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History Of Caste

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History Of Caste
Why reservation is necessary
Sukhadeo Thorat

back to issue

WITH a rapid scaling down of our tiny public sector due to privatisation and increasing withdrawal of the state under the impact of liberalisation, serious concern has been expressed about the fate of the present public sector reservation policy. Because of indirect and backdoor de-reservation, there is a growing demand for some sort of affirmative action policy for the private sector which so far has remained outside the purview of any kind of anti-discriminatory measure and in which more than 90% of dalit and adivasi workforce is engaged. The issue found a place in the election manifesto of political parties and in the Common Minimum Programme of the present government. Drawing from theoretical and empirical literature on the issue of economic discrimination, I will try to provide reasons for a reservation policy for the private sector as a remedy against discrimination in labour, capital and other markets and indicate general guidelines for framing such a policy.

Discrimination on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, national or social origin exists in many nations under diverse social, economic and political systems. In order to correct the imbalance in terms of access to capital assets, employment, education, political participation and other spheres, countries have turned to practices of reservation, affirmative action, positive action or equal opportunity policies for these discriminated sub-groups in addition to general pro-poor policies. A great majority of these policies and programmes of intervention operate in respect to sub-group populations identified by ethnic, racial, religious or gender characteristics. The examples are not only from the West (USA, UK, Northern Ireland and Yugoslavia) but also from Latin American countries like Brazil, Bolivia, Peru; African countries like Nigeria, Sudan, South Africa and countries like Malaysia, Pakistan, China, Japan and India from Asia. It is surprising that while the affirmative action policy in many of these countries was, to begin with, used for both private and public sector, the India state never thought of bringing the private sector under the purview of a reservation policy – even though it is the fact of discrimination in the private domain that led us to accept the reservation policy for the public sector.

Why are governments in developing and developed countries concerned about exclusion and discrimination? Why do they develop policies against such practices? Is discrimination only an issue of equity or does it also involve economic costs to the society? Are the costs it imposes on the society more social and political than economic? The insights from mainstream economic theory indicate that economic, particularly market, discrimination has multiple consequences; it hampers economic growth, induces income inequality and creates potential for inter-group conflict by denying equal opportunity to discriminated groups (Birdsall and Sabot 1991). Therefore, remedies against discrimination – legal, affirmative action or compensatory in nature are required both for equity and economic growth. I will argue that we need a reservation policy for private sector in India for reasons of equity as well as economic growth.

Let us first discuss the case for reservation from the point of view of economic growth. All standard theories of economic discrimination predict adverse consequences of market discrimination on economic growth through their detrimental consequences on profits, wages and efficiency in the allocation of labour. They suggest that economic discrimination will slow down growth by reducing efficiency due to sub-optimal allocation of labour among firms and economy, by reducing job commitment and effort of workers who perceive themselves to be victims of discrimination and, by reducing the magnitude of investment in human capital by discriminated groups, returns on this investment. (Birdsall and Sabot 1991).

The consequences of discrimination on inequality are far more evident and therefore justification for reservation/affirmative action policy from equity consideration is clear. Denial of access to resources, employment, education and common facilities that others have, it impoverishes the lives of individuals from excluded groups and is a clear denial of certain basic human rights. The concern about discrimination thus is an issue not only for equity but also for economic growth.

Ambedkar pioneered the reservation policy as early as the 1920s, mainly on the basis of widespread and ubiquitous discriminatory and exclusionary character of Hindu society with devastating consequences, particularly for former untouchables. The caste system’s characteristic feature of fixed and compulsory occupation (or property rights) with concomitant fixed economic rights for each caste, implies ‘exclusion’ of one caste from undertaking the occupations of other castes. Exclusion and discrimination is in fact internal to the economics and sociology of the caste system and its natural outcome. In terms of consequences, the economic theories of the caste system clearly predict negative outcomes of caste and untouchability based market discrimination for economic growth and income distribution (Akerlof 1976, Scoville 1984, Lal 1991, and Ambedkar 1987).

Fixed occupations essentially involve restrictions on mobility of labour and capital across caste groups, leading to an imperfect market situation and a fragmentation of economic activities. Akerlof-Scoville-Lal’s theoretical model thus predicts that given the segmented and imperfect character of the labour market, the economic outcome of the caste economy is lower than posited in the model of perfectly competitive markets.

Ambedkar added that efficiency and productivity of labour is adversely affected by multiple disincentives involved in customary rules of castes. The economic pursuit in a caste system is not based on individual choice, sentiment and preference, in so far as it involves an attempt to allocate a task to an individual in advance, selected not on the basis of training or capacity but on the social status of parents. The social and individual efficiency requires us to develop the capacity of an individual to the point of competency to choose and make one’s own career. This is missing in the overall scheme of the caste system.

Further, some of these occupations are considered polluting or impure and therefore socially degrading. The social stigma of impurity and pollution reduces the social status of persons engaged in them and thus lowers the economic incentives. ‘What efficiency can there be in a system under which neither men’s hearts nor their minds are in their work?’ (Ambedkar, 1936). As an economic organisation caste is therefore a harmful institution, in as much as it involves the subordination of man’s natural powers and inclination to the exigencies of social rules.

The consequences are particularly pronounced in terms of income distribution, employment and poverty experienced by the excluded/discriminated groups. Since property rights under the caste system are assigned unequally across castes, income distribution is generally skewed along caste lines. The unequal and hierarchical assignment of occupation and property rights among castes implies that although every caste, except those at the top of the caste order, suffers to various degrees from an unequal division of social and economic rights, the former untouchables, who are located at the bottom of the caste hierarchy, suffer most as they face ‘exclusion and discrimination’ from access to all economic rights, including right to property, except manual labour or service to the castes above them.

Beside the general negative impact on income distribution, labour immobility across occupation also adversely impacts employment. Ambedkar (and Akerlof in a different context, 1980) argued that by restricting mobility of labour across caste occupation and thereby not permitting readjustment of employment, caste becomes a direct cause of ‘voluntary unemployment’ among high caste persons and ‘involuntary unemployment’ among the low caste persons. A high caste Hindu would generally prefer to be voluntarily unemployed for some time than to take up an occupation not assigned to his caste. On the other hand, for low caste untouchables the restrictions to take other caste’s occupation compels them to remain involuntarily unemployed.

Thus, judged by the standard criterion of economic efficiency, the caste system as an economic organisation lacks all elements required to fulfil the conditions for optimum economic outcome. The caste and untouchability based economic discrimination have serious consequences on economic development, income distribution, right to individual development and equal right to employment, all of which cumulatively have poverty-inducing consequences, particularly for the low caste untouchable.

Reducing economic discrimination thus becomes essential because it is likely to increase economic growth, provide equal access to discriminated groups, reduce inequality between groups and minimise the potential for conflict which inequality between groups may give rise to. What are the remedies against market discrimination? Conclusions regarding the consequences of market discrimination on economic growth and income distribution are derived from mainstream economic theory. The same theory also predicts that in highly competitive markets, discrimination will prove to be a transitory phenomenon as there are costs associated with discrimination to the firm/employer which result in lowering profits. Firms\employers who discriminate, face the ultimate sanction imposed by the markets. This theoretical perspective thus posits the resultant erosion of profits as a self-correcting dimension of discrimination.

The free market solution is not, however, a practical remedy as, discrimination might persist, particularly in the labour market, over long periods with or without prevalence of a free market situation. First, not all markets are highly competitive. The persistence over decades of labour market discrimination in high income countries attests to that. Indeed, in developing countries, employers have significant monopoly power to discriminate at will. Second, even if competition exists in all markets, is not a sufficient condition for the elimination of discrimination if all employers are discriminators.

These two theoretical viewpoints have obvious policy implications. Those who believe that discrimination is indeed self-correcting argue for strengthening competitive market mechanisms. But if discrimination continues to persist despite competitive market process (which in reality is the case) or for other reasons mentioned above, market interventionist policies will be necessary.

‘The analytical stance of the mainstream neoclassical economists is characterized as methodological individualism and it presumes that economic institutions are structured such that society-wide outcomes result from an aggregation of individual behaviours. It presumed that if individuals act on the basis of pecuniary self-interest then market dynamics dictate equal treatment for equal individuals regardless of inscriptive characteristics such as race. Consequently, observed group inequality is attributed to familial, educational, or other background differences among individuals who are unevenly distributed between social groups. The causes of a dissimilar distribution of individuals between social groups may be genetic, cultural, historical, or some combination thereof. The differences in cultural attributes include the value families and neighbourhoods place on education, attitudes, and work habits. The historical refers primarily to the impact of past discrimination on current inequality.

‘In contrast, economists who may be classified as methodological structuralists do not accept this interpretation. Structuralism as an analytical method holds that aggregate outcomes are not the result of a simple summation of individual behaviours, but rather arise from the constraints and incentives imposed by organizational and social hierarchies. In this view, individual behaviour achieves its importance within the context of group formation, cooperation, and conflict. Economic and political outcomes are thus a function of the hegemony exercised by dominant groups, the resistance offered by subordinate groups, and the institutions that mediate their relationship. Discrimination, in this view, is an inherent feature of the economic system. Competition is either not powerful enough to offset the group dynamics of identity and interest, or it actually operates so as to sustain discriminatory behaviour. Discrimination is due to the dynamics of group identification, competition, and conflict rather than irrational, individual attitudes. Market mechanisms, far from being relied upon to eliminate discrimination of their own accord, must be scrutinized and pressured to further the goal of equality of opportunity’ (Shulmen and Darily 1989).

The policy implications of this view on persistence of discrimination are obvious. Since the markets will continue to operate in an imperfect manner, discrimination will persist. It will also persist even if market forces are competitive in nature under certain conditions mentioned above as a normal phenomena; it therefore calls for intervention in the form of an affirmative action policy and other measures as safeguards against discrimination.

The customary regulatory framework of the institution of the caste system and untouchability, on which mainstream theoretical formulations are based, has now undergone significant change. After the adoption of the Constitution in 1950, in theory at least caste-based customary rules and norms governing occupation, property rights, employment and wages, and education were formally replaced by an egalitarian legal framework of property rights under which the ‘low castes’ now have equal access to all occupations, education and other spheres. However, despite these provisions and the impact of other factors, the caste system continues to function in the private domain of economy in modified and changing forms and therefore safeguards are required against market and non-market discrimination.

The corporate sector, however, has by and large opposed affirmative action of any sort on grounds that it does not discriminate in hiring practices. It has further argued that a reservation policy of the type used in the public sector in India will reduce competitiveness and efficiency. It is clear from the earlier discussion that this argument is neither based on economic theory nor on empirical evidence about the working of labour and other markets. While the corporate sector advances the agenda of liberalisation based on support from mainstream economic theories, it refuses to accept lessons from the economic theory of discrimination. In particular it refuses to recognize the need for market intervention in the form of affirmative action to overcome market imperfections caused by caste based discrimination and to induce market competitiveness.

Empirical studies on the working of labour and other markets, and social needs like education, housing and health services, provide evidence of the persistence of market discrimination, particularly of former untouchables, and its end result in the form of lack of access to fixed capital assets, employment, human development and culmination in high poverty and deprivation among them. (Action Aid study 2005, Thorat 1999, reports of the SC/ST Commission). The studies also bring out the exclusionary and discriminatory working of private industrial labour markets (Papola 2004).

So the claim of the corporate sector that it follows fair and competitive hiring practices is not borne out by facts. More than 60% of recruitment in organised industrial sector is through informal modes of recruitment which are exclusionary in their outcome. Affirmative action is thus necessary for promoting competitiveness and economic growth, if not for the goal of equal opportunity. An efficiency conscious corporate sector cannot avoid the lessons from the theories which they use as justification for pushing the liberalisation agenda.

How and in what forms we need to extend the existing public sector reservation policy for discriminated groups in the private sector is, however, as crucial. There is the huge experience of our own public sector reservation policy. The Indian state could also learn from the measures used against discrimination in private sector of other countries in the world. Drawing on both Indian and international experience, I wish to spell out the possible elements of reservation or affirmative action policy for the private sector in India.

