Thursday, 28 May 2015

Is caste merely a rural phenomenon ?

A good many people live under the illusion that urban, metropolitan life somehow attenuates the influence of caste in India. 'We' are - somehow - more enlightened. It allows the so-called educated classes of this country - from conservatives to liberals to radicals - to persist in their support for policies under the exploitative framework of globalised 'development', imagining to themselves that they are somehow promoting social justice in the process - as if the big bad West is in fact a standard for fairness and justice! Villages are backward, cities are 'modern', thus free of the debilitating social baggage of caste. People have gone so far as to suggest that to Dalits "land acquisition by the state may not seem unreasonable. The NDA's new economism and hyper-industrialisation may well generate a new wave of liberal values that positively unsettle our village economy and culture"! This is the opinion of an Associate Professor at TISS, Mumbai:

Even as sharp an observer as Dr. Ambedkar held on to the hope lifelong that Dalits could escape the trap of caste if they could abandon oppressive villages for cities, whose industrial dynamism and anonymity would somehow liberate them from customary subordination as they magically grew into citizens of a benign liberal state. People have even harboured the illusion that just the coming of the railways weakened the influence of caste and untouchability! (Only Gandhi was astute enough to see that railways did more harm than good - but then 'the father of the nation' has long been seen as a crank.)

What few have been willing to face is the creative subtlety with which caste operates in the Indian social landscape. It is far subtler, and better masked, for instance, than the pervasive operation of race in a culture like America's. But thoughtless votaries of rapid urbanisation, modernisation and development (and among them we may count a large number of people well within one's moral realm) easily overlook the opaque dimensions of caste in Indian metropolitan life, perhaps because (ironically) we are inadvertent beneficiaries of caste injustices. 

Here is an article which actually reminds readers of the fact that caste cannot be eliminated by mere urbanisation. It has to be faced existentially in whichever context it is encountered, rural or urban:

Further, few have bothered to understand why caste has persisted in India, despite so many initiatives from the state to dismantle it over the past seven decades or more. Could it be because of the way the spoils system was introduced into the country after the British took full control post-1857? While caste identities are obviously much older, they were institutionalised and written into the warp and weft of the system, not just via things like census enumerations, but also, based on such suitably divisive classifications, in the way jobs were allocated, giving rise later to the 'modern' phenomenon of reservations? Isn't the most lasting legacy of Empire in India  babugiri and the sarkari naukri the sinecure that confers the privilege? It wasn't always like this, was it? I wonder whether some historians and sociologists have looked at things from this angle. I have seen the work of Susan Bayly and Nicholas Dirks, and what they say about caste dynamism is certainly consistent with what one suspects.  

The question also has to be raised as to why the British made such a song and a dance about caste in the 19th century. Did the injustices that stemmed from the deep hierarchies of the caste system upset them? Not really. There were injustices enough in the British class system which, in the Victorian era, had no compunctions about sending children and women to work 12 or 14 hours a day looking for coal under the earth in Yorkshire. So what bothered the British about caste in India? Could it have something to do with the fact that jaati (poorly translated into the word 'caste', whose Portugese origins few are aware of) and biradiri have traditionally been strong loci of social identity in India, constituting in most cases the very basis of communities, more or less cohesive when you contrast them with the atomised condition of consumer modernity?  

The point worth considering is whether or not cohesive communities would have stood in the way of the expansion of the power of two great forces of imperial modernity: the market and the state. To consider the possible merit in this line of thinking, pause to reflect for a minute on the counterfactual of cohesive, casteless communities with a large measure of social justice. We are thinking here of face-to-face, largely self-governing (on this, see the book by John Mathai, Village Government in India, Unwin, London, 1915) communities which are meeting a very large part of their material and social needs without significant recourse to markets that connect them to the outside world. Even today, one can find some instances of places in the vast Sub-Continent where this is true, in howsoever diminished a form (some places in the inner Himalayas I have just visited - and which would exemplify James Scott's thesis about the absence of the modern state from so many peasant societies - would qualify). (Readers of the American farmer-writer Wendell Berry would recognise the content of the counterfactual I am proposing for the sake of argument.)   

