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Social and political Values and Systems in India.

Politicization of Caste System or Casteism

“In present understanding of ‘caste-system’, element of ‘caste’ has been  highlighted,  and element of ‘system’ has been considerably suppressed.” Lata Sinha

“Societies crumble and collapse, not because of the mindset of few’ Bad’ men, but because of the apathy and silence of many ‘Good’ men”

Traditional living had been an anchor, keeping our boat in safe harbour, Now that the anchor had gone and the boat is at the mercy of wild waves on a stormy ocean.

Introduction – It has become a fashion these days in certain quarters to criticize caste system. For many mordenites, national and international politicians, intellectuals, activists or reformers from other faiths, “Caste” has become a derogatory word. It is not caste system, but casteism is bad and needs to be controlled at its earliest.

Difference between caste as a system and casteismThere is a big difference between ‘caste’ as a ‘system’ and ‘caste-ism’. In the modern understanding of caste system, the element of caste is predominant and the element of system is less. First of all, everybody needs to understand that there is a big difference between ‘caste-system’ and ‘caste-ism’.

  • Caste as system – Caste as a system is a well-organized social institution. It Caste as a system has “succeeded in doing in India, what no state, no conqueror and no economy was able to do – the establishment of a single unified system of society throughout the whole of India, accommodating numerous semi-autonomous communities arising at many times and in many places), a system of society, which was able to comprise a greater range of local differences in a single system than any society has previously accomplished.” Caste has always provided social security to individuals. Its norms define an individual role in the society. Rules of endogamy, ritual purity, interdependence, specialization etc. have been its important traits. A person’s relation with members of his own caste remains closer than with those, belonging to other castes. Caste values, beliefs, prejudices, injunctions as well as distortions of reality are the indivisible part of a person’s psyche and conscience. It makes one feel good and loved, when he lives up to the norms, and anxious and guilty, when he transgresses them.
  • Caste-ism Rigid attitude in observance of caste practices without having regard for reason or rhyme or using it for vested interests of powerful lobbies leads to casteism. It has generated many abnormalities and distortions in the system. Caste is a social institution.  Bringing it into politics and using it for political gains is the biggest disservice one can do to the nation.”

Caste-system worked well, till the society was simple and gave importance to moral values.

Derailment of Caste as a system during medieval period, after the downfall of Hindu Raj  –  After the downfall of Hindu Raj and old Hindus values. Continuous invasions of Turks, Afghans and Mughals during medieval period, when most of the Muslim rulers and Priests humiliated and annihilated the value system of Hindus, destroyed their places of worship and made them victim of all kinds of excesses -like conversion of Hindus into Islam, willingly or forcibly, imposition of Zajiya on Hindus etc.

It was difficult for Hindus to preserve their identity and indigenous culture during medieval period. The conscious efforts by them to preserve their values and honour, made the caste rules and rituals stricter and more rigidly applied than before. (Basham, Ibid pp 181-82). Many deformities and social evils like Sati Pratha, Dowry, Purdah system etc. have been developed into caste system. Religious fundamentalism was born. Hindu and Muslim priests, alike, arbitrarily distorted and misinterpreted the tenets of their respective religions. It led to the process of stiffening/ hardening/ crystallizing of the caste system. Besides, the feudalistic attitude, extravagance and luxurious life style of Mughal rulers and those at the helm of authority, increased the disparity between the rulers and the ruled.

However, the institution of caste remained independent of the government’s intervention. Traditional decentralized self-regulated systems were the mode for keeping checks and balances in the social life of the country. The influence of caste system was immense on public minds.

Teachings of Bhakti and Sufi saints like Surdas, Tulsidas, Chaitnya Mahaprabhu, Nanak, Kabir etc. gave some breathing space to the rigidity of caste system, which suffocated the society during medieval India.

Beginning of casteismCasteism began during British rule (earlier under the East India Company’s and then the Crown’s rule). It had transformed caste system into Casteism, allowed castes to enter into politics, with which began valueless politics.

Position of Britain and India before colonial rule –  During Mughal Empire, Indian sub-continent was one of the biggest global economy and manufacturing power. Ałex Von Tunzelmann has described as following the position of  –

  • India – India was ” a vast, mighty and magnificent empire, brilliantly organized and culturally unified. It dominated a massive swath of the earth.  An average Indian peasant enjoyed  a relatively higher income, and lower taxation. Than his descendants ever would again. Though under Mughal rule, it’s people, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists were allowed the freedom of conscience and custom.” And
  • Britain  – “At the same point of time, England was an undeveloped, semi feudal realm, riven legions factionalism and barely able to feed its illiterate, diseased and stinking masses areas and worked on land, going hungry during the frequent food shortages. They were prevented from moving into industry by the protectionist rackets of guild entry fees Begging was common. Nations ten thousand vagabonds were the terror of the land. Quality of life was not good. About two third population lived at subsistence  levels.” (Ałex Von Tunzelmann, Indian Summer, the secret history of the end of Empire, P. 11-12)

Within two-three hundred years, the position of Britain and India reversed. India had become an underdeveloped country under British domination, while Britain was on the top of the world. How, when, why and what did happen, which has led to unchecked of casteism ?

British-rule in India During Seventeenth century, many Dutch, Portuguese, French, British and Spanish companies came to India in search of market. Weakening of Islamic power, internal fights among various group leaders and communal unrest gave East India Company a success, not only in ousting other European companies from India, but also in establishing its rule in India and monopolizing its trade.

Unchecked growth of casteism – Once firmly established, East India Company transferred the authority to rule India to the Crown, through the Act of 1858. With it, ended the era of expansion and commercial exploitation. The nation ushered into the era of economic exploitation and policy of divide and rule. To keep their power intact, they played off one part against other, Prince  against Princes, Hindus against Muslims, province against provinces and caste against caste. 

Regenerative and destructive mission of Imperial rule – As Karl Marx had pointed out, that British had a double mission in India, one destructive, i.e. annihilation of the old Asiatic Society, the other laying material foundation of Western Society in Asia.

