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Understanding Caste Political And Social Mobility In India History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

In terms of social organization, India is often regarded as unique for its longstanding caste system. However, academic work on the subject has long suffered due to a misguided rendering of the relation between caste, class, identity, and politics. Louis Dumont’s seminal anthropological work, Homo Hierarchicus, states that caste is voluntary and static. [1] His often repeated conclusion is that Indian caste functions on a top-down, vertical hierarchy, where each caste member accepts their position on the social ladder, and willingly complies with the social implications of their tribal association. [2] His work went on to be deemed an authoritative assessment, yet recent ethnographic work by scholars such as Dipankar Gupta and Vibha Pingle, has implied that his assertions are based on grave misunderstandings about the nature of social and political mobility in India. In recent years, the study of caste and its relation to development has undergone a shift in focus, and Dumont’s conclusions have been deemed far too simplistic for a system that is full of complexities. What has been critically lacking in many studies of caste in India is insight into the way democracy has changed the way castes perceive and interact with one another. Currently, political and social mobility are goals equally shared by members of all castes, despite their traditional relation to conceptions of personal purity or pollution, [3] depending on the caste one is associated with. Contemporary research shows that there is fluidity to caste that had not previously existed, and traditional hierarchy has been replaced by a series of competing identities that differ from region to region. As such, it can be concluded that since the introduction of democracy in India, caste has been treated as a means of political and social organization, and is no longer a concrete determinant status.

In the last quarter of the 20th century, much of the discourse surrounding India’s caste system centered on the work of influential anthropologist Louis Dumont. In his seminal work, Homo Hierarchicus, Dumont records a favourable account of caste, treating it as an ideal model of social construction. [4] 5Dumont’s rendering of caste ran counter to negative interpretations common amongst Western scholars. Aware of the prevailing disdain of his contemporaries, Dumont uses the introduction of the 1970 English translation to state that the West’s outright dismissal of caste hierarchy is due to the ideological opposition it creates against the egalitarian ideal. [6] While the West prides itself on promoting the notion of equality, Dumont argues, “the ideal of equality, even if it is superior, is artificial,” [7] and “inequality is inevitable.” [8] By imposing a strict social hierarchy, India’s caste system is indeed unique; however, this is not because of social stratification, but rather because it permits a holistic approach to society that is far more realistic than the idealism embraced in such conceptions as that of the project of the Enlightenment. [9] Every member maintains a necessary role in the social order, and collectively contributes to the greater good of the nation as a whole. In Dumont’s eyes, caste displays a commitment to social values that the modern world has lost. [10] Although Dumont claims to have had no intention of describing the history of caste [11] , a brief background in traditional caste configuration would be helpful in making distinctions between past and present. To this end, it is fruitful to keep Franz Boas’s conclusions on ethnological method in mind; namely, that there is no incontrovertible data in relation to the chronological order of events [12] ; that an individual’s activities are both determined by, and determinative of, the society in which they live [13] ; and that cultural groups have a unique history that is peculiar to the inner workings of their social group, but also dependent upon the foreign influences to which it has come into contact with. [14] 

Four broad castes, known as varnas, were first outlined in the Hindu scriptures, and include: Brahmins (the priests and scholars); Kshatriyas (the martial or royal caste); Vaishyas (connected to business positions); and Shudras (responsible for manual labour). Below the Shudras are the Dalits, formerly referred to as the Untouchables. Dalits were required to fulfill the most slavish tasks in society. In the traditional agricultural economy, the landowners typically consisted of Brahmins, Kshatriyas, and Vaishyas. Shudras were the peasantry, and Dalits were labourers who worked the fields for the landed class. Jatis, or sub-castes, are located within the varna [15] structure, but offer much more specific attributes with regards to name and religious ritual. [16] However, the hereditary distinction between caste members goes deeper than the division of labour. The traditional model of caste functions on a vertical spectrum of purity and pollution: Brahmin’s being the most pure, and the Dalits being the most polluted. This spectrum reflected onto social relations, where castes of different rank were expected not to intermingle with one another, with strict sanctions imposed should these rules be violated. [17] 

In his paper “Political Progress: Reality or Illusion?” political scientist Jean Blondel attempts to dissect the modern understanding that social progress is equated with political progress. Blondel’s article is pertinent to the discussion of caste because it compliments Dumont’s argument that a clear definition of what constitutes societal and political progress does not exist. Blondel argues that measuring the efficiency of a political system is a value judgment and since values are prioritized differently amongst people, it is impossible to determine which sets of values will characterize a good society for all. [18] However, as a general statement, Blondel does conclude that a “better society is one in which decision-making and policy-making open up broader choices to the members of the society.” [19] Such a statement becomes problematic for Dumont’s positive interpretation of the caste system. When Dumont states that, for Hindu’s, “nothing changes so far as values are concerned,” [20] then he is asserting that the hierarchy of caste remains static over time, and even the lowest members on the social and economic scale remain content with their lot, despite the vast levels of disparity. First, political stagnation would run counter to Blondel’s conclusion of a ‘better society’ but, more importantly, it would present Indians as remaining outside of the modernizing process. With a growing economy that is currently one of the largest in the world, can political and economic power truly remain in the hands of a small minority in spite of a democratic process? Can traditional values withstand a growing awareness of inequality? Furthermore, as Dipankar Gupta states, it makes the questionable assumption that Indians “participate willingly in their own degradation.” [21] 