In designing remedies against discrimination we need to clearly distinguish between legal, equal access and other positive measures. These aspects relate to (a) the type of economic sector or market for which the legal and affirmative action measures are developed and (b) the type of method or procedures used in their application for the private and public sector.

First, with respect to the economic spheres or markets, countries such as USA, Northern Ireland, South Africa and Malaysia have mainly developed policies for religious, racial and ethnic minority groups. Broadly speaking, in these countries multiple economic and social spheres are covered under the orbit of legal and affirmative action measures which include labour, agricultural land, capital, product and consumer goods markets and also the transactions in supply of social goods, such as education, housing and the transactions undertaken by the government with private minority businesses. The specific economic spheres covered vary from country to country.

In countries like USA and Northern Ireland, where the non-agriculture sector constitutes more than 90% of the workforce, the focus is mainly on affirmative action policies for the labour market, both in public and private sectors. In some countries like USA, besides the labour market, legal and affirmative action measures also cover education, housing, and government contracts for construction and purchase of goods from minority businesses. In developing countries like Malaysia and South Africa where a substantial portion of population is engaged in the agriculture sector, and minority groups suffer from poor access to land and capital in addition to the labour market, the affirmative action measures are also extended to agriculture land and capital market in addition to affirmative action policies for basic social needs like education and housing.

A second aspect relates to methods and procedures used to operationalise the safeguards against discrimination. Countries have used at least three kinds of procedures or methods. First is the legal protection against discrimination in the form of Equal Employment Opportunity Laws (EEOL).

These laws prohibit any private or public employers from discriminating against workers or persons based on group identities like religion, gender, colour, ethnicity, national and social origin and provide legal safeguards to discriminated groups in the event of discrimination in employment and other spheres of economic activities. Article VII of the Civil Act which established Equal Employment Opportunity as law (EEOL) (Executive Order 11246) in USA, and Fair Employment Act in Northern Ireland, are some examples.

A second strategy relates to affirmative and positive actions of various type. In principle, affirmative action can be distinguished from other anti-discrimination measures requiring proactive steps to ensure fair participation of discriminated groups (in employment and other spheres like education, housing, government contracts etc), in contrast to laws that only prevent employers from taking steps that disadvantage minorities in the labour market and other spheres. Given the limitations of EEOL in ensuring fair participation of discriminated groups, they are supplemented by affirmation action and positive measures, which attempt to ensure a fair share to discriminated groups.

The principles (and methods) applied to judge ‘fair or just participation’ in employment, educational admission, political participation or government contract and other spheres vary among the countries. Generally speaking, the population share of minority groups constitutes the basis to judge fair participation or access. In some cases just participation is viewed in term of fixed quotas (similar to India), in other cases it is expressed in term of racial/religious minority (population or labour force) balance, and ‘appropriate candidate pool’ with numerical goals and timetables without quotas. Further, these fixed goals or targets are made legally mandatory or compulsory in some cases while in others they are pursued with an element of voluntary action on the part of firms. In both cases, however, some sort of enforcement machinery is designated to monitor goals and targets. The office of Federal Contact Compliance in USA and FAIR Employment Agency in Northern Ireland are some examples.

A third strategy is ‘reparation or compensation’. Reparations and compensation are defined as payment for an acknowledged grievous social injustice to a group (Darity 1997). It is necessary to recognize that different affirmative action policies are generally deployed as a measure and safeguard against ‘present discrimination’. This has its limitations in overcoming the effects of discrimination and exclusion suffered by a community in the past for long periods of time. The Equal Opportunity Act and affirmative action programmes of various kinds which intend to provide legal protection and ensure just participation in the present are inadequate to compensate for wrongs done in the past, resulting in complicit resourcelessness. Therefore, some countries have used selective compensation as a method to pay and empower excluded and discriminated groups as a one time settlement.

An overview of the strategies against economic and social discrimination used by different countries indicates three remedies – namely equal (employment) opportunity laws, reservation/affirmative action measures and reparation and compensation, either together or in combination. Adoption of some or all of these remedies against discrimination inflicted on low caste untouchables and other groups in the private sector in India will be conditioned by the nature of economic and social discrimination.

In my view the reservation policy for the private sector, namely agriculture, private industry and service sector, and cooperative sector where more then 90% of SC and ST are engaged should by guided by three principles. It should be applicable to multiple spheres, fixed quotas with some kind of monitoring mechanism and, depending on the nature of discrimination, using all three instruments – legal, fair access and compensation – in combination.

It is necessary that the government enact an equal opportunity law to provide legal safeguards against discrimination for various markets, namely capital, agriculture land, employment, product and consumer goods, education, housing, health and others. The legal safeguards should then be supplemented by more positive and reservation/affirmative actions to improve their effective access to private employment, agricultural land, capital, production and consumer goods, and private education.

Since these reservation/affirmative action policies address the issue of present discrimination, they do not generally help to compensate for historical exclusion. This can be addressed within the framework of reparation or compensation measures. The former untouchables are a potential case for reparation or compensation due to denial of property rights and other rights and injustice for long periods in history, which is reflected in their overwhelming presence as wage labour, insignificant share in business and low literacy and educational levels.


George Akerlof (1976), ‘The Economic of Caste and of Rat Race and Other Woeful Tales’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, XC.4, November 1976.

George Akerlof (1980), ‘The Theory of Social Customs, of Which Unemployment May Be One Consequence’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, XCIV.4, June 1980.

B.R. Ambedkar (first published 1987), ‘Philosophy of Hinduism’, ‘The Hindu Social Order – Its Essential Features’, The Hindu Social Order – Its Unique Features’, Vasant Moon (ed.) Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, Vol.3, pp. 1-94.

Biswjit Banerjee and J.B. Knight (1985), ‘Caste Discrimination in the Indian Urban Labour Market’, Journal of Developing Economics, ?????.

Faridah Jamaluding, ‘A Study of the Malaysian Economy: The New Economic Policy (1971-2000) and National Development Policy (1991-2000)’, Journal of Social Science and History, Fall 1988.

Deepak Lal (1984), Hindu Equilibrium: Cultural Stability and Economic Stagnation, Vol. I, Clarendon Press, Oxford.

Nancy Birdsall and Richard Sabot (1991), ‘Unfair Advantage – Labour Market Discrimination in Developing Countries’, World Bank Studies, ???????.

T.S. Papola ( 2004), ‘Social Exclusion and Hiring Practices by Private Industrial Sector’, Paper presented a Seminar on Remedies Against Discrimination in the Context of Reservation in the Private Sector, IIDS, Delhi, August 2004.

James G.L. Scoville (1996), ‘Labour Market Underpinnings of a Caste Economy – Failing the Caste Theorem’, The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 55(4), October 1996.

Amartya Sen (2000), ‘Social Exclusion: Concept, Application, and Scrutiny’, ADB Working Paper.

S.K. Thorat (1999), ‘Caste and Labour Market Discrimination’ (with R.S. Deshpande), Indian Journal of Labour Economics, Conference Issue, November.

S.K. Thorat (1996), ‘Ambedkar on Economics of Hindu Social Order: Understanding Its Orthodoxy and Legacy’ in Walter Fernandes (ed.), The Emerging Dalit Identity, Indian Social Institute, Delhi.

William Darity Jr. and Steven Shulman (1989), Question of Discrimination – Racial Inequality in the U.S. Labour Market, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut.

Caste, race, politics


back to issue

THE arguments in this paper are set out in two stages. I will first point out why caste should not be seen as another variant of race. If this position is sustained then it follows that casteism is not racism under a different name. In the second section I hope to demonstrate the political consequences, some quite damaging, if caste were to be equated with race.

For a long time anthropologists and sociologists felt that the ‘caste-is-race’ thesis was dead and buried. Obviously, it was not given a decent enough burial for it surfaced again in the context of the United Nations conference on racism held in Durban in August 2001. The heat and dust raised during the Durban conference necessitates a return to some of the points made much earlier in scholarly contributions on caste. Though, on occasion, the professional academic might get a sense of deja vu while going through this paper, the fact that the parallelisms between caste and race are still compelling enough for many political activists demonstrates that something was obviously missing in previous presentations. In my view, the best way to nail down the caste-is-race thesis is to logically show how this equation is politically misleading if not, in fact, dangerous. To do so it is ineluctable that the distinction between caste and race be made more fulsomely than before, keeping in mind all the while that this exercise has clear political implications.

Why is caste so often mistaken to be another kind of racism? There are two reasons for this. One is a misreading of Vedic texts inspired by the distinction made by early Indologists between fair Aryans and dark Dravidians. The other reason for equating caste with race comes about because there are some similarities between the ways blacks were treated in southern United States, or in apartheid Africa, and the treatment meted out to so-called ‘untouchables’ in caste Hindu society.

There is no doubt that people known as the Aryans came to India around 1,500 B.C. in successive waves and settled down in the Indo-Gangetic plains. But there is no unambiguous evidence to suggest that these in-migrating Aryans were physically of a different sort from those who were already living in this region. What is clear, however, is that the Aryans who came across the mountains brought in a different language that was quite distinct from the families of languages spoken by the people who were earlier inhabitants in the land mass which we now identify as India.

There also appears to be good reason to believe that Aryans met with some resistance from autochthonous peoples of this region. It is, however, far from clear whether Aryans overcame such opposition by superior military might, or by ideological warfare, or by hard-nosed diplomacy. The evidence seems to suggest a combination of all three.

Early European Indologists took a shine to the notion that fair Aryans conquered dark Dravidians in remote history probably because it justified such a re-enactment in colonial India. But what is more surprising is the alacrity with which some Indian intellectuals internalized this position and began to draw racial lines of distinction within Hindu society.

There is a well-worn sociological clichŽ which says that the dominated people often appropriate aesthetic standards of the superior community. This seems to have happened in India as well. Thus, those from Punjab and the northern regions proudly took on the mantle of being Aryans and distanced themselves from the darker people of the southern provinces of India as they considered them to be Dravidians. Even a staunch Hindu nationalist like Bankim Chandra felt a sense of pride in the belief that superior Aryan blood coursed through his veins.

Those from the South, not to be undone by all this, began demonizing Aryans and all those who claimed ancestry from them. This was how the Dravida Kazhagam and later Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam rationalized their demands for secession from the Indian union several decades ago. So the caste is race thesis played a politically divisive role during the years of our nationalist struggle against colonialism. If left unattended it will continue to be divisive, though ‘racial’ opponents may be arraigned differently at different times. But we are already jumping ahead of our presentation.

In terms of empirical detail a lot more is required than has been provided so far if the theory of the racial origin of caste is to be made convincing. The factual evidence given in favour of this point of view is exceedingly exiguous. In fact, the manner in which dark skin and fair skin have been read into Vedic texts is itself highly disputable. What is interpreted as ‘fair skin’ in the Vedas could easily mean, and most probably did mean, ‘light’, in which case it was not a matter of skin complexion but of knowledge. The Aryans then distinguished themselves from others not by their complexion, but by their belief that they were in possession of superior knowledge and wisdom. They were the carriers of light, and that is how they dispelled the darkness and ignorance that reigned during pre-Aryan times.

Further, there is only one passage in the Vedas that purportedly depicts the Dravidians as being ‘nose-less and bull-lipped’. The Sanskritist, Hans Hock has convincingly demonstrated that this particular sentence in the Vedas has been translated and interpreted in a highly dubious fashion. The same word, viz., anas, can also mean a person of poor speech and not someone who is nose less.

If the Aryans indeed brought in a new language then it is only natural that they should emphasize proper speech and pronunciation (uccharan) to differentiate themselves from those others over whom they ruled, or with whom they had an uneasy relationship. The term bull-lipped can also have a variety of meanings. Remember, the bull is not really looked down upon in India as it is in many European metaphors (see Hock 2000). The bull in Indian tradition is not seen as dumb and obdurate but strong and determined. So the evidence from the Vedas is far from conclusive. Moreover, what is most striking is that this description of the autochthonous original inhabitants is to be found in only a single passage in the Vedas, and yet so much has been made of it.

It should also be noted in this connection that the term Varna in the Vedas need not necessarily mean skin colour. Varna can also refer to order. Therefore, if there were four Varnas, or two (as in the early Rg Veda), then it signified that the society was stratified along four orders, or two orders, as the case may be. Each order was supposed to have a colour pennant of its own as they represented different phases of the sun’s journey around the earth.