  • Regenerative policies – The regenerating character was concerned with social transformation through modern education, English language as a medium of learning and official language, modernization in economic sphere, political unification of the country and laying foundations for many democratic institutions.
  • Destructive policies – The reactionary and destructive character was seen in the way, they implemented their policies, which gave boost to caste-ist tendencies. The spread of education amongst non-Brahmin communities led them to organize their caste fellows and to form associations.  The rulers officially allowed political formations/organizations on the basis of race, religion, caste, creed, or place, to pursue their sectarian interests. It gave rise to caste-ism in social sphere and allowed the entry of Caste in politics.

Ideological attack on caste system British had prejudice against everything native. They arranged debates between conservatives non-interventionists and Protestant-inspired interventionists on Hinduism and its caste system.

  • Views of Protestant-inspired interventionist thinkers –– Protestant-inspired interventionist European teachers, missionaries, bureaucrats and sociologists like Max Weber, J.S. Mill or Louis Dumont, showed their occidental irritation. All of them launched an ideological attack on Hinduism and its Caste system. They had discredited both and  forcefully implanted in the minds of people, the real and imaginary, evils of Hindu Social structure and its practices. Kitts and others criticized caste-system, as lacking all rational arrangements. According to them Indian culture and caste practices were discriminatory barbarous, uncivilized”. They considered Hindu social system based on caste as highly stratified where multiplicity of communities and their cultures were exploiting each other for their own advantage.  They forcefully implanted in the minds of people, the real and imaginary, evils of Hindu Social structure and its practices.
  • Caste responsible for social evils – They held caste responsible for all social evils and practices i.e. selfishness, covetousness, indolence and apathy of individuals, feudal attitude, increasing disparities, backward thinking, belief in dogmas and superstitions., sustained by a unique set of rituals, beliefs and whimsical concept of purity and pollution. Even the blame for peoples’ poverty, misery and deprivation was put on caste-system.  It was posed as as one of the greatest scourges of the country, which doomed large classes of men, to mental and physical degradation and kept them away from education, prosperity and honour. Caste system created an iniquitous society, exploitative and oppressive by nature. and fostered caste-conflicts and caste rivalries.
  • Contrary to every principle of justice and polity – Ward alleged Not only is the caste contrary to every principle of justice and polity, it is repugnant to every feeling of benevolence.  The social circle is almost invariably, composed of persons of the same caste, to the careful exclusion of others.  It aims one class of men against another; it gives rise to greatest degree of pride and apathy.  It forms a sufficient excuse for not doing an act of benevolence towards another, that he is not of the same caste, Ney, a man dying with thirst will not accept a cooling drought of water from the hands or the cup of a person of a lower caste.  The on of sub-castes and sub-sub-castes is predominant. It developed a complex in Indian minds of educated Indians about their heritage and caste system.
  • Views of liberals on caste-system – Conservative non-interventionalists liberal thinkers like Burke or administrators like Shore etc took a Natural Law view of India in which the “peaceful and orderly polity” was anchored in the caste system. Each Indian had a place in the structure, and each performed a task useful to society. This polity preserved “the liberties and rights, as well as the duties of all groups”. The accusation of ‘Indian despotism’ was false— the power of the rulers was projected through a complex prism of caste and tradition, inevitably moderating it. Thus, in order to preserve “the fabric of Indian society”, India was to be governed “according to Indian experience and tradition”. This staid view provided the basis for the remarkably mild colonial approach to administration Sir John Strachey described in 1911. He wrote that the British, “instead of introducing unsuitable novelties…have taken in each province…the old local institutions as the basis of our own arrangements,” including the incorporation of the Law Code of Manu.

Implementation of various Policies fanned casteism Imperial rulers fanned casteism and communalism in a very sophisticated manner for political reasons. Before laying down the policies for modern India, Colonial rulers gathered information, and then exploited material relating to social, demographic, linguistics, religious and cultural diversities of India.  They exaggerated the distortions developed into the system and carefully avoided telling the whole truth or strong points of Indian culture.

The implementation of rulers’ plans and policies was done quite cleverly. It served a double purpose for them. They got the credit for laying down the foundation of democratic institutions in India, and for amelioration and protection of Indian society. On the other hand, they succeeded in creating differences between different sections of Indian society in a very sophisticated ways.  A complex was developed in the minds of educated Indians about their heritage and caste system. Caste and community were used as tools to distribute political power.

On surface, everything appeared fine. But in reality, distribution of power on communal basis made Indians enflamed caste and community feelings and led them to fight amongst themselves. Their infights kept the rulers to balance of power, and prolong their rule in India. They Following are the policies, that paved way for Imperial designs

Grammar School Modern education –Since its inception in 1835, it has influenced the Indian society and its caste system in a big way. In 1835, modern Education system was introduced by Lord Macaulay. The purpose was to “Anglicize (Indians) in terms of both cultural and intellectual attainments.. And also To form a class, who may be interpreters between us and millions of whom, we govern, a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinion, in morals and in intellect.

Plus points of Modern education -Modern education system has both of constructive and destructive effects on its culture. It offered to Indian intelligentsia the key to the treasures of scientific and democratic thoughts of Modern ‘West’. It attracted the attention of all weaknesses, rigidity and harshness of caste system towards weaker sections of the society evil practices developed under alien rule, into the system after the downfall of Hindu Raj.

Adverse effects at social front – Modern education system has disassociated Indians from their traditional way of learning in Gurukuls under strict discipline, classical roots and knowledge. With it faded Indian values, philosophies, systems and traditions. It made many Indians to lose their faith in social values and systems.

Dependence on government jobs – In the near absence of industrial, commercial or social service activity, the educated Indians depended heavily on Government jobs. Opportunities in modern education and government jobs became the bone of contention. Cut-throat competition was started between different sections of Indian society, to get hold on modern occupations. It led to inter-caste/intra caste rivalries, social tensions and group conflicts among Indians.

No access to masses – Access to modern education was not available to the masses, because the education was expensive and its mode of instruction was an alien language – the English.  New opportunities based on modern education, therefore, were inaccessible to majority of people.

Effect of Industrialization and modernization on Caste-systemIndustrialization began with the development of technologies in the spheres of science, engineering and warfare. With the beginning of the process of industrialization in 1765, everything started changing,  be it the life style, pattern of occupations/employment or work culture. So far, various industrial revolutions have been based on energy of coal, gas, electronics, nuclear, and internet. At present the focus is on renewable energy.

