajasthan, Rajputs and Kshatriyas served as models, with emphasis on personal valour and military skills. In large part of peninsular Gujarat, business community (Vaishyas) had overshadowed Brahmins in economic and political areas for several centuries. In Maharashtra, Brahmins were far behind the Maratha-Patils (village headman) and Maratha-Deshmukhs (regional administrators).

In Orissa, Brahmin influence remained confined to small areas around the royal palaces. Here too, warrior kings of Shudra and tribal origin sought Brahmins help to acquire Kshatriyas status. In Bengal Brahmins never acquired status of dominant group. It was among the last areas to come into contact with Brahminical Hinduism, when during the reign of Sen Guptas, Kanyakubja Brahmins from Varanasi were invited to settle there. In Punjab, it was Jats, that were politically and economically dominant groups. Thakurs held prominent status in the eastern region of present day U.P. The Ain-e-Akbari informs that in the year 1600 AD, Thakur Zamindars paid more than two third of the total revenue in the middle Doab, Awadh and eastern parts of UP. Rohailkhand and Doab were controlled by Jat Chief-tons and later by Muslim Zamindars. In Bihar, around Darbhanga region, Maithili Brahmins held political control, though they also continued their traditional occupations as priests and scholars of Sanskrit.

Local character – The local character of society during this period made close interaction and cooperation between different castes, a reality. All the activities of urban or rural areas were confined within a small area, having very little links with the outside world because of the slower means of transport. Only merchants visited different distant places. The local societies used to be self-sufficient mutually `supporting and caring” for each other. All castes, living in a village or city, were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence. Rituals required the participation of all castes. There were instances when non-Brahmins or Harijans served as priests of temples of goddesses like Sita or Kali, where all castes made offerings. People in power and position cared for lower castes in order to acquire and retain local followers.

Freedom in internal matters – People of a caste enjoyed a large measure of freedom in respect of their internal customs, rituals and life styles. There was hardly any question of all India tyranny of any group. There was not a single group identifiable as very strong-dominating all the others, or as an enemy to defeat.

Automatic systems of checks and balances – The plurality of Hindu society provided automatic checks and balances and controlled the arbitrariness or unbalanced growth of power of any group. Indian peasantry in UP, Bihar and MP were armed. In fact, non-Kshatriya peasant provided leadership of most armed bands, which were numerically predominant and economically and politically strong at the village level. The monopoly of powerful peasant was a reality of the rural life of Medieval India. The Brahmin strongholds were the centres of learning.

Escape from caste-rigidity -The floating population, consisting groups like Gujjars, Bhattis, Rajput rangers remained outside caste system. They were so strong, that they terrorized settled agriculturists for centuries. Till the 18th century, forests with arable land in size and importance, gave shelter and food to large sections of society and served as havens for those in search of escape from society.

Image of India before and after British rule

Before British rule, despite everything, the image of India as a whole, as described by Alex Von Tunzelmann in Indian Summer (p.13) was of “a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified, which dominated a massive swath of the earth.” As against it, the condition of England was described as “an underdeveloped, semi-feudal realm riven by religious factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses.

During British rule

Earlier rule of East India Company and then British rule in India (beginning roughly after the revolt of 1857) brought impoverishment for all Indian community. Lower segments of society like peasants suffered due to heavy taxation and in-debtness at heavy rates, skilled craftsmen due to Company’s policy to promote British goods and discourage handicrafts, and upper segments due to the loss of their source of income due to British policies of annexation and expansion, who became unable to work, ashamed to beg and condemned to poverty.

Rule of East India Company – After Monarchy was restored in England, by 1670s, King Charles gave enormous powers to East India Company through five Acts without responsibilities like maintaining its own army, acquiring new territories on their own terms and impose its own civil and criminal law. Alex Von Tunzelmann says, “This private empire of money, unburdened by conscience, rampaged across Asia unfettered until the 1850s. Guided only by market forces, it was both incredibly successful and incredibly brutal.” ( p17)

Position during Imperial rule – Position during Imperial rule – Apathy of British rulers towards indigenous skills, knowledge and occupations and the process of modernization and industrialization has made many traditional occupations obsolete or less paying or were regarded more hazardous and more time consuming. It pushed millions of rural artisans, craftsman and small scale farmers, for whom work was essential for survival, backwards in a very subtle manner.