The rising sun, the grandest of all, was red, and this was the colour given to the ruling kshatriyas. Brahmans were signified by the colour white because that was supposed to be the colour of the sun at noon. Vaishyas were yellow because that is the colour the sun took in the East, and finally sudras were blue, for that was the hue of the setting sun. To extrapolate racial segregation from factual material of this order is indeed far-fetched.

It will then have to be admitted that even the Vedas concede that kshatriyas are superior to brahmans as they represent the rising sun. Further, from where does the colour yellow get any material substantiation? Why have yellow or red not received any attention from those who argue in favour of the racial origins of caste? Why are many of us committed to a two race theory and not a four race one? Quite clearly the thesis that caste originated from race is flawed as it is based on flimsy evidence.

The race argument takes a further beating when we study gene distribution and racial measurements along caste lines. Once again no clear pattern emerges between different castes on the basis of the distribution of heavy gamma chains and light kappa chains in their genetic makeup. It has also been pointed out in this context that the presence of African haplotype among some people of North India obviously means that the term ‘African’ is a misnomer (see Field, Surje and Ray 1988: 34).

Much earlier in 1960, Majumdar and Rao conducted a statistical study of so-called race elements in Bengal and came to the interesting conclusion that there were overwhelming physical similarities between high and low castes within the same geographical region. But the story was different between different regions. Upper castes in one area differed a great degree from upper castes in a different geographical locale. The same held true between lower castes in different regions of the country (Majumdar and Rao 1960).

In an influential paper published in 1990 in Current Anthropology, an international team of scholars undertook anthropometric exercises and found no differences between different castes. They took three important measurements, viz., head length, head breadth, and bizygomatic breadth. After examining a wide range of material they came to the conclusion that all efforts ‘at typological/"racial" classification should be abandoned’ (Majumder, Shanker, et al.).

Interestingly enough the various smritis, like the Yagnavalkyasmriti and the Manusmriti strongly disapprove of marrying outside one’s caste. Out of such cases of miscegenation, the smritis argue, that new and despicable castes are formed. Thus the chamars were born out of the union of a vaideha and a nishada. In the case of the lowliest of the low caste, the chandals, something much, much worse is said to have happened. A brahman woman had sexual relations with a sudra man and, not surprisingly, therefore, a monster in the shape of a chandal was born (see Gupta 2000: 71-2).

Note, no matter how fanciful and spiteful such origin tales might be, nowhere is it said that the child of such unions is half a vaideha and half a nishada, or half a brahman and half a sudra. The miscegenes of such highly despised unions belonged to a different breed altogether, to a completely different caste. Mixed marriages, in such cases, do not result in mixed off-springs but in dangerous and impure outcastes.

This situation changes when we move from caste to race. Children born out of inter-racial unions, however, are socially recognized to carry the strains of both parents and are thus classified as hybrid, mulattos, octoroon, quadroons, and so on. In many racist societies, mulattos and mestizos have greater privileges and occupy a higher rank than other blacks. We will have occasion to return to this when we discuss the differences between the politics of caste and race.

It needs also to be mentioned that it was commonplace to have a black cook or wet nurse in white homes in racially segregated ante bellum southern United States. While blacks were despised they were not considered polluting. Imagine the horror that would be aroused in the home of a traditional privileged caste in India at the very suggestion of an untouchable cook in the kitchen. Thus, while racism at its height might consider blacks to be despicable, it did not regard them as polluting.

Additionally, in a racially segregated society one’s sense of identity gets stronger as one moves from the particular to the more general level. In other words, it does not matter if the person is from Belgium, Germany or Holland, as long as the person is white. Any further sub-classification is not necessary and may indeed take away from the power of racial consciousness. Likewise, to be considered black it is not at all important, or relevant, to know whether the person is from Botswana or from Nigeria. If the person is black then that is enough regardless of where the person comes from.

Caste identity works in a reverse direction. Caste loyalties gain in commitment the more localized and particularized they get. It is not enough to be a brahman but to be a brahman of a certain endogamous jati, such as the kanyakubja brahman or chitpavan brahman or barendra brahman. In many cases this may not be enough either, and further sub-divisions are necessary. The same holds true for rajputs, jats and kayasthas, and indeed for all other caste clusters as well.

This brings us to the crucial analytical difference between caste and race. Strata based on race are arranged along a continuum of colour. Whites occupy one end and blacks the other of this hierarchical ladder. The colours in between are positioned accordingly along this scale. This is why those who are one-eighth black are superior to those who are one-fourth black and so forth.

In Washington, light-skinned blacks set up an organization called the Bon-Ton Society in the 1930s. To be a member of this society was fairly prestigious for mulattos of various degrees, but they had to pass two qualification tests. Their skin colour had to be lighter than the standard brown paper bag, and when a comb was run through the prospective candidate’s hair it was not supposed to meet with any resistance. In Nashville around the same time there existed the Blue Vein Society. This too was formed by light-skinned blacks, and they too wanted it to be quite an exclusive affair. The criterion in this case was that the fine blue criss-cross of veins on the applicant’s wrist should be easily discernible (see Gupta 2000:91-2).

In the Caribbean, in Latin America, and in the United States there are a range of terms to encompass those who are not black but not quite white either. Harry Hutchinson found eight terms in Brazil distinguishing different shades of black (Hutchinson 1957: 120). Charles H. Parrish listed 145 different terms to denote fine shades of colour distinction in the United States (Russel, Wilson, Hall 1992: 60). Malcolm X, the famous Black Muslim leader, confessed in his autobiography that he was favoured over his siblings by his mother because he was lighter skinned than them. Melville Herskovitz studied successful black couples in Harlem and found that as many as 56.5% black men married light-skinned women (ibid: 116). The really successful black men like Quincy Jones, Justice Clarence Thomas, O.J. Simpson, James Earl Jones, and even the revered Frederick Douglass, all had white trophy wives.

The colour continuum is in many senses objective and demonstrable. There is little point in a black person claiming to be white if the person’s skin colour and features do not help to back this claim. On the other hand there are a large number of light-skinned blacks who want to be taken for whites and often succeed in ‘passing’ off as one. This phenomenon of ‘passing’ has been widely noticed and commented upon in the United States. Journals such as Ebony, Jet and Essence, which have a predominantly black readership devote pages to help black women solve their ‘hair problem’. Straightening one’s hair and cosmetically changing the colour of one’s eyes are quite well-known among black people in America (see ibid: 47). In other words, blacks accept white aesthetics and would like to be like them if it was possible. The only way this could happen is through inter-marriage.

This is probably why blacks in America have a low sense of self-esteem, nor have they much use for their heritage. This is also evident in the politics of Louis Farrakan. Farrakan urges blacks to reform themselves, to be caring parents, and to be hard working and diligent breadwinners. If blacks are in a bad way, Farrakan would argue, the prevailing black way of life is certainly not going to help them come out of their misery. The ‘black is beautiful’ phase is now more or less over in the United States. As many as 72% blacks prefer to be called blacks and not Afro-Americans (ibid: 71; see also Gutman 1976: 309).

Caste-based stratification displays very different characteristics. To begin with, it is impossible to construct a uniform hierarchy of caste based on the notion of purity and pollution. No caste would acquiesce to its placement among the so-called ‘untouchables’. No caste would agree that members of other castes are made up of substances better than theirs (Gupta 2000: 72-85; see also Appadurai 1974). No caste would like its people to marry outside the community. No caste would like to merge its identity with any other caste. No caste accepts that it has originated from a shameful act of miscegenation. Any suggestion of being half-breed is dismissed haughtily across the board by all castes (see Gupta ibid).

It is true that castes try to elevate their social status through a process known as Sanskritization. This term should be handled carefully for it can give rise to certain misinterpretations. It is not at all true that those castes that emulate the lifestyle of powerful brahmans, or kshatriyas, or baniyas want to merge their identity with these castes. The viswakarma brahmans have Sanskritized much of their lifestyle but do not want to marry chitpavan or saraswat or any other kind of brahman. They want to stay separate but would claim equality with, if not superiority over, other brahmans and prosperous castes.

Sanskritization does not mean merger with other castes. On the contrary it is a show of defiance and an extraversion of what the caste always believed in an introverted fashion all along. In the past, members of such Sanskritizing castes dare not work out their ambitions, or express them in any way, for fear of being punished by wealthier and powerful castes. But now with democracy and an open market economy such displays of self-assertion are gaining prominence. In Rajasthan till a few decades ago, jats could not wear a turban, carry arms, or ride a horse (see Sharma 1998: 83). Jats today flout all these restrictions against them, but in the 1930s they encountered stiff resistance from rajputs. Now that jats lead a lifestyle similar to rajputs it does not mean that jats want to merge with rajputs, or ‘pass’ off as them.

While Sanskritization may involve some amount of emulation of the powerful caste of the region, it is not as if the upwardly mobile Sanskritizing caste is ready to jettison all its earlier beliefs and practices. Castes always differentiate themselves from other castes on multiple fronts: on how they get married, how they conduct their funerary ceremonies, the cuisines they cook and prefer, and even on the basis of gods that they each castes considers to be special to its members (Gupta 2000: 77-85). Each caste has a clear idea of which caste it considers to be below it and which ones roughly equal.

Endogamy, or marrying within one’s jati, is a strict rule that all castes hold dear. It is not at all true that poorer castes are less punctilious in observing their caste norms. Each caste inspires its own variety of caste patriotism for which reason jati puranas, or origin tales, are such an important aspect of their cultural legacy and heritage. All dominated castes explain their subjugation, not on the basis of purity and pollution, but on the basis of lost wars, chicanery and deceit by kinsmen and fair weather friends. Sometimes the gods too are blamed for being fickle, inconstant and temperamental in bestowing their favours (ibid: 73-78, 116-129).

Unlike the distinctions used to demarcate racial separation, there is no objective indication of which category is to be placed where in the caste hierarchy. As no caste accepts that it is less pure than other castes, though it would easily grant that brahmans are ritual specialists, there are probably as many hierarchies in practice as there are castes. In the past when the economy was controlled by rural oligarchs and petty potentates, the hierarchy on the ground was the one that was ordained by the superior caste of the region.

Other castes had to acquiesce to this or face brutal consequences. They dared not express their version of the ‘true’ hierarchy. With the growth in commercialization, urbanization and democracy, poorer castes are becoming bolder and now have the courage to openly express what they have always held dear but dared not manifest in any form in the past.

The distinguishing characteristic of the caste order is the discrete character of its constituent units that resist being forced into a single hierarchical frame. As these castes are discrete and semaphore their separation on multiple fronts, caste competition is built in at various levels. It is only by accepting the reality of multiple hierarchies that we can conceptually make room for the existence of caste politics. If one were to go by the traditional understanding of a single hierarchy of purity/pollution, with brahmans at the top, then any evidence of caste conflict should have meant the dissolution of the caste order.

Nor is it true that caste politics is a recent phenomenon. All through traditional and medieval India castes have fought and slaughtered each other to gain worldly preeminence. Once a caste is politically and economically powerful it can then live out its own believed-in hierarchy. This is as true of the Gujara Pratihara and Rajput kingdoms in medieval India (Chattopadhyaya 1976: 59-82), as it is of jat supremacy in Punjab several centuries later, and of baniya ascendance in Rajasthan and Gujarat today (see Babb 1998; Shah and Shroff 1975).

The difference between traditional and modern displays of caste politics is not that there were no power struggles between communities in the past, but that the format for such competition and strife has now changed. Democracy and commerce have created new avenues that were not available to caste antagonists even in early colonial India.

If one is to understand caste politics in its vivacity and depth it is necessary to appreciate that in the caste situation there are multiple nodes. Jats are against gujars, together they are against urban castes; kolis are against patidars; thevars oppress pallars or the devendrakula vellalas; the vanniyars torment adi dravidas, even as many of them may be against, or for, brahmans in their local settings (see Radhakrishnan 2001).