Positive and negative effects of Industrialization – Progress and poverty had grown simultaneously during the earlier two phases of industrialization. The positive effects of industrialization were large scale production of goods, machines helping people do their work more quickly. saved their time and labour, optimized productivity. Modern means of transport and communication shortened distances and made mobility and communication faster and easier. But at the same time, it had led Mal-distribution of wealth and power has pushed the world towards many wars including the two world wars.

Under British rule, there had been two industrial revolutions –

  1. First Industrial revolution (based on coal)- The industrial revolution began in 1705, when water and steam power were harnessed. It lessened the pressure on human muscles and opened doors for factory/mills culture. The first factory was a cotton mill in Britain. Steam power helped the trading business. As Railways proliferated, their networks strongly influenced urban growth.
  2. Second Industrial revolution (discovered electricity, gas and oil around 1900) –  With second industrial revolution came the times of innovations in Petro-chemicals, Electronics and aviation. Use of electricity and chemicals continuously improved  day today life of people by making it more comfortable and healthier. Developments in communication technology got a jump with the telegraph and telephone. Transportation grew very fast with the invention of plane and car. Mechanical production grew in speed through the start of mass production. Third and fourth industrial revolutions happened after the Independence.

India missed out first few phases of Industrial revolution, one that revolutionized agriculture and textile production and the second one happening during the last quarter of the 19th century, when science was fused with technology. It resulted in slow progress. India could produce only low technology, low productivity, low wage and low profit items under British rule. It left India economically far behind the advanced nations.

Changes in life-style due to industrialization – Industrialization changed the life-style, occupation and work culture of people in following spheres –

  • Connection between occupation and caste – Earlier, there was a close association of caste with occupation. Process of Modernization and Industrialization loosened the sanctity of caste rules in matters of occupation. Industrialization has given freedom to individuals to select any profession of their own choice/liking. From community-based, employment/occupation has become individual based. It led to urbanization as well.
  • Emergence of new occupations – With the beginning of industrialization and modernization, many new occupations emerged giving choice of occupation, accessibility to which was mainly through modern education, knowledge of English language and loyalty to British. More, a person withdrew from physical labour, more civilized, honoured and qualified he was regarded by modern society. White collared jobs gained importance.
  • Growing aversion towards traditional occupations – Many occupations were regarded more hazardous, more time consuming and less paying. It resulted in discrediting many traditional occupations. Slowly and steadily a large number of traditional occupations became obsolete. Many castes of rural artisans, or craftsman involved in traditional occupations abandoned their traditional work. Outcome of such a development has been casualty of workers first, afterwards their work style, commitment, motivation and culture. It scattered efforts, sense of direction and manufacturing skills of millions of artisans, craftsman, weavers etc.
  • Unemployment increased – Earlier there was no dearth of employment for aspiring workers. In addition to hereditary occupation, a substantial labor market existed in agriculture and army. It was open and had accommodated all social groups of society. dated all social groups of society – indigenous or alien. The basic qualification for doing any work was mainly having the qualifications needed for that specific job.
  • Increased inter-itra caste rivalries – In the near absence of industrial, commercial or social service activity, the educated Indians depended heavily on Government jobs. Opportunities in modern education and government jobs became the bone of contention and led to a keen competition between different sections of Indian society. It led to inter-caste/intra caste rivalries and communal rivalries. Social tensions and group conflicts increased in matter of employment, which has done irreparable damage to the nation.
  • Adversely affected illiterate manual labor’s class – It affected the most, a large number of illiterate people, who could neither enter into the modern sector, nor could stick to their traditional occupations considering menial work derogatory. They lost their creativity, sense of achievement and pride. They considerably increased the numbers of poor agricultural laborers, industrial workers or marginal labors or unemployed. In addition to it, it had adversely affected employment prospects of youth, especially unskilled workers living in rural areas.
  • Position of farmers – Earlier, in old agricultural society of India, economics, employment and work culture revolved around long lasting structures. British imperial rule had undermined every pillar of agricultural society. Immense influence  of powerful peasant was a reality of the rural life of Medieval India. Indian peasantry in UP, Bihar and MP were armed. Company’s rule forced Indian farmers to produce cotton plantation so that it can fuel English factories. British rule had reduced India to a producer of raw material and market of their products.
  • Destruction of Indian handicrafts and cottage industry – Apathy towards indigenous skills, knowledge and occupations pushed millions backwards in a very subtle manner. Local genius, cottage industries and fine arts were discouraged. Their competition was directly with the cheap machine goods. It led to the decay of village industries. Indian markets were flooded with machine- made goods cheaper than hand-made products. It adversely affected loom-made textiles and handicrafts. The vast majority of people belonging to peasants, artisans sunk in poverty and misery.
  • Increased disparities – Mal-distribution of wealth and power divided the society and the whole world into two, ‘haves and have nots’. Earlier People in power and position cared for the lower castes in order to acquire and retain local followers. The system made upper castes generous in matters of food, drinks and loans, when required. The tropical climate of the country compelled the people to the distribution of surplus, as it was difficult to store anything for long. [Sriniwas MN,  Times of India, Dated September 9, 1990, p 6.] It has pushed the world towards many wars including the two world wars.

Modern means of Transport and communication destroyed local character of caste – The modern means of transport and communications shortened distances and made mobility faster and easier. But at the same time, it destroyed the local character of caste system. Earlier,  local castes were confined within a small area, having very little links with the outside world due slower means of transport. Local societies used to be self-sufficient and mutually `supporting and caring for each other. They enjoyed a large measure of freedom in respect of their internal customs, rituals and life styles. At the same time, they were bound together by economic and social ties and had a strong bond of mutual dependence. It made close interaction and cooperation between different castes, a reality.

All castes were bound together by economic and social ties. Each and every caste was assigned some important social duty. They shared moments of joys and sorrows. Traditions and rituals required the participation of all castes. Plurality of castes had provided automatic checks and balances and controlled the arbitrariness or unbalanced growth of power of any caste group. There was hardly any question of all India tyranny of any caste group. Only merchants visited different distant places. Modern means of transport and communications destroyed the local character of caste system, shortened distances and made mobility faster and easier.

After the developments in modern means of transport and communication, different social groups grew in size, embracing a much wider area than before. Many pressure groups emerged and entered into region-wise caste alliances.

