Why is caste such a dominant feature of Indian social life? According to Andre Beteille, in his article published in The Hindu (“India'a destiny not caste in stone,” February 21) it is because of electoral politics and the media which keep caste alive. India's constitution may also have played a role. While creating a nation of citizens and citizenship rights it also kept caste alive. Outside of politics many changes, slow but steady, have transformed caste practices and caste consciousness in such areas as inter-dining, inter-caste marriages and caste-based occupations.

That the forces of modernisation are associated with what sociologists call a move from particularistic to universalistic forms of social relations is a generally accepted view and should come as no surprise. We saw this happen in India with the coming of the railways which simply could not provide separate coaches for different castes. So let us grant that the changes Beteille notes are taking place with the caveat that he may be over-stating the case. The fact that the more than three lakh manual scavengers of India are almost exclusively drawn from Dalit communities must provoke some serious thinking about the issue. It would also be interesting to know much inter-dining and how many inter-caste marriages have taken place in the Tamil Nadu village where Beteille did his PhD research some six decades ago.

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The problem with Beteille's argument is that it ignores some critical dimensions of caste that doggedly persist and perhaps underpin some India-specific features of the country's development path. These dimensions are sustained by a material base defined by vastly different control over resources and the means of coercion. These are now deployed, not so much to enforce rules of purity/pollution, but to restrict access to vast numbers of Dalits and Other Backward Classses (OBC) to resources and opportunities old and new. The politics of caste cannot be understood if seen outside this context and delinked from these realities.

Social indicators

A widely noted paradox about India's development can shed some light on the endemic deprivations suffered by the lower castes. Despite its high growth India fares very poorly in almost all measures of social indicators provided by major international and Indian organisations (e.g., the Human Development Index or HDI, the Multiple Poverty Index or MPI, the Global Hunger Index or GHI) in comparison with developing countries at the same or even lower levels of economic growth and per capita GDP. Its low HDI ranking (119 in a list of 169 in 2010 — compared with China's 89) is attributable to its exceptionally low indicators of basic education and health. It ranks particularly low in such measures as Infant Mortality Rates, malnutrition, underweight and stunted children and pregnant women who are underweight and anaemic. Even more scandalous is India's ranking in the GHI with a ranking of 66 out of, below even its south Asian neighbours except Bangladesh; the country is home to the single largest pool of hungry people in the world, 255 million who make up 21 per cent of its population. The MPI provides a similar scenario; 455 million making up 55 per cent of the population, are MPI poor and eight Indian states contain more MPI poor people than 26 of the poorest African countries combined.

Behind these figures are two significant facts about Indian society: first the country has an unusually large underclass, and second, prominently figured in this class are the lower castes (especially the Dalits) and the Scheduled tribes. In all the relevant social indictors the figures are considerably worse (difference of 10 per cent or more) for these groups. For example, while 55 per cent of Indians are MPI poor the figures for SCs and STs are 65.8 and 81.4 respectively. Note also that the worst performing states are generally the ones with high proportions of SCs and STs.

System of violence

The abysmal socio-economic condition of the lower castes is not a random occurrence but is embedded in historically inherited structures that have resisted radical change. India's historical failures — aborted land redistribution, neglected agriculture (except during the Green Revolution period of the1960s-70s) and a soft approach in attacking caste iniquities — have helped to maintain these structures. In this context it is interesting to look at another enigma in India's trajectory, its very poor record in primary education (e.g. in contrast to East Asia) during the same period when it made great strides in scientific, technical and other forms of higher education spawning the now famous Indian middle class. One explanation for this massive failure is that early planners pursued a misguided view that it was the latter forms of education that India needed for rapid economic development. But there is another explanation in which caste figures as a factor. A benign version of this view is that upper caste Indians, following their habits of the hearts, simply did not see the merit of educating the lower castes. A less benign version argues that the project of educating the low castes may have met with resistance from the upper castes who feared that such a project and consequent upward mobility of the lower castes would jeopardise the control and management of their low caste workers, dependents and servants. Having done fieldwork in rural Bihar and observed such dynamics at work, I see some merit in this last argument.

Finally, it is important to note that this structure is maintained not just by ideology and pollution rules but also by considerable violence. It is indeed a system of structural violence manifested by constant threats and periodic outbursts of physical violence employed by land owing upper castes threatened by changes in established relationships and also by the lower castes who dare to resist or retaliate. “Atrocities against Dalits” — ranging from murder, rape and arson to such humiliating practices as parading Dalit women naked in the village and making the victims consume human excreta, are reasonably well documented. India's parliamentarians regarded these as serious enough to enact the “Atrocities against Dalit Act” in 1989. While the effectiveness of the act is disputed, Dalit activists insist that the act cannot be implemented without political pressure from below.

In the wake of recent patterns of economic growth that are further marginalising rural dwellers and agricultural labourers, concerned activists and scholars such as Amartya Sen (whose famous studies on Indian famines have noted the disproportionately high numbers of Dalits victims in Indian famines) have called for the building of “countervailing power” through better political organization of underprivileged groups.

What, then can we make of Beteille's suggestion that caste would simply have disappeared if only it had been kept out of the domains of politics and the media? To be sure, he has an important case about the misuse of caste by self-serving politicians and media persons. But the prescription for depoliticisation of caste is surely a non-starter. Perhaps a better route would be the one traversed by Kerala where the political mobilisation of the lower castes was integrated into broader rational-legal and universalistic forms of organisations across caste, community and religion into modern forms of trade unions and parties.

Yes, we have abolished untouchability, the need today is to abolish the material base of the system that sustained untouchability, now spawning newer forms of discrimination and violence.

(The writer, professor Emeritus of Sociology at Mount St. Vincent University, Halifax, Canada, is currently Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.)

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