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Mainstream, Vol XLVI, No 50

Can the Caste Problem be Solved?

Wednesday 3 December 2008, by Sangeeta Mall


If there is one problem that keeps India’s progress in check, it is that of caste. The Hindu caste system divides society so rigidly that everyone is either an outsider or insider. There is always a side, depending on where one is looking from. This also prevents the country from moving forward in a single-minded manner, for there is no unifying social force that can make everyone come together to change their lot. Political parties, of course, are the worst exploiters of caste. But there are many others who are equally responsible for maintaining the status quo, though always claiming to do otherwise. The cynicism of political parties can be dealt with since it is so obvious. It is the idealists who are tougher to handle, precisely because they believe they are right.

Everyone who detests the caste system starts with writing off Hinduism, and calling it a scourge. It is not the purpose of this article to dispute that. In the opinion of this writer, all religions constitute a scourge. That doesn’t necessarily mean that organised religion and the belief in some God is going to become irrelevant anytime soon. That is a harsh reality. In fact, with the greater availability of money, religion is proliferating with greater speed, and capturing many more who were originally outside its pale.

Therefore it is unrealistic to expect that Hinduism can become irrelevant in the near future. B.R. Ambedkar converted to Buddhism because of his belief that caste was a Hindu phenomenon, and anybody outside Hinduism would not be subjected to the caste divide. The experience of the lower castes within Christianity, Islam and Sikhism in India has proved him wrong. The stranglehold that caste exerts on each and every Indian goes beyond its religious sanction. A closer look at the circumstances because of which caste remains so deeply entrenched would show that most of these are rural phenomena. Caste-based oppression, personal vendettas, deprivation and segregation are all factors that arise because a person’s identity is known to his or her entire social circle, thus fostering both prejudice and perpetration of stereotypes.

Traditional thinking is that because caste is a philosophical construct, it must be demolished philosophically. The counter to that is that caste is not really a philosophical construct. It was a wily mechanism to keep the common man in his place, in the same manner that industrialists today destroy trade unions. But because the opportunity of institutionalising it in the form of the Laws of Manu arose at an appropriate moment, it became a social practice. Hindu philosophy and caste have become integrated because of the theory of transmigration of soul, though this theory was really a convenient hook on which to hang the entire logic of caste.

If the Hindu religion cannot be vanquished, can the caste system really be removed? It is hard to believe so. The fact of the matter is that to an Indian, and more distinctly, to a Hindu, the caste system is as all-pervasive as the air we breathe. Just like we do not notice the air, we also do not notice how we treat people of other castes. We just treat them as ‘others’. We know who a Brahmin is, as well as a Kshatriya. We know that traders are baniyas, and the minute we know a person’s caste, we can conveniently fit him or her into a slot that has been socially constructed over centuries. The problem arises when we have to deal with someone from the Scheduled Caste, a Dalit. This person is also slotted, and the slot reserved for him is that of untouchability. In the modern scenario, especially in the larger metros we may not physically practice untouchability, but in our minds we are prejudiced to the core. We do not want to have anything to do with the Dalits.

But this isn’t so much of a problem. One doesn’t want to have to deal with the pompous principal in college, the annoying boss at work, the irritated customer at the other end of the phone line. Who one wants to deal with or not is entirely a matter of personal choice. But many times personal choice itself is of no consequence. If one is a student, one has to obey the principal, if one wants one’s job then the boss’s tantrums have to be tolerated, and the irritated customer has to be mollified for the business to grow. So ultimately it is a matter of growth, and if the person on the other side is important to one’s growth, then one just deals with her and moves on. Over the centuries, we have conceived of the notion that only the higher castes matter for growth, without knowing who these are, or measuring what they are doing for growth. In actual fact, they are doing exactly the opposite of what is required for growth. By their complacency, they are pulling down the prosperity of all society. The crux of the matter is: the higher castes do not have sufficient competition. They are a minority in this country, but have monopolistic control over its resources. What caste Hindus need, of course, is some healthy competition.