Industrialization sharply restricted the hold of caste-elders over its members and replaced the traditional pattern of checks and balances and leadership by voluntary associations, social reformers and leaders. It sharply restricted the hold of caste-elders over its members and replaced the traditional pattern of checks and balances and leadership by voluntary associations, social reformers and leaders.

Effect of Census operation on caste system – After consolidating their position in India, British Government started census operations to gather information and understand  size, distribution, socio-economic conditions, demography and other characteristics of Indian society, whom they wanted to rule. He purpose was to chalk out strategies for the colonial governance accordingly.

For the first time, the Census operations drew the attention of the rulers, intelligentsia and public to the diversity of Indian society and multiplicity of castes and sub-castes throughout India. The first volume of Man in 1901 (the Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute) noted, The entire framework of native life in India is made up of groups of castes and tribes, and status and conduct of individuals are, largely, determined by the rules of the group, to which he belonged.

Re-classification of Indian society by British – In 1901, Census Commissioner Risley, like modern Manu, had divided all the castes and communities into following unbridgeable groups – Brahmins, Non-Brahmins, Muslims, Anglo-Indians, untouchables, non-Hindu Communities and backward castes.  Through legal process, each one got a new separate and distinct identity.

Adverse effects of census on Indian society by the way information collected was used – The gathered information helped the rulers to instigate caste consciousness/ caste animosities.

  • Census enumeration was far from neutral. Recording of caste and sub-casted – Recording and putting in order numerous castes in hierarchical order in 1901 census had fossilized, imparting it a solidity, it did not have earlier.[i]  
  • Caste used as a tool – From now onwards, political, religious and cultural battles are fought the basis of caste. Different sections of Indian society fight amongst themselves to be one up, without any sign of relief even as of today. This division done by Census Commissioner Risley remains a by-word even for the present day political leaders of Independent India. For them caste is an effective tool to instigate caste consciousness, caste animosities for vested interest.
  • Destroyed the flexibility of caste-system –  – Earlier, Caste was a flexible and fluid unit of Indian society. Alternative ideologies and styles of life were available in India. Floating population, consisting groups like Gujjars, Bhattis, Rajput rangers remained outside caste system. They were quite strong.  Forests gave shelter and food to large sections of society and served as havens for those in search of escape from society.
  • No all-India hierarchical order of different Varna/castes – There was no all-India hierarchical order of different Varna/castes. Cultural endowments like intellectual and spiritual attainments and self-discipline formed the basis of their ranking. Accordingly, position of Brahmins were considered at the top, then came the number of Kshatriya’s, Vaishyas and Shudras. In between the two, there was an ambiguity about the status of all the castes, which was acceptable to all concerned in any local area. This itself gave a large element of flexibility to caste system.
  • Census Operations led to all-round hardening of social-system – It led to an all-round hardening of social-system, codified the castes and standardized the system by placing all the jatis into new social groups formed by Risley. It led to an all-round hardening of social-system, codified the castes and standardized the system by placing all the jatis into four Varnas or in the categories of outcastes and aborigines. All the floating population like Gujjars, Bhattis, Ranger Rajputs, who remained out-side caste system were fused into one.
  • Ranking on the basis of administrative convenience – Ranking was based on administrative convenience. Brahmins were pinpointed as enemy of non-brahmin communities. British rulers retained the distinctions between different sub-castes, relevant to them for organizing labor and homogenized all those sub-castes, for which they had no use, therefore, no interest. Middleton, a Census Superintendent remarked, We pigeonholed everyone by caste and community. We deplore its effect on social and economic problems. But we are largely responsible for the system…Our land records and official documents have added iron-bonds to the old rigidity of caste…. The government’s act for labels and pigeon-holes had led to a crystallization of the caste system, which, except amongst the aristocratic caste, was really very fluid under indigenous rule.”

Casteism and Electoral Politics – Many democratic policies and systems were introduced in India  by British Imperial rulers in the beginning of 20th century like Elections at frequent intervals and Census Operations. Through free and fair electoral process, people formally delegate them the authority to form a government and  look after the welfare of the people, and development of the society and nation as a whole. Election process is also used in many other private and business organizations, from clubs to voluntary associations and corporations.

Those in the corridors of power, whether before Independence or after, know it well that that, in Hindu society, caste opinion and caste loyalties always remained a cohesive regulatory force and the easiest, quickest and the most powerful mode to communicate.

Caste entered into political arena, when elections were introduced in India. Competition for scarce positions of power and prestige through elections under British Raj was the starting point. It had divided the people into different uncompromising groups. How? –

Power in numbers – Introduction of elections in the beginning of 20th century gave rise to Power in numbers. It gave political leverage to the non-Brahmin castes and communities on account of their numerical strength. First, electoral politics created a rift between Hindu and Muslims. Then Hindu population was successfully divided into two uncompromising groups, `We the Non-Brahmins and `They the Brahmins and caste Hindus.

  • Government of India Act of 1909 – Granting of separate Muslim Electorate by Minto Morley Reforms, known as Government of India Act of 1909, brought the idea of communal electorate to the forefront in the minds of all the castes and communities.
  • Suggestion to exclude Untouchables from Hindu-fold Suggestion of Census Commissioner to exclude untouchables from Hindu fold in the coming 1911 census immediately increased the importance of untouchables in political circle, in social circle, and in their own eyes too. Till now the political activities and resentment against  Brahmins hold Around 1909, Non-Brahmin community was divided into two Backwards and untouchables. For the first time, the lowest layer of Hindu Community was conceptualized under the name of untouchability in the political circles.
  • Communal Award of 1932 – Communal Award of 1932 created a permanent split in Hindu Society and perpetuated casteism further. Dr. Rajendra Prasad said, ‘the principle of dividing population into communal groups, which had been adopted in the Minto Morley reforms had been considerably extended, even beyond what had been done by Montagu Chelmsford Reforms… The electorate in 1919 was broken up into 10 parts, now it is fragmented into seventeen unequal bits… Hindu community was further weakened by giving separate representation to Scheduled castes. Division on the basis of religion, occupation and service were made. Every possible cross division was introduced by the British”. The Communal Award strengthened the roots of casteism in politics.
  • Venom against Brahmins/caste Hindus – Earlier, not a single group was identifiable as very strong-dominating all the others, or as an enemy to defeat. There was hardly any question of all India tyranny of any caste group. British rulers realized  soon the growing influence of Brahmins everywhere in socio-economic and political spheres. For them, intelligentsia belonging to Brahmins/upper castes was a potential threat to the British-rule. Therefore they purposely pinpointed Brahmins as enemy of millions of unlettered poor non-Brahmin community and kept them at periphery. Other castes were instigated to raise their voice against Brahmins.
  • Leaders of the backward caste like Mahatma Phule, Ambedkar or Gopal Ganesh vehemently criticized its hierarchical structure of caste system. To them, caste. was responsible for the subjugation of lower castes with the help of religion. It treats them as lesser human beings; engages them in forced labor, unsavory jobs, imposes many restrictions on them and prevents them from joining the mainstream of the society. Dr. Ambedkar made it abundantly clear that, it was through political power that untouchables were to find their solution, not through acceptance by Hindus.  Eradication of caste system became the major plank of ‘backward’ castes and ‘untouchable’ castes.
  • Patronage to non-Brahmin castes and communities through “policy of Preference” – The policy of reservation was originated in the form of Communal Representation on ‘Preferential’ basis at beginning of the twentieth century.