Caste alliances such as the KHAM (kshatriya, harijan and Muslim) and AJGAR (ahir, jat, gujar and rajput) are made and then cast aside. New alliances come into being with quite different caste friends and enemies. Even as castes may enter into political alliances, however ephemeral, they do not drop barriers of endogamy, though they may occasionally ease up on inter-dining restrictions.

Race politics gets its charge from the bipolar antagonism between blacks and whites. Half breeds, mestizos or quadroons are of no consequence. They have to align themselves with one side or the other. They cannot form an independent front of their own. In America till about fifty years ago the ‘one drop rule’ applied. This meant that if a person had as low as one-sixty fourth black blood, then the person was considered black. This is why many who would like to ‘pass’ as whites cannot easily pull it off. As the Black Panthers put it in America: ‘You are either part of the problem or part of the solution.’ There is no other alternative.

As castes operate on the basis of separation into discrete categories, which then fashions multiple hierarchies, the single hierarchy principle of race would be quite alien to it. Consequently, caste politics would be imbued with a logic quite different from what obtains in racist politics. It is because many members of India’s literati did not quite appreciate this and, perhaps unconsciously, applied the race model to caste politics that they let the Mandal recommendations pass without too much opposition.

In the view of these pro-Mandalites, caste politics in India is really between powerful brahmans and the oppressed rest, just as in race politics it is whites versus blacks. In fact, brahmans do not always occupy the top spot in most hierarchies. And whenever brahmans hold such a position it is because they have economic and political power to match. But this would still be a very small and atypical part of the entire caste and politics scenario. If caste politics is seen only in terms of superior brahman versus the suffering rest then the atrocities that yadavas inflict on ex-untouchables, what thevars do to pallars, and what rajputs did to the jats, would be unnoticed and brushed aside. This would impoverish and distort our understanding of caste politics in India and would allow for the intellectual acceptance of dangerous and retrograde policies such as those recommended by the Mandal Commission.

The distinctions between the politics of caste and race can and should be made if one is interested in fighting casteism in a concrete and meaningful way. While a radical advocacy of some form of inverted racism may seem feasible to some in the United States, such a stance would make no sense in terms of caste politics in India. In caste politics there is casteism at multiple levels and inversions at one level would leave the rest quite untouched.

This is why B.R. Ambedkar saw no future in politics of this sort. He anticipated the limitations of using caste as a perennial political resource and fought instead to extirpate this cultural blot from our society. As there are multiple castes in India, and as many of these castes also occupy, statistically at least, different positions in the economic structure, caste politics often passes off as democratic politics. I have heard it being said that in India we have caste democracy.

It is possible to overlook the inherent drawbacks of caste democracy as there are so many castes occupying different occupational and income positions in society. There is no caste that is dominant in numerical terms, and if the plain game of numbers were to apply then a semblance of democracy may well be arrived at. But at what cost? Caste would be a permanent feature of mobilization, dividing the country on the basis of birth and ascription without giving citizenship a chance to establish itself. Caste then becomes an immutable category.

The reality of caste is, however, very different. Not every harijan is a leather worker, and not every brahman is a pandit. There are more harijans employed as agricultural labourers than any other single caste group in Uttar Pradesh. Today many of them are also moving to cities and have jobs far removed from what their predecessors were forced to commit themselves to just a few generations back.

When an equation is made between caste and race the suggestion often is that these caste categories are fixed and immutable. But many once upon a time low castes have become kshatriyas, sudras have become elite pen pushers and, if the tales of doms and mochis are to be believed, then those who were once in positions of power have now fallen into really bad days. If the ignominies heaped on certain castes arise from the occupations they were forced to follow by tradition, then it can be safely said that such a state of affairs no longer holds everywhere with the same degree of consistency. It is very rarely that one can correlate caste and occupation in contemporary India.

Race politics accepts that blacks and whites are immutable categories. In this situation there are two options: inverted racism, or racial representation. In either case one has to work within the framework of race. Black Panthers advocated inverted racism and it did not work. A small minority cannot overturn a majority. What remains problematic, however, is that in inverted racism it is racism that is still triumphant, albeit of another kind.

Race representation, the other alternative, accepts that races are here to stay as it is not possible to change the colour of one’s skin. Hence, even when there is a question of fairness, the tendency among liberal democrats is to push for a policy that would ensure some kind of proportionate representation in the job market and in educational institutions. In the caste order, how a caste is perceived depends to a very significant extent on what occupation members of that caste follow.

In India it is possible and, indeed, feasible to move from one kind of job to another in one’s lifetime, and with greater facility over two to three generations. Over 13% of Grade A services in the Government of India are today occupied by those whose predecessors were once considered untouchables. This percentage is bound to increase in the years to come. In that sense those who are descendents of so-called untouchables are no longer untouchables today. For them, at least, their caste position has changed significantly.

Caste is, therefore, not as immutable a category as race is. This is why the provisions for reservations in the Constitution could think in terms of extirpating caste altogether in the not too distant future. Reservations for scheduled castes and tribes in India were never envisaged in terms of either compensation or retribution, as is the case with affirmative action in America. In racism a person continues to be black no matter what position that person may occupy in terms of status and wealth. But history has shown that though caste mobility may be much more pronounced today, it was not unknown in ancient and medieval India.

The reservation policy for scheduled castes is based on giving this latent dynamic a greater fillip by unearthing and releasing talents that were hitherto hidden in these communities. In this process it is not just that these historically disprivileged castes would improve their status, but that society as a whole would benefit from a wider pool of talent that would now be available to it. As the question is not of compensation but of a dynamic transformation of the caste order itself, the system of reservation eventually looks towards a state of affairs when it would make itself redundant.

In race the scenario is quite different. Once a black, always a black. This fixity cannot be transposed to caste politics, without doing a lot of damage to empirical reality. Once a chamar is not always a chamar, once a scavenger is not always a scavenger, and so forth. The vahivanca barots of Gujarat earlier called themselves kshatriyas but now prefer to be known as baniyas (Shah and Shroff 1975). Further, as we mentioned earlier, ex-untouchables have never ideologically acquiesced to their own degradation. This is why whenever they are able to improve their economic situation they successfully shed their earlier caste status and moved on.

Once we use the language of race to the caste situation the emphasis shifts from removing the scourge of caste from Indian society to making one’s caste identity a fixed political resource. In which case, quite understandably, castes would tend to be viewed as permanent fixtures and caste identities as political assets. The task would then be not so much to eradicate castes but to give proportionate representation to different castes in educational institutions, in jobs, housing, and so on.

This again closely resembles the Mandal formula. The current Raj Nath Singh government in Uttar Pradesh is making an even finer distinction among the Other Backward Castes (OBCs). According to his formulation from the 27% reserved seats for OBCs, 5% should go to yadavas, 9% to eight Most Backward Castes such as lodhs, kurmis and jats (sic), and the remaining 13% or so to the 70 other OBCs that remain (Bhambri 2001).

Mandalism encourages this game of numbers and proportionate representation. It does not employ reservations to uproot caste identities in public life, but rather to perpetuate it. Those scheduled caste activists who want to see caste as a form of race should then be prepared for this eventuality. Caste identities, in this case, would always be an important mainstay of public life in India, a self-defeating project for any self- respecting activist.

To sum up, if caste were race then caste politics would be salient only when brahmans are pitted against the rest. Ahirs, kurmis, thevars, vanniyars, vokkaligas, rajputs and jats, then do not matter as full bodied entities. If caste were race then the reality and brutality of yadavas marauding in the fields of Bihar would be a bloodless reality and would not have any symbolic energy at all. It has to be a brahman plot, or a brahman inspired one, nothing else is of any significance. Those who have felt the full wrath of non-brahman superior castes, either in the North or in the South, will never accept such a characterization of caste atrocities. Further, if caste were race, then one’s caste identity is fixed, both internally and externally.

There is one similarity, however, between the fight against caste and the fight against race. Ultimately the battle has to be fought and won by those who are victims of such stratified social orders. It is only by empowering the scheduled castes and blacks that casteist and racist prejudices, respectively, are not given the scope to manifest themselves in practice in everyday relations. No amount of consciousness raising can do this job adequately. Only when those that have been hitherto disprivileged have the power and the wherewithal to fight back will sectarian prejudices be halted in their tracks.


Arjun Appadurai (1974), ‘Right and Left Hand Castes in South India’, Indian Social and Economic History Review, vol. 11, pp. 216-260.

L.A. Babb (1998), ‘Rejecting Violence: Sacrifice and the Social Identity of Trading Communities’, Contributions to Indian Sociology (N.S.), vol. 32, pp. 387-407.

C.P. Bhambri (2001), ‘Caste Aside’, Pioneer, 3 October 2001.

B.D. Chattopadhyaya (1976), ‘The Origin of Rajputs: The Political, Economic and Social Processes in Early Medieval India’, Indian Historical Review, vol. 3, pp. 59-82.

Leigh Field, Sira Surje and Ajit K. Ray (1988), ‘Immunoglobin (GM and KM) Allotypes in the Sikh Population of India’, American Journal of Physical Anthropology, Vol. 75, pp. 31-35.

Dipankar Gupta (2000), Interrogating Caste: Understanding Hierarchy and Difference in Indian Society, Penguin Books, New Delhi.

Herberg G. Gutman (1976), The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925, Pantheon Press, New York.

Hans Henrich Hock (2000), Philology and Historical Interpretation of the Vedic Texts. Paper presented at a meeting of the World Association for Vedic Studies, Hoboken, New Jersey, U.S.A., July 2000.

Harry Hutchinson (1957), Village and Plantation Life, University of Washington Press, Seattle.

D.N. Majumdar and C.R. Rao (1960), Race Elements in Bengal: A Quantitative Study, Asia Publishing House and Statistical Publishing Society, Calcutta.

Partha N. Majumder and B. Uma Shanker et al., (1990), ‘Anthropometric Variation in India: A Statistical Appraisal’, Current Anthropology, vol. 31, pp. 94-103.

P. Radhakrishnan (2001), ‘The Politics of Perdition’, The Hindu, 21 September 2001.

Kathy Russel, Midge Wilson and Ronald Hall (1992), The Colour Complex: The Politics of Skin Colour Among African Americans, Anchor Books, Doubleday, New York.

A.M. Shah and G. Shroff (1975), ‘The Vahivanca Barots of Gujarat: A Caste of Genealogists and Mythographers’, in Milton Singer (ed.), Traditional India: Structure and Change, Rawat, Jaipur.

K.L. Sharma (1998), Caste, Feudalism and Peasantry: Social Formation of Shekhawati, Manohar Books, Delhi.

Does caste indicate deprivation?
Pradipta Chaudhury

back to issue

IN much of scholarly discourse the institution of caste is commonly taken to be the embodiment of fundamental socio-economic inequalities. In particular, during the last decade a consensus has emerged across the entire gamut of political, legal and intellectual opinion regarding the use of caste as an appropriate criterion in public policy oriented towards positive discrimination. Every now and then, particularly before elections, caste groups demand their inclusion in the lists of the ‘backwards’. At the same time, political parties dangle the carrot of the benefits of reservation to more groups and promise to extend the policy to the private sector.

Caste remains a major force in Indian politics. More caste organizations are coming into existence. Overt and covert appeals are being made to caste sentiments in all spheres of public life. The increasing mobilisation of castes is being approvingly described as the emergence of caste ‘identity’. The politics of caste identity has been unanimously hailed in the media, among intellectuals and politicians of all varieties, as a move towards true equality. It is argued that the politics of caste is secular and serves a bulwark against the politics of religion. It is suggested that the recent rise of political leaders belonging to lower castes in northern India and the implementation of reservations for backward castes actually amounts to a silent revolution.

Does the ritual rank of a caste indicate the degree of deprivation actually suffered by its members? Neither the Kalelkar Report, nor the Mandal Report, nor the reports of the backward classes commissions at the state level have so far demonstrated that deprivation was related to the ritual status of a caste. These reports generally emphasized that the higher castes have cornered a disproportionately large share in the bureaucracy and that the presence of low castes in class one and class two jobs was nominal before the implementation of reservations schemes. Not only is caste virtually used as the sole criterion in public policy oriented towards positive discrimination, but categories like OBCs (Other Backward Castes) and SCs (Scheduled Castes) are treated as essentially homogeneous. It is simply assumed that the great bulk of the population of each of the categories suffers from a uniformly high degree of deprivation without answering the question raised at the beginning of this paragraph.

