Understanding The Caste System In India: A Second Look

Posted on June 26, 2012 in Society

By Mahitha Kasireddi:

From the feudal period to the modern times there has been a change in the definition of caste. Lets look at the different interpretations. This article is an opinion drawn from the articles written by Justice Markandey, judge of the Supreme of India and S. Gurumurthy, a political and economic commentator.

In theory, there are four main castes in India. They are the Brahmanas, the Kshatriyas, the Vaishyas, and the Shudras. But, in reality there are some hundreds of castes and sub-castes which cannot fit, into the four main castes. Such as Yadavs, Kurmis, Jats, Kayasthas, Bhumihars and Gosains. There are even other sub-castes viz. badhai (carpenter), lohar (blacksmith), sonar (goldsmith), kumbhar (potter), dhobi (washer man), nai (baber), darzi (tailor), kasai (butcher), mallah (fisher man), kewat (boat man), teli (oil presser),kehar (water carrier), gadalia (sheep herder). In England there are surnames like Taylor, Smith, Goldsmith, Manson, Baker, Butcher, Potter, Barber, Carpenter, Turner, Water-man, Shepherd, Gardener and so on, which indicate that their ancestors practiced those professions.

In the feudal period, 40% of India’s working population was engaged in the handicraft industry. The feudal system was the social system in the Middle age in which people received land and protection from a lord whom they worked and fought for. India was the most prosperous country in the world before the British invasion. But, later its share of world income fell from 22.6% in 1700 to 3.8% in 1952.

The British introduced the products of their mill industries in India and raised the export duties on the Indian Handicraft goods thus, destroying the Indian handicraft industries. With that, 30% of the population was rendered unemployed. They were poverty stricken, destitute, and instigated towards crime or beggary. An English Governor General wrote in 1834 “The bones of the cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India”.

A country prospers when majority of the population is involved in industry than agriculture. America has only 2-3% of its production from agriculture. If British had not come to India our industry might have grown indigenously and we might have become an industrial state like America and Europe. Even in England, the handicraft industry was destroyed due to mill industry popping up. But, its workers were given employment in mill industry. In the feudal age the occupation of a person was decided right from his birth. A carpenter’s son became a carpenter, a cobbler’s son became a cobbler, a barber’s son becomes a barber. This way carpenter, smith, potter all became castes.

The caste system has done a lot of damage to India, there is no ambivalence in this truth. But, it had its own advantages in the feudal times. It led to the division of labour and increased the quality of production. For example, a potter itself is an expert in producing pots.

In the feudal age there were no engineering and technical institutes to train them in a particular skill, the only way was to sit with one’s own father all day and learn. Here, the father is not only a producer but also a teacher. In the modern industry there is a demand for technical qualities in the employees. There are engineering and technical institutes which bring out best of the engineers and technicians. The students who go there to learn may not be the children of engineers. The tradition of following the profession of our ancestors has been broken. A barber’s son becomes a mechanic or an electrician. If he gets some education he may even become a teacher or a doctor or a lawyer.

Before the British came, India used to export Dacca muslin, Murshidabad silk, Kashmiri shawls and carpets, ornaments, and so on, apart from agricultural products like spices and indigo to Middle East and even Europe. The discovery of Roman coins tells us that India did a great deal of business globally. India had a 31.5% share in the global market, which fell to 3% in 1991.

It is said that the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes were treated with less respect. Before the British invasion, they were in the handicraft profession. Once the industry was affected by losses they became unemployed and rendered poor, and the poor are not given respect in the society. The government of India, keeping in mind the scheduled castes and tribes and the economically backward classes, declared them eligible for reservations and other privileges to help them become upwardly mobile in society. In recent times, many communities want to be declared SCs and STs to get admissions into education institutions and avail job opportunities under the reservation category. Fake certificates have become common and unrestrained. Even after sixty years of independence the disputes among castes is still persistent. The recent reports on the differences that developed among law students in Chennai is an epitome. Disputes among different religions – Christians, Hindus, Muslims – is common. The attacks that took place on the churches in Karnataka is an evidence.

Justice Katju has accepted the western anthropological view on India. Contemporary writers like Gurucharandas and Swaminathan Ankilessaria Aiyar perceived caste as the social capital of India. Guruswamy interpreted that caste is a strong bond and it links families.

Caste based politics acts as a mediator between traditional society and modern state in India. It helped to harmonize contradiction between formal constitutional and non-formal social architecture. It can be still argued that caste is not necessary in politics. Justice Katju says that caste is a modern economic development vehicle. It helps in generating a culturally defined social capital than individualism-dominated society. It is a non-formal network within the society.

Studies show that caste system has led to the industrial development of the country. About 370 small scale industrial clusters and 2600 artisan base clusters which generate 70% of India’s industrial output, 66% of exports, and 40% of employment. Only 13% was sponsored. The rest was generated by social network. Each caste is involved in a different trade. B.Cs dominate 2/3rd of global diamond market, Nadar caste runs over 3/4th of retail trade, match works, and fire works in Tamil Nadu. In Tirupur, Goundar caste is a global Knitwear hub. In Sangkargiri and Nammakkal in Tamil Nadu, Goundar caste own the largest fleet of lorry, tanker, tipper transport. The list never ends.

Whether it is the B.Cs, Nadars or Goundars they all have raised to global entrepreneurship on the kinship based social capital. It is the community power that raised them. Most of them have either little or no education. A survey by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) in 2005 shows that there are 2 million such units, out of which 45% were owned by B.Cs (Sacs & Sets).

These 42 million units provided employment outside agriculture and engaged 90 million hands, growing at an annual rate of 25% during 1990-98. Therefore, caste transformed into a social capital in the market economy.

Thus, the traditional caste system cannot be rooted out. Many elites are not clear on how to define traditional caste system in the modern times. The caste system itself seems to be handling the modernity well.

The politicians make use of the caste system in the form of vote bank politics. The citizens tend to vote for a person who prevails from their own caste. Lets take for instance in Andhra Pradesh a party named the Telangana Rastra Samiti was setup. The leaders of the party expected votes from people who are telangana.

But, the caste system is likely to be destroyed from its very basis shortly in the coming years due to the advancement of technology, people’s struggles, inter caste marriages, the demand for efficient technicians in the modern industry, economic struggle of people and the inter caste marriage which is a national interest and needs to be encouraged. India has realized that united they stand and divided they fall.

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