Baba’s Explainer – Caste System in India [PART I]

  • IASbaba
  • August 18, 2022
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  • GS-1: Indian Society & its challenges
  • GS-2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.
The Pillar Called Caste

The Indian social system rests on three pillars: the caste system, the joint family system, and the village community. Among these, the caste system appears to be the most significant feature of the Hindu Society due to its interdependence upon the social, economic and political systems.

  • Caste in India is an ascriptive group. It is a hereditary group. Caste is a community as it is based on kinship and primordial affinity.
  • The term ‘caste’ is derived from a Portuguese word ‘caste’ meaning breed, race or group.
  • An individual is born into a caste, and this status is usually permanent.
  • The caste system in India can be viewed from two angles: first, from the structural point of view (as a general principle of stratification and caste) and secondly, from the cultural angle (in terms of prominence of ideas of pollution-purity and notions of hierarchy, segregation, and corporations).
Characteristics of Caste System in India
  1. Division of the society into segments – In the society there are several groups and associations and the people associated with these groups and associations care more for their own castes than for the community as a whole.
  2. Hierarchy: The caste system is always characterised by a hierarchal arrangement which implies that there are some castes which are considered superior to the others. Membership in the caste hierarchy is based on birth and is more or less fixed. Traditionally it is the hierarchal arrangement of caste according to different degrees of dominance and privileges.
  3. Restrictions on Interaction: In the caste system, there are several restrictions on interaction. The members of one caste cannot mix or move freely with the members of the other castes. This ban on interaction becomes still more rigid when the question of mixing of a superior caste with an inferior one comes to the front. Every caste abides by well-established customs and well-defined norms of interaction.
  4. Social and religious disabilities: In a rigid caste system the members of a higher caste impose certain disabilities and restrictions on other castes as well as on themselves. People belonging to the lowest caste in the hierarchy are not allowed to dwell in the cities and purchase property in the localities inhabited by the high caste people. They are not allowed even to go to the temples and worship there. They are not even permitted to study religious books etc. They are not also allowed to use village wells or ponds, used by the higher castes.
  5. Imposition of restrictions on Commensality: These refer to the restrictions on eating and drinking. Each caste group has its own laws which govern the food habits of the members.
  6. The Ideology of Purity and Pollution: The gradation of castes is based on the notion of ritual purity. The higher castes are believed to be purer and less polluted. Ritual purity is derived from the caste ideology that human beings are born into a high or a low caste in accordance with the doctrine of karma.
  7. Restrictions on Occupations: The different castes are usually associated with traditional occupations. Hindu religious texts determined the occupations of all ‘varnas’. As regards the fixation of occupation, the caste system heavily draws upon the ‘Varna’ system. One’s birth into a particular caste determines his occupation during his life time.
  8. Marital Restrictions: Caste endogamy is strictly enforced wherein the members of each caste marry only within their own caste. Inter-caste marriage is not only viewed with disfavor but it is also very much resented and discouraged.
  9. Hereditary Status: Caste system is based on the ascriptive pattern which implies that the birth of a person in a particular caste decides his caste. It is usually difficult or rather impossible to change one’s own caste despite the acquisition of qualifications or disqualifications, the membership of a particular caste continues and does not undergo any change even if changes in a person’s status, occupation, education, wealth etc. occur.
  10. Origin of Castes: The exact origin of caste system remains a matter of surmise. Therefore in spite of the prevalence of a number of theories, no one properly explains it. Some scholars state that caste system has been mentioned in the records of the Indo-Aryans culture for the first time. The Indo-Europeans or Indo-Germans, they unprised the Anglo-Saxons, the Celts, the Romans, the Spanish, the Portuguese and the Iranian among others. It is believed that a branch of these people came to India about 2500 B.C., known as Indo-Aryans.
Changing contexts of caste

The contexts of caste have changed a lot in the last 75 years, transforming its meanings, whether as a system regulating life chances, a mode of political mobilisation, or a form of socio-cultural identity.

Caste today is active in three main ways:

  • First, it is a system that regulates the distribution of material opportunity or life chances, and hence it is a source of enduring inequalities.
  • Second, it remains one of the primary modes of political mobilisation, even though caste politics is now far more disaggregated, complex and uncertain than it used to be.
  • Third, for everyone except a small upper-class, upper-caste elite caste continues to be a form of community offering a sense of kinship, belonging and identity.

A. The Reservation-merit System


  • ‘Reservation’ was a pre-Independence idea emerging from the Poona Pact of 1932 and codified in the Government of India Act of 1935.
  • Intended to be an antidote for caste discrimination rather than a remedy for backwardness.