Now, wouldn't such a state of affairs stand in the way of the expansion of market and state power, as per the requirements of imperial modernity? And if so, wouldn't a well-oiled imperial imagination work by dividing-and-ruling when possible, and work to weaken the communities by repeatedly pointing out caste divisions and injustices that they embody? 

Isn't it possible, even likely perhaps, that this is how things might have stood and appeared to imperial administrators 100-150 years ago? A hypothesis worth engaging with (for few elements of imperial rhetoric about India have been more persistent and pervasive during the last two centuries than the question of caste). This has enormous implications not merely for our understanding of caste, but as much for the way the imperial mind still continues to work, only with renewed vigour (something about which Indians are, as a rule, naive - notice for instance the complete absence of even a single good book written by an Indian scholar or historian about the Americans as a people, and contrast the fact with the ceaseless flow of books they keep writing about us!) They keep pointing to our defects in order to rule our minds better - while keeping attention suitably deflected from the great shortcomings of their own societies.

None of this is to deny the gross injustices of caste which still survive and which must be fought in every creative way imaginable. It is only to make a very reluctant Indian educated elite realise the importance of not throwing out the baby (the community) with the bathwater (of caste).

Looking at things ecologically, as one must at this late hour, one should be doubly concerned about the confidence with which the global developmental policies at work are destroying what is left of communities (and with them, agriculture and every traditional livelihood) in the Sub-Continent, one of the few parts of the world where communities, howsoever unjust, still survive. There is simply no way to protect the natural world unless communities can be made cohesive again and made in charge of resources by which they have traditionally lived (this is what I argued in my Phd thesis on Kumaon 20 years ago). The other two modes of protecting the environment - a remote bureaucracy led by a state, howsoever strong, and the corporate-run global market, howsoever 'enlightened' - are doomed to fail for reasons that would fill up at least a page in a newspaper.

Communities also need to be protected because they are the chief crucible for the practice of crafts and skills which alone - suitably upgraded and supported - can generate the enormous number of livelihoods needed in the country.

It is time to draw the rights lessons from the past. Else there is no future, except accelerated destruction...


  1. Few years ago, a Madras High Court (Chennai) had directed the state government to dismantle all jati based judiciary that seem to delivering justice in several parts of the state. while the one instance that had provoked the Court was highlighted, the many functioning systems could not be dismantled. in the State records, they don't exist. A community (and i use the word by choice rather than caste) system that we visited couple of years ago admitted to having a large cash reserve, but, this was meant for their expenses and not to be accounted with the System or the Market. The third leg of the modern system that has failed to penetrate this continuum is Knowledge industry which often furthers the State or the Market's interest.
    urban India has in fact created further sub-divisions in the hierarchy of the caste, IAS officers (batch wise) belong to a caste and they are all higher than the caste of 'conferred IAS'; there are several hierarchies of the State officials, but, they all consider themselves higher than the private sector (except for 'corporate') employees, the private sector has several hierarchies and they all collectively consider themselves superior to the unorganized sector entrepreneurs, the entrepreneurs have several divisions and they collectively consider themselves superior to the worker class, the worker class have several divisions and still they consider themselves better off in the urban set up than their relatives living in the rural areas...each profession has its guild in the urban (more like how jati was initially interpreted by Zigenbarg in early 1600s before the castos took over) today and each one of them has its own rules of which other profession is superior, equal or inferior. the rural landscape may have rather minimum set of rules in any given place compared to the urban ones which are often generic and apply to most urban centres. the inequity in the new urban jati system is even more de-humanizing than the rural, and the opportunities of confrontation (as much as the opportunities to overcome the differences) rather high, hence the increased violence in the urban space (Prof. Nandy wrote on this a few years back) when it becomes too much and there aren't adequate mechanisms and platforms to resolve issues....thanks for this insights, hope nough people are provoked to respond...