Quota system in the form of Preferential treatment/Reservation policy – The idea of quota system initiated by Britishers.Reservation Policy in the form of Preferential treatment to selected social groups in education and employment was started by British rulers at provincial level, that too at a time, when the idea to uplift the suppressed sections of society through preferential treatment, was unknown to the whole world. Before  Second World War Period, discrimination of any kind, Affirmative or otherwise, was considered to violate the Principle of Equality. Even in USA, it started in the late sixties by President Nixon in the form of Affirmative Action Program to enable American Blacks, women and ethnic minorities to overcome their historic handicaps..

Growing influence of Brahmins alarmed the rulers – British rulers got alarmed by the dominance of Brahmins in education, administration and other areas of modern callings. Muslims and non-Brahmin castes were not able to compete  directly with Brahmins. To restrict Brahmin’s entry in Government jobs and make it available to non-Brahmins communities, British rulers devised a novel method to distribute and balance power on ‘preferential-basis’.

Along with them, Non Brahmin castes raised their voice for government’s intervention to give them more space in education and employment. Practice of “Preferences” was started informally first at Madras and Mysore Presidencies (in 1874) at provincial and local levels by fixing 20% quotas for Non-Brahmin communities. Patronage of British rulers to non-Brahmin castes led to emergence of  many pressure groups in political sphere to pursue their sectional interests.

Served many purposes – Quota system served many purposes for the rulers –

  1. Got credit for amelioration and protection of downtrodden,
  2. Successfully restricted Brahmin’s entry into government services by fixing Quotas for different castes and communities.
  3. Distribution of power on communal basis kept balance of power.
  4. It kept natives busy in their in-fights by instigating caste consciousness and caste animosities.
  5. Caste was made a tool in political, religious and cultural battles.

Incentives to Non-Brahmin communities – Non-Brahmins castes got financial assistance and preferences in education and Government employment at local and provincial level. For the first time reservations appeared on national scene formally in 1932 with the Communal Awards.

Beneficiaries’ list on caste basis – As advised by Hutton, the British Government opted for caste instead of individual as the primary basis for inclusion in the list of beneficiaries of preferential treatment by the government. 1931 census operations were done on caste basis.

New Legal system – Earlier, laws remained unmodified and flexible with the capacity to adapt to local customs and situations. Discipline and order was maintained by Shastric and customary laws. Political, economic and social matters of different castes were decided by their own caste councils. Loyalty to one’s caste was wide spread in traditional social order. .

British Government established nationwide civil, criminal and commercial legal system. It granted equality before law and equal access to all castes and communities. Section 8 of Bengal Regulation III of 1793 made a beginning in Administration of justice in new direction, Bombay Regulation II of 1827 made further change and in 1850, the Caste Disabilities Act (Act 21 of 1850) further eroded the authority of caste laws.

Authority of caste groups in matters of civil rights was diminished, but in other spheres, it received legitimization from the courts in the form of caste autonomy.

New settlement Policy – Land revenue was one of the major sources of income for Britishers in India. Settlement Policy differed from region to region depending upon the geography, history and customs. The British policy of land revenue extracted as exorbitant amounts as possible from the peasants, which compelled the cultivators to live at the mercy of landlords, for the fear of eviction.

There were broadly three types of land revenue policies in existence depending on the mode of payment of land revenue during the British rule in India –

  • The Zamindari System – It was introduced by Lord Cornwallis in 1793 –  the land revenue was collected from the farmers by intermediaries known as Zamindars. The system was most prevalent in West Bengal, Bihar, Odisha, UP, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The share of the government in the total land revenue collected by the zamindars was 89% and 11% was the share of Jamindaars.
  • Ryotwari System – It was introduced at the end of the 18th century by Sir Thomas Munro, the governor of Madras Presidency. Under the Ryotwari system, the land revenue was paid by the farmers directly to the state. The system was prevalent in Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Berur, East Punjab, Coorg and Assam.
  • Mahalwari system – In 1822, Englishman Holt Mackenzie devised a new system known as the Mahalwari System in the North Western Provinces of the Bengal Presidency (most of this area is now in Uttar Pradesh).  Land revenue was collected from the farmers by the village headmen on behalf of the whole village (and not the zamindar). The system was popularised by Lord William Bentick in Agra and Awadh and was later extended to Madhya Pradesh and Punjab.

A major drawback of the new settlement policy was that it left a space for manipulations and corruption. It gave rise to a new class of Middleman, who often oppressed villagers. The farmers did not have the ownership of the lands they cultivated. Cultivators found the system oppressive and exploitative, due to rack-renting, high rates of interest and uneconomic cultivation. Marginal farmers were caught into the clutches of moneylenders. Money-lenders (Mahajans who granted loans to cultivators by mortgaging their land) exploited the cultivators and evicted them from their land in case of loan default. It forced many marginal farmers to become landless laborers.

