07 December 2010

India, the Caste System, and the Urban Middle Class

1. The caste system is bad/evil.
2. The caste system is backward (medieval/feudal).

These two statements sum up the views of (urban) middle class Indians about the caste system. Other adjectives like 'shocking', 'disgraceful' and 'shameful' can also be used.

The central truth about India's urban middle class (especially its upper caste Hindus) vis-a-vis the caste system is the deep sense of shame and guilt it has about the latter. And the most profound effect of this shame and guilt is the state of denial it has produced among them. (Urban) middle class Indians believe:
3. "The caste system does not exist."
4. "Even if the caste system exists, it is not important."

1 and 2 are correct. 3 and 4 are wrong. But 1 and 2 do not imply 3 and 4. The caste system does exist. And it is important.

But in a limited sense, the (urban) middle class is right. Caste does not exist in their world. Firstly, they go to school/college, play, study, make friends, work, eat and drink freely with people of other castes – regardless of "higher" or "lower" caste. Sometimes they even marry outside their caste. Secondly, they also see all people as equals ("equal in the eyes of God and the law"). They don't judge people by their birth, but instead by their qualities (character, honesty, hard work, manners, etc). On both these counts they are correct.

But it is one thing to say that caste doesn't matter to you, and another thing to say that caste doesn't matter to the country. The urban middle class makes up only 5% of India. But the majority of the country is rural and agricultural (70%). And here, caste doesn't merely exist; it is everything.

If you are born in a village, your caste decides what work you do, who you play, study, make friends, eat and drink with. It also decided which candidate or party you vote for. Therefore, the caste system does exist. And it is important.

Then what is the solution? The solution is not to pretend that caste doesn't exist, or that it is not important. The solution is to confront it, understand it and come to terms with it. Trying to understand something doesn't mean one is trying to justify or defend it. And understanding the caste system is a must if we want to understand India completely. Especially if we are interested in the problems of rural India – where caste is the dominant reality.

The caste system is deeply unequal and unjust. Some of its worst excesses – like untouchability – are cruel and inhuman. Nobody can justify or defend this system. But just as nothing is completely good, nothing is completely evil either. The caste system was a social system that evolved under certain conditions to meet certain needs. With all its failings and drawbacks, we must remember a few things:

1. The caste system helped the Indian civilisation to survive for 5000 years. (Where are Sumeria and ancient Egypt today?)

2. It helped India to survive 2500 years of foreign invasions – including 1000 years of foreign rule. (Where are Persia and Babylonia today?)

3. It maintained social order, stability and peace. India is perhaps the only major country never to have had a social revolution (France/Europe 1789, Russia 1917, China 1949) or a civil war (America 1861).

4. It preserved our culture and our way of life. (Where are ancient Greece and the Roman Empire today?)

5. Most importantly, the worst excesses of the caste system began during – and due to – the period of foreign rule: Turkish, Mughal and British.

In conclusion, caste was the social system of an agricultural society (as against an industrial society). The caste system has served its purpose. It has now reached its expiry date. As India industrialises and urbanises, the caste system will fade and eventually disappear.

The paradox is: How did such a liberal and tolerant way of life as Hinduism produce such an unjust and unequal social system?


Anonymous said...

Caste system is deeply rooted in genetics. It could also be called as racism. Why this system began to rot is certainly questionable but nowhere did the Gurukula system-the ancient educational system, feed this discrimination into the students.

Anonymous said...

FYI,Chinese civilization has survived without caste system.How can a person's proffession be determined at birth.

Indian said...

Where have I said that a person's profession must be determined at birth?

Deepak said...


Why do you attribute the resilience of Indian civilization / society to the caste system? And not to to other aspects of Indian culture, society, etc. do you not think that the ability of India to assimilate other cultures into itself may have something to do with it as well?

Indian said...

When I say that A is due to B, I don't mean that A is completely due to B :-) Of course there are other reasons as well.