Discrediting traditional values and systems – It loosened the sanctity of traditional values and systems. It resulted in discrediting many traditional occupations and in destruction of Indian handicrafts and cottage industry. It scattered efforts, sense of direction and manufacturing skills of millions of artisans, craftsman, weavers etc. The economic exploitation, economic drain and repressive attitude submerged the masses in ignorance, enfeebled by diseases and oppressed by wants.

Importance of White-collared jobs – White collared jobs gained importance and along with them of formal education and degrees. Modernity taught people to escape from menial work and discredit manual work. More, a person withdrew from physical labour, more civilized, honoured and qualified he was regarded by modern society. Rat-race to get hold on modern occupations led to inter-caste rivalries, social tensions and group conflicts among Indians.

Position of common-men – Only a few of them could join modern occupations. Majority belonging to different groups 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.

Masses had no option, but to either join band of agricultural labourers, industrial workers, and marginal labour and increase number of poor and unemployed. Outcome of such a change has been casualty of workers first, after-wards their work style, commitment, motivation and culture.

New system of stratification – After consolidating its position, the British Government in India made an effort to know about the people, whom they want to rule and chalk out strategies for the colonial governance.

British rulers noted “The entire framework of native life in India is made up of groups of castes and tribes, and status and conduct of individuals are, largely, determined by the rules of the group, to which he belonged.”

Listing of castes – For the first time, the government officially recognized caste as a base for the purposes of governance. It had changed completely the complexion of ‘caste’. Political expediency and imperial designs to keep balance of power got victory over rational thinking.

In 1885 itself, E J Kitts, a British ambassador in Azamgarh listed, for the first time, backward castes and tribes, from 1881 Census. The objective was to give them financial assistance and preferences in education and Government employment at local and provincial level.

Fossilization of caste systemIn 1901 census, census commissioner Risley recorded numerous caste groups. He put them “in hierarchical order like modern Manu had fossilized, imparting it a solidity, it did not have earlier.” “The census operations divided all the castes and communities into following groups – Brahmins, Non-Brahmins, Muslims, Anglo-Indians, untouchables, non-Hindu Communities and backward castes”.

Official recognition of the term ‘Backward’ While ranking different sections of society, British rulers forgot all the reasons and rationale of ancient system of ranking, which encouraged common men to observe more disciplined life style to improve their social status. They gave lower ranking to groups/castes, which could not benefit from the opening up of economic social, political and cultural opportunities.

On recommendations of Miller Committee, Mysore recommended (A 1921 GO referring to the 1911 GO), all communities other than Brahmins were declared backward. It included untouchables, who were not adequately represented in the public service. It was around 1909 that the lower strata of Hindu community were conceptualized as ‘untouchables’ around 1909.

Separation of ‘Untouchables’ from ‘Backwards’ – Earlier untouchables had clubbed their political activities with backward classes led by the Justice Party and South Indian Liberation Federation. Untouchables were described as “The oppressed of the oppressed and lowest of the low”.

Census operation, introduction of electoral politics and suggestion of the Census Commission for 1911 Census, to exclude untouchables, (comprising about 24% of Hindu population and 16% of the total population in 1908) from Hinduism, made their position prominent in Indian political scene. In 1930, Starte Committee suggested to sub divide the backward classes into untouchables, aboriginal hill tribes and other backward classes.

Stigmatizing of some social-groups – Until 1932, the British Government at national level consistently refrained itself from stigmatizing any group, by official acknowledgement on the grounds that it would be unfair to stigmatize any group by official acknowledgement of their low status. It considered it unfair because, “Owing to 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 to 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.” (Indian Statutory Commission, 1930, VI)

Until 1932, the British Government at national level consistently refrained itself from stigmatizing any group, by official acknowledgement on the grounds that it would be unfair to stigmatize any group by official acknowledgement of their low status. It considered it unfair because, Owing to 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 to 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. (Indian Statutory Commission, 1930, VI)

Unbridgeable compartments – Earlier, the Hindu Society was classified into four Varnas embracing numerous castes and sub-castes within its fold. The British divided it into five and created new unbridgeable compartments within Indian social structure. – Backward caste, upper caste (caste Hindus), untouchable or scheduled caste, scheduled tribes and minority.

Through legal process, Poona Pact gave each one a new separate and distinct identity. It changed the older system in a fundamental way, giving rigidity to social stratification and hierarchical ranking.

