Caste remains a crucial social index

Caste is not a word that modernising India likes to use. It has receded to the unfashionable background. Newspapers reserve their headlines for the newer metrics of social hierarchy: wealth and politics, and those powerful influencers of popular culture, actors and cricket stars.

There are two stories we tell ourselves in urban India. One is about how education transforms lives. It is the golden key to the future, allowing people to rise above the circumstances of their birth and background. In my own neighborhood, a few sons and daughters of cooks and gardeners are earning their engineering and business degrees, and sweeping their families into the middle class.

The other story is about how the last two decades of economic growth have fundamentally changed the country, creating jobs and income and nurturing aspiration where earlier there was none. New money and an increasingly powerful middle class are supposedly displacing the old social hierarchies.

Rigid social rules

These are exciting stories, even revolutionary in a country where, for centuries, the social order was considered immutable. Traditionally, Indian society was divided into four main castes. At the top, Brahmins, as priests and teachers; second came the Kshatriyas, the warriors and rulers; third, Vaishyas, who were merchants; last, Shudras, the labourers. And below them all, the Dalits, or untouchables, called Harijans, or “children of God,” by Mahatma Gandhi. The castes were ostensibly professional divisions but were locked firmly into place by birth and a rigid structure of social rules that governed interaction between and within them.

That, famously, was then. Discrimination based on caste has been illegal in India for more than six decades. In today’s urban India, this land of possibility, separated from rural India by cultural and economic chasms, it seems reactionary even to speak of caste. If it features in urban conversations at all, it is defanged, reduced to cultural stereotypes that never bother with political correctness. Gujarati Baniyas of the Vaishya caste have a keen eye on finance. Tamil Brahmins do math and classical music. Nobody parties or fights harder than a Punjabi Khatri (of the Kshatriyas). It’s the equivalent, in America, of expecting the Asian kid to have good grades, the black man to be the best dancer and the Jewish guy to be well-read and have some slight mother issues.

No surprise on that first one. Inter-caste marriages in India are on the rise but still tend to be the province of the liberal few. For much of the country, with its penchant for arranged marriages and close family ties, caste is still a primary determinant in choosing a spouse.

Politics is where caste has gotten a surprising new lease on life. After money and education, democracy is, of course, the third powerful force transforming Indian society. Indians are passionate about the caste of their politicians. Nearly half of the voting population of even a highly educated city like Bangalore considers caste to be the No. 1 reason to vote for a candidate.

Six decades of democratic statehood have attempted to correct the imbalances of the past through “reservation” — job and education quotas for the so-called backward castes, like the Dalits. This programme has been effective, in a fairly hit-or-miss fashion. Some say that nearly all university seats are reserved for lower castes, effectively blocking forward castes  from higher education. Others point out that the vast majority of high paying jobs are still in the hands of the top three castes.

This, then, is the problem of discussing caste in India: the profound lack of information and contradictory data on the subject. Succeeding governments for years shied away from gathering caste-based data, preferring, with obscure political wisdom, to enact their policies in the dark. This changed in 2011, with the first Indian census to visit the subject in eight decades.

So that is the fascinating conundrum of Indian society: on one hand, caste is losing its virility as India opens up opportunities and mindsets, while on the other, the forces of democratic politics ensure that it will thrive and never be forgotten as a crucial social index.

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