Those who try to keep up with discussions on current affairs in the newspapers and on television may be forgiven if they conclude that caste is India's destiny. If there is one thing the experts in the media who comment on political matters have in common, it is their preoccupation with caste and the part it plays in electoral politics.
Many are now coming to believe that, despite the undeniable demographic, technological and economic changes taking place in the country, the division into castes and communities remains the ineluctable and ineradicable feature of Indian society. They also believe that to ignore those divisions or to draw attention to other divisions such as those of income, education and occupation is to turn our backs on the ground reality. The more radical among them add that ignoring those realities amounts to an evasion of the political responsibility of redistributing the benefits and burdens of society in a more just and equitable manner.
Does nothing change in India? A great many things have in fact changed in the last 60 years both in our political perceptions and in the social reality. The leaders of the nationalist movement who successfully fought for India's freedom from colonial rule believed that India may have been a society of castes and communities in the past but would become a nation of citizens with the adoption of a new republican constitution. They were too optimistic. The Constitution did create rights for the citizen, but it did not eradicate caste from the hearts and minds of the citizens it created. For many Indians, and perhaps the majority, the habits of the heart are still the habits of a hierarchical society.
Universal adult franchise opened up new possibilities for mobilising electoral support on the basis of caste and thus prevented the consciousness of caste from dying down. Democracy was expected to efface the distinctions of caste, but its consequences have been very different from what was expected. Politics is no doubt an important part of a nation's life in a democracy, but it is not the only part of it. There are other areas of life in which the consciousness of caste has been dying down, though not very rapidly or dramatically. The trends of change which I will now examine do not catch the attention of the media because they happen over long stretches of time, in slow motion as it were. They are not noticeable from month to month or even year to year but across two or more generations.
Let us start with the ritual opposition of purity and pollution which was a cornerstone of the hierarchical structure of caste. The rules of purity and pollution served to mark the distinctions and gradations among castes and sub-castes. Characteristic among them were those relating to commensality or inter-dining. They determined who could sit together at a meal with whom, and who could accept food and water from whom. Only castes of equivalent rank could inter-dine with each other. In general people accepted cooked food and water from the hands of their superiors, but not their inferiors.
The ritual rules governing food transactions were rigid and elaborate until a hundred years ago. Nobody can deny that there has been a steady erosion of those rules. Modern conditions of life and work have rendered many of them obsolete. The excesses of the rules of purity and pollution have now come to be treated with ridicule and mockery among educated people in metropolitan cities like Kolkata and Delhi. It is impossible to maintain such rules in a college canteen or an office lunch room. To insist on seating people according to their caste on a public occasion would cause a scandal today.
In the past, restrictions on inter-dining were closely related to restrictions on marriage according to the rules of caste. The restrictions on marriage have not disappeared, but they have eased to some extent. Among Hindus, the law imposed restrictions on inter-caste marriage. The law has changed, but the custom of marrying within the caste is still widely observed. However, what is happening is that other considerations such as those of education and income are also kept in mind in arranging a match. At any rate, it will be difficult to argue that caste consciousness in matrimonial matters has been on the rise in recent decades.
In politics, the media
There continues to be a general association between caste and occupation to the extent that the lowest castes are largely concentrated in the menial and low-paying jobs whereas the higher castes tend to be in the best-paid and most esteemed ones. But the association between caste and occupation is now more flexible than it was in the traditional economy of land and grain. Rapid economic growth and the expansion of the middle class are accompanied by new opportunities for individual mobility which further loosens the association between caste and occupation.
If, in spite of all this, caste is maintaining or even strengthening its hold over the public consciousness, there has to be a reason for it. That reason is to be found in the domain of organised politics. Caste had entered the political arena even before independence, particularly in peninsular India. But the adoption of universal adult franchise after independence altered the character and scope of the involvement of caste in the political process.
The consciousness of caste is brought to the fore at the time of elections. Elections to the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabhas are now held all the year round. For logistical and other reasons, elections to even the Vidhan Sabhas may be stretched out over several weeks. There are by-elections in addition to the general elections. Election campaigns have become increasingly spectacular and increasingly costly, and they often create the atmosphere of a carnival. The mobilisation of electoral support on the basis of caste is a complex phenomenon whose outcome gives scope for endless speculation.
Even though for the country as a whole the election season never really comes to an end, the individual voter participates in the electoral process only occasionally and sporadically. The average villager devotes far more thought and time to home, work and worship than to electoral matters. It is well known that the voter turnout among urban professional Indians is low. But even when they do not participate in the elections to the extent of visiting their local polling booths, they participate in them vicariously by following on television what happens in the outside world. Television provides a large dose of entertainment along with a modicum of political education.
Private television channels have created a whole world in which their anchors and the experts who are regularly at their disposal vie with each other to bring out the significance of the “caste factor,” meaning the rivalries and alliances among castes, sub-castes and groups of castes by commentators who, for the most part, have little understanding of, or interest in, long-term trends of change in the country. These discussions create the illusion that caste is an unalterable feature of Indian society. It will be a pity if we allow what goes on in the media to reinforce the consciousness of caste and to persuade us that caste is India's destiny.
( The writer is Professor Emeritus of sociology, Delhi University, and National Research Professor; the illustration is from Seventy Two Specimens of Castes in India, General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University .)
Outside politics, there are other areas
of life in which caste consciousness has been dying down.