    1. Thanks Rama, for the textured view from Chennai. What you describe is exactly the sort of 'creative subtlety' of caste/jaati that I had in mind while writing this post yesterday. The standard prejudice is that caste is something stagnant when, in fact, there is constant flux and dynamism in the manner it shapes the Indian social landscape, especially in the cities, which is where, thanks to policies, so much dynamism has come to prevail.

      I was trying to trace the Zigenberg reference via Google Chacha...but did not get too far. When you have a moment, could you please send me the exact reference? Thanks, and thanks also for your comment, which I read twice.

  2. An engaging post indeed, dear Aseem...

    The little I can actually claim to understand about the obfuscating paradigm of economics doesn't afford me any right to comment here... Yet, while I read your piece, as well as the comment above from Rama Subramanian, a thought kept creeping in...

    What is it about 'caste', or even 'community', that ACTUALLY alienates us from one another...??

    It is not the same thing as many OTHER forms of 'social demarcation', is it?

    For example, I don't really have a different 'take' on a Bhutanese and a Nepalese individual - I look at both of them as people from a neighbouring country.
    The owner of a 'yellow-cab' (ones which could travel outside city-limits), in the Kolkata of my childhood, enjoyed NO extra 'respect' from his customers, compared to the owner of a 'black & yellow' cab (city-limits only) - they were both cab-drivers, period.
    Villagers who build their mud-huts with clay-tile roofs do not ever 'look down upon' other villagers who build theirs with thatched roofing.
    You don't really see people getting into ego-trips about each others diverging colour-preferences...

    But if I happen to PREFER a hatch-back to a sedan, as a matter of convenience and not economics, and I drive around in a 21-year old Maruti 800... well, I am the 'de-classed' bugger in town!

    So, to my mind, the whole issue is FINALLY a matter of INEQUALITY of LABOUR...

    The IAS and the Corporate job-holder belongs to a higher class (caste) SIMPLY because they EARN a shit-load more than anyone else!

    The post of a sweeper entails a VERY important job - way MORE important that the post of the peon - and both are government jobs... But they NEVER pay you as much to clean shit, as they pay you to stack paper, now do they??!

    As long as societies refuse to look at EVERY possible human activity as an EQUALLY important part of the whole - and PAY people according to the QUALITY of the work they do, as opposed to the CLASS of their work - castes/ classes/ AS WELL AS communities are BOUND to be tied-up in the endless loop of a pyramid hierarchy and its inevitable insecurities!

    1. Aaditto,

      Caste, as it is being lived in contemporary India, is a very complex category, irreducible to a single dimension. One component of it certainly coincides with other forms of social demarcation (you refer to a person from Bhutan or Nepal), such as nationality or community, more generally speaking.

      However, another form, as you say, overlaps with inequality of labour and the remuneration for it. This is the part that coincides with class. This is at least as real as the previous part. The peon is better-paid and respected than the sweeper for work which is not nearly as critical in the social whole.

      But caste, it seems to me, is even more complex than this. It involves at least two other sets of factors. It coincides with occupation and the practice of definite crafts and skills, safeguarded by the caste, as in a guild. Amazingly, one knows of so many instances where labor and remuneration are equally shared, sometimes even across hierarchical differences.

      And perhaps most importantly, caste coincides with endogamy and commensality. Who we marry and eat with says about as much about where we belong in society as anything else.

      So, it seems to me that caste, as it is being lived today, is much more complex and subtle than labour, class, nation or community, for it includes all these aspects, not to forget, occasionally race and colour too! And we may still not exhaust the nuances of caste...only the genius of India could have dreamt up such a formidable social structure!

  3. I do not think I am competent to offer any comment on this subject, however, I feel that “new economism and hyper-industrialisation” generating a new wave of “liberal values” is going to remain a dream. Something contrary to it may happen. The present model of economic liberalization is going to exclude many more people from the process of development. With the result, people, insecure and uncertain of future, are more likely to return to their traditional institutions such as caste. Not only NDA but all progressives and Leftist also believed that urbanization would solve all social problems mainly the caste discrimination. Not only that, for a long time our Leftists did not even think that castes existed. For them it was all Class.

