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Caste in changing society

  • Categories
    Society: Diverse Elements
  • Published
    22nd Feb, 2022

Definition of Caste

  • The word “caste‟ is of Spanish and Portuguese origin.
  • The term “caste” originated from the Spanish word “casta”, meaning “lineage” or “race” or “a group having hereditary quality”.
  • The Spaniards were the first to use it, but its Indian application is from the Portuguese, who had so applied it in the middle of the fifteenth century.
  • Caste can be defined as hereditary endogamous group, having a common name, common traditional occupation, common culture, relatively rigid in matters of mobility, distinctiveness of status and forming a single homogeneous community.
  • However, in the changing situation caste has adapted too many new features like having formal organizations, becoming less rigid and having a link with politics.

Features

  1. Hereditary in nature: It implies that caste system is based on heredity. It is based on ascribed values rather than achieved qualities.
  2. Segmental division of society: It means Indian social stratification is largely based on caste. There are various castes having a well-developed life style of their own. The membership of a caste is determined by birth. Thus caste is hereditary in nature.
  3. Hierarchy: It indicates various castes according to their purity and impurity of occupations are ranked from higher to lower positions. It is like a ladder where pure caste is ranked on the top and impure is ranked at the bottom. For example the occupation of Brahmin is that of performing rituals and teaching. It is considered to be the purest occupation; hence they are placed at the top of the hierarchy. On the other hand sweeper, whose occupation is cleaning and scavenging, is placed at the bottom the bottom of the hierarchy because of impure occupation.
  4. Restrictions on food, drink and smoking: Usually different castes do not exchange food and drink, and do not share smoking of hukka among them. For instance, Brahmins do not take food from any other caste. It is a complicated process. For example in Uttar Pradesh, among Kanyakubj Brahmins, there are many sub-divisions. Each sub-division does not take food from other sub-
  5. Endogamy: It indicates members of the caste have to marry within their own caste only. Inter-castes marriages are prohibited. However, among educated people, particularly in the urban areas, inter-castes marriages are gradually increasing.
  6. Purity and pollution: It is one of the important features of the caste system. Purity and pollution are judged in terms of deeds, occupation, language, dress patterns, as well as food habits. For example liquor consumption, consuming non-vegetarian food, eating left-over food of the high castes, working in occupations like leather craft, lifting dead animals, sweeping and carrying garbage etc. are supposed to be impure. However, in recent times some high caste people are today doing all the above jobs, like working in a shoe-shop, shoe-factory, cutting hair in a beauty parlour etc.
  7. Occupational association: Each caste has a specific occupation and cannot change the occupation. For instance, Brahmins do priesthood and teaching, Kayasthas maintain revenue records and writing. Baniyas are engaged in business and Chamars are engaged in leatherwork, etc. With new job opportunities available due to industrialization and urbanization some people have shifted from their traditional occupation. However, in rural areas traditional occupations are still followed. Such cases are also found in urban areas like a barber has a haircutting saloon where he cuts hair in the morning and evening simultaneously works as peon in some office.
  8. Social and religious disabilities and privileges of a few sections: The lower castes are debarred from doing many things like they are not permitted to enter the temple, do not use literally language and cannot use gold ornaments or umbrella etc. However, thing have changed considerably, these restrictions are hardly found today.
  9. Distinction in custom, dress and speech: Each caste has distinct style of life, i.e. having its customs, dress patterns and speech. The high caste use pure language (sometimes use literally words), whereas, the low caste use colloquial language.
  10. Conflict resolving mechanisms: The caste’s having their own conflict resolving mechanisms such as Caste Panchayats at the village and inter-village levels.

Pre-Independence Scenario

Post Vedic Era

  • In the post-Vedic era, it is believed that with the increasing population, there was the emergence of new classes due to which the sanctity of the original Varna-system could not be protected.
  • It seems that the risk of losing social status was increasing for the regulators of Varna-system.
  • Consequently, on the one hand, there was an attempt to implement the Varnasystem sternly; on the other hand, Varna-system’s certainty began to be challenged.

Parallel Religion

  • Dharmashastras (scriptures) represent the traditional stream and the anti-Varna system thought of Buddhism and Jainism represent the reformist stream.
  • This is the time (6th-5th BCE) when two parallel streams, of traditional and reformists about the caste system go almost simultaneously.
  • Buddha asserted against the birth-based caste system, pointing out that biological birth is common to all men and that a person’s occupation is not a divine decision.
  • He also endorsed social mobility in the caste system.
  • Mahavir, 24th Tirthankara of Jainism brought comprehensive reforms introducing dissolution of all the four Varnas calling it outdated.
  • He taught that all human beings should be treated equally.

Situation down South

  • Bhakti movement (theistic devotional trend of Hinduism) began in south India (Tamilnadu) around 6th-7th centuries, spread northwards and remained active as a pan Indian socio-cultural-religious movement until16th-17th century.
  • It challenged the hierarchy and narrow customs of the caste system.
  • It was the first time in Indian history when many devotee poets from lower castes, especially untouchables from all the regions across India, spoke fearlessly in regional languages against the caste system.

19th and 20th-century

  • By the second half of the nineteenth century, the process of change about social customs and practices became apparent.
  • The main reason for this change was the introduction of modern education and new forms of communication.
  • Gandhi and Ambedkar both fought for the oppressed castes and campaigned for eradicating untouchability; however, due to their distinct philosophy, they were on different paths.

Post Independence Scenario

After independence, Indian govt paid much importance to Ambedkar’s vision and formalized policies to empower Dalit community and lower castes and tribes making reservation policy in legislature, jobs and education a constitutional provision and declared all forms including caste-based discrimination illegal, thus a punishable offence.

