Stuck at the bottom of the social ladder

India Habitat Centre hosts an annual mish-mash between a debate and an essay writing competition every year. This time the subject is “The magic that India needs…”

I could’ve chosen to do the conventional thing (read pure procedure) ie. enumerate India’s problems… but then, I realised that my bulleted list would reach lengths unheard of! And yet the entire purpose of the exercise would remain lost in the half-baked intellectual stringing together of ten syllabled words together; because I still wouldn’t arrive at one definite mantra.

And so having abandoned the assignment to my writer’s-now-turned-thinker’s block, I went back to flashing fake smiles at prospective GE clients. GE is housed in one of the ultra-modern and extremely ugly metal and glass buildings with two sets of elevators. The one to the left is broader and larger that the other. It is unpainted, lacks a fan, the numbers are peeling off the buttons inside…The elevator is never used by GE employees.

I conversationally asked a co-worker on my way up to my splendid desk, about the existance of that peculiar elevator. My query was summarily dismissed by an impatient wave of the hand… “oh that is for the chapraasis…” (janitors), and why was there a seperate lift for them? Some quirky policy of hygeine? “Naa…” I was told, “Woh to neech wale hain naa…” (they belong to the lower caste).

What shocks me is not that casteism still exists in Indian society. What shocks me is how it has pervaded the social structure, where buildings are designed with caste discriminations in mind. What shocks me more, is how a ‘free-market’ enterprise like GE holds on to caste differences, one would imagine that the market is concerned solely with profit! Is it more profitable to buy into casteism? Perhaps! GE adopting local practices, the MNC phenomenon. And is that fine? Why is my socialist conscience pricking me?

What makes India a backward nation? As a people we don’t lack intelligence or the capacity to innovate. Opportunity seems to be knocking all over. If we look closer, the trouble is something rather conventional and much talked about in the past, the social structure of Indian society and the system that holds it in place, the caste system. What if the caste system ceased to exist?

The leaders of independent India decided that India will be a democratic, socialist and secular country. According to this policy there is a separation between religion and state. Practicing untouchability or discriminating a person based on his caste is legally forbidden. Along with this law the government allows positive discrimination of the repressed classes of India. On the face of it all, this is how it looks, the reality though goes much deeper.

The positive discrimination policy doesn’t seem to have done anyone any good, most of the communities who were low in the caste hierarchy remain low in the social order even today. Communities who were high in the social hierarchy remain even today high in the social hierarchy. Most of the manual (traditionally looked upon as degrading) jobs are even today done by the Dalits, while the Brahmans remain at the top of the hierarchy by being the doctors, engineers and lawyers of India.

The untouchability feature in the caste system is one of the cruelest features of the caste system; the strongest racist phenomenon in the world! In India people who work in ignominious, polluting and unclean occupations are still polluting by virtue of that are untouchables. Untouchables have almost no rights in society.

Social contract holds that in the early stages of the formation of society, men and women are not regarded and treated as individuals, but as members of a particular group. Groups of men and women related by blood relationship constitute the units of he early society… Social contract predicts a gradual movemnet from collectivism to individual liberty– it also regards self-respect as the very first primary social good.

India’s society continues to be organized in groups. Individuals are subjected to collective standards and are expected to live in harmony with the group, subordinating their ‘individual’ interests. This pre-eminence of the group, I venture to say (despite my liberal leanings) is both a weakness and a strength. Weakness because of the caste system that denies the society any social progress and strength because the individual believes in and endeavors to promote the cohesion of the group.

Religious-mystical theories, biological theories and socio-historical theories explain the existance of the caste system. Sadly, these theories explain how the four Varnas were founded, but they do not explain how the Jats in each Varna or the untouchables were founded. They explain the purpose behind the division, to be based on one’s profession, but provide no explanation as to how it became the reason for social denigration.

Of all social institutions in this nation, the most peculiar is the caste system. It is peculiar in the sense that it is confined to India and is found nowhere else in the world. It is peculiar because of the extreme social segmentation which it produces; it is also peculiar because it is not a purely social system but is so closely interwoven with Hinduism and hence is tied into the religious sentiments of the nation.