The relation between caste and deprivation is an issue that should be addressed at the macro-level; village studies will not suffice. The results of village surveys typically contradict each other, as is to be expected in a large country characterised by great diversity. The only information available at the macro-level, where castes are treated separately, was collected through the census operations during British rule.1 While scholars are fond of discussing the colonial power’s motives and methods of collection, classification and inadequacies of caste data, the data remains largely unused. Despite all its inadequacies, this data set can be used to throw light on the issue raised here.

If caste is a good indicator of deprivation now, it should have been a better index in the past. Let us consider Uttar Pradesh. It contains some of the most backward regions of India. Here the link between caste and deprivation should be stronger than the more advanced regions of the country. Information on the social, material and educational conditions of castes in U.P. is available only at the beginning of the last century. We get the ritual rank, the literacy rate in Hindi and the work participation rate for 42 castes from the census tables of 1901 and 1911. There are eight high or ‘twice born’ castes, 27 middle ranking or intermediate and ‘shudra’ castes, all of which are now considered OBCs, and seven ‘untouchables’, later designated SCs.2 In 1911 the average literacy rate was about 11% for the high castes. It was only 1% for the OBCs and 0.13% for the SCs. Thus, literacy rate seems to be strongly inversely associated with ritual rank.

Since there is no direct evidence on income or wealth of members of a caste, we have to devise an appropriate index which may enable us to use the available data and compare the average economic status of castes. The work participation rate, defined as the proportion of workers in the population, can be used as an inverse indicator of the economic status of a caste. The commonsense reasoning underlying this is simple: In a traditional economy, with low rates of literacy and industrialisation, the poorer families have to send a greater proportion of their members (namely, women and children) to seek work than the better-off, well-to-do and rich families which send their children to school and confine their women to the home.

This argument is actually built on our empirical observations on U.P. During the early decades of the 20th century the work participation rate was a good index to capture the differences in the economic conditions over regions of U.P. as well as between groups within each region. In 1911 the average work participation rate was 42% for the high castes, 54% for the OBCs and 57.5% for the SCs. Thus, it would again appear that caste is a very good indicator of deprivation. In fact, such aggregate statistics are usually provided in support of caste-based public policy.3

These averages actually conceal the enormous heterogeneity within the OBCs and the SCs. There is a great deal of variation in the literacy as well as work participation rates within each category of castes. The literacy rates for the OBCs vary between 8% and 0.14%. In fact, in the literacy rankings three of the OBCs are placed among the top seven castes while two are placed among the bottom seven. The literacy rates for the SCs vary within a much smaller range, between 0.48 and 0.11%.

The situation with respect to the economic condition of castes is more acute. The work participation rates for the OBCs lie in the range of 40 and 67. On one hand, four of the OBCs figure in the top eight places on the scale of economic status. On the other hand, five of this figure among the bottom-most seven places. Actually the three poorest castes (namely, Bhar, Koeri and Kewat) belong to the OBCs. Likewise, the economic status of the SCs varies a great deal; the work participation rates lie within a range of 44 (for Khatik) and 64 (for Dusadh). Thus, even in a backward region like U.P. at the beginning of the 20th century, there were large variations in the literacy rates and economic conditions of castes that were later pooled together and treated as homogeneous categories.

With respect to literacy rate, three OBCs, namely, Sonar, Halwai and Kalwar, were ahead of four high castes, namely, Rajput, Taga, Bhat and Kandu. Similarly, with respect to economic status, five OBCs, namely, Sonar, Jat, Gujar, Kisan and Mali, were better off than Brahman and Rajput, the two most numerous high castes, which accounted for one-fifth of the Hindu population. Two SCs, namely, Khatik and Dusadh, had higher literacy rates than many OBCs.

In the economic hierarchy two SCs, namely, Khatik and Dhanuk, were placed in the top half. Conversely, five OBCs, namely, Luniya, Barai, Bhar, Koeri and Kewat, figured among the seven lowest placed castes in the economic scale, along with two SCs. None of the large SCs, namely, Chamar, Pasi and Dhobi, figured in the lowest rungs of the economic hierarchy. In fact, the average economic status of Chamar, the most numerous of all castes in U.P., was not lower than that of Ahir, the most numerous among the OBCs. Thus, the high castes, the OBCs, and the SCs were highly heterogeneous in terms of economic status and access to literacy.

It is unambiguous that even in a backward and traditional agrarian society such as U.P. during the early decades of the 20th century, ritual rank of a caste was not a good indicator of its literacy or economic status. The formation of three administrative categories of castes, based on past ritual status only succeeds in hiding the glaring intragroup disparities. High ritual rank could not secure some of the upper castes against low economic status. Similarly, low ritual status did not prevent large sections of Jat, Gujar, Sonar, Kisan and Mali from attaining prosperity. Caste did not preclude the upward economic mobility of a section of the untouchables. Even with ‘5000 years old tradition of learning’, the Brahman population of U.P. could not reach an average of 12% literacy by 1911; they were not the most literate of castes.

Advocates of caste politics argue that the problem will be solved if the OBCs or SCs are arranged according to the degree of backwardness and split into subgroups such as ‘more-backward’ and ‘most-backward’ and sub-quotas created within the total quota. However, the economic status of households varies a great deal within each caste. In a caste, several economic classes exist. Marginal and small peasants, and landless labourers constitute the bulk of the population in each caste. At the same time, every caste contains a section, varying in size, of well-to-do families.

The 1888 Dufferin Enquiry Reports on the condition of the lower classes of the population in India showed that in eastern U.P., the castes of Brahman, Bhuinhar and Rajput contained sections, which though not landless, were worse off than day labourers, were in debt and suffered from insufficiency of food and clothing in normal times. This report also showed that in western U.P., many Chamar families cultivated landholdings of 10 acres or more in size while others of this caste were landless labourers.4 In several non-twice-born castes, for example, Jat, Kurmi and Kalwar, the size of the upper class elite was considerable. The existence of relatively prosperous traders, contractors, and manufacturers belonging to the caste of Chamar in the Agra-Aligarh area of western U.P. during the early decades of the 20th century is well known. Improvement in material condition and educational status of sections of Chamar and other untouchables, because of employment in the government sector, in army cantonments, municipalities and so on, in the cities of Agra, Kanpur and Allahabad is also well documented.5

The census tables on ‘occupational distribution of castes’6 in early 20th century demonstrate that each caste contained landless labourers, cultivators as well as landlords. Some castes were sharply split over occupations, for example, Chamar, the largest caste of U.P., which is believed to be traditionally landless. The workers of this caste were about equally reported as labourers and cultivators, between 35 to 40% in each. In contrast, more than 75% of workers belonging to the caste of Bhangi, later known as Balmiki, were scavengers.

The cultivators, the single largest occupational group in most castes, were highly differentiated in terms of size and economic status. A sample of 17,135 agricultural holdings covering 82,176 acres, distributed over size of holding and caste in Bahraich district in 1939 shows that about one-third of the holdings belonging to the upper castes were of 2.5 acres or less in size. The same was the case with the caste of Kurmi, a backward caste. Such holdings accounted for half of the total number of holdings in case of Kachi, Murao and all other agriculturist castes. The holdings of size 2.5 to five acres comprised one-fourth of all holdings in case of upper castes as well as Kurmi, but about 30% in case of the rest of the castes.

In fact, the size distributions were very similar for the upper castes and Kurmi. In each of these castes, six to eight per cent of holdings were more than 20 acres in size. 1.7% of upper caste holdings and 0.6% of Kurmi holdings were more than 50 acres in size. On one hand the small and marginal peasants formed a majority of households in each caste. On the other hand, the lower castes, like the higher ones, contained many rich peasants. Thus there was enormous intra-caste variation in economic condition. Accordingly, the material interests of different classes belonging to the same caste would differ.

Since the visible heterogeneity within a caste cannot be easily brushed aside, the proponents of caste politics argue that it is not economic but social backwardness from which these castes have historically suffered that warrants reservations. Did all the lower castes suffer from an equal degree of ritual handicap? Actually, there was an elaborate gradation and hierarchy among the intermediate or shudra and even the untouchable castes, which governed interaction between them and kept inter-caste socialisation to a minimum. The rich households belonging to a low caste tried to imitate the customs and rituals of the upper castes such as child marriage, prevention of widow remarriage and payment of dowry for marriage.

Occasionally, prosperous sections of castes broke away to form new castes and claimed higher ritual rank. By and large an affluent caste succeeded in raising its position in the ritual hierarchy, for instance, Kayastha and Jat, both of which rose from the ranks of shudras to be near Rajputs. Members of the Jat caste claimed their caste to be of twice-born rank and they wanted to be classified at par with Rajputs in the census of 1901. In some districts the others accepted their claims. But the provincial committee, which was drawing up the ritual hierarchy, accorded them a rank higher than the shudra castes, while not accepting their claim to be twice born.

Similarly, Kalwars claimed Vaishya status. Surreptitiously, many of them got enumerated in the censuses as Vaishya/Bania or even Rajput. Consequently, the share of the Kalwar caste in the population of U.P. declined significantly over the censuses. The Kurmi elite followed a variety of paths. Their caste association demanded high ritual rank, at par with the Rajputs. Some of them got themselves enumerated as Rajputs. As a result, the share of the caste in the total population declined over the censuses. In Gorakhpur district, the landowners and large cultivators broke away from the parent caste (Kurmi) during the second and third decades of the 20th century. They formed a new caste called Sainthwar, which was the name of a sub-caste of the Kurmis.

Before the census of 1931, well-off Chamars in west U.P. broke away to form a new caste named Jatav, which was the name of a sub-caste. They claimed to be Rajputs and demanded to be enumerated in the census as Jatav-Rajputs. In fact, by 1931, barring a few most downtrodden castes, viz. Bhangi, all other non-twice-born castes had formed associations which claimed high ritual rank, at par with twice-born castes. This has given rise to a peculiar situation. The old ritual hierarchy has disintegrated because the elite of no caste concedes a higher ritual rank to any other caste. But there is no sense of equality in the caste system since none accepts the lower as equal on the social-ritual scale. Even now, inter-caste marriages between OBCs or SCs are almost absent in the rural areas. The rare instances in urban areas usually occur within the same economic class.

Evidently, within a caste, the kinds and degrees of deprivation varied. Within a low caste, the upper income groups felt deprived of a high ritual status that would be commensurate with their economic status. They also felt deprived of education and jobs in the government apparatus. The caste associations formed by them articulated the demands of the upper class. At the same time, the caste also contained a large section of marginal and small peasants, who were oppressed by rent and debt obligations, as well as landless labourers lying at the bottom of the economic scale. In the history of the low or backward caste associations, demands for redistribution of land, or demands for minimum wages, or special measures for the benefit of the poor were virtually never put forward.

It is amazing that in the 21st century not only does caste continue to be the sole criterion in public policy oriented towards positive discrimination, but categories like OBCs and SCs continue to be treated as essentially homogeneous, despite the mass of evidence relating to early 20th century pointing to the contrary! The claim that the use of an income limit for identifying the ‘creamy layer’ among the OBCs would bring the benefits of reservation to the deserving is actually a hoax. The lower income limit of Rs 250,000 recently fixed by the central government would not even exclude the entire top ten per cent of the population.

Furthermore, when it is well known that incomes can be easily under-reported, there is no effort to use any other criterion which can be actually used to exclude the privileged. Obviously, the use of caste and caste-based reservations are designed for the absorption of the elite of the lower castes in the ruling classes.7 At the same time the use of caste in the public sphere effectively keeps the deprived masses politically divided and weak.

1. The censuses of 1911, 1921 and 1931 provide data on the occupational distribution of selected castes at the level of province or state.

2. Actually the castes were classified in 12 groups, depending upon their ritual or social practices, the rules and restrictions observed by them and their traditional occupations. The high castes were divided into six groups, the shudras into four and the untouchables into two groups. Castes within each group were ranked in order of precedence. See Census of India, 1901, v XVI, pt I, p 218-34, 248-53.