Exploitative policies of rulersWhile laying down the foundation of democratic institutions of great scope in India, the rulers implemented their policies in such an oppressive way, that it drained the wealth and resources of India in a most systematic, shrewd and unjust way. The economic  exploitation, economic drain and repressive attitude submerged the masses in ignorance, enfeebled by diseases and oppressed by wants.. In short, the outcome of such policies, were :

  • Disparity widened between forward or lower castes.
  • Textile and handicrafts industries were destroyed.
  • Markets were flooded the market with machine made goods, which were much cheaper than hand-made products.
  • Indian farmers were forced to produce cotton plantation to fuel English factories.
  • It led to inter-caste/inter communal rivalries, inter group conflicts, which has done irreparable damage to India.

In 1880, WT. Thortan confessed that the annual tribute, tapped India’s very heart blood and dried up the mainspring of her industrial position.[ii] Sir William Hunter remarked, there remains forty million Indians, who go through life on insufficient food.[iii]

Exploitative way of implementation of policies were opposed strongly by national leaders, traditionalists, social reformers/cultural elites at that time. Unfortunately, the seeds of casteism and communism sown by colonial rulers, flourished in full in Independent India..

Casteism in Independent India

A large number of political leaders of Independent India understand it very well that, in the Indian society, caste opinion and caste loyalties have always remained a cohesive regulatory force and the easiest, quickest and the most powerful mode to communicate. Caste’ has become a bye-word for Indian politicians, even though caste has become quite liberal in social matters. Narrow loyalties of caste and religion are encouraged in political arena.

Caste becoming more liberal in social sphere – After independence, with the spread of literacy and growing awareness among masses, Castes system has become less restrictive in social arena. Castes no longer enjoy legal or religious sanctions. Expulsion from castes now means little. Earlier it meant complete social ostracism. Old style of authority and power exercised by caste-elders has already diminished except for a few castes in, rural areas especially in Haryana and Rajasthan.

Restrictions or interactions between different castes arising due to considerations for purity and pollution are fading away from public life even from rural areas. Traditional barriers on marriage, hereditary occupations and commonality are losing its importance. Many evil practices developed in Caste system, while under alien rule, are fading away steadily. Caste is now more liberal and less restrictive in social life of the people.

Still, critics of caste system consider it problematic. Why? What is now wrong with the caste system? Does fault lies somewhere else? Yes, problem lies in entry of caste into politics or politicization of caste system.

Why and how caste earned a bad name in Independent India – During pre-Independence days, indigenous social institution of caste entered into political arena for grabbing political power and administrative convenience. After independence, ossification of caste-system has been fallen into the hands of power brokers and vote guzzlers. Caste politics has given a new lease to ‘caste’ and transformed caste as a system to casteism. Why and how?

  • Caste h become an easiest and powerful weapon in the hands of politicians – For almost all  Political leaders, caste is the easiest and most powerful tool to sway public opinion in their own favour emotionally and to create a large vote bank for themselves. Politicians have no other option other than to use the channel of caste to propagate their ideas, to collect votes  and lure the electorate. No matter, what happens to the country, the politicians are happily riding the caste tiger!
  • Political identities
  • Political identities – Instead of linking the classification of society again on the basis of attitude, aptitude and occupation, the political leaders of Independent India have chosen blindly to follow the system  initiated by imperial rulers. In the most insensitive manner, they have also opted to divide the Indian population on the basis of caste and community. For all administrative and political purposes, and making plans and policies for future India, the government stratifies Indians into five unbridgeable groups –
    • Upper castes,  (unreserved category)
    • Scheduled Castes, (Reserved category)
    • Scheduled Tribes, (Reserved category)
    • Other Backward Class (Reserved category) and
    • Minorities (having special privileges)
  • With the result that each and every group is more interested in promoting its own sectional interests shamelessly rather than thinking and working for the development of the of nation as a  whole.
  • Casteism glamourized backwardness – There was a time, when people thought it a stigma to be called Backward.  Numerous caste groups clamored for higher caste status in census operations of 1901, 1911, and 1921 and supported their claims with different factors.  But the political acceptance of Reservation as a tool of social engineering has glamorized backwardness. In recent past, SCs and OBCs are more tenacious about their caste-identity than caste-Hindus. During post Mandal period, reversed trend is seen. Different groups vie with each other to be included, preferably in the SC list, failing which in the OBCs list. The number of people included in the beneficiaries list is increasing continuously. The percentage of enumerated OBC population in early 50’s was 18.9% and their estimated population was 31.8%.[i]  Kaka kalelkar Commission identified 2399 castes as backward in 1956. Mandal 3748 castes in 1980.  Still many more clamor for inclusion into either SCT lists or OBC list.  The trend indicates that after fifty years of the Independence, India generated more backwards than before.
  • Power of numerical strength– Casteism or caste-politics has taken firm roots in India because of the electoral politics. At present elections are nothing more than a game of numbers. They are based on on vote-bank politics. To increase their numerical strength different castes, sub-castes or sub-sub castes have joined hands to pursue specific sectional interests. These regional political parties play an important role as ‘King-maker’ at national level. Politicians can never ignore the backward groups. Under such circumstances, it is easy for the authorities to withdraw the facilities and opportunities from non-beneficiary castes and bestow it not on needy persons but on reserved category castes. Amongst them, most prominent are Scheduled castes and Other Backward Castes. Muslims are cashing their minority status.
  • Strange permutations and combinations – Post-Mandal era has witnessed emergence of many political parties (having different ideologies) and pressure groups to follow their own sectional interests. They come together, just  to  increase their vote bank and grab political power. Various permutations and combinations are being tried like AJGAR, MAJGAR, KHAM, MY, DS4, BHUREBAAL etc. have been formed in political arena for electoral purposes. They incite caste rivalries.
  • Paternalistic policies of Government – After Independence, special paternalistic policies and practices of government, (which are based on caste rather than on economic criteria) for bringing the submerged sections of the society into mainstream, have flared up casteism.
  • Earlier the demand for preferential treatment from the government  was confined to South India only and the fight was against Brahmins. But now after Mandal, this venom has engulfed the whole nation. Selection of the beneficiaries’ castes   is biased, It often depends on patronage networks of politically powerful, vocal or aggressive pressure groups.
  • So far, it has mostly benefitted the rural elite or creamy layer of the beneficiary castes. Anyone doubting the efficacy of Reservation Policy is labelled today as a part of Manuwadi Brahminical system, which is alleged for using religious scriptures, injunctions, propaganda and plain force to impose on the masses many deprivations. Beneficiary castes stick to their caste identity to protect their preferential status in matter of education, jobs and other facilities offered by the government from time to time.
  • Non-beneficiary Castes side-lined –At present, Non beneficiary castes are scattered. SCs/OBCs are politically united and well-organized. Honest and upright persons are sidelined irrespective of their caste or community. Pursuers of political power forget that in recent past, Reformists and intelligentsia had tried to ameliorate the condition of the disadvantaged sections of Indian society, be it women, untouchables or poor living in abject poverty, much before the rise of Naikars, Ambedkars or Periars in the Indian scene. They taught the people to leave the meaningless rituals and rigidities  Not a single reform or desired change could be brought about without active support and participation of the intelligentsia of the society. They throttle the voice of upright and honest citizens. Talented youth of non-beneficiary castes feel that they are being treated as second rate citizens in their own country by the State, because of no fault of theirs. intellectuals and reformists, mostly belonging to upper castes  , which had tended them to treat majority of people as lesser human beings. They advised to treat all humans humanly irrespective of caste or creed.
  • Post-Mandal era witnessed that the lower strata, which is supposed to be the victim of caste order, has been more adamant to preserve its caste-identity. Political parties, which hold caste system responsible or all discrimination and deprivation of lower strata of society and preach total eradication of caste-system, are glued firmly on caste-identity and assert their claims on the basis of caste itself.  Their vested interest don’t allow them to rise above Caste-ist and communal politics.
  • Massive shift in the power structure in favour of Dalits and OBCs – The advantage of numerical strength is always there with the backward castes.  Therefore, the politicians cannot ignore the backward groups. During Post Mandal period, there was a massive shift in the power structure in favour of Dalits and OBCs after the Mandal Commission recommendations were accepted by the government, when V P Singh was the Prime Minister. Different castes and sub-castes have come together under the banner of SCs or OBCs for political actions. But they have never forgotten their separate identities. Rather their unity of under the labels of SCs and OBCs is an illusion. Neither the term “Schedule Caste” nor  OBC nor Dalit make them a homogeneous class. In the opinion of MSS Pandian, an academic with Madras Institute of Development Studies, The current inter caste rivalries are part of series of periodic revolt, whose prime object is self- assertion.[ii]
  • Ambedkarization and Mandalization of politics – Post 90’s period has seen Ambedkar and Mandal being projected among the masses as second only to God. They have gained  popularity much more than it was there during their lifetime.The attempt to  Ambedkarize  and Mandalize the Indian politics has sharpened the caste-divide and added to tensions.
  • Disillusioned public – Politicians and their parties remain unmindful to take any lesson from the past experience.  The electorate has shown, again and again, its disgust against valueless caste-politics.  The electoral verdict, in the past, has shown that the public is more concerned about other issues. In 1967, the rising prices created an anti-Congress wave at provincial level, that wiped it out from almost all the provinces from Punjab to West Bengal. In 1971, the support to Mrs. Gandhi was on Remove poverty call. The year 1977 saw the downfall of Mrs. Gandhi due to excesses during emergency. In 1984, the sympathy wave gave victory to Rajiv Gandhi. In 1989, it was the call to end corruption. In 1991, the people showed their disgust against caste politics. Every time it was an anti-establishment verdict except for 1984. But the politicians remain unmindful of it.
  • Increased inter-caste and intra-caste rivalry – Inter-caste and intra-caste, inter-community and intra-community and inter-tribal and intra-tribal rivalries are continuously increasing in order to occupy more space caste-wise in the corridors of power. Animosity between different castes gives rise to politics of revenge, confuse the authorities and take  irrational decisions like reverse discrimination, which have not so far  helped the majority of really disadvantaged.[iii] 