    Where we all were wrong is our own understanding of caste. The first and the foremost feature of a caste is, it is determined by your birth. This sentiment is carried along even when you migrate from a village to a town. While it may give us satisfaction to assert that castes were guilds, but we really do not know for sure that guilds preceded castes. At least Manu Smriti does not give such a hint. Those who thought there were guilds that degenerated into castes need to rethink. Caste, and not a guild, is acquired by birth and we will continue to uphold our caste values whether in twons or in villages.

  4. I am in agreement with you, Dipak Ji. Jaati (or biradiri or the equivalent in other vernaculars) is the original organising principle of this civilisation. I believe it shall outlast all else, whether it is religion, class, nation, or citizenship. It will outlast even language. And the reason is what you say: jaati is determined by birth.

    I also agree with you that the expectation that some intellectuals have that caste will disappear with more "economism" and "hyper-industrialisation" will turn out to be as much smoke as the hopes of Leftists both past and present that mere urbanisation will attenuate, if not eliminate caste. As you say, the more people feel excluded from the mainstream economy, the more they are going to rely on pre-existing social security, which is to say, community customs and practices which give them a space to stand on in an increasingly threatening world. Wouldn't you do the same? Don't Westerners do the same?

    This is one of the more general points I have been trying to make: there is a grand illusion of modernity that a benign state will take care of perceived or real historical injustices (of which caste is one, gender or race is another), merely by exercising legal force.

    (The comment continues in the next two boxes, because of limits of html space.)

  5. Nothing of the sort is going to happen. And this for two sets of reasons, neither less important than the other. Firstly, the state, as we know, has plenty of vested interests of its own, rooted in the ancient drive for power, capitalising on the perceived requirements of human society to consolidate and grow itself. This drive is deeper than the logic of capital and class (another place the Marxists have gone woefully wrong - at least those who have relied on economism). Redressing historical injustices is rather low on its scheme of actual priorities, especially today when the commitment to growth at all costs is foremost. Historical injustices are likely to grow and get compounded as the collateral damage of 'development' mounts. As a matter of fact, if due research is done with this perspective, it will likely be found that the process of modern economic growth and development since at least 1857, if not since Company rule, has actually compounded caste injustices in many parts of the Sub-Continent. It may turn out - if a good history of the transition from jaati to caste - is written for the 18th/19th centuries that jaati-vyavastha was not nearly as bad as 'the caste system', as it has come to prevail and get entrenched in the 20th century. I say this on the basis of some intuition about the manner in which power works in human societies. Whenever classes with some amount of privilege feel under pressure from above (due to imperial conquest, for instance), they are likely to exercise greater pressure downwards on even less privileged communities.

    Secondly, as you point out, the logic of capital is driving ever more people outside the circuits of formal capital, even as promises of 'inclusion' come with every news bulletin. (It is like an oil slick the state is trying to control.) This implies that growing numbers of people will come to rely on traditional structures of social security, that is to say, community - caste.

    The Left of all shades and the secular elites in every generation in this country have harboured convenient hopes that this or that process of modernity - industrialisation, urbanization, development, globalisation - will somehow, magically, address the question of caste. It won't, for the reasons stated. Caste is like the invisible, hidden framework of the building that this civilisation is. It is THE organising principle, and its greatest strength is that it adapts creatively to new structures of power that impose on it from above. (Rama's comment is noteworthy in this context.) It will be the last thing to go, not just because it is totally tied up with community (and human beings are inevitably social animals), but also because the deeper essence of industrial modernity - war - has emerged with greater sharpness now and has rendered the economic lives of common people even more insecure, a trend likely to continue into the indefinite future, given the unceasing ambitions of global capital.


  6. As for guilds, it is most unlikely that they preceded castes. Birth determines most things - and not just in India. It shapes family life and the forms that communities take. Economic arrangements, such as guilds, are built on top of this social framework. But we can know for sure only with more research.