3. For example, see, S.K. Thorat and R.S. Deshpande, ‘Caste System and Economic Inequality: Economic Theory and Evidence’ in Ghanshyam Shah, ed., Dalit Identity and Politics (New Delhi and London, 2001), particularly p. 57-70.

4. 1888 Dufferin Enquiry Reports on the condition of the lower classes of the population in India, (available in the National Archives of India), Enclosures, letter from Collector, Ghazipur to Commissioner, Benaras Division, 10 April 1888, p. 134-136, letter from Collector, Mathura to Commissioner, Agra Division, 1 May 1888, p. 4-20 and note on Etah district by N. Crooke, Collector, 12 Jan. 1888, p. 31-100.

5. Owen M. Lynch, The Politics of Untouchability: Social Mobility and Social Change in a City of India (New York, 1969), and Nandini Gooptu, ‘Caste and Labour: Untouchable Social Movements in Urban Uttar Pradesh’, in Peter Robb, ed., Dalit Movements and the Meanings of Labor in India (Delhi, 1993), ch. 10.

6. See Census of India, 1911, v XV, pt II, Table XVI and Census of India, 1921, v XVI, pt II, Table XXI.

7. See Pradipta Chaudhury, ‘The "Creamy Layer": Political Economy of Reservations’, Economic and Political Weekly 39(20), 15 May 2004, p. 1989-1991.

An example of how Islamic rule and British rule have reduced people to backward status.

From Pioneer 10 june, 2008

<!--QuoteBegin-->QUOTE<!--QuoteEBegin-->Gujjars equal to Rajputs 

Second opinion: Priyadarsi Dutta

It is proving to be a comedy of 'terrors' with the Gujjar agitation showing no signs of abating. And if Jagan Gujjar, the infamous outlaw, can execute his plan of "blowing up the palace of Vasundhara Raje", it would certainly be a Kodak moment in the theatre of the absurd. What an irony for the Rajasthan Government that recently cropped an entire chapter from Jaishankar Prasad's novel, Kankal, which is studied as part of the Hindi syllabus in Class XI and brands Gujjars as nothing more than robbers.

<b>The Gujjars (a corruption of the original Gurjar, which means vanquisher of enemies) are less interested in an image makeover, though they should be. </b>The imperatives of the 21st century 'knowledge era' might have bypassed the Gujjars, but in the self-devouring labyrinth of Government's reservation policy it is expedient to prove oneself more backward than others.

<b>The agitating Gujjars may not take kindly to any memory of the glorious days of the Gurjara-Pratihara dynasty. Their triangular realm extended across west and central-north India, stretching from Gujarat to Bihar, between the sixth and 11th centuries. Pratiharas (Parihars) were considered the best of Rajputs. They, along with Chauhans, Parmars and Solankis (Chalukyas) had emanated from the sacrificial fount of the legendary Agnikul Yagna, performed on Mount Abu. Their king, Rajyapal, was ensconced at Kannauj, the political and commercial capital of the time, when Mahmud Ghaznavi's hordes knocked at its gates in 1019. Rajyapal, a pale shadow of his illustrious predecessors who had measured sword with the Arabs, abjectly surrendered Kannuaj. The Rajput confederacy was moved to ire for Rajyapal. Their leader, Vidyadhar Chandel, prince of Gwalior, killed Rajyapal, but gave a miserable account against Ghaznavi.</b>

<b>Thereafter it was the series of Muslim invasions that brought about a decline in Gujjar fortunes. Consequently large-scale conversions followed. Interestingly Pakistan's visionary, Chaudhary Rehmat Ali was also a Gujjar. If they took to banditry, it was a result of their ouster from power and influence.</b> If Gujjars are unable to mend their reputation even in this modern era, the unworthy descendants of illustrious predecessors should suffer the blame. Had they united for development of their community, like the Nadars of Tamil Nadu, they never would have needed to block national highways.


Also the British crimnalized a whole set of people calling them criminal tribes and setup areas for them.
It is simply impossible for these fellows to digest any inkling of Diversity. "Integration" and assimilation are the constant (and paradoxical) war cries. In their ulta pulta world if You won't integrate, then I'll persecute you. These Roma have been living in the heart of the Empire for centuries and yet are still non-integratable.

<!--QuoteBegin-->QUOTE<!--QuoteEBegin-->Laura Clarke
<b>EDITORIAL: In defence of the Roma</b>
<i>A wave of anti-Roma sentiment is sweeping across Italy</i>
<i>Viktoria Mohasci, an ethnic Roma member of the European parliament, came to Rome in May to inspect Roma camps  </i>
One of my fondest childhood memories is of arriving at my maternal grandmother’s home just outside Chester in northwest England and seeing her collection of horse-drawn Romany caravans, or vardos, lined up in the paddock. I remember them as being incredibly beautiful but somehow elusive objects that aroused a mixture of curiosity and awe, just like the Roma man who used to pass by regularly to light their intricate cast-iron stoves.

This memory and the feelings it inspires have haunted me in recent weeks as a wave of violent anti-immigrant and anti-Roma sentiment has swept across Italy, legitimised by the first actions of the new right-wing government of Silvio Berlusconi.

Encampments have been attacked and torched and Roma forced to flee their homes as the executive has set about tackling the “emergency” allegedly represented by a community of just 160,000 people out of a total population of 58 million – of whom nearly half have Italian citizenship and the majority are minors – with broad public support and the complicity of the mainstream media. In late May, the Roma became the focus of a package of tough new “security” measures introduced by the government to address illegal immigration and crime (see box).

Of course this kind of treatment is nothing new. The Roma, at between nine and 12 million people representing Europe’s largest ethnic minority, have been the group society has loved to hate ever since they arrived from northern India some 1,000 years ago. During the course of their long and painful history they have been rounded up and put into ghettos, discriminated against by law, disenfranchised and generally rejected by the dominant population of whatever country they have tried to make their home. This persecution reached its apex during world war two when an estimated 500,000 Roma were exterminated in Nazi concentration camps. Many of the Roma currently in Italy migrated to this country many years ago to escape oppression under totalitarian regimes or later conflict in the Balkans and eastern Europe.
Much of the hostility encountered by Roma today is motivated by their seemingly anti-social ways. “They don’t want to integrate into mainstream society” and “Have you ever seen a Roma do an honest day’s work?” are two commonly heard gripes, even among better-informed and more open-minded members of society.</b>

But the accusations are largely misguided, as illustrated by the experience of Roma in many countries who live in “ordinary” houses and lead “ordinary” lives as doctors, teachers, writers, accountants, politicians (two, Viktoria Mohacsi and Livia Jaroka, both from Hungary, are members of the European parliament), etc, in opposition to the stereotype of a nomadic “criminal” population that refuses to interact with the host community. Nor do the criticisms acknowledge the inherent value of a culture that is simply different from our own, with its own language (Romany, related to the North Indo-Aryan languages), flag (a red chakra wheel on a blue and green background), anthem (“Djelem, djelem”, “I’ve travelled, I’ve travelled”), beliefs, music, dance and customs.

The fact is that in Italy, as in many other parts of Europe, ethnic Roma are prevented from integrating by laws and prejudice that relegate them literally and metaphorically to the fringes of society. They are made to live in squalid camps with only the most basic facilities on the edge of our towns and cities, far from shops and services, not to mention the possibility of meaningful exchange with others. They are denied access to formal employment and brick-and-mortar housing. Be honest, would you give a job or rent your house to a Roma?

This is not to deny that the community lives by rules that can sometimes present a challenge for dialogue. However if integration or, at the very least, civil co-existence are to be possible, these first need to be understood and accepted. It is absolutely right that the police should identify and punish criminal members within the limits of the law, with the same (but not greater) commitment that is shown towards fighting crime in other groups, including the Italian host community. But to stigmatize an entire community on the basis of a few isolated but over-reported incidents is to undermine all chance of future cohabitation.

This would be a real shame, as the majority of ethnic Roma in Italy have long abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and are here to stay.

Immigration clamp-down

On 21 May the government approved new measures clamping down on illegal immigrants and tightening the rules for foreigners from EU countries, targeting ethnic Roma in particular.

Measures having immediate effect:

-Tougher sentences for illegal immigrants convicted of a crime.
-Expulsion of immigrants sentenced to two years or more.
-Up to three years in prison and the confiscation of the property for those caught renting accommodation to illegal immigrants.
-Extension of maximum stay in detention centres (“centro di permanenza temporanea” or CPT) from two to 18 months.
-Special mayoral powers over law and order.
Proposals awaiting approval from parliament:
-Making illegal immigration a criminal offence.
-Clamping down on marriages that are contracted for immigration purposes.

The government also declared a state of emergency in Roma encampments in Rome, Naples and Milan, which allows the competent prefects to be granted special powers.<!--QuoteEnd--><!--QuoteEEnd-->
Although I would not call the dialogue between these traditions “a sham,” I do agree that something has gone wrong. I think you are not far off the mark when you suggest that the problem lies in “a refusal to discuss what are the differences” between the traditions. The problem, I think, is an inability to acknowledge and to appreciate difference. Let me explain.

1. When we look at the history of the Christian West, a peculiar stance towards differences among human beings appears to be dominant. This stance makes difference into deviance from a standard. Difference in itself becomes problematic, because the only way to describe it is in terms of its shortcomings vis-à-vis a standard.

In the Middle-Ages, this stance can be seen in the dealings of the Church with heretics. The beliefs of dissenting groups were conceived of as deviations from the dogma of the Church. In the writings of this period, heretics were clubbed together with lepers as the representatives of the devil, who went against God’s will. After the Reformation, the different Christian confessions saw each other in the same manner. Each confession thought it embodied God’s will, while the others were false deviations from that will. In the modern West, this attitude towards difference as deviance from a standard can be seen in various domains of life. The psychological diversity among human beings, for instance, is classified in terms of “abnormal psychology.” At some level, each sub-cultural group in contemporary western societies still has the feeling that other groups are somehow wrong and that the world would be a better place if all human beings lived like this particular group.

The peculiarity of this stance towards difference is striking. It is as though we can strip all individual human beings from their particular characteristics and that we will thus discover “man” as he is supposed to be. We all become deviations from this standard “man.” But, of course, such an embodiment of the human species is not to be found in nature. Just as there are different whales, gazelles, and toads—each with their own particular features—so there is a variety of individual women and men, here on earth.

2. This stance towards difference has brought in its wake a particular conception of society. It is assumed that differences necessarily create difficulties for living together. Difference is bad, while the standard is good. After the 9/11 attacks, Bill Clinton voiced this belief in a speech, when he said that the terrorists are those who emphasize difference, while we (‘the civilized people’, one supposes) should emphasize the commonalities among human beings. This kind of statement makes sense only if one considers differences as obstacles to living together peacefully. Again this idea has a long history in the Christian West: in the fifteenth century, several theologians were searching for the common core of beliefs all humans shared, since they believed this core would provide a foundation for world harmony. Some of them put this in terms of looking for Adam. If we found “man”, as God had originally meant “man” to be, peace and harmony would follow, these Christians thought. In much the same way, the Enlightenment philosophers embarked on their “search for man.” Again, they hoped this would lead to a harmonious world without the predicament of difference.

The bottom line is that the Western culture has always believed that a society needs a common core of beliefs shared by all its members. If it does not have this common ground, a society is bound to fall apart, so the assumption goes. For the medieval Church, unity was to be guaranteed by a common belief in Catholic dogma. For the post-Reformation advocates of toleration, the unity of a society divided into different confessions had to be established in a common set of ecumenical Christian beliefs. For the contemporary liberals, a plural society needs to be united by a shared belief in the liberal system and its legal framework of equal rights. 

Thus, when you notice the problem in the Hindu-Christian dialogues that they have been obsessed with the search for a common ground, rather than discussing the differences between these traditions, you bring to the surface a deeply held assumption of the Christians. The assumption that difference is an obstacle to living together well permeates these attempts at dialogue. After all, what is their goal? To resolve the differences between the two parties through rational and critical discussion, of course (for a general critique of this understanding of intercultural dialogue see S.N. Balagangadhara’s forthcoming “On the Very Idea of an Intercultural Dialogue”). The trouble with these dialogues is that they cannot truly acknowledge difference, let alone appreciate profound differences as a source of vibrancy in society. Because they aim at peaceful coexistence, the best they can do is to ignore difference and look for sameness.