No doubt, casteism has resulted in inter-caste/intra-caste conflicts, instability, in-decisiveness, rigidity and irrationality. Issues are not decided by rational thinking in politics, but by the demonstration of caste strength and vote-bank.  Mandal has conditioned the public and politician’s mind to look at every issue through distorting prism of caste. Elections are fought on the basis of caste.  Officers are recruited, posted or transferred on caste basis.  Caste is becoming increasingly more important in the governance of country.

Conclusion – Modernity has disassociated majority of Indians from their traditional way of living, classical roots and knowledge. With it faded Indian values, philosophies, systems and traditions. It made many Indians to lose their faith in social values and systems.

For people, caste opinion and caste loyalties always remains a cohesive regulatory force. They know it well that it is not the caste-system, but the bad politics and poor governance, which is responsible for all the mess-up.

For politicians, caste is the easiest, quickest and the most powerful mode to communicate with people. Their vested interest lies in enflaming Inter-caste and intra-caste, inter-community/intra-community and inter-tribal/intra-tribal conflicts. Caste-ist tendencies help them to secure more space in the corridors of power. They propagate that Caste is responsible for the miseries of submerged sections of society be it illiteracy, disparities in power, wealth and culture, discrimination and exploitation of weaker/unprivileged sections of society, or destitution on vast number of people. Such a propaganda by political parties has escalated violence, crimes or corruption in the country and is continuously pushing the nation towards disintegration.

Under-currents of caste politics pushing real issues into the background – Under-currents of caste politics have made the government incapable to solve the real issues like mass-scale illiteracy, poverty, unemployment, inflation, deteriorated law and order situation, increasing violence or general coarsening of moral fibre of the Indian society etc.

Disparity – Prosperity and poverty has grown simultaneously in Independent India. Modernity and technical developments have changed everything drastically, be it thinking, life-style or work culture of people. There is mal-distribution of wealth and power. The gap between rich and poor is increasing every-day. Rich are becoming richer. The population of India sharply divided into two – “haves” and “have-nots”.

Paternalistic policies – The most important factor responsible for wide disparity is vote-bank politics, irrational and corrupt ways of pursuing the paternal policies on caste basis. Various governments have failed, so far, to address real issues at either at central or provincial levels.

Encouragement to narrow loyalties of caste and religion – Narrow loyalties of caste and religion are encouraged in political arena. It has generated sub-cultures like caste-ism, favoritism, and lure for easy money, nepotism, parochialism, communalism, regionalism etc. Bigoted sentiments and irresponsible comments are spreading in-discipline in the society. The rising aspirations and demands of people, with the spread of education and awareness, has created added problem for the government.