Decades into Independence

  • Even after two decades of independence, there was no significant change in the social status of Dalits.
  • In such a situation, it was natural for the emerging Dalit consciousness to become restless.

Dalit Movements

  • Dalit Panthers-Inspired by the Black Panthers Party, a revolutionary movement amongst African-Americans, Namdev Dhasal founded Dalit Panthers (1972), a socio-political movement. This movement was a radical departure from the earlier Dalit actions as it used militancy to resist oppressors.
  • Bahujan Samaj Party-In 1984 Kanshiram, a follower of Ambedkar founded a political party – Bahujan Samaj Party to fulfill Dalit consciousness dreams. The Bahujan identity encompassed SCs, STs, OBCs, and religious minorities but practically represented only the scheduled castes

After 1991

  • Due to various affirmative action policies, legal reforms, political awareness, social movements, industrialization, urbanization, and economic growth, the cast system has undergone a drastic change in the era of modernity and market economy.
  • The situation in big cities and metropolitan cities is entirely different from that of villages and small towns concerning the caste system.

Changing Features

Urban Soceity

  • In tier1 cities, the features of the caste system are rarely seen.
  • Though the caste system’s heredity is there, social stratification is based mainly on economic factors in urban India.
  • Occupational hierarchy too has significantly changed except priesthood and cleaning sewer and skinning dead animals.
  • Upper caste people are today doing all the jobs which are opposite to their caste status.
  • Due to the positive discrimination policy (reservation policy) in jobs and education, members of the Dalit community are no longer considered impure or polluted in an organization.
  • Restrictions on food and drink are no longer exists in such cases.
  • Inter-caste marriages among educated Indians, especially in urban areas, are increasing day-by-day.
  • Socio-cultural restrictions on privileges and distinction in custom and speech are hardly found today.
  • The spread of quality education, availability of jobs and new economic opportunities have changed many things.

Rural Soceity

  • However, in rural areas and small towns, the process of change and its result are not as visible as in big cities, and a lot is yet to change particularly with the social status of Dalit community.

Renewed debate on the caste system

  • The thinking and social behaviour of the generation born after 1990 have undergone a significant change.
  • This change is reflected differently in the social action of upper castes and lower castes.
  • The new generation of upper caste has no rigidity regarding occupational hierarchy, although it does not look interested in giving up its caste identity.
  • On the other hand, Dalits born in this new era are unapologetic and unashamed of their caste identity.
  • They wear a Dalit tag as a badge of honour and feel that their destiny is not dependent on the state or any dominant power in the society.
  • They have not experienced humiliation as a lower caste; thus, they see themselves as part of the mainstream culture.
  • According to a report ‘Quest for Justice’ prepared by the National Dalit Movement for Justice, crimes against Dalits increased by 6% from 2009 to 2018.

Pro and anti-reservation sentiment

  • The reservation system in India has been the most debatable and contentious topic in India.
  • Reservation policy instructs 49.5% (15+7.5+27) seats to be reserved for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Other Backward Castes (OBCs) in government jobs and educational institutions and the rest of the seats are open for the General category referred as Unreserved (UR).
  • In 2011 the then union govt established a sub-quota of 4.5% for religious minorities within the existing 27% reservation for OBCs.
  • Reading the growing anti-reservation sentiments among unreserved category, the union govt before the Parliamentary election in 2019, introduced 10% reservation for the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) in the General category; finally, the unreserved category stands at 40% at present.

Demand for reservation by advantaged castes

  • We have witnessed an utterly unexpected trend in this era; it was the violent agitations, to press for the demand for reservation in jobs and education by those not lower or oppressed castes.
  • Instead, they have been socially influential and economically well-off castes.
  • These castes are Gujjars of Rajasthan, Jats of Haryana, Marathas of Maharashtra, Patidars/ Patels of Gujrat and Lingayats of Karnataka.
  • Apart from the caste polarization for political gain, some factors seem active behind the above-said demand.
  • All the castes mentioned above are mainly agrarian castes who believe that reservation would ensure job security for them as the best solution to their distress during the agricultural crisis.
  • Increasing unemployment, eroding social privilege and inability to cope with change is also the factors behind the demand for reservation by the advantaged castes.
  • In this scenario, it would not be incorrect to say that the affirmative action aimed to bring socioeconomic parity has become more of a tool to grab power.
  • Besides, this trend also indicates the ensuing inevitability of change in the characteristics of the caste system.

Conclusion

  • As long as the caste system serves socio-political group alliances, it does not appear that it will end shortly.
  • Also, even if the caste system’s social vices come to an end, it seems almost impossible to completely vanish from people’s mindset.
  • In such a situation, the most effective way is to eradicate all forms of discrimination from the caste system and strive for social parity.
  • Once social equity is established at the practical level, even if castes remain in the form of identity, their impact will be negligible as it is happening in the educated societies.
  • Economic empowerment is important and inevitable; however, it has been observed that educational empowerment is the powerful instruments to achieve the goal of equity and social justice.
  • There are many references in Indian culture and literature from ancient to modern that reject caste hierarchy based on birth.
  • It would be relevant to mention at least one such reference from Skand Puraan (8th CE) that says “Everyone is born a shudra and only by samskara (conduct) one upgrades to dwij (regenerate) status”.
  • It is high time for the Indian society, mostly the Hindus to get out of caste hierarchy and eradicate all forms of visible or invisible discriminations and consider all social groups equal in real sense.
  • India, a vibrant democracy and an emerging economic power, after ten years from now will be a new India on all counts, however; much depends on how far Indian society embraces equality, fraternity and harmony.
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