Posted by: Vikram | March 21, 2010

The three roles of caste in Indian society

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.


  1. hmm… nice post – a well thought out and balanced take on the issue of caste in India.

    Caste as a dividing influence and as another reason for bias cannot be removed unless it’s influence is negated in rural India. I am not sure how this can be achieved given the presence of people who stand to gain from keeping such dividing influences and bias in place.

  2. I know but what can be done if the society, thanks to political compulsions, stands divided on caste lines?

  3. Caste is so deeply embedded in the economic dependence of present generation on previous generation and strong joint family values. Older generation ignores and even punishes an individual’s pursuit to reform badly. Strong communal or social structure puts pressure on everyone to follow the traditions silently. With the advent of IT & banking jobs with growing of nuclear families, atleast intercaste divisions are blurring in metropolitean cities. The honor killings in Love marriage shows the stronghold of community based nature of Indian society.

    Third point saying – “caste as a determinant of social relationships and human behaviour” puts most important aspect. Due to lack of mobility in population, the social boundations has governed the behaviour of an individual. Now,I observe that even when the General cateogary started been tolerant in this matter, OBC still holds the principles of caste and subcaste strongly. The victims become oppressed for others and pyramid of prejudice goes on building.

    “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. ” The hiearchy prevails in Indian minds and concept of equality is quite new and annoying to most of Indians.

    The gender equality and caste discrimination shows the repressive nature of our society. It is not bounded by religious uniquness and even Islam and sikhism is affected by it.

    Take an opinion of Ram manohar Lohia on this:

    “The reason most Hindus don’t get worked up enough about atrocities against Dalits is that their conscience is not a public conscience but a caste conscience, imbued with values derived from caste,” said P Sivakami, the Tamil novelist.

    “The reason most Hindus don’t get worked up enough about atrocities against Dalits is that their conscience is not a public conscience but a caste conscience, imbued with values derived from caste,” said P Sivakami, the Tamil novelist.

    • *victims become oppressed : victims become oppressor (in 2nd paragarph)

  4. Of late, I think there’s also a political identity aspect to caste, besides the three aspects you’ve mentioned.

    But it is hard to say whether the political aspect is structural or emergent, while I think the three aspects you mentioned are clearly structural. (By which I mean that they are perpetuated by the rules of society and are not simply observed behaviour.)

    I think caste political identity is moving towards becoming structural via legislation introduced for reservations, though it isn’t yet.

    And though it will take time, I think there are attempts to structurally negate the second and third aspects, by introducing anti-discrimination laws and reservations.

    • Armchair Guy, sorry for this super late reply. I hope you get the chance to read this.

      This is an interesting question. I think though, that caste political identity becoming structural is not very likely. Its just too easy to vote for someone else. And its also not that hard to convince people of another caste to vote for you.

      As evidence, one has the recent dips in fortunes of Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan. Remember, that Indians have voted neglecting caste divisions for most of our Republican history. Overall, I think that people at the bottom of the caste hierarchy are likely to keep voting till their caste party becomes powerful enough to gain power, at which point the returns for voting based on caste start diminishing.

      You only need to become socially empowered once.

  5. Reservations institutionalize caste – it gives official backing and support to the divisive influence and if I may use the word, scourge, that is caste.

    caste needs to be phased out – it can be phased out – but the politicians and people should be ready to phase it out, instead of giving it official status and exploiting the divisions and stereotypes represented by caste to further their own aims

    The people should be ready to “forget” their caste and move into a world where caste is no longer a cause for bias – in short where caste no longer exists.

    As an urban Indian – till a couple of years back – I was simply unaware of the caste of my classmates (I still hardly notice such things – unless a caste specific scholarship or some other reservation comes along) – I don’t think there’s any greater absence of division then one in which you are unaware of the fact that any division exists. Reservation policies introduced by the government brought about a perceptible change in the attitude of the urban indian towards caste.

    I look forward to the day when children would read about caste as an absurd archaic classification that no longer exists – when associating a person with a caste would be considered offensive – when people would be unable to tell their own caste if asked to do so.

  6. Dear Vikram,
    Good post. Let me add another important role of caste in our society: allocation of labor to low-grade, menial jobs while protecting the interests of a select few.

