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Dhaka Tribune

The clash of the castes

India’s stability will depend on how well it deals with problems of the caste system

Update : 27 Jun 2018, 12:41 AM

It is important for Bangladeshis to understand the social fabric of their massive neighbour India. Acquiring a genuine insight into Indian society would be amiss if we fail to understand the caste system of Hinduism in India and how it works in areas of robust nationalism -- especially by the means of affirmative action and also through redistributive measures. 

What’s the official term?  

Caste in Hinduism is actually a highly complex matter in India despite attempts of oversimplification by many into four categories namely Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya, and Shudra. There are social-occupational roles as well ascribed to each of these traditional categories in line with the scripture. The Brahmin, the priestly caste, is placed at the top rung of the hierarchy followed by the Kshatriya the warrior groups. 

Vaisya, the third in a descending order, are supposed to engage in trade, and Shudras to do all the manual work from cultivation to craftsmanship. These are actually caste categories, not a precise social group.  

Another caste category evolved through the medieval ages and became a group identity between 13th to 19th century: Kayastha, who mostly did official work in medieval and colonial administrations. Similarly, other local castes evolved in various parts of the sub-continent who could not be placed in the aforementioned four categories such as Vaidya in Bengal, Bhumihar in Bihar, Khatri, and Jat in Punjab, etc. 

There was another group since the ancient times called “Achhut” or “Aspirshya” meaning “untouchables.” There were considered so low that they were put outside the caste folds and, hence, considered as outcasts. They termed themselves “Dalit” meaning oppressed. 

The official or constitutional term for the outcast or Dalit is Scheduled Caste (SC). The other outcasts are the indigenous tribes who are formally called Scheduled Tribes (ST). Due to their similar ritual and socio-economic status, both SC and ST are often addressed together as SC/ST as one category. 

The non-Hindu communities, eg Indian Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians, are also included in SC/ ST for the purpose of affirmative action. SC/ST constitutes close to a quarter of India’s population, and enjoys almost equivalent proportion of reservations in jobs and educational institutions of the Indian central government. 

In modern India

In modern India, caste perception has become a strange, yet apparently logical, mix of ritual and socio-economic categories. Ritually Brahmin, Kshatriya, and Vaisya are “Dbij” or “twice born” and they carry out special rituals like “Upanayan” which is something similar to Baptism of Christianity. They are considered “upper caste” despite their distinct ritual statuses within this broad spectrum of the caste system. 

Officially, they are termed as “general” or “forward class.” Upper castes also include the intermediate caste category like Kayastha, or specific local castes like Bhumihar, Khatri, Vaidya, some clans of the jaat, etc -- who mostly grew out of the three original upper castes through inter-marriage or through deviation from the scripture-sanctioned occupation or social role or through a historical event like emigration. 

The forward class make up about one fifth of the Indian populace. 

In reality though, the caste system doesn’t entirely function through these established categories. In fact, there are around 3,000-4,000 endogamous sub-categories or sub-caste called “jati.” 

A complex mix of ritual along with occupational and social acceptance created these jati categories in each region over the last hundreds or even thousands of years. Locally, they are cobbled together in each category as per their historic ritual-occupational roles or as per the mass local perception of their status. 

Often local Brahminic sanction was key in conferring of such status. But, there are many instances where certain “Jati” challenged Brahminic view of their status and claimed a superior one. Since, in Hinduism, there is no central institutional body, locally or nationally, who formally confer or confirm ritual status, many challenges remain unresolved and a status quo come out of that stalemate.  

Going south

In South India, there are many powerful castes eg Reddy, Chettiar, Kamma, and Nayar. Nayar has a status of low middle to low in the eyes of the Brahmin; yet because of their strong socio-economic positions, they are both socially and officially viewed as the forward class/caste. 

Nationally, the biggest official category is actually Other Backward Class (OBC) which is the most open ended socio-economic category of “jati,” and endogamous groups of ritually low caste Hindus and non-Hindus eg Muslims. 

So, when it comes to categorization of these endogamous local castes for the purposes of positive discrimination, a multi-community (religious) mix can be observed. This category enjoys 27% reservations in central government jobs and educational institutions. At state level, the percentage varies from state to state. 

However, as far as historical facts are concerned, the ritual castes (both varna and jati) seem to be an outcome of Vedic diktat and millennia-long mixed race of the modern Hindu community. The privileged castes did all they could throughout history to conserve their social domination and claim resources in the name of divine scriptures. 

Things started to change with the advent of modernity and modern state system in the sub-continent through the colonial modernizers. The colonial state allowed some channels to the disadvantaged castes and groups to challenge the upper caste domination and social oppression.     

Affirmative action is a righteous thing to give the essential push to socially backward groups. It is also important for social justice and long-term stability.

However, affirmative action, or reservation is a complicated matter, and has its own controversies too.

A certain historical-social group may have specific skills, too many reservations to hinder opportunities for the skilled or meritorious. 

A balance is, indeed, imperative. Reservation is a burning issue in the socio-politics of India.  Indian leaderships are constantly forced to negotiate the claims and counter-claims of reservations. Social and political stability in India will depend, alongside with other things, much on how smartly they deal with the issue of the caste system every time it surfaces.

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is a regular contributor to the Dhaka Tribune.

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