Creative Head, Consultant Social Networking, Software
The traditional caste system of India may no longer have a direct influence on lives of citizens, but ask the politicians, they cannot survive without caste based vote banks. It makes election predictions easy for them. On the social front, caste remains a primary consideration during marriage alliances. And who can deny its direct association with individuals, since individual’s surname is caste driven. To some it may surprise that cooking styles, being family oriented, have dependence on castes. For example, Gupta or Mittal communities use pure Indian Ghee as their cooking medium.
Castes (Jaatis) have been formally laid down by the Indian Brahmins as follows
In ancient times, political power was kept with the Kshatriyas, economic with the Vaishyas and Shudras, while the Brahmins, as custodians and interpreters of dharma, enjoyed a status of consultants in the society. According to Fa Xian, a Buddhist pilgrim from China, all castes enjoyed their belongingness and the system was not oppressive; only Chandaals were outcast due to the nature of their work.
British administrators, conversant with the class distinction in England and driven by the need to regulate the many social groups they encountered in everyday administration in India, took advantage of the age-old Hindu caste system. They formalised it by creating schedules of caste-based groups. They exploited the tradition of marrying within caste and encased the society in small factions, enabling the doctrine of divide and rule – a view that established the imperialistic model in India. One would have expected the caste system discarded after independence but sadly, it re-appeared as a monster to support three significant systems namely election, education and professions, the last two by way of reservations.
The social impact of caste has been fluctuating. In the beginning, people were enamoured by the newly introduced privilege of reservations. It entitled them to a lead over the others, but a certain taboo of poverty caught up with this privilege. A few of the lower castes even raised their caste category fictitiously, to overcome this taboo. But as the reservation benefits became tangible, the trend was reversed. Citizens manoeuvred around for inclusion in the reserved category to become eligible for the linked benefits. Some clever ones amassed enviable wealth and position in this process. Having tasted the blood, they moved to restrict entry of others in these categories by introducing stricter laws and verification processes. The reserved classes of the 19th century actually became the privileged classes of the 20th century.
Modernization and urbanization have led to a decline in the outward display of caste discrimination, so that issues of caste may never be seen directly on public forums or in the workplace. The status of an individual is now judged by the level of wealth that he displays and not by his caste or surname. Even, the stigma of marrying in the lower castes has been obliterated to some extent. In many villages, however, the segregation of castes through daily behaviour still exists. In Himachal Pradesh, ‘dham’ a traditional feast during social events requires people from the lower caste ie untouchables (Harijans) or tribals, to sit separately while the others squat together. This is a serious ill of the society, which will only be eliminated by the education of the coming generations.
While caste is now seen as anachronistic, in its original form it served as an instrument of professionalism in the society. It channelized direct knowledge and skills transfer from one generation to another. The exclusive manner in which this was done circumvented the risks of competition. A good example of caste based specialisation is that while many weavers produced muslin cloth, none could match the softness and fineness delivered by the weavers of Dhaka (Bangla Desh now). In addition, the caste system played an influential role in shaping economic activities, ensuring a natural division of labour, development and protection of intellectual property, and sometimes, allowing manufacturers to achieve specialisation and global monopoly.
The present day use of sophisticated machinery has reduced the need for the manual skills of the type that were necessary in ancient times. The relevance of caste-based expertise consequently has been lost. Newer skills do not require dependence on hereditary transfer of knowledge, skills and tips.
The politicians are bending over their backs, to retain caste distinction. They realise but they ignore the fact that distinction brings in discrimination. It is evident from the fact that population data by caste distinction, which was first collected during British Raj in 1931, for making the schedules of depressed classes, was revived during the2011 census. The leaders are aware that the electorate favour a useless representative of own caste over a worthy representatives of another. This is a good handle for a win in the elections.
Whatever we may say to support or oppose caste discrimination, its existence in the society does present hurdles in achieving inclusiveness and equality, the two important factors for unleashing the country’s potential. Here is something that the society and the government would have to deal with jointly.
 Bharat Ratna Dr Rajendra Prasad, the first President of independent India, pioneered elimination of manual scavengers yet even today, at least half a millions of these unfortunate individuals still exist in the society. This is one of the topics covered in the ongoing television serial ‘Truth Alone Prevails’ (Satyameva Jayate) conceived, produced and presented by the famous cine Indian star Aamir Khan. The serial is dubbed in many national languages.