    Every society has a number of mundane and potentially lethal jobs to do. It is difficult to imagine huge competition for the job of a bhangi (scavenger who carries human excreta on his head). Yet in primitive societies this is a job that needs to be done. The Indian society solved this problem by decreeing that a group of people should, for their lifetime do only scavenging. By a mixture of religious (e.g. dharma) and social measures (e.g. rules giving penalties for a job switch) switching jobs were forbidden.

    Thus there existed a caste for every profession, from priesthood (a lucrative job, requiring no toiling and having unlimited perks) to scavengers, even dancers. Every job, no matter how demeaning or unessential, was performed by somebody. The differentiation is rich – in Maharashtra, for instance, there exist barber castes depending on whether they shave only heads or only beards.

    By insisting on marrying within the same castes and dictating that the offspring works in the same profession, the system ensures its self-propagation.


    • Bhushan, completely in agreement with you. Check this news itema:

      Dalit is a Dalit even in a ‘free’ market ;

      A would-be Dalit entrepreneur approaches a bank for a loan. He is
      told he can get one to buy a cow or a buffalo but not to start a business
      While others’ businesses are known by their ware or the service they provide, Dalits’ shops are known by their caste name. It tends to keep away upper-caste customers . Source: A JNU professor’s study on first-generation Dalit entrepreneurs

  7. […] at An Academic View of India: The Three Roles of Caste in Indian Society. The third and I believe, most important role is caste as a determinant of social relationships […]

  8. when people talk about reservations preserving caste they should go and take a look at what happens in rural india they should try to disguise themselves as dalits and go and experience the life of a dalit first hand.They will find reservation is the mildest form of redressal to a dalit for unspeakable forms oppressions for thousands of years and counting – ( yes incredible as it sounds it continues to this day) . Give him a caste free society and a tough path to tread and to compete as an equal with pride he will take that any time rather than reservation,that is never going to be possible. Why ? because our society is so strongly rooted in casteism.You just have to look at the kind of responses on the web,of well educated and qualified people defending the caste system ,as a part of their proud hindu heritage. If this is the case with the educated who are supporting rather than reforming society,what hope is there for reform in the uneducated rural society who are not exposed to any form of modern scientific thought .

  9. This article reminds me of the ‘china’s cultural revolution in 60s’. It had it’s own side effects and led to mass immigration of chinese to other parts of the world. But the idea was to create cultural+economic equality in the masses. Private land ownership was dissolved and the state distributed the land equally among farmers and other people on lease basis which still remains so even today. Imagine a race where all the atheletes are at the zero mark before the race, that’s what the revolution was all about in China. Contrarily, in India, after independence people were largely allowed to keep thier wealth and maintain their economic status leading to a race where some people[higher castes] were already ahead of the zero line while others [lower castes] are still preparing for the race. Thats the story of India.

  10. Need for caste-free society!
    R L Francis

    Group of Ministers GOM will soon proclaim its decisive verdict on inclusion of caste in the census. At present census is being conducted in the country. Succumbing to the stiff pressure of many of its allies in the ruling coalition Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had announced in the upper house of parliament that cabinet will soon take positive decision on the issue. Now, it seems that government is trying to find ways and means to tackle the problems likely to arise after the caste census as it will inevitably lead to chain reactions. Setting-up of GoM is first step in the direction.

    Caste has historically been a potent tool to serve the ulterior motives of all those who believed in the philosophy of ‘Divide and rule’. After the revolt of 1857 India was in the grip of wave of nationalism. Britishers used the tool of caste census to sow the seeds of division in the society. Caste was included during census of 1871 to 1931. This had stark impact on the society and it can be explicitly inferred that Britishers were quite successful in their vicious agenda. Many caste based organisations created chaos in the society and i sowed the seeds of conflict. Caste was dropped from the census from 1931 on the ground that it widens the rift in the society after the vehement protest of Congress. To consolidate itself in the country, Britishers made lot of experiments with ‘Varna system’ prevalent in Hindu society. They tried to divide Hindus and Vanvasis (Tribal) and dalits through smart machinations. Some of the castes were even declared as ‘criminal tribes’ by making separate law for them. This was the basic reason not only caste was included in the first census conducted in 1891 but also there scope and definition were included. This was precisely the reason Britishers successfully mobilised some of the castes.

