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 homogenous community.
The caste system in India is mainly associated with Hinduism and has governed the Hindu society for thousands of years. Some of the features of caste system in India include the following:
- Segmental division of society: It means that social stratification is largely based on caste. Membership to a caste group is acquired by birth, on the basis of which people are ranked in relative to other caste groups.
- Hierarchy: It indicates that various castes are categorized according to their purity and impurity of occupations. Just like a ladder, castes are ranked from higher to lower positions. Pure caste is ranked at the top and impure is ranked at the bottom.
- Civil and religious disabilities: These comprise of restrictions based on contact, dress, speech, rituals etc. and are placed on every caste group. It was done in order to maintain purity of specific caste groups. Example, lower caste groups had no access to wells, they were restricted from entering temples etc.
- Endogamy: Members of a particular caste have to marry within their caste only. Intercaste marriages are prohibited. However, in urban areas, the phenomenon of intercaste marriage is increasing.
- Untouchability: It is the practice of ostracizing a group by segregating them from the mainstream by social custom. Untouchability was a corollary of the caste system, wherein the untouchables (those belonging to the lowest caste groups) were deemed impure and polluted.
- Policy of caste based reservation: The system of caste-based reservation in India comprises of a series of affirmative action measures, such as reserving access to seats in the various legislatures, to government jobs, and to enrolment in higher educational institutions. E.g. Scheduled Caste groups are given 15% reservation in government services and educational institutions.
· Called Caste in English
· May denote entire varna or subdivision of varna
· It is endogamous group within ascribed status
· It is exogamous group within Jati.
· It denotes decent from common ansecstors in distant past.
· One marries in One’s JAti but outside one’s Gotra
||· Represents a lineage with 5-6 generation depth
A)Caste and Social Mobility
- Social mobility refers to the process by which individuals or groups move from one social status to another in the social hierarchy. Social mobility can be either upward or downward. Upward social mobility is one where the individual or group moves from a lower status in the hierarchy to the upper. Downward mobility is when a person or group moves from a higher status to a lower one in the hierarchy.
- Caste has been considered to be a closed system of stratification. However, in reality no system can be absolutely closed. In fact, social mobility has always been present within the caste system Caste mobility as a process of social and cultural change has been explained by Srinivas in his concept of Sanskritization.
- The widespread social and cultural process called Sanskritization is a process where a low Hindu caste change its customs, rites, rituals ideology and way of life in the direction of high and frequently twice-born castes. This has paved the way for mobility to occur within the caste system. With the advent of the British, the opening up of frontiers by means of roads, and railways and economic opportunities cutting across caste barriers increased the process of caste mobility
- Besides Sanskritization, another major agent of social change was Westernisation. Westernisation includes the influences, which swept over India during the British rule bringing in the ideologies of secularism, egalitarianism and democracy. The new opportunities in education, economy and polity were in theory caste free and open to all. No one could be denied access to them by reason of birth in a particular caste, sect or religion
B)Caste and the Ritual Sphere
- The notions of hierarchical gradation of caste groups drawing legitimacy from religion and the concept of purity and pollution have changed with the passing of time.
- The structural distance between various castes, as you are already aware of, has been defined in terms of purity and pollution.
- Corresponding to the caste hierarchy are hierarchies in food, traditional caste occupation, and styles of life. Endogamy and social restraints regarding commensality and free interaction between different castes in the local caste hierarchy were clearly defined and ritualised.
- The pattern related to who will eat with whom, who will give kaccha food (i.e. food cooked in water) to whom, and who will receive it, who will give only pacca food to whom, and so on.
- Thus, interaction between castes was highly ritualised prior to the impact of Westernisation. During the last few decades, as a result of the forces of modernisation, the ideology of caste has become less pervasive in an individual’s day to day life.
- Caste rituals have become increasingly a personal affair, rather than public due to changed circumstances of living, forces of industrialisation, and urbanisation.
C)Caste and the Economic Sphere
- The ideology of caste prescribed specific occupations for specific caste groups, which had a specific place in the social hierarchy. The vocations of the upper castes were considered to be the most prestigious while the occupations of the lower castes, especially the untouchables were considered to be polluting and defiling.
- The advent of the British saw new economic opportunities flowing out, and reaching the masses. The opening up of plantations, development of towns and cities laid the basis for economic development, which intruded into the functioning of the caste system. T
- he growth of money economy enabled economic relations to be governed by market conditions as opposed to inherited status.
- The Jajmani system, which was a hereditary patron-client relationship, with the worker traditionally tied to his master, lost most of its insularity. Market economy, daily wages, and hired labour eroded steadily into the functioning of the traditional jajmani
- Another important way in which we can see the continuity of caste is that when the new forces of socio-economic, political and educational changes came, it was the already powerful, wealthy upper castes, such as the Brahmans, Rajputs and the Vaishyas who benefited initially from these changes. The Brahman sections responded first to English education and therefore, benefited from political and administrative power.
