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Mainstream, VOL XLIX No 31, July 23, 2011

India’s North-South Socio-Cultural Divide: Which Way Now?

Monday 25 July 2011, by Arup Maharatna


In a long-lasting pan-Indian narrative of caste and its stereotypes, the question of spatial variations had remained sidelined especially until the early 1980s when a distinct regional contrast in kinship, marriage, and female status between north/north-western regions and the large southern peninsula of India began to be brought to the limelight in social science discourse. In this view, the ‘north’ is depicted as having more starkly patriarchal kinship, with such (unenviable) concomitants as exogamous marriages, lower female status/autonomy, hefty dowry, intense son preference and related anti-female discrimi-nation. In contrast, the ‘south’—roughly, the entire region lying south of Satpura hills—is seen as less staunchly patriarchal, with greater toleration of endogamous marriages, higher levels of female status/autonomy, more balanced gender relations, and comparative absence of dowry. This north-south socio-cultural divide corresponds to a distinct demographic divide marked by comparatively lower levels of fertility, infant and child mortality, and masculinity in the population of India’s south as compared to those of the north.

According to an economic line of argument, since ‘south’, the seat of wet-crop farming, has historically allowed for substantial scope of women’s productive participation as compared to dry-cropped north and north-west, the incon-gruity in women’s status/autonomy between these two regions is largely a cultural manifes-tation of geo-physically ordained divergence in women’s economic value/worth. This economic explanation of what is essentially a socio-cultural domain, has, of course, invited doubts and scepticisms. For example, our recent study of the demographic behaviour and its socio-cultural underpinnings amongst India’s aggregate tribal population has discerned a clue lying in historic (or pre-historic) differences in the scale and pattern of tribal infusion into the evolving Hindu mainstream.

As the Aryan invasion, beginning first in the north, pushed the indigenous (tribal) inhabitants southward, so goes the mainstream historio-graphy of India, the peninsular south should have been the seat of a protracted infusion of indigenous tribal people’s socio-cultural imprints (for example, kinship ideology and social values) within the emerging caste-hierarchical society. For example, major (mainstream) socio-cultural features in the south, namely, relatively balanced gender relations, higher female status/autonomy, endogamous marriages, relative absence of child marriage and dowry payment practices, are shared abundantly (especially in the past but to a considerable extent even today) by the majority of tribes across the subcontinent.

There has been (relatively) little historical research on the regional variations in the nature and extent of tribal infusion into the mainstream. However, it is not hard to discern a few disquiets that should have crept through prolonged social assimilation, acculturation, and integration at various levels across the country. For example, many inherently egalitarian tribal communities have happened to find themselves in a low social position within the hierarchical caste society. From the standpoint of universal human values such as equality of rights, dignity, and social harmony, this departure away from an egalitarian structure could well be seen as retrogression. Indeed, the protracted infiltration of the mainstream (Hindu) patriarchal ideology and practices has vitiated the increasingly tribal societies in which a marriage traditionally had meant neither dowry payments nor the bride’s lifelong subservience to a hierarchal household, with her autonomy greatly compromised.

In fact, the traditional mode of marriage in tribal societies, namely, consensual choice between two partners (for example, ‘love-marriage’) is broadly akin to what is in vogue across entire Western hemisphere and much of Africa for centuries. In this global backdrop, it is utterly ironic that Indian tribes are impelled to abandon the universally admired mode of marriage in order for taking to the typical Hindu system of marriage, mostly arranged, often at very early or pre-puberty age, strictly through negotiations between the parents of prospective spouses. But an unquestioned (certainly not unquestionable) supremacy of the caste hierarchical social mores vis-a-vis tribal world rules out an assiduous reciprocity between the two.

For example, to a bitter bewilderment, the intensity of patriarchal hierarchy/domination, son preference, and associated gender biases in contemporary India has hardly waned even amongst the materially and educationally better-off. Some authors have labelled this as the ‘prosperity effect’—of course, of Indian style. Likewise, there has been increasing infliction of gender biases across the peninsular south known historically for relatively balanced gender relations. T. Scarlett Epstein, in her landmark research on south India, had vividly reported how villagers in a bid to improve social ranking within the caste society—as early as the 1970s, when some got richer—had started adopting Brhaminical names and rituals including dowry in replacement of bride-wealth.

ALMOST tragically, the growing economism, monetarism, and modernism in post-independent India, instead of wiping out stubborn irrationalities and inequities inherent in the caste system, have bred new and complex social dilemmas fuelled arguably by what Nicholas Dirks calls ‘castes of mind’. The logic of the animal-spirit-driven capitalist accumulation and growth could hardly make a dent into an elaborate illogic of caste divisions and related socio-political complexities, with concomitantly bewildering metamorphosis across ‘modern’ Indian society. People, even while getting rich and informed, appear innately incapable of freeing themselves of the primitive mental fixity around caste hierarchy, with an intense eagerness of lower-caste people in aping the Brahminical rituals, social practices, and dowry which seem unenviable from the stand-point of the universal reason and enlightenment.