In an agrarian society, which is what India has been thus far, there is no scope for competition. Votaries of social justice may shout themselves hoarse over the importance of land redistribution, but this can have only a marginal effect on the empowerment of the Dalits. The village system is ultimately dependent on the largesse of precisely that section of society that it is setting out to defeat, namely, caste Hindus. It is, therefore, impossible for Dalits to gain any measure of social or economic prosperity under the prevailing rules. The rural upper castes will naturally not accept any challenge to their authority. Hence as long as the Dalits remain chained to their villages, they will provide no competition to the ruling castes.

Villagers all over the world are traditional, hidebound, regressive in their practices and unwilling to modernise. They have no modern influences to pluck them out of orthodoxy and convention. Because of their total dependence on agriculture, an uncertain occupation, they are superstitious and in India such reliance on superstition leads to horrendous consequences, especially for Dalits who are at the bottom of the food chain. Any change is the last to enter a village, if it ever enters. Therefore caste mythology remains strongly entrenched in rural areas, and will be almost impossible to dislodge.

Practices that enhance the role of caste in society like endogamy, segregation of social hubs, untouchability, are carrying on for centuries without any visible change in rural India. The story of urban India is vastly different. Employment, education and empowerment have meant that caste barriers have started blurring. There is greater socialisation across castes and communities and, unless politics intervenes, there is greater heterogeneity in living areas. Caste identities are giving way to economic identities. Though an upper caste person might not eat at a lower caste person’s house, he cannot prevent his children from studying in the same classroom, eating in the same canteen, visiting the same shopping mall or worshipping in the same temple. A Hanuman Mandir in Delhi or Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai does not check for a person’s caste before allowing her entry, merely the colour of her money in the form of how large her donation to the temple fund is going to be. There is no segregation possible in modern work areas, and higher commingling has meant a greater level of exogamy, one of the foremost markers of modernity. Whenever opportunity arises, individuals rise to the challenges of intellectual and professional advancement irrespective of their social background. Incidentally anti-reservationists use the issue of ‘lack of merit’ to buttress their argument against this act, without conceding that it is precisely reservation, of the upper castes, that has pulled India’s growth down. Equal access to education will result in individuals, and not communities, ascending the social ladder. And such an opportunity is even now restricted to the towns and cities.

Therefore, shouldn’t urbanisation be encouraged in the interests of the lower castes? Won’t India become stronger and more united if it is rid of caste divisions? In the absence of a complete philosophical revolution, isn’t the part measure of the irrelevance of caste in one’s everyday existence also worth fighting for?

And yet voluntary organisations struggling for emancipation of the community have consistently fought against urbanisation, choosing instead to demand on-the-ground equality for the people, equality in land allocation, equality in education, equality in access to amenities. Such a demand, while being unrealistic in terms of attainment, actually obstructs the cause of empowerment since all economic, social and political efforts are directed towards improving the status quo, not changing it. Social workers are the first to admit that education and empowerment go a long way towards raising awareness and the active will of the people to change. And yet, by insisting on sharing the overall poverty of resources, ideas and empowerment that are the hallmark of all villages, rather than jettisoning it altogether, they are, unwittingly, contributing to the cause of caste.

It is true that urbanisation comes with its own set of problems. One of the most commonly cited costs of urbanisation is the alienation and loss of identity that it entails. However, is this cost greater than the benefit of modernity that necessarily accompanies urbanisation and industrialisation?

There can be a two-pronged strategy to margina-lising the role of caste in Indian sociology. In the short term, the efforts of the voluntary sector to lead resistance, educate people and punish perpetrators of atrocities based on caste should be strengthened. In the long term, however, there must be an active demand for industrialisation so that there is indeed an opportunity for the Dalits to correct the centuries’ old oppression handed out to them in the form of an avenue for their participation in the economy.

It is nobody’s case that caste can be eradicated only through economic means. But a focus on moving to the cities can reduce its influence in one’s daily life. The voluntary sector and intellectuals who subscribe to the atavism of rural equality must ponder on this and encourage greater industrialisation.n

Sangeeta Mall is Editor, International Humanist News, a quarterly journal published by the International Humanist and Ethical Union. She can be reached at

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