- The same pattern is visible in the commercial sector too. The great business houses like Birlas, Dalmias, etc., belonged to the traditional commercial castes. In banking the castes like the Chettiars of South established themselves in the modern systems of banking and commerce which was an extension of their traditional occupation
D)Changes in the Caste system
- Trends for inter-caste marriage: Purity of blood was one of the main aim of the caste system. As a result, inter-caste marriages were socially forbidden. Due to economic and social necessities, inter-caste marriages on western lines are being performed at increased frequency
- Challenge to orthodoxy: Orthodox practices of the caste system such as child marriage, ban on widow re-marriage, ban on conversion, insensitiveness of superior class towards the low caste people are being challenged in the wake of urbanization.
- New food habits: Due to frequent mixing of the people at meetings, conferences, seminars etc., food habits have changed. Moreover, people have adapted to new social norms such as eating at the same table, accepting food prepared by low caste people without any reservations etc.
- Changes in occupation: Occupational mobility has become the new feature. Leaving behind their traditional roles, Brahmins have become traders whereas Vaishyas have joined teaching and so on.
- Improvement in the position of lower caste: Due to steps initiated by the government, position of lower castes have improved economically as well as socially
E)Factors Affecting the Changes in Caste System
- Sanskritisation: Sanskritisation as a process of change is the mobility concerned with positional change in the caste system. By changing the customs and rituals such as by adopting vegetarianism and teetotalism, people belonging to the low castes are claiming a ‘higher’ position in the caste hierarchy.
- Westernisation: Due to changes in the spheres of education, food habits, dressing sense, style of eating, manners etc., westernization has brought occupational changes cutting across the caste barriers.
- Modernisation: It is a process which primarily relies on scientific outlook, rational attitudes, high social mobility, mass mobilisation and specialisation in work. It has made caste system more flexible. For instances, in the urban areas, castes are gradually becoming classes. The emergence of middle class with a rational outlook and goal orientation is a testimony to the fact.
- Industrialisation and urbanisation: With the growth of industrial towns and cities, migration has spiralled up. Unlike the source regions, destination areas witness fewer adherences to caste rules.
- Democratic decentralisation: The reservation provided in the Panchayati Raj system has given the opportunity for the lower castes to empower themselves.
- Caste and politics: They both are closely linked to each other. In fact, the link has led to an empowerment among the lower castes since they ventilate their feelings through elections and power lobby. Dalit politics is one such example, where Dalits are trying to assert their identities and have become successful in capturing power in various states.
- Legislative measures: A variety of social legislations have been introduced in the post independence era which aim to safeguard the interests of the down-trodden, to eradicate untouchability and to facilitate the social and economic development of the depressed castes. For instance, Untouchability (offences) Act, 1955 provided for punishment against the practice of untouchability.
- Caste associations are defined as “para-communities which enable members of castes to pursue social mobility, political power, and economic advantage”. Caste associations resemble in many ways the voluntary associations or interest groups found in industrially advanced societies.
- However, caste associations or para communities are distinct in many respects from voluntary associations; as well as from natural associations like caste out of which they have developed. The caste associations are more like the voluntary associations at the organisational level than the traditional caste structures. It has offices, membership, incipient bureaucratisation and legislative process that can be seen through conferences, delegates, and resolutions.
- But, unlike the voluntary associations, caste associations are characterised by a shared sense of culture, character and status, which gives it solidarity not found in voluntary associations.
- The functions of caste associations are diverse
- To promote the social, material and general welfare of the Nadars
- To take practical measures for the social, moral, and intellectual advancement of the Nadars.
- To start schools and colleges for imparting western education to Nadar children and to help poor but deserving pupils belonging to the community with scholarships, books, fees, etc.
- To encourage and promote commercial and industrial enterprise among the members of the community
- We see that the paracommunities or caste associations contribute to fundamental structural and cultural change in Indian society by providing an adaptive institution in which both the traditional as well as modern features of society can meet and fuse
G)Can Caste Exist in the Future in India?
- A small section of Indian population, comprising the educated elites, probably powerful but numerically insignificant, desires that caste system ought to go. For a vast majority of the Indian population, especially the Hindus envisaging a social system without caste is impossible.
- Caste is part of their social identity and existence. The joint family and caste system provide the individual in our society some of the benefits, which a welfare state provides in the industrially advanced countries. Caste stands for a certain amount of cultural homogeneity.
- However, it has its evil and exploitative side which has not been perceived by the majority of the people, especially the upper castes. It is essential to remember that nothing effective can be achieved unless and until the people themselves are made to realise the unjust nature of caste system.
- The principle of caste is so firmly entrenched in our political and social life that everyone including the political leader appears to have accepted tacitly these very principles. The coming of modern means of communication has increased the ‘horizontal stretch of caste’. Far-flung caste groups are able to interact and communicate with each other and find commonalties and shared interests to form clusters and this has resulted in the increase of caste solidarity within a region.
- One effect of universal adult franchise is the strengthening of caste consciousness. Political parties are at pains to select candidates who have a social base, usually drawn from the locally dominant caste groups.
- It is obvious that the eradication of caste is a distant reality, despite the indications to the contrary. As long as caste performs the functions of a welfare state in India and provides for the common bonds of kinship ties, political groups and alliances, it can be assured of a continued existence in modern India.