Our hoary traditions have bequeathed to us a number of gifts and challenges in the form of traditions and institutions. Among these, the stratified society and caste system are two most prominent challenges. However, we have also inherited the institution of panchayat and inbuilt liberal-democratic impulses to negotiate such challenges. Today, our democratic polity is the only one that has flourished ever since its inception despite its poverty stricken, Third World status, which is second most populous in the world, and arguably, the most stratified among all democratic societies. On gaining independence, democracy became our natural choice, as it jelled with our hoary traditions. Indeed, our democratic system is an amalgamation of the traditional and the modern. Although there have been doubts about India’s ability to negotiate the abovementioned challenges, one needs to understand the utility or otherwise of castes today, when most of our ancient institutions like joint families, clan support systems etc are fast disappearing. Will the caste system survive this march of civilization, or will it go the way of other social anachronisms?
Our society’s stratification – comprising vertical and horizontal divisions – is so complex that we need a different terminology for it. Every caste is essentially a community in itself, albeit subdivided into sub-castes, with precise pecking orders. The plethora of sects, sub-sects, castes and sub-castes indicates the extravagance of our pluralism; it has also evolved into a bundle of curious contradictions, featuring assimilation and exclusivity. This is probably because the original basis for this social stratification has its genesis as much in economic disparity as in the esoteric processes of history. Caste-consciousness envelops our psyche like an ancient shroud, which we have been unable to shed owing to millennia of socio-psychological conditioning.
Presently, the system has degenerated into an obnoxious anachronism from its earlier role as a mechanism that helped the society cope with the dynamics of ever-changing social and economic circumstances. Caste system was not an 'ism', but a scientific tool for division of labor; one might also argue that the very fact that it is the most enduring anachronism testifies to its utility even in the contemporary India. It provides one with an identity that is distinct and indelible. Further, if its study helps us broaden our outlook rather than narrow it down, it can serve a useful social purpose. For example, there is strong research based evidence that the relationship between caste and ethnicity is essentially a presumption. One would do well to remember that in the ancient texts the term 'Arya' did not denote ethnicity but a certain lifestyle. Gradually, it came to be associated with civilized people in the subcontinent. Thus, any ethnic group or sub-group could be called Aryan if its lifestyle was identical to the one described in the Vedas and other relevant texts. For millennia, Indian society has survived as a coherent group society, which was able to accommodate the influx of waves of outsiders into the Vedic religious system and, later on, into the group structures of the society. Even those communities in India that claim that caste based stratifications have no sanction in their religions implicitly follow rules of the caste system. Muslims, Sikhs and Christians have adopted something approaching caste distinctions when it comes to social relationships.
For a very long time, caste divisions remained splintered in the sense that there were no deliberate groupings of upper, intermediate and lower castes. The post-Mandal scenario introduced a new element – crystallization of castes into three distinct groupings, viz., upper castes, intermediate castes and scheduled castes or Dalits. This process of crystallization intensified inter-caste rivalry for political power, economic advancement and social space. It also confounded the intra-group equations, in the process. For instance, within each upper caste segment there was a hierarchy, which is now being defied almost regularly. This is true of the other two caste groupings too.
Various legislations to protect the vulnerable castes, combined with exponential economic-industrial growth, have resulted in the destabilization of the hitherto stable hierarchical order. Politicians have added to the chaos by turning reservations into a contest for political gains and economic gratification. In the process, the caste system has been re-legitimized, but in a mutant form as a vote-garnering device. Neither education nor new group identities based on new professions have resulted in enlightened citizenship. Unrestrained individualism and familism are encouraging social irresponsibility. What we are witnessing today is confusion, despair and disorder among large sections of the society. However, this is not the only operating trend in the society. True, there have been caste wars in our hinterlands. It is equally true that inter-caste marriages still trigger off violence in most parts of the country. But there are contra trends too, which reassure us that orderliness may eventually emerge from the prevailing chaos.
Uttar Pradesh is a classic example of this phenomenon, which has resulted in Mayawati’s experiment with “social engineering”, even though it has only proved to be a rather thin veneer for attainment of political ambitions. It may well prove to be a template for more successful experiments. Actual social engineering is happening elsewhere, with the help of technology-induced restructuring of society. Imperceptibly, inter-caste relations are undergoing a metamorphosis, especially in India’s urban and semi-urban areas. Commonality of interests and not caste affinity dictates social and economic relationships among today’s educated urban middle classes. Today, caste is hardly playing any role in the choice of one's profession or specialization in any field of activity. Marriage alliances too are being forged based on economic status and material self-interest. This post-modernist trend, despite being ill defined at present, might yet break the traditional caste superstructure. But, this is happening in those parts of urban India which are either newly developed or where young population from across the country, and even abroad, has settled. Greater mobility due to technology driven growth and development is taking our youth to new frontiers. Such youth feel unshackled from traditional taboos. This is not to say that this trend has picked up irreversible traction, but it shows all the signs of doing so. If this happens, India may well be on the way to becoming an epitome of genuinely liberal, democratic and pluralistic polity. Just a thought though, if this obnoxious anachronism goes, what will happen to all those caste based configurations and calibrations of our political parties?
Published in The Financial World dated 01 August 2013