By the time the Constitution of the new Republic was adopted in January 1950, the idea had changed fundamentally.

  • Abolished caste in principle but did not interfere with its practice.
  • Reservation was now positioned as the exception to the general principle of castelessness and seen as a kind of unearned ‘benefit’ provided by the state to certain castes.
  • The rest of society was seen as the domain of ‘merit’, where privileges were assumed to have been earned through talent and hard work.

Unsurprisingly, the benefits of economic development — in both the state as well as the non-state sectors — have flowed in accordance with the caste hierarchy, with the upper castes getting the lion’s share.

What was the purpose of reservation?

  • Advancement of Scheduled Castes (SC) and the Scheduled Tribes (ST) OR any socially and educationally backward classes of citizens (Eg: OBC) OR economically weaker sections (EWS) – Article 15 (4), Article 15 (5), and Article 15 (6)
  • Adequate representation of any backward class of citizens OR economically weaker sections (EWS) in the services under the State. – Article 16 (4) and Article 16 (6).
  • The objective of providing reservations to the Scheduled Castes (SCs), and Scheduled Tribes (STs) in services is not only to give jobs to some persons belonging to these communities. It basically aims at empowering them and ensuring their participation in the decision-making process of the State.
  • Besides, the state is also keen to end practices such as untouchability. Scheduled Castes (SC) are given 15% quota in jobs/higher educational institutions while Schedule Tribes (ST) are given 7.5% quota in jobs/higher educational institutions.
  • Reservation for Other Backwards Classes (OBC) was introduced based on the Mandal Commission Report (1991). The quota for OBCs is 27% in government jobs and higher educational institutions.

Is reservation still relevant?

  • The places where they are born and live are already divided based on caste. Their towns and villages are divided into “agraharas”, the exclusive settlements for Brahmins; “colonies” or “cherish”, the ghettos for the oppressed; and the rest of the area for the other caste Hindus. Even streets are identified with castes. Merely by looking at a pupil’s address, one can guess his or her caste.
  • In several incidents, if Dalits found burning Holika for the Holika Dahan ceremony, they are tonsured and paraded naked in the villages. Also in some parts of India, there have been allegations that Dalit grooms riding horses for wedding ceremonies have been beaten up and ostracised by upper caste people.
  • Discrimination can also exist in access to healthcare and nutrition. A sample survey of Dalits, conducted over several months in Madhya Pradesh and funded by ActionAid in 2014, found that health field workers did not visit 65 percent of Dalit settlements. 47 percent of Dalits were not allowed entry into ration shops; and 64 percent were given fewer grains than non-Dalits.
  • In Haryana state, 49 percent of Dalit children under five years were underweight and malnourished while 80 percent of those in the 6–59 months age group were anaemic in 2015.
  • A sample survey in 2014, conducted by Dalit Adhikar Abhiyan and funded by ActionAid, found that among state schools in Madhya Pradesh, 88 percent discriminated against Dalit children. In 79 percent of the schools studied, Dalit children are forbidden from touching mid-day meals.
  • There have been incidents and allegations of SC and ST teachers and professors being discriminated against and harassed by authorities, upper castes colleagues, and upper caste students in different education institutes of India.

Reservation has resulted in betterment of marginalised classes but the journey is far from over. Policy measures accelerated the affirmative actions but lot needs to be done for the upliftment. Even today in modern India practices like manual scavenging is a blot on our dream of becoming an egalitarian society. For the real upliftment to happen as Dr Ambedkar said, liberty, equality and fraternity should be guiding our path and vision.

B. The story of caste as a form of political mobilisation

  • Caste politics was first confined to the campaign around untouchability and then strangled by the Poona Pact, which effectively ensured that only Dalit representatives acceptable to the upper castes would be elected.
  • Invocation of caste in public was frowned upon in the Nehru era, and the Congress always downplayed caste issues, even rejecting the First Backward Classes Commission report of 1955.
  • Backward caste politicians began mobilising their caste constituencies in the 1960s. But the “Congress system” confined them to the regional level, leaving the upper castes free to control national politics as they had in the freedom struggle.
  • After decades of consolidation in the States, backward caste politics made a dramatic entry onto the national stage in the 1990s. The Mandal turn not only made caste a national issue; it also shattered the myth of caste-as-exception that the Nehru era had nurtured. But the intervention proved unsustainable — the 1990s were marked by unstable coalition governments.
    • The rise and retreat of lower caste politics at the national level highlights the formidable challenge of aggregating local-regional caste constituencies to capture power at the Centre.
    • This challenge is made more daunting by the increasing internal differentiation within all caste groupings, especially the Other Backward Castes.
    • Another worry is the rapid transformation of the federal structure under the Narendra Modi regime, with the Centre usurping the financial and political powers of the States.