    Caste is an irrefutable truth of Indian society and it has multilayered social, economical and political structure. It is a historical fact that millions of people suffering from caste abuse took the shelter of Islam and Christianity. Many reformist Hindu leaders realised this inherent danger in Hindu society and tried to wipe out the multilayered sophistication of caste system. Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi analysed caste on the basis of work and character. They failed the shrewd machinations of Puna through Puna Pact.

    Those lower-caste people converted into Islam and Christianity are not feeling comfortable. Both of these religions progressed but there has not been remarkable shift in the lives of these deprived sections of society. After the end of British rule in the country missionaries started demanding to put these lower-caste converted people in the list of lower castes as decided by constituent. But, makers of constitution did not accept the proposal fearing increase in conversion that will disrupt peace and harmony in the country.

    As per guidance of World Church Council (WCC) and Vatican; Indian church has been demanding for constitutional amendment to put these people in the list of Hindu scheduled castes. The logic of church is simple-Converted Christians are facing brunt of discrimination on the name of caste. Muslims first rejected the existence of caste in their society but now they see benefit in realising this reality. Muslim leaders are on the foot-steps of church. Setting up of ‘Sachhar committee’ and ‘Rangnath Misra Commission’ is the consequence of pressure of this sustained lobbying. Both of these commissions have advocated for reservation on caste basis. However, commission has accepted that they do not have reliable figures of castes in ‘Christianity and Islam’.

    In 2001 church had strongly demanded inclusion of caste in the census and Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had supported this demand. However, Atal Behari Vajpayee led government did not succumb to this demand. Some of the church leaders had even sent legal notice to Registrar General of Census alleging that questions put to the citizens, and the enumerators’ manual on Religion of Scheduled Castes, violate secular and freedom of faith guarantees of the constitution. Church was uncomfortable to the fact of asking religion based questions. After the formation of United Progressive Alliance government ‘Non-governmental church organisations’ have stepped up their effort to include caste in the census. This issue was also raised in the advisory council meeting of UPA in 2005. Senior journalist Ram Bahadur Roy has written in a column that the then chairperson of advisory council Sonia Gandhi wanted to know the view point of other political parties on the issue. Many people do believe that Sonia Gandhi is in favour of inclusion of caste in the census and this is precisely the reason a large section of Congress feels that caste based data will be compiled sooner or later.

    Honestly speaking caste census will not serve purposes of Christians and Muslim in a big way. On the other hand they will be forced in the same system that has forced them for conversion. Today, thousands of organizations and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are trying to sow the seeds of equality in the Hindu society. At 30th June a delegation from an organisation ‘Meri Jaati Hindustani’ led by Dr.VedPratap Vadik met Home Minister P Chidambaram and registered protest on the issue on the inclusion of caste in the census. Our view is that even if there is caste based discrimination in Islam and Christianity, it is the duty of religious leaders to change this practice. Inclusion in the lower caste category is not a solution to the problem. This will only aggravate the situation and will not ameliorate.

    When constituent assembly had made provision of reservation for dalit Hindus- who were also majority-Hindus had accepted this. ‘Right to equality’ was sacrificed in favour of dalit sections that faced the brunt of caste abuse from thousands of years. The move of constituent assembly was widely perceived as compensation to those suffering. However, today every person and leader wants reservation to serve their own purpose. Makers of constitution had imagined for caste-free society and United Progressive Alliance government should respect it.

    R L Francis
    National President
    Poor Christian Liberation Movement

  11. […] Continue reading here: The three roles of caste in Indian society […]

  12. […] The three roles of caste in Indian society March 201013 comments 5 […]

  13. […] is driven more by the insecurity of scarce higher education rather than caste discrimination. Urban middle class India is indeed caste-insensitive but it is (mostly) not casteist. In fact, this section of the society possibly sees the most […]

  14. believe me, you don’t know anything about indian cultureand caste system in india. every social decision is made by caste in india.whether it is making friend or marriage. you have to do ground work before writing

  15. Avi, do point me to interesting reading material if you have any to share.

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