3. Here lies one of the crucial differences between Asia and the West. If we look at various Asian traditions, it seems they have never shared this stance towards difference. They have acknowledged the variety among human beings as another expression of the diversity of nature. This is not necessarily a celebration of diversity (although it can also be that), but rather a factual stance: there are different whales, gazelles, toads and also different human beings. Difference is not deviance from a standard, but just the way things are. This also extends to the diversity of cultural traditions. Just as there are many different men and women, so there is a plethora of paths they can follow to find happiness in life, these Asian cultures seem to say.

This attitude has also brought about a particular way of organizing society. The lack of the conception of difference-as-deviance entails the absence of the idea that a society needs a common standard, if it is not to fall apart. When we take the example of South India, for instance, we see that many different groups have lived together quite peacefully for long periods of time without sharing a common core of beliefs. Different Hindu traditions have coexisted with several Christian denominations, Muslims, and other groups. This society has not fallen apart in spite of the absence of a common framework. Note that this characterization of the plural societies in Asia takes a negative form: they do not need a common ground; they do not conceive of difference as deviance. This shows the lack of knowledge we have of the way pluralism works in Asian societies.

4. ..
The West’s notion of difference-as-deviance has caused many terrible things—from the persecution of heretics to the marginalization of “abnormal” men and women. ...<!--QuoteEnd--><!--QuoteEEnd-->
<!--QuoteBegin-->QUOTE<!--QuoteEBegin-->Hindu Council UK White Paper on Caste

LONDON, ENGLAND, June 9, 2008: An informative paper has been produced by Raj Pandit Sharma for the Hindu Council UK. It is available as a PDF file at the URL above. Following is the introduction.

The caste system or varnashram has been one of the most distorted, perplexing, misunderstood, exploited and maligned aspects of Hinduism. This report is not a justification of the abuse of caste system; rather it is a factual account of the subject, a systematic analysis of how it has become adulterated and the reparative measures necessary to correct such distortion in the social arena, thereby eliminating unjustified discrimination and abuse. The inequalities of the modern caste system and the fissures in Hindu society resulting from it are too well known to elaborate. The caste system is so pervasive that it has become a feature in the life of all religious groups living in India. This report will investigate the following five mistaken assumptions commonly made in connection with the Hindu caste system: -

1. Caste is an institution of the Hindu religion, wholly peculiar to that religion alone

2. Caste consists primarily of a fourfold classification of people in general under the heads of Brahman, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra, and that Dalits are not even part of this system

3. Caste is perpetual and immutable, having been transmitted from generation to generation throughout the ages of Hindu history without the possibility of change

4. Dalit Hindus who convert to other faiths become emancipated, experiencing equality and social mobility

5. The Hindu caste system is akin to hidden apartheid and slavery and should be abolished

To learn why all these points are misconceptions, click on the link above.

pdf file<!--QuoteEnd--><!--QuoteEEnd-->
<b>Caste as social capital</b>
<i>Why have the Gounders, Nadars, the Marwaris and Katchis done so well. By R.Vaidyanathan
The metropolitan elite and rootless experts have concluded that caste is bad. They have made it so that every Indian is expected to feel guilty at the mention of caste. Internationally, caste is a convenient stick to flay anything Indian, its religions, customs, culture.

<b>But the caste system is undeniably a valuable social capital, which provides a cushion for individuals and families to deal with society and the state. The Western model of atomising every individual to a single element in a right-based system and forcing the individual to have a direct link with the state has destroyed families and erased communities. Every person stands alone, stark naked, with only rights as his imaginary clothes to deal directly with the state. </b>

While attacking the caste system, Indian intellectuals have borrowed the Western right-based concept of reservation, or affirmative action. In doing so, they have overlooked an extraordinary contribution of the caste system, in consolidating business and entrepreneurship in India, particularly in the last fifty years. The World Bank, for example, suggests that the remarkable growth of Tirupur is due to coordinated caste-based efforts of the Gounders, many of who are not even matriculates.

“Since 1985,” says the World Bank’s World Development Report, “Tirupur has become a hotbed of economic activity in the production of knitted garments. By the 1990s, with high growth rates of exports, Tirupur was a world leader in the knitted garment industry. The success of this industry is striking. This is particularly so as the production of knitted garments is capital-intensive, and the state banking monopoly had been ineffective at targeting capital funds to efficient entrepreneurs, especially at the levels necessary to sustain Tirupur’s high growth rates.”

“What is behind this story of development? The needed capital was raised within the Gounder community, a caste relegated to land-based activities, relying on community and family network. Those with capital in the Gounder community transfer it to others in the community through long-established informal credit institutions and rotating savings and credit associations. These networks were viewed as more reliable in transmitting information and enforcing contracts than the banking and legal systems that offered weak protection of creditor rights.”

The amount of networking and contract enforcement mechanisms available with caste institutions has not been fully studied, despite the striking success of Tirupur. The same is true of the Nadar community in Virudhunagar area entrenched in the matches and printing industries. On the other hand, large amounts of literature are available on Marwaris, Sindhis, Katchis, Patels, etc, and the global networks they have created. But the point that is often still missed is that, in a financial sense, caste provides the edge in risk taking, since failure is recognised, condoned, and sometimes even encouraged by the caste group.

The firmest caste-entrepreneurship linkage was established by the 1998 economic census conducted by the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO), and it showed the other backward castes (OBCs), scheduled tribes (STs) and scheduled castes (SCs) well in the saddle. The census was vast, covering 30.35 million enterprises engaged in economic activities other than crop production and plantation. It dealt with own account enterprises and establishments, including an enterprise employing at least one hired worker. It covered private profit and non-profit institutions, cooperatives, and all economic activities, including the management of temples and dharamsalas.

What stood out about the census was that it discovered the amazing nature of so-called backward caste entrepreneurs (see table below for details). As much as half of all enterprises were owned by SCs/ STs/ OBCs in the rural areas and nearly thirty-eight per cent in the urban areas. The enterprises included manufacturing, construction, trade, hotel, restaurant, transport, finance and business, and other services.

Social Group of Owners of the Enterprises [%]
Item Rural Urban Combined
SC 9.0 5.8 7.7
ST 5.2 2.3 4.0
OBC 36.0 29.1 33.
Total of above 50.2 37.2 44.8

Source: Economic Census, Table 2.6,and CSO, 1998

The 1998 economic census also revealed that eighty per cent of all the enterprises in the country (24.39 million) were self-financing. Much of it would have come from informal caste networks. Attention should, therefore, focus on enhancing credit systems for such enterprises, especially those owned by SC/ ST and other backward communities. <b>In other words, the accent should be on “vaishya-ising” large segments of our civil society, instead of creating masses of “proletariat” in the fashion of nineteenth century Western models. For that, we need to recognise caste as a natural social capital present in our system </b>

But the downside of the survey was that it revealed a significant decline of SC-owned enterprises, from 3.42 per cent in 1980-90 to 0.4 per cent in 1990-98, both in urban and rural areas, with the growth turning negative (-0.41 per cent) in the rural areas. This decline needs to urgently engage policy planners. Is the decline due to SC migration to urban areas, or because of inadequate credit availability?

In contrast, the growth rate of enterprises owned by STs significantly increased from 4.16 per cent (1980-90) to 6.64 per cent (1990-98). The increase was sharp in urban areas, from 2.37 per cent to 12.24 per cent. This is interesting, and must be studied too, for replicating the cluster efforts. The focus should be on assisting the entrepreneurship of such groups rather than reservations in dwindling government jobs. There are inter-state variations in industry focus among these social segments, which need scrutiny and targeted encouragement.

Caste based reservation is often justified over economic quotas to remove social backwardness, despite the objections of sociologists. The late great sociologist, M.N.Srinivas, said in Collected Essays brought out by the Oxford University Press in 2005, “An important feature of social mobility in modern India is the manner in which the successful members of the backward castes work consistently for improving the economic and social condition of their caste fellows. This is due to the sense of identification with one’s own caste, and also a realisation that caste mobility is essential for individual or familial mobility.”

Gurcharan Das, the strategic consultant, writer and former vice-president and managing director of Proctor & Gamble Worldwide, says in his book, India Unbound, “In the nineteenth century, British colonialists used to blame our caste system for everything wrong in India. Now I have a different perspective. Instead of morally judging caste, I seek to understand its impact on competitiveness. I have come to believe that being endowed with commercial castes is a source of advantage in the global economy.”

And where caste unites in economics and entrepreneurship, it divides in politics. As a caste group, the Nadars and Gounders have prospered, while the politically high profiled Vanniars, Thevars and Dalits in Tamil Nadu have been consumed by internal differences. But at the same time, the most significant casualty of the globalisation process could be the self-employed caste groups, much more so than the large impersonal corporations. Policy makers and experts must work up a road map to protect them. Wal-Mart was built in rural America by liquidating thousands of mom and pop shops, the equivalent of our street corner Nadar or Muslim shops.

The arrival of Internet and cell phones present innovative opportunities to link millions of small “vaishyas” to create scale economics. Over the centuries, Indian civilisation has been always creative in finding solutions to social problems. Maybe, it is time the government performs mainly the kshatriya duties of internal and external security while encouraging large segments of society to become vaishyas through instrumentalities of credit delivery, taxation, social security and development of regional and community/ caste-based clusters. This may go a long way in enhancing the social status of SCs/ STs/ OBCs rather than providing them limited job opportunities in the private sector in the name of reservations.

<i>R.Vaidyanathan is Professor of Finance at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, and can be contacted at The views are personal, and do not reflect that of IIM-Bangalore.</i>
This was emailed to me by a IIM student. Seems to be written by a faculty there.

Caste discrimination a British invention, bigger than steam engine

A major debate on reservation in institutions of higher learning like the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), etc is being conducted at the Supreme Court.

A five-member bench is looking into the issues pertaining to the validity of the recently passed Act and also related matters like creamy layer exclusion, etc.

<b>It has recently come to light that the Aryan invasion theory is a concoction by British politicians and academicians to justify their invasion of the country.

Perhaps a similar situation is emerging in the context of caste discrimination since the British had a vested interest in inventing discrimination and viewed the heterogeneous and non-hierarchical Indian society using the European framework of a feudal-bourgeoisie divide.

The colonizers were part of the Abrahamic tradition, which believes in homogenization, and the heterogeneous and non-conflicting Indian society would not have suited their design. That might have led them to construct a class-based discriminating society out of the multiple sampradayas and castes co-existing peacefully. After all, history is constructed to suit the colonisers and victors.

A discussion about backward classes is very often a debate on the backward castes. The backwardness is defined to include social, educational and economic aspects.

In practice, it is identified more with social and educational backwardness and hence, many castes are classified (or, shall we say declared) as backward and provided reservation in institutes of higher learning in most states.

In Tamil Nadu, for example, a whopping 69% is reserved for these categories. One of the major arguments in favour of reservations is that the backward castes are educationally backward due to discrimination in the past and hence cannot compete with others.

History does not support the thesis of discrimination

A renowned Gandhian, Dharampal, visited British and Indian archives and reproduced reports based on surveys conducted by the British in Madras, Punjab and Bengal presidencies during 1800-1830.

According to a detailed survey undertaken during 1822-25 in the Madras Presidency (present day Tamil Nadu, a major part of present day Andhra Pradesh and some districts of Karnataka, Kerala and Orissa), 11,575 schools and 1,094 colleges were in existence in the Presidency and the number of students in them were 1,57,195 and 5,431, respectively.

More important in view of the current debates and assumption is the unexpected and important information provided with regard to the broad caste composition of the students (see table). We find that the position as early as the first part of nineteenth century was significantly in favour of the backward castes as far as secular education was concerned.

Hence, the British-inspired propaganda that education was not available to the so-called backward castes prior to their efforts is not valid. The “secular” education was always a major tool in social transformation prior to British rule.

It is also assumed that caste is a rigid hierarchical system, which is oppressive. However, as observed by renowned sociologist Dipankar Gupta, “In fact, it is more  realistic to say that there are probably as many hierarchies as there are castes in India.