Outcome of New ranking system – During British rule, caste-wise and class-wise division of society rule had generated a feeling of alienation in Indian masses. Cut-throat competition had started for a few places in modern callings. The whole society is divided into irreconcilable parts – “we” and “they”. Upper segments of Indian society became quite powerful both in urban and rural areas. It was ahead of others in matter of modern education and employment. The large lower segments comprising the artisanal castes became poorer and helpless.

After independence

After the Independence, the Preamble of the Constitution of India assured all its citizens – “JUSTICE, social, economic and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the Nation. Article 14 of the Indian Constitution confers Fundamental rights of “Equality before law.” Article15 prohibits discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth. Article 16 assures equality of opportunity in matters of public employment. Article 17 abolishes untouchability and Article 18 abolishes titles.

Politics of backwardness – Despite equal status given by the Constitution, the division and their ranks envisaged by Risley remains the by-word for political leaders of Independent India.  Electoral policy, Census Operations, and Reservation Policy, together, changed the basis of ranking. Socio-economic position of different social groups forms the basis of various development plans.

Outcome – A section of society opines that formation of the new infrastructure has resulted in sidetracking the upper castes from participating in the administration of the country. Also, it has encouraged backward classes to stick to their caste identities strongly, because it provides for them a path of least resistance to upward mobility. Reservation on the basis of caste offers them an opportunity to enter into politics. Through reservation, they get access to political institutions, government jobs and admissions in the institutions of higher learning, what they could not get through normal channels.

Position of upper castes in Independent India – There is a feeling among some people that common men belonging to upper castes are being treated as second rate citizens in their own country, because they are scattered. As against it, backward classes are united and organised. In addition to it, they have the advantage of their numerical strength. In such an atmosphere, it is easy for the political authorities to deprive deserving candidates of upper castes from opportunities and bestowing them on the “backward classes”. Such an attitude of government is not necessarily helping the really needy persons belonging to lower strata of society. It has resulted in brain-drain.

Liberalization and globalization – Liberalization and globalization has opened up a new vista for the upper segment of society. They do not prefer to join government services. They either join private sector or multi-national companies or go abroad in search of job. Information technology or software industry is full of such people. The private sector takes good care of them.

Inter-caste and intra-caste rivalries – The present scheme of stratification of society has ignited inter-caste jealousy. Inter-caste and intra-caste are increasing everyday. There is a demand of fixing quotas for different backward sections of society in private sector as well.

Conclusion – There was a time when despite lower ranking, people thought it a stigma to be called ‘Backward’. Numerous caste groups clamoured for higher caste status in Census operations of 1901, 1911, and 1921 and supported their claims with different factors. But the political acceptance of Reservation as a tool of social engineering has glamorized backwardness. Now at the threshold of 21st century, reversed trend is seen. Backwardness has become a status symbol. Different groups vie with each other to be included, preferably in SC list, failing which in OBCs list.

In 1955, First Backward Class Commission noted, “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 and anything that undermines it, will be expected and brought to book.” (BCC I, para IV)

“It would be well, if representatives of the Backward Classes remembered that whatever good they find in the Constitution and the liberal policy of the Government, is the result of the awakened conscience of the upper classes themselves. Whatever Government is doing by way of atonement is readily accepted and acclaimed by the nation as a whole. The upper classes have contributed their share in formulating the policies of the Government Removal of un-touchability, establishment of equality and social justice, special consideration for backward classes, all these elements found place in the Constitution without a single voice of dissent from the upper classes.” (BCCI, para III)

“It is not enough to prove that one community is regarded inferior by another. The Christians may look down the Jews and the Jews may retaliate with the same feelings. The Brahmins may regard Banias as inferior and the Bania, in his turn, may regard the Brahmin as a mere social dependent. Such opinions and prejudices do not come in the way of the full growth of the backward communities either educationally or economically; if backward communities have neglected education, it is because they had no use for it. Now they have discovered their mistake. It is for them to make necessary efforts for their prosperity. They will naturally receive whatever help is available to all citizens.” (BCCI, para VII & VIII)

In a democracy, there is no place for unequal identities. No section of society should get lesser attention or no group should get better treatment. For giving equal opportunity to all, there should be transparency. No plan or policy of the government should be based on prior biases.

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January 16, 2012 - Posted by | Social and political values and systems |

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