Deteriorated condition of law and order – Maintaining law and order is becoming more and more difficult. The voice of upright and honest people belonging to middle class is being continuously throttled mercilessly. They are being punished for following sincerely family-planning norms, which has decreased their numbers. In present day vote-bank politics based on game of numbers, it is very easy to side-line them.

People for whom caste is important? The people for whom ladder of caste is important are politicians. for whom Caste is a recipe to create vote-banks. It is necessary for them to enflame casteist tendencies to survive in political world. Their interest lies in keeping the majority of people ignorant, insecure and out of mainstream.

Also creamy layer of Reserved category castes cling to their caste identity very strongly, as it is the base to enjoy special privileges/benefits of affirmative action programs initiated and implemented by the Government at central and provincial levels. Creamy layer of lower castes protects its turf under the banner of backward/underprivileged castes. And here lies the crux of present day’s caste-ist politics.

For a common man, caste is still a natural social institution.

Casteism giving rise to Sub-cultures – Unfortunately, instead creating a better future, caste policies have generated many complications and problems for the government. It has generated sub-cultures like caste-ism, favouritism, and lure for easy money, nepotism, parochialism, communalism, regionalism etc. Bigoted sentiments and irresponsible comments spread in-discipline and agitation in the society. With spread of education and awareness in public, aspirations and demands of different social groups are rising, which create added problems for the government.

Traditional Living like without an anchor – Traditional living has been like an anchor, keeping the boat in safe harbour. Now that the anchor has gone and the boat is at the mercy of wild waves on a stormy ocean. Caste system has not become weak or obsolete in social arena even today. It has given the Indian society a distinguished identity and a solid social structure with a system of thought, a way of life, and sense of direction. The roots of ‘Varna/jati-Pratha’, now known as caste system, are so deep that it is virtually impossible to think of India without caste system.

Present day challenges  – At present, the whole atmosphere is in a state of turmoil. Pandemic Karona-19 has added fuel in fire. Economy of the nation is in a critical condition. Technology has advanced to such an extent, that phones are wireless; cooking is fire-less; cars are key-less; food is fat-less; tyres are tubeless; and tools are cordless. But along with it, main organs of the Government  Political institutions are clueless and almost paralyzed because of corruption; leaders are shameless; masses are helpless; youth are jobless; relations are meaningless; feelings are heartless; education is valueless; attitude is careless, and children are manner-less. Modernity has ignited the desire for position, name and possession.  People are gradually losing faith in traditional values and systems. Even institution like family has lost its sheen. It is quite a tough job for India to cope with the new challenges.

It is not the caste system, but the circumstances, that have pushed millions of persons belonging to lower strata of society away from the mainstream. Suffering from centuries old enslavement, suppression and ostracism deteriorated severely the condition of lower strata of society, stopped growth of their personality and made them dependent on others for their livelihood.

Suggestions It is not the caste system, but the circumstances, that have pushed millions of persons belonging to lower strata of society away from the mainstream. Suffering from centuries old enslavement, suppression and ostracism deteriorated severely the condition of lower strata of society, stopped growth of their personality and made them dependent on others for their livelihood.

Venom against caste in some quarters does not lie in distant past, but only about 150 years back. It got escalated during British Imperial rule in India. The roots of present socio-political and economic ills and deprivation of masses on large scale lie not so much in caste system as mainly on the issues like poverty, illiteracy, population-explosion, or mass-unemployment etc.

  • Humanitarian obligation to empower the submerged sections of society – It is a humanitarian obligation of any civilized society to uplift and empower the submerged sections of society. Generally law follows social changes. After  Independence,  in their hurry and enthusiasm to end age-old imbalances and cumulative disparities of power, wealth and culture, political leadership of India has tried to foster social changes through law. Their aim was to bring the downtrodden sections of society into the mainstream. But, in the process knowingly or unknowingly, they have encouraged Caste-ism and communalism.
  • India is trying its best to prosper – After Independence, India not only picked up the previous backlog, it had faced during first to industrial revolutions, However Casteism has complicated the situation. Groupism and casteism in politics is slowly drifting the nation towards disintegration and disaster.  What have been put at stake are not the past, but the future of the country.
  • People feel that entry of caste in politics has complicated the situation. ‘Politicization of caste’ needs to be arrested at its earliest. They wish to make improvements in the tried and tested old system by removing deformities developed into it with time. A change is good for the growth of a society. But changes must be based on constant interpretation of past experiences and opinions, present requirements and existing ground realities of the place and future prospects.
  • Contribution of self-help groups – Recently, many self-help groups (NGOs) have emerged all-over India for development of society as a whole. They bypass the government mechanisms and go straight communities. Wherever and whenever harnessed properly, efforts of such self-help groups have yielded rich dividends. For example the Parsi and Christian communities, institutions run by Veerashaivya Mutts of Karnataka, Ramakrishan Mission, Radhaswami Satsang, Satya Sai Baba, Sadhu Vasvani and many others are practising community based approach for the development of humanity. They provide far better municipal, civic, educational, and medical services than the government.

Today the nation demands more than the yesteryears to subsume all the differences created on caste, religion, class, region, gender and language grounds under a wider imperative i.e. sustainable development of the nation in real sense.  India can advance only if all the Indians act as one, feel as one, and develop respect for each other.  If differences or diversities continue to act as defining factors, India can never progress.


[i]            Galenter,ibid, P168.

[ii]           Pandian MSS, Sunday PP. 12-13 8-14 June, 1997.

[iii]           BCCI, para VII and VIII, Note of Dissent.

[i]            Tarachand, History of Freedom Movement in India, Vol.I, pp283-84.

[ii]           Annie Besant, India – A Nation, pp98-99.

[iii]           Fisher FB, India’s Silent Revolution, pp37-38.

[iv]            Tarachand, History of Freedom Movement in India, Vol.I, pp283-84.

[V]           Annie Besant, India – A Nation, pp98-99.

[VI]           Fisher FB, India’s Silent Revolution, pp37-38.

[vii]       Das Veena and Kagal Ayesha, Through the Prism of Clerkdom, Times of India, dated September 16, 1990, p2.

August 13, 2021 Posted by | Caste as a system | | Leave a comment


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