Each member of the Hindu community belongs to one or other of over 2,000 castes, which divide into groups arranged in a complex system of social differentiation. As between its members, a caste is a bond of union, but the system splits up society into sections which, owing to the prohibitions not only against inter-marriage, but also against eating, drinking, and even smoking together, prevent social fusion more perhaps than any other institution in the world.

The caste system thus at once unites and divides thousands of groups, but its salient feature is mutual exclusiveness, for each caste regards other castes as separate communities with which it has no concern. This is a particularly worrisome trend. Indians on foreign soil commonly complain about hostility… a little ironical when in 2003 communities and ‘castes’ cause so much suffering.

The caste system is the antithesis of the principle that all men are equal, for there is a hierarchy of castes, based on the principle that men neither are nor can be equal. Different castes are ranked high or low according to the degree of honour in which they are held by the Hindu community as a whole, subject to the pre-eminence of the Brahman, who forms, as it were, the apex of a pyramid in which other castes are superimposed in layers, one upon another.

A man belongs to, and, except in rare cases, remains till death in, the caste in which he is born. The social position of each individual is fixed by heredity and not by personal qualifications and material considerations. Differences of status are justified by the religious doctrines. Ad absurdum?!

If that isn’t strange enough, three castes have a spiritual birthright which is denied to the Sudras. Sudras have no such religious privilege and are from birth to death under a religious disability marking their inferior status. Below these four classes again is a fifth class consisting of degraded races, such as the Chandal, which were regarded as completely outside the plane of humanity…

The existing system is the growth of centuries, as major divisions have split into minor divisions and castes have been divided and subdivided over and over again, and eventually become stereotyped. This continual process of segmentation is the result of many causes, racial, religious, occupational distinction and territorial distribution. While I’m all for cultural preservation, this system is not something that ought to have continued, even if in altered forms which are perhaps far worse today. I say far worse, simply because India is trying too hard to become the progressive global entity and is today confused with the sermons its past dictates and the need the market shows it.

The caste system governs matters to ludicrous proportions…It governs such matters as diet; it lays down marriage laws; it regulates to some extent the actual means of livelihood. There is an almost bewildering variety of usage as the combined result of many factors.

The caste system splits up society into a multitude of little communities, for every caste, ad almost every local unit of a caste, has its own peculiar customs and internal regulations. The idea of kinship is, as pointed out by Sir Herbert Risley, ‘certainly the oldest and perhaps the most enduring factor in the caste system and seems to have supplied the framework and the motive principles of the more modern restrictions based upon ceremonial usage and community of occupation’.

It is probably on this account that the most important and the most rigid of the rules laid down by caste are those which are concerned with marriage. The principal rule is that of endogamy, under which the members of each caste must marry within, and may not marry outside, the caste. The internal organization of the caste is also determined by regulations as to marriage. It is subdivided into sub-castes, which again are further subdivided into groups, and both the sub-castes and these groups are delimited on matrimonial lines. The three are like concentric circles, the caste being an outer circle, the sub-caste an inner circle, and the nuclear matrimonial group, the innermost circle. The sub-castes generally resemble the caste in being endogamous, for marriage to any one other than a member of the same sub-caste is unlawful. On the other hand the innermost group, which is known by various names (such as gotra or kul), is exogamous.

The members of each are, or believe themselves to be, descended in the male line from a common ancestor, and intermarriage between them is looked on as little sort of incest, so that they are obliged to marry outside the group but within the sub-caste. So if you fall in love, its not enough if he/she is of the same religion, in India the ‘other’ must belong to the same caste, same sub-caste and so on!

The conception of purity and impurity is the key to many of the apparent enigmas of the caste system, and is the chief principle on which the system depends. The Brahman is at the top of society because he is more pure and sacred than other castes, while Mahar and Paraiyan are at the bottom because they are impure. Thus purity is the pivot on which he entire system turns. Rank, social position, economic condition have no direct effect on the gradation from the standpoint of caste. Caste in India is rigid simply because the ideas of the people regarding purity and pollution are rigid.