To believe that there is a single caste order to which every caste from Brahmin to untouchable would acquiesce ideologically is a gross misreading of facts on the ground. The truth is that no caste, howsoever lowly placed it may be, accepts the  reason for its degradation.” (Dipankar Gupta; Interrogating Caste; pp1; Penguin Books 2000).

The debate also does not take into account the fact that backwardness is not a static phenomenon, but a dynamic one.

The great sociologist, M N Srinivas said, “An important feature of social mobility in modern India is the manner in which the successful members of the backward castes work consistently for improving the economic and social condition of their caste fellows.

This is due to the sense of identification with one’s own caste, and also a realisation that caste mobility is essential for individual or familial mobility.”(Collected Essays; pp196-197, Oxford University Press 2005).

May be, the time has come for us to question many of the beliefs and myths perpetuated on educational backwardness. Politics does play a major role in shaping the perceptions of the common man, but it is the duty of academicians and other experts to look at issues more dispassionately so that the future of educational enhancement of our country is not impaired by mythical dogmas. We need “enquiring minds” to investigate the inventions of British other than that of the steam engine.

The writer is Professor of Finance & Control, Indian Institute of Management - Bangalore, and can be reached at Views are personal.
Outline of the Fieldwork


When Christian missionaries and travellers landed in the coastal cites of India and visited other cities and states inland each was able to see “the caste system” in India immediately. If it is that easily visible to them, it must also be visible to us, that is, to those who are alleged to live within the “caste system.” While it may not be so easily visible to us as it was to people looking at it from the outside, it does mean, however, that the “caste system” retains its visibility to us as well.

The proposed empirical research attempts an indirect answer to the following question: On the basis of which empirical, visible properties can one “see” (or conclude the existence of?) “the caste system”?

This question is extremely pertinent in India today. Almost all the discussions about the “caste system” refer to or narrate (a) horror stories about water wells; (b) physical beatings; © denial of entry into the temples; and (d) “untouchability.” (It is not clear what the latter is about though.) Interestingly enough, most early missionaries and travellers appear to have missed seeing these things. Nevertheless, they saw the “caste system.” This leads one to suspect that the travellers and missionaries saw “something else.” So, what did they see? Research on the European travel and missionary reports at the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap focuses on enumerating what they saw.

There is a second reason why this question is important. In discussions it is never clear whether (a) the above four aspects are the empirical properties of “the caste system”; or whether (b) they are the causal consequences of “the caste system.” If they are empirical properties, we need to ascertain whether they are the constitutive properties of the system or not. If they are constitutive properties, then the condemnation of “the caste system” based on these properties could be justified. If they are, by contrast, secondary (or not necessary) properties, then the discussion will have to take an entirely different route.

However, if they are the consequences of “the caste system,” then “the caste system” is something other than and different from these consequences, which are the themes of moral indignation. If they are the consequences, we need to know whether they are necessary consequences of “the caste system.” If it turns out that these are not the necessary consequences of “the caste system” or that other things generate these consequences severally, again, the discussion has to take a different route.

These analyses involve the present theoretical research into “the caste system,” and into its theories, pursued at the Research Centre Vergelijkende Cultuurwetenschap. The practical fieldwork provides data that will be invaluable in getting a handle on these questions. That is to say, some clarity will be achieved thanks to the field research.


What exactly is the focus of the field work? (a) It tries to examine the truth of one of the most fundamental assumptions about “the caste system.” (b) It tries to describe/narrate the empirical stories about “the caste system.” © It tries to see whether the conceptualisations that result from the empirical findings can be historically related to the so-called indigenous criticism of “the caste system.” That is, whether the Vaçana’s (the Lingayats) criticise the empirical picture of “the caste system” or whether they criticise the commonsense picture of “the caste system,” viz. as a social structure that characterises the India (Karnatic) culture. Let me spell out each of the above mentioned foci severally.

It is sociologically unlikely that “the caste system” emerged as a full-blown social system, simultaneously and all over India, some 4000 years ago. It is equally unlikely that this system emerged simultaneously in several places and converged. To argue any of these is to transform “the caste system” into a miraculous social organisation. No known (or conceivable) social mechanism can help explain any of the above theses. The only reasonable hypothesis is to assume that it emerged in some place at some time.

How did it propagate itself? Because we are talking about “the caste system” (in the singular), somebody or something must have enabled its propagation. The possibility that there is no one, single caste system, but many caste systems need not be entertained by us. Let those called upon to do so prove this first.

If we now consider India of some 4000 years ago (the famous Purusha Sukta, the favourite piece of all Orientalists, Indologists, leftists, etc., is dated thereabouts), with vast distances separating the cities from each other, with huge differences in languages, it is a prerequisite (almost) that some central political, or administrative system imposed this system on society. We know this was not the case. Without such an imposition, however, there is no way, on heaven or on earth, that a system with the same four varna’s, with the same four names (with an identical “caste” of untouchables or whatever else), with an identically structured set of practices (e.g. the four properties mentioned earlier) could come into being from the Himalayas in the North to Kanyakumari in the South. The vastness of the region, its multiplicity of languages and dialects, its diversity in practices make it impossible to conceive anything else based on what we know about human beings, societies, social organisations, etc. And yet, it is an established fact that neither the origin nor the propagation of “the caste system” (let alone its reproduction) was due to the existence and efforts of a centralised system.

Instead of asking the question about the origin and propagation of “the caste system,” the mainstream opinion on “the caste system” simply assumes that “the caste system” “somehow” came into being (deus ex machina, as it were), somehow propagated itself, and that it holds the Indian culture as a hostage. It is this fundamental assumption that will be challenged in this research by drawing out the kind of complexities involved in a region of about 250 kilometres of today. If today’s 250 kilometres make it impossible to talk about “the” caste system, what does it tell us about the 4000 kilometres of yesterday?


The wider the net, the more the number of villages we investigate, the more complex the picture is going to be: there will be a variety of names, a variety of stories, and a variety in the internal classifications of these castes as well as an absence of classifications (in terms of hierarchy) among the Brahmins.

These varieties will be the greatest among the so-called scheduled castes and those movements which have recruited primarily from the so-called scheduled castes.

One of the ways of reducing the diversity into a recognisable picture of “the caste system” is to make a series of assumptions. (That is to say, the empirical picture will not carry clear or uniform criteria for classification.)

From this it follows that “the caste system” is not a social structure but some ad hoc scheme of classification. If both “castes” and “sub-castes” turn out to be ad hoc categories of classification, what does it mean to ask the question, “How did the caste system come into being in India?” (Equally, the continued existence of “the caste system” will have to do purely with political exigencies, i.e., that maintaining “the caste system” is in the interests of some groups, who are alleged to be against “the caste system” and benefit from being the alleged victims of structuralised atrocities.)

The Fieldwork

The ongoing field work focuses upon sets of villages in rural Karnataka. The fieldwork is conducted by local students from Kuvempu University. In addition, Kuvempu University organises a Certificate Course for elected members of the Gram Panchayats (the Rural Self Government Units) in Karnataka. In the nearby future, members of the Gram Panchayats will be actively involved in bringing the fieldwork to their respective villages.

An empirical list of the so-called Jati’s is being drawn up, each with its local name. This list enables us to pose the following question: On what grounds is one to consider some caste with a local name “X” the same as another caste “Y” some 250 kilometres away? (The “havyika” of Shimoga and the “Babburkamme” from Bangalore, for instance.)

It appears that this problem is most acute with the so-called “Harijans.” In fact, even with our knowledge of Karnataka, we have not been able to classify the multiple castes into one coherent system. Unless, that is, we already would have assumed that a “badiga” and a “banajiga” are sub-castes of the Lingayat caste if they are Lingayats, and that they are independent castes if they are not Lingayats. The purpose of this exercise was, and continues to be, to raise questions about such a classification.
Can anyone tell me what origin the surname "Helekar" linked to, is it Konkan Brahmin?
Helekar is a Konkani Bramhin surname.

Edit: As to the origin, the "kar" suffix literally means "from" or "wala". There must be a town called Hele(m) or something somewhere in Mah/Goa..
I think if you take the long view first there was the chatur(four) varna system of the vedic age. Then came the Jain and Buddhist phase when the varnas got blurred. With the revival of Sanathan Dharma, the occupations became jati. This was continued for atleast 1500 years. People were able to move up or down the ladder as they accumulated power and numbers. Thats why we had kings who were from various jatis throught out the Hindu period from the Mauryas onwards. The Muslims had vague notions but knew that they had to target the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas. They didnt care much for the trading class except some of them converted based on their needs -eg. the Bohras etc had to convert in order to retain their trading primacy in Arab ports. The Muslims also increased the conversion in medicants and beggars- could be former bhikshus.

The British ossifed and froze the jatis into the caste system with their surveys and glorifying or promoting collaborators and vice versa for those who opposed them. This is what modern India inherited from the colonials- Muslim and British.
<!--QuoteBegin-->QUOTE<!--QuoteEBegin-->The verse from Bhagavad Gita actually implores the Bhakta/Yogi to not disturb the mind of the man of Action. (3:26) Sri Krishna: _________________________________ Na buddhibhedam janayed ajnaanaam karmasanginaam Yojayet sarva karmaani vidwaan yultah samaacharan

One should not unsettle the intellect of those who are attached to action. A wise man should gently lead them to action, while he himself performs action with a controlled mind. <!--QuoteEnd--><!--QuoteEEnd-->
What is the prevalence of adornment of the sacred thread by non-brahmin castes in TN? I've read that a few forward castes in TN do it. Any insight?
<!--QuoteBegin-->QUOTE<!--QuoteEBegin--><b>Contextualising Caste: Post-Dumontian Approaches/edited by Mary Searle-Chatterjee and Ursula Sharma </b>

1. Introduction/Mary Searle Chatterjee and Ursula M. Sharma.
2. Is a theory of caste still possible?/Declan Quigley.
3. Caste, democracy and the politics of community formation in India/Subrata Mitra.
4. Berreman revisited; caste and the comparative method/Ursula M. Sharma.
5. Girasias and the politics of difference in Rajasthan: 'caste', kinship and gender in a marginalised society/Maya Unnithan.
6. <b>Caste without a system; a study of South Indian Harijans</b>/Robert Deliege.
7. Caste, religion and other identities/Mary Searle-Chatterjee.
8. Caste--a personal perspective/A. Shukra. Index.

"Much anthropological and sociological work on South Asia (especially that of western academics) takes for granted the centrality of caste in Hindu society. Anthropologists in particular have been fascinated by the ritual aspects of caste. This tendency has been intensified by the influence of Louis Dumont on recent theorisations of caste. Some have argued that the attention paid to caste has tended to orientalism, emphasizing those features of Indian society that make it 'exotic' from a western point of view.

"The purpose of the present volume is fundamentally to question these approaches, offering a consideration of caste in relation to other key dimensions of Indian society. Some contributions are predominantly theoretical or comparative, while others are based on local ethnography, but the overall aim is to provide an up-to-date review of the theorisation of caste which, while drawing on anthropological insights, is accessible to non-specialists." (jacket)    <!--QuoteEnd--><!--QuoteEEnd-->
A Note on Caste (pdf), (html)
Subhash Kak
<!--QuoteBegin-Pandyan+Jul 29 2008, 02:27 PM-->QUOTE(Pandyan @ Jul 29 2008, 02:27 PM)<!--QuoteEBegin-->What is the prevalence of adornment of the sacred thread by non-brahmin castes in TN? I've read that a few forward castes in TN do it. Any insight?

In Andhra the Komati Chetty wears the sacred thread and is classified as a vaishya
Whereas the closely related Chettiar in Tamil Nadu does not wear the sacred thread and is classified as a Shudra

IMHO, this type of stupidity by the brahmins is one of the main reasons of anti-brahmin behavior
If they had handed out sacred thread to 25% of the tamil population
( tamil elites ), there would have been no dravidianist movement

In tamil nadu, a lot of non-brahmin castes speak telegu at home
Some of these castes may indeed have the sacred thread

I know there are a whole lot of chettiars such as kannada chettiars and so on
Some of these non-brahmin non-tamil castes may have the sacred thread

IMHO, no purely tamil caste has the sacred thread


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