Indian sociology of caste and social rank stands unvanquished, as it absorbs tirelessly into its immutable fold the most of the effects of modern economic development, urbanisation, and educational expansion, but not the other way round that was so confidently preached by our early national leaders. Disdainfully enough, the republic of independent India, which set out with its constitutional pledge for the abolition of caste, has even felt recently, after a long lapse of six decades, a need for setting up, at a consi-derable cost, a new national network of specialist research centres devoted exclusively to studying menaces of exclusion and discrimination of the lower caste and tribal peoples both from mainstream development and society.

By the early 1990s, south India, a historical seat for patrilocal, endogamous, and cross-cousin marriages, got almost swayed by starker forms of patriarchy in kinship, hypergamous/exogamous marriages and dowry, notwithstanding subs-tantial improvements in overall technology, communications, education, and urban growth. Hence there has been a steady erosion of the traditionally higher female status/autonomy in the south and thus a build-up of a coffin for the historic north-south socio-cultural divide, with the south (Tamil Nadu in particular) stooping to imbibe the northern historic imbalances and inequities in gender relations, but sadly not the other way round. This has come about not only as a purely sociological process or ourcome, but it rather represents a multiplex of demographic, economic, and sociological forces newly unleashed by overall development.

For example, given a social custom of ensuring the age of a groom higher than the bride’s by several years, and given a fairly fast improve-ment in mortality levels, there emerged—by sheer demographic logic—a relative shortage of grooms vis-a-vis the number of marriageable brides available with the customary age-gap. A part of its resolution has of course been a ‘marriage squeeze’ in the form of narrowing the age-gap between spouses. However, with rising prosperity and the expanded domains of market, an intangible competition among the parents of prospective brides chasing for a ‘match’ from amongst the far limited number of grooms with the customary age-gap, could not help ensuing, with the resultant emergence of a premium in form of dowry to be paid to the families of scarce ‘lucrative’ grooms. The situation effectively resembles a sort of an auction, with the concomitant skyrocketing of the hedonic prices of grooms in the guise of dowry inflation, which also serves as a hedonic premium paid by the brides’ parents to insure against post-marital torture, violence, or even murderous attempts at their daughters. Although the economics under-lying a rising trend of dowry plays its part in such challenges, several far-fetched socio-cultural ramifications in the spheres of kinship, social ideology, and related value are very much part of the upshots.

For example, when the long-existing cultural preference for sons combines with a sweeping motivation for fertility control, it makes couples desperate about ensuring at least one son in a pre-planned small family. Strikingly, this despe-ration for a son in an ideally small family has lately surfaced even in such regions as the parts of south India where this was relatively invisible previously. All this is very unique in the Indian subcontinent, because the rising material aspirations and concomitant reduction of family size in the history of Western countries did not similarly bring in such social aberrations as son preference and rising dowry. The clue to these differential social ramifications lies clearly beyond pure household economics and it clearly encom-passes intrinsically different socio-cultural values, kinship, and social ideology.

For instance, rampant dowry transactions in pre-industrial Europe had waned along with growing industrialisation and modernisation since the late eighteenth century, because of a domineering social value beginning to have been attached with current wealth, at least more than that given to inherited property/title insofar as the determination of social status was concerned. Unlike what happened in historical Europe, the failures of India’s modern industrialisation and urbanisation in getting rid of dowry derive chiefly from a stubborn societal value of caste ascription placed above all other attributes, say, skill, entrepreneurship, wealth in the determination of social status.

Similarly baffling is the unusual (and unwel-come) influence of growing industrialism, modernism, and urbanism in tilting south India toward the perennially unenviable mould of north and north-western kinship and marriage practices such as exogamy, dowry, use of veil and vermilion in the forehead of married females, but not the other way round. This almost certainly has had something to do with a gradual withering or weakening of some (arguably) precious remnants of historically deeper infusion of tribal socio-cultural features, practices, and ideology across south India. While the mechanics of economic growth, income rises, and increasing (relative) dominance of commodities and consump-tion in human life have increasingly levelled materially northern and southern regions, such labelling in the sphere of socio-cultural divide has, ironically, been in the direction of the ‘south’ aping what could rhetorically be called the ‘awful’ tradition of the north and north-western marriage practices, kinship patterns, gender biases, and related social ideology.

The author is a Professor, Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Pune. He can be contacted at e-mail:

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