Relevance of Caste in Contemporary Politics – Part 2

By Ankit Vyas

Education and Reservation

Reservation in educational institutes and governments jobs for the lower castes was introduced at the time of independence and renewed by successive governments. This was seen as an act of affirmative action to provide opportunities to castes that had for generations suffered inequality. While reservations try to bring all castes at par, they solidify caste identities at the same time and increasingly, castes are seen exaggerating their marginalisation to garner government benefits.

Education system is a place where one would expect caste to lose significance because of inter-caste mingling in the classroom. It is assumed the cosmopolitan base of cities would spill over into schools as well. However, The Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 has brought back the role of caste to the fore. The Supreme Court’s decision to uphold 25% reservation for the poor and underprivileged sections in all private and government aided schools has had a mixed response from the school system. Top-end schools in Chennai have decried this decision saying that the culture of their school will be diluted and some have been explicit enough to say that they don’t want non-vegetarian kids to come to their school as their current students are those who do Sandhya Vandanam at home. The implication is clear; they don’t want lower-caste children mixing with current high-caste Brahmin children studying there.

Reservations for the scheduled castes have increased caste consciousness among all castes. The lower castes are more aware of their caste identity as a result of inclusion in reservation schemes while exclusion and resentment has made forward castes more acutely aware of their own caste.

Caste and Inequality

Caste was essentially based on the concept of division of labour, with each caste being associated with a specific occupation. The idea of caste-based occupation might not exist in its old form but disparities in opportunities between higher and lower castes show that caste’s influence on occupations is still strong. According to the IHDS survey 2004, forward caste men aged 25-49 completed 8.18 years of education on average, while OBCs complete only 6.68 years, Dalits 5.23 years and Adivasis 4.39 years. This inequality in opportunities results in inequality of outcomes. Schedule castes constituted 60% of sweepers in the Central government while Brahmins constituted 37% of the Indian Administrative service, while constituting only 5% of the total population. (Goyal 1989)

The mean annual wage and salary income for males in wage labour earned by Brahmins is Rs. 27, 712 while Dalits earned Rs. 21, 712. Inequalities in access to education do not necessarily affect income through wage labour. Here, market discrimination seems responsible for lower earnings of Dalits compared to the Brahmins. Data about access to capital shows a disturbing trend. IHDS data about loans obtained in the last five years shows that 39% of Brahmins borrowed from a bank or credit society while only 18% of Dalit households did so. The data was also able to bring out distinctions in income even within the forward castes where Brahmins earned more than other forward castes. Similarly, OBCs had access to more opportunities than Dalits. It would be erroneous to base these inequalities only on caste but it is irrefutable that there exists a clear relation between caste and opportunities available, and eventually outcomes that correspond to each caste.

On the surface, the influence of caste rules regarding purity and pollution, marriage and occupation is on the wane. Industrialisation and urbanisation have necessitated inter-caste mingling, education has increased opportunities for people to move out their caste-based occupation and marriage is increasingly becoming a result of free choice between individuals and is less regulated by ancient caste customs. Despite this, caste endogamy has shown remarkable resilience and is responsible for sustaining a sense of identity within each caste. Public discourses no longer talk about the hierarchical value of the caste system and lately the concept of ethnicity has been gathering force. Modern sociologists talk about each caste being different, not one being necessarily higher ranked than the other. In Caste today, Chris Fuller notes,

“The elimination of hierarchical values from legitimate public discourse accounts, for the claim

… that ‘there is no caste left.”

While it might be true that the caste system has ceased to have value as a hierarchy, it still continues to play a role in contemporary society. Due to politicians, caste associations and reservations, there is increased caste consciousness. As a result, castes are thinking collectively and asserting their identity of being from a particular caste. Social differentiation has existed for many years, in various forms. For a long time, this dominant form was caste but lately, class differentiation has come to the fore and has weakened caste based differentiation. Purity rules based on caste might not be followed anymore but inter-dining is still likely to take place among members of the same class. An officer might not sit with her peon to have lunch, even if both belong to the same caste whereas she might sit with another officer of a similar rank but of a different caste.

Similarly, marriage and other forms of cultural interactions are now more restricted to class, rather than caste. These might coincide at times but on the surface, class is playing a dominant role in social interaction rules and social differentiation. Despite this, it would be premature to say that class relations supersede caste relations. Inequalities in opportunities and outcomes still correspond to caste differences. Children from lower castes continue to be educationally disadvantaged compared to upper caste children. In India, caste identity is clearer and asserted more often than class. Associations, political parties, reservations are all based on caste and not class. Regardless of the debate on what influences Indian society more, it is undeniable that caste continues to exert its influence on different aspects of contemporary Indian society and that it is relevant even today.


(The author is a Teach for India fellow)

References- Research articles

1. The Peculiar Tenacity of Caste, Andre Beteille, Economic and Political Weekly, March 31st 2012, Vol XLVII NO 13

2. Caste in 21st Century India: Competing Narratives, Sonaldale Desai and Amaresh Dubey,Economic and Political Weekly, March 12, 2011, Vol XLVI NO 11

3. Caste in the 21st Century: From Systems to Elements, A M Shah, Economic and Political Weekly, November 3, 2007

4. The Caste system: An Overview, A summary of the first lecture in the IK Foundation Lecture Series, Prof. M Narasimhachary

References- Books

1. Social Change in Modern India, M.N. Srinivas, Chapter on Sanskritisation

2. Caste in contemporary India, Chapter 8, Eleanor Zelliot

References- others

1. Having them in our class, Vasudha Venogopal, The Hindu, Chennai, April 14, 2012

2. Wikipedia page on M.N. Srinivas

3. SC upholds 25% reservation for poor in schools through RTE,, April 12, 2012

4. The sensitive sociologist, Ramachandra Guha, The Telegraph, January 3, 2009

5. The contemporary meaning of caste, Satish Deshpande, ,, June 18, 2010