Positive role played by caste-based pressure groups in Indian politics 

  • Deepen Democracy – They provide a vital link between the government and the governed. For example : Harijan Sevak sangh started by Mahatma Gandhi served to provide government services to the backward caste people.
  • Political empowerment – Caste-based assertions and political bargaining power have increased for many backward castes. For example, Justice party in Tamil Nadu and the Scheduled caste federation in Maharashtra have been at the forefront to assert the political rights of Dalits and backward castes which resulted in reservations in assemblies and education.
  • Influence policy decision – Pre-independence PG’s highlighted social issues which led to the constitutional provision of securing equality and justice for the downtrodden. Towards this pursuit, the state came out with affirmative measures like reservation in education and employment. The decision to amend the atrocities act was due to pressure from scheduled caste groups.
  • Achieve constitutional ideals – equality, justice, and dignity. Voice is given to the marginalized sections as they cannot be ignored in the first-past-the-post electoral system. For example, the Bahujan samaj party has evolved from a pressure group to a political party and has focused on uplifting of the backward castes through various social and financial support.
  • Strengthen democracy as these PGs encourage people’s political participation. Help educate groups on their rights and form public opinion on important issues. For example, Patidar association with its agitation has led to invoking participation in the political process which has increased the overall voting percentage in elections.
  • Regional politics origin is also traced to caste-based PG’s which entered into political domain. Ex: AIDMK, BSP. This has made the national political landscape more accommodative of regional aspirations and increased the decentralization of power.

Negative fall outs of the caste groups:

  • Identity politics – Caste-based pressure groups limit the identity of citizens to a particular caste which limits full participation of citizens in the governance system. Further identity politics gives rise to hatred between communities. For example, the mobilisation of upper caste groups in Hathras against the family of the victim of rape belonging to a ‘lower caste’ family.
  • Fissure in society – It may lead to divisions within the society which might be harmful to the overall unity of society and nation altogether. For example the demands of lingayats to create a separate religious sect as a minority.
  • Increased social unrest and social animosity: Identity politics and caste conciseness has led to physical violence as seen in Bhima Koregaon issue, discrimination against Dalits such as obstruction of their entries in temples, and violence against intercaste marriages.
  • Law and order issue with their agitation turning violent. Ex: Jats for reservation, Karni Sena protest against Padmavat. These incidences highlight how caste groups can affect the fundamental rights of other citizens and create a law and order situation which might be detrimental to the public interest.
  • Casteism: This leads to caste groups favoring their own kith and kin rather than supporting people on merit.
  • Political class agreeing to demands under pressure. Ex: reservation for Marathas when they do not meet the criteria of socially-educationally backward class.

Five issues require systematic consideration in the fields of politics, policy and intellectual discussions.

  1. Intra-OBC differentiations: This was already flagged by a member of the Mandal Commission itself and most states have resorted to clumsy arrangements for “most” backward even as the Centre, too, is currently waiting for a report on this question.
  2. Intra-caste stratification is increasing — something that was rather limited at the time of Mandal. What sociologist D L Sheth called as classicisation is now becoming the central issue, with much complication.
  3. The specific advantages and logic of reservation in the three different arenas of employment, education and political representation.
  4. The limits of reservation and the need to think of additional measures to augment the policy of social justice.
  5. The most challenging issue is setting boundaries. In a country where poverty and suffering is the norm, and well-being only a distant dream, how do we distinguish between backwardness primarily caused by a group’s social location in traditional social order and backwardness resulting from distortions of the political economy?

C.Identity-based mobilisation

  • The story of caste as a form of cultural identity has been overtaken recently by the phenomenal rise of Hindutva as a passionate, aggressive and almost pan-Indian form of identity-based mobilisation.
  • Current: A phase of Hindutva which emphasises a shared adversarial identity. This weaponised form of Hindutva would be expected to be the natural enemy of lower-caste politics because of the inevitable tension between horizontal Hindu unity and vertical caste hierarchy.

To be continued…

Mains Practice Question –Caste as a social institution has changed its characteristics in the past two decades; a transformation brought about by caste-based entitlements. Do you agree? Substantiate your views.

Note: Write answers to this question in the comment section.

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