Before one can debate the current role caste plays in India’s contemporary societal and political realms, it is important to trace the emergence of the caste model that Dumont observed and wrote about. Whereas Dumont argues that caste hierarchy is an oppositional model to Western interpretations of democracy, echoing what has been said of Boas above, author Nicholas B. Dirks claims that caste is the product of an intermingling between Western colonialism and India’s traditional past. In his book Castes of Mind, Dirks suggests that caste “became a single term capable of expressing, organizing, and above all ‘systemizing’ India’s diverse forms of social identity, community, and organization.” [22] Dirks does not present an argument as simple as “the British invented caste;” however, he does state that the Hindu ‘tradition’ upon which the modern caste structure is based on has a close tie to colonial history, suggesting that the British exploited and simplified complex social codes as a means of control and order. [23] Stuart Corbridge and John Harris argue that through their doctrine of divide and rule, the British exploited the Hindu doctrine of reincarnation in order to solidify caste identities. [24] Once these rules were established, Indians were left with little choice but to conform and adapt such customs into their own sovereignty. In other words, the Hindu “tradition was produced precisely within the historical relationship between colonizer and colonized.” [25] If one is to accept Dirks’ argument that the modern caste system is in part a colonial legacy, how that legacy has hindered or helped development still remains to be explored.

Dumont’s statement on the static nature of the hierarchal caste system, and the assumed contentment of those within it, has been a catalyst for contestation amongst many scholars. In his essay “Caste and Politics: Identity Over System,” Dipankar Gupta argues that Dumont’s understanding of caste marginalizes the competitive spirit that has always existed within India’s hierarchical system. A key element that has exacerbated caste competition was the establishment of an independent and democratic India, which under the eyes of the law sees all castes as legally equal. [26] It is with the advent of democracy in India that one sees the dissolution of caste as a system and the emergence of caste as a political and social identity. [27] However, it should not be assumed that a change in power structure came immediately after Indian independence from the British in 1947. By 1962, 63% of Congress Party members in the Legislative Assembly were from elite castes, while electoral positions in Uttar Predesh, India’s largest province, was controlled primarily by elites until 1977. [28] Yet, even during periods where the political realm mirrored traditional caste hierarchy, notable changes were occurring that would greatly affect the political arena concerning India’s future.

In her essay “Caste” Vibha Pingle states that three key changes have caused a rapid transformation to India’s hierarchical structure, where “the very foundations of the caste system have been shaken.” [29] The first is the modernization of the Indian economy. Pingle notes that through the process of economic development, job creation in manufacturing, service, and bureaucratic sectors are being coveted and attained by members of all castes, not just the upper three varnas. [30] The traditional relationship between castes was regulated by what is called the jajmani system. The purpose of the code was to ensure proper cooperation amongst different jatis. This was particularly necessary in an agriculture economy, where the production of goods, services, and crops required a variety of skill sets, and a high degree of manual labour. [31] Yet, the jajmani code is tied strictly to the rural economy, and has no relevance in the industrial economy. This point ties into Pingle’s second outlined key change, that of urbanization. Between the year of independence and the early 1990s, India has seen its urban population increase from 12% to over 25%. Since a rural economy is conducive to a top-down hierarchical system, urban migration has presented the opportunity for the lowest levels of the caste structure to mobilize beyond their destined plateau. The third contributing factor to caste transformation was the government’s implementation of affirmative action policies. Since 1947, the Indian government has catered to the lower castes through “reservation policies” that set aside a percentage of government jobs for Dalits, Shudras and tribal groups. A similar reservation policy exists in post-secondary institutions. [32] 

Although these three mobilizing forces have played central roles in weakening the traditional caste structure, it does not address the question of caste and identity. When members of lower caste are able to move beyond economic restrictions, do they leave behind their cultural ties? Examining the realm of Indian politics in greater depth effectively shows the answer to this question. As of the year 2000, Dalits and tribal groups represented roughly 66% of the population, with a total membership of over 600 million people. [33] Since the late 1970s, India’s political system has seen a decline in power of the elite castes, and a dramatic rise in the political clout of lower castes. [34] The consolidated power of the upper elites caused widespread disenfranchisement amongst the lower castes. Coupled with growing education rates as a result of affirmative action policies, an anti-discrimination mentality began to develop. As a result, political representation for groups as far down the hierarchy as the Dalits began to emerge. [35] However, what is particularly notable is the phenomena that as groups sought to diminish the economic and power restrictions that were associated with their caste they did not seek to dissociate caste from their identity.

The nature of caste politics has also shown interesting behavioural patterns. As with many cases of political mobilization, an increase in clout can often result in the oppressed party adopting discriminative practices once a move up the social ladder has been accomplished. Yet, this has not been completely the case. Instead, the vertical pure/polluted spectrum is not mimicked by caste parties, but replaced by a system of “horizontalization,” whereby political alliances between caste parties are not entrenched, but commonly formed and dissolved based on party desires. [36] This is not to suggest that castes have taken it upon themselves to assert a utopian system of equality. What it does suggest, however, is that the caste system has moved beyond its traditional rigid hierarchy, and been replaced by a series of identities all competing for their own interests. [37] 

What can be concluded about contemporary India is that the social restrictions integral to the traditional caste system have noticeably decreased. [38] Economic development and urbanization have slowly eroded the binding social forces that maintained the rigid hierarchy entrenched by the British colonial presence, while affirmative action has increased the opportunities for jobs and education amongst those traditionally deemed as inferior. These should all be treated as major developments, and suitably work with Blondel’s definition of progress. Perhaps what is most interesting about the caste system in contemporary India is how communities have turned a degraded status marker into a means of collective political and social identity. It is beyond the scope of this paper to state conclusively that caste is a positive colonial legacy, but how caste has altered over time from hierarchical to inclusionary practices is certainly a testament to the Indian people’s historical ability to find strength in numbers.

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