One idea which is generally prevalent, and which has its roots in the remote past, is that industrial occupations and manual labour are base pursuits. There is no conception of the dignity of labor in India. The higher castes despise manual work and consider it beneath their dignity. One of the reasons why IT is such a blessing is simply this: There is fat pay check and no hands to get dirty!

Those castes whose hereditary means of livelihood is some handicraft, such as carpentry, pottery-making, oil manufacture, blacksmith’s work, etc., all come within the lower grades of castes. Neither Brahmans nor Rajputs, many of whom are land-holders, will undertake the physical labor of cultivation, above all, they must not, however poor, drive the plough. To do so is derogatory to their high estate, and they must maintain themselves as gentleman farmers.

Repressed classes cover those with religious, economic and social disabilities, chiefly the backward castes. A huge percentage of the population remains uneducated and permanently at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Is this alright? Any social reform in India, should begin with the break-up of the caste-system, with its vast economic, social and political implications, it’s abolishment will propel India towards the progress it so desperately wants and needs.

Sadly, social reformers in India advocate monotheism, denounce idolatry, the evil of child marriages, and the ban on the remarriage of widows, favor the abolition of untouchability and REFORM of the caste system, which, they announce, should rest on the basis of worth, not birth.

Castes which, though ranking above the repressed classes are still of low status, are also pressing for admission to a higher place in the gradation of castes. There is, however, NO general demand for the abolition of caste and for the leveling down of the higher castes. What is aimed at by the lower castes is leveling up. So, far from advocating any destruction of the social pyramid which the system has built up, they desire merely a higher place in it.

Nothing is more noticeable than their anxiety to be recognized as twice-born castes, their assumption in some cases of the sacred thread, which is the outward and visible sign of the twice-born castes, and the increasing solidarity resulting from the formation of caste associations, which seek to better their position by means of organization and agitation as well as by education.

Preaching the same doctrine in social matters, and advocating the independence and self-assertion of the non-Brahman an immense majority of the population is characterized by an ingrained conservatism, an intense reluctance to disturb the existing order of things. The main structure of caste remains intact with its mutually exclusive communities, its carefully regulated gradations of rank, and the ban on intermarriage which prevents any fusion of classes.

It is as if some superficial cracks have appeared on the stucco front of a building, while the brickwork behind it remains solid. In spite of its obvious defects, the artificial barriers which it maintains between classes, the irrational customs which it sanctions, and the rational practices which it forbids, the caste system is not only the basis of social order, but also in a large measure the source and inspiration of social morality!

The trouble is not with recognising the faults of the caste system. The problem is finding a replacement. For all its evils, the caste system has still bound Indians in a manner that no other system can and has; its destruction would be a dangerous revolution unless its place can be taken by another and a better system.

This possibility is the magic that India needs. We need to recognize the defects of the old system and throw it out, before the entire edifice of any justice in Indian society collapses. Are we willing you and I to take that little step forward?

The newspaper in the typical Indian household does one more thing aside of the regular wrapping and wiping, it brings the would-be-weds together! Yes, matrimonial section is what I’m taking about. The day I wake up and read the Sunday Times with an ad that has no need to state “caste-no-bar?, because the phrase has long-since become archaic, the equity is implicit and all Indians know it. Well, then the magic has worked.

3 thoughts on “Stuck at the bottom of the social ladder

  1. Pl. told me how many gotra or kul in hindus. pl. tell me all name of the gotra along with the surname. & same gotra marriage can be done .sepcaily pl told the rane & surve gotra.


  2. Very well written.
    At present the idea of abolishing something to create something new seems a little far fetched, specially if it’s the caste system that we are talking about. How it may actually work out is by gradually ‘dissolving’ the system; it would be a more subtle change. It is infact already happenning in cities. Next to follow are towns n then villages.
    Some changes are quite positive: Sulabh Shauchalaya Movement(ironically started by a ‘brahman’) to eliminate the need of manual handling of human wastes n for the welfare of the lower castes. In hindu marriages,the subcaste criteria is almost dead.
    Caste system can not be destroyed by any revolution – social or o/w. The only way to bring about a change is through education, creating more caste-levelling jobs, financial upliftment of the traditional working class, and if possible – keeping politics out of the equation.




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