    Finally, two points are worth making. First, as I indicated earlier, it may well be that caste oppression has become worse with the onset of modernity, because of the political and economic pressures that have come with it. The social transmission of power would imply that things have got worse, not better. If this is true, we ought to have better regard for our own past than we have had hitherto, not forgetting that germane to the manner of working of the Western imperial mind is the psychological self-image it is able to generate among native elites (I believe that few have had a greater impact on this country’s public mind during the last two centuries than Thomas MacCaulay). At the same time, one must not lose sight of caste injustices.

    Secondly, people may see the West with envy, as the place that seems to keep winning the race for power and wealth. But we must stop looking upon the West as a model of social justice. Look at the unyielding resilience of race in America - and Europe. (Look at the way they shoot down migrants from Africa in the Mediterranean.) Look at the worsening of class inequalities there. Look at the intensification of gender injustices.

    The lesson is that you cannot conquer the world without bringing a different order of damage to your own societies. The ethos of power is necessarily divisive. While the West has accumulated huge power and privilege, the way it has treated the rest of the world, it can never become free. Freedom will always be an illusion for modernity, since modernity rests fundamentally on war, conquest, and dislocation of human societies.


  7. ,
    Thank you again for your most insightful essay and Feeling that "rural India lives closer to a solution of caste.."
    If I am not mistaken in understanding the experience of Seva Mandir, time and again, we see people coming together across caste and class distinctions to decolonise the commons (such as pasture lands, forests lands and watersheds" from defacto privatisation through encroachments. People cherish cooperating with each other and upholding the commons of community life. They cherish giving up self centred actions for the larger good of their communities. They, however need active nurture and support to counter the forces of de civilisation, ( as Shankar might put it).
    Unfortunately Democracy; the quest for power and rights based entitlements have, on the whole, tended to deepen the potential for distortions caused by caste and class distinctions in villages and small town communities. The discourse on rights and participation in politics and development lacks a coherent account on how to build communities.

  8. caste is not my village's problem ...
    When i moved to the village, i thought it was 'so wrong' that Naidus lived in a community, dalits in another hamlet, irulas in the SC hamlet and so on. I decided that the 'harijan hamlet' was 'outide' the main village, and that this was 'casteism'.

    So we moved into the harijan hamlet, and made the small hut there our home. The village became home, and life flowed in its beauty. Over many years i realized that no one is 'outisde' ... every community wishes to stay with their people, and they have their own customs and structures ... and the harijans do not wish to stay next door to naidus, nor the other way around.

    I dicovered that 'caste the villian', is a very limited viewpoint ... and actually no caste feels inferior. Each feels very superior. The dalits make fun of the naidus and their mannerisms, and the other way around.

    We only need to address the shattered economies ... their society they are well capable to handling without our bumbling efforts, often rooted in wrong notions.

  9. I have never lived in a village on a 'permanent' basis, brought up as I was in small-town India, before arriving in Delhi at age 16. But in frequent, periodic visits to villages across the country (with the exception of the North-East), what I have seen chimes much with what you (Aparna and Ajay Bhai) have written.

    The urban, especially metropolitan, view of caste is indeed a very limited point of view. Indeed every caste feels 'superior' to every other, and each one, pushed a little, wants to cooperate. It normally takes a catalyst from outside, since local practices - especially the traditional manner of use of the commons - have broken down under the 'developmental' onslaught. Today, we are told we must respect 'aspirational consumption', when in fact people's needs are something else.

    What metropolitan intellectuals are loathe to recognising is not just how little insight we have into caste, living where we do, but also how little we realise and acknowledge the virtues and joys of community life. If you mention 'community' to the metropolitan intellectual, s/he immediately starts thinking 'khaps', as though that is all that goes on. They fail to distinguish between the sensational news that the media puts out and the ground reality, which is rarely checked directly. There is a simultaneous vilification of the past, in accord with the view that modernity is actually an improvement on a terrible situation.

    The sad truth is that modernity has nothing within its dynamic - not the institutions of democracy, nor those of the increasingly global market - which rebuilds communities. It is actually a fissiparous prescription for any human culture. So communities can only be rebuilt thru direct community action at the grass-roots, perhaps with occasional catalytic doses from what is flatteringly called 'civil society'.