Relevance of Caste in Contemporary India – Part 1

By Ankit Vyas

Objective and Scope of Research

This research aims to find the changed role of caste in contemporary society and its continuing relevance.

Contemporary Indian society refers to the post-independence period characterized by heavy industrialization, urbanization and apparent weakening of the traditional family and social structure. The impression held is that caste in its old form is irrelevant and cannot exist in the modern or contemporary Indian society. The traditional hold of caste has weakened but this research aims to find out if caste continues to play a role in Indian society, albeit in different ways.


In the post-independence period, attention had turned to studying tribes as the general impression among anthropologists of the era was that caste was irrelevant in the free India of  industries and factories. It was MN Srinivas’s book, ‘Caste in Modern India and other essays’ that brought the focus back onto caste. Srinivas believed that caste was a fluid and dynamic social institution. While caste might not necessarily play the same role it did in the olden days, its fluid character ensures it has adapted to play a role in contemporary society as well.

It is unanimously agreed that the role of caste in three major areas of social life is declining. These are observance of rules regarding purity, marriage rules and caste-based occupation. On the other hand, Sanskritisation has strengthened over the years and caste has permeated into other fields such as education and politics which have increased caste consciousness and kept caste relevant in contemporary Indian society. Using statistics from the IHDS, this paper also tries to analyse the relationship between caste and inequalities in opportunities and outcomes and finally whether class is a more relevant measure of social differentiation than caste.

Weakening of Caste rules

The most conspicuous rule among the caste rules regarding purity was that of commensality or rules regarding eating and drinking with or accepting food and water from other castes. Earlier, due to a stagnant occupational and social setup in the village, these rules were applied stringently. Post-independence, industrialisation, education and urbanisation, amongst other factors made the applicability of some of these rules unfeasible. Different castes worked alongside in large factories and shared food and water, students of different castes, unaware of commensality rules freely ate with each other in school and at large public gatherings such as marriages, inter-caste mingling happened without commensality rules being adhered to.

Adrian Mayer’s study of a village in central India from 1954 to 1992 showed that while old rules of commensality still remained, their observance by men as well as women had become more relaxed.

Marriage rules are an important component of caste system. In India, these rules are very stringent, intricate and closely dependent on caste rules. Earlier, partners would be matched not just due to caste but according to sub-caste, or even sub-subcaste. A marriage between two different types of Brahmins would be considered an inter-caste marriage. Increased education has resulted in the weakening of certain marriage rules. Inter-caste marriages have become fairly common in urban areas and towns. Now that marriage is also a result of free choice of two partners, caste’s role in determining the match is declining. However, caste endogamy still persists as is evident by a large number of caste matrimony associations and websites.

According to the Indian Human Development Survey 2004-05, 95% of female respondents married into their own caste. Thirdly, the very base for caste’s existence- occupations based on caste, have started to weaken. Caste-based occupations initially did allow for some flexibility. A caste involved in making certain crafts could venture into agriculture but not into the domain which was the specialty of a particular caste. Industrialisation has changed that, for it has brought with it a variety of new, caste-free professions. More and more youngsters in the current generation have opted out of their family and caste occupation for better opportunities. Potter’s sons might become bank officers or a tanner’s daughter might become a doctor. It is safe to say that caste in its traditional form with its stringent rules has all but disappeared but the question to be examined is whether it continues to persist in different forms.

Sanskritisation: Decline of caste or not?

Caste customs have endured but are carried out mainly during ceremonial occasions and don’t permeate as much into everyday life.

Srinivas believed that Sanskritisation was strengthening. Sanskritisation is where the lower castes seek upward mobility by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes. According to Beteille, “Sanskritisation enlarged the scope of ritual in ceremonial life even while the force of purity and pollution was being reduced in everyday life, in the school, the office and the marketplace.”Sanskritisation has only intensified in years that have passed since independence. For thousands of years, the higher castes were identified with the customs that they followed. Since Sanskritisation involves lower castes emulating the higher castes and their customs, the distinction between the two became less pronounced. Over generations, some lower castes were able to closely adapt the customs of the higher castes in the regions and were gradually accepted as being higher castes themselves. Sanskritisation results in mobility but no structural change. That is, if a caste moves up, another necessarily goes down. The system itself does not change.

Thus, Sanskritisation leads us to the larger question, ‘If caste is weakening in contemporary India, why is Sanskritisation strengthening? Sanskritisation is a result of the aspiration of lower castes to climb up the hierarchy by imitating Brahmin customs. This aspiration shows that caste awareness, an implicit awareness about apparent Brahmin supremacy and as a corollary, of the lower-standing of other castes, exists. This awareness only increased caste identity and consciousness. Indeed, Sanskritisation is sustaining the continuance of caste system in contemporary India.

Caste’s continuing influence

Sanskritisation has been seen as sustaining the caste system in India. In his article, The Peculiar tenacity of Caste, Andre Beteille talks about the traditional role of caste being eroded but new forms of influence opening up. Caste has permeated into the political arena with castes representing easily identifiable vote banks. Through politics, it has seeped into education as well, in the form of reservation for the lower castes. This web of caste influence finishes a complete circle with reservations in jobs as well for the scheduled castes. All of these factors have contributed to an increased caste consciousness and resulted in the continuance of caste influence in contemporary Indian society.

Caste in Politics

After independence, political parties justified using caste as a pragmatic measure to get electoral support. This practice has continued till today. Caste was chosen over class as identities of caste are much clearer than class and almost everyone can say which caste they belong to. Class is a lot more ambiguous and harder for people to identify with. As a result, political parties started using caste garner votes and this led to the concept of a vote bank. Vote bank is another term introduced by MN Srinivas and holds particular relevance in the current Indian political scenario. According to Guha, it connotes to the general tendency of individuals to vote in herds or groups, whether these herds might be defined in terms of caste, class, language or religion. It is improbable that only one factor would constitute a vote bank but it is safe to say that most vote banks have caste as a base or as one of the determining factors. When political parties emphasise the caste of their candidates and propose reforms benefiting those belonging to the same caste as their candidate, it increases caste consciousness.

The Bahujan Samaj Party initially focused on the Dalit vote bank by projecting their leader Mayawati as a sort of Dalit Messiah who would bring the downtrodden Dalits up in life by giving them increased opportunities. After Mayawati coming to power, various Dalit monuments were set up in an effort to boost Dalit pride. This increased caste consciousness amongst Dalits as well as non-Dalits. That is, Dalits became more aware of their caste as did other castes become more aware of being non-Dalits. What this has done has made castes think collectively and this self-identity has kept caste alive in modern Indian society. Interestingly, a study by the IHDS (Indian Human Development Study) shows that Dalits are far more politically aware and active than the forward castes. This shows that Dalits are taking initiative and being self-dependent which augurs well for Indian society. One could say that in the political arena, equal opportunities exist for all castes. However, this does not mean that caste has become irrelevant. Caste hierarchy might not play a role in politics but caste consciousness does.

(To be continued)

(The author is a Teach for India Fellow)