Caste, a uniquely Indian social institution has been a central influence on the lives of Indians and their communities for millennia. A complex, heterogenous system of community relations (or non-relations) with obscure origins, it has dogged the Republican Indian state and modern Indian society in one way or another. I myself grew up in middle class Mumbai with little knowledge or understanding of caste. In fact, I was not made aware of what my caste was till I started graduate school in America. However, my readings and interactions with people have allowed me to develop some understanding of the role caste plays in India today. I am not out to prove anything about caste or about any particular community, I simply want to discuss how caste enters into the life of modern Indians.
First, we recognize caste as a label, an indicator of lineage or membership of a community. The last name of most Indians will usually tell one what his/her caste is in addition to their state of ancestry. We can identify a person as Brahmin, Dalit, Vaishya, Kshatriya, Yadav etc. For a lot of urban Indians, especially my generation, this is all caste seems to be, a simple label which has no bearing otherwise on individuals. There is mostly no obvious correlation between a person’s caste as determined from his/her last name and their occupation in today’s urban economy1. In cities, caste still has some role to play in the arranged marriage system, but even there its relevance is based on the personal belief that a person from the same caste is similar in culture, rather than the ‘impurity’ or ‘rank’ of other castes. In rural India, however these labels are very powerful and play a crucial role in politics and everyday interactions.
The second role is caste as an indicator of access to resources. In urban India, this usually means access to better education and jobs, mostly due to the ‘head-start’ the upper castes have had historically and the fact that many of the low castes are migrants to the city with little in the way of an existing resource base. They lack these resources, because at the rural level, in spite of land reform, the lowest castes remain vulnerable, with either no or very little land, poor access to good schools and inadequate healthcare. This is especially true of northern states, especially Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where access to land resources is one of the principal reasons for caste conflict and caste politics. It must be noted that second generation metro Indians, although recipients of caste privilege might not recognize the indirect role caste plays in the distribution of resources. The reasons for this were mentioned in the second paragraph.
The third and I believe, most important role is caste as a determinant of social relationships and human behaviour. This affects Indians of almost all caste, religions and language, except the hill people of North East and Central India. The hierarchical, ‘purity’ bound social order has been embedded in the behaviour of Indians for generations and overcoming it will take generations. Indians, urban or rural usually work on a master slave nature of personal relationships. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta points out in ‘The Burden of Democracy’, Indians often fail to see their co-workers, bosses, employees etc. as equal human beings, being constantly aware of one’s ‘status’ with respect to the other. One has to work hard and be well off, not simply for material fulfillment, but for expecting the minimum civility and respect that should be accorded to every human. The socio-religious capital of being a Brahmin or a big land-owner has been replaced by financial capital and the social capital of ‘being well known’, ‘working in an MNC’ or ‘having studied abroad’.
Of course, there are many other societies on our planet that display similar social arrangements, and have absolutely nothing to do with caste. But understanding these manifestations of caste helps us see the roots of caste-based political mobilization and identifying behaviours that need to be corrected if we are to truly banish the negative aspects of caste from Indian society as envisaged in the Constitution.
1: That is from the perspective of young urban Indians, the Vaishya daughter of a relatively middle income family can end up doing a lot better than the son of a Brahmin family. Of course, another point of view is that almost all the elite jobs are taken up by persons of the three ‘twice-born’ castes, Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya.