Society Reviews

‘Caste as Social Capital’ review: The reality of caste inequalities

After Independence, eradication of caste became an important area of social policy. It was the fond hope that industrialisation and urbanisation would reduce its hold and pave the way for a more egalitarian and just society.

But that didn’t happen. Reputed sociologists like Prof. M.N. Srinivas and Andre Beteille have studied the peculiar nature of caste and its tenacity to persist. Now, rising Hindutva ideology is giving new life to it. There are think-tanks and authors who revisit the caste system and find virtues in it. This book is an attempt to lend support on the basis of later-day theory of social capital.

Complex situation

The author bases his main argument on the premise that caste is not unique to the Hindu system and exists in other religions. Moreover, he says the caste system was not rigid and hierarchical and provided upward mobility to groups. He blames British (colonial) rulers for stratifying the system through their policies and also faults all affirmative efforts that followed. He would rather see caste “as social capital and a modern tool for upward mobility.” Based on dubious data, he says that “...discrimination in opportunities for education existed for millennia is a dangerous misconception that clouds our policies and threatens the real progress of the backward classes.” These arguments remind this reviewer of those who argue against Darwin!

In later chapters, the author develops certain themes on ‘caste and entrepreneurship’ and argues that support comes from caste groups acting as social capital. Indeed, there is an emotional bond and caste is socially binding. It was dominant in a dual economy in the informal sector. Entrepreneurs hailing from particular castes like Gounders, Marwaris, Chettiars, etc. set up industries and inducted caste members as workers. They had informal networks and offered financial or other support to others.

There is a detailed narration of certain clusters as in Tiruppur (hosiery), Sivakasi (crackers) and Surat for diamonds. He also refers to what he characterises as Vaishyavisation of India or the morphing of backward castes into the business class.

By holding such a view, the author overreaches or simplifies the complex reality. Clusters were caste based in the early years. But, with industrialisation, the ownership of clusters has vastly changed. They are not a solution to help millions of downtrodden who lack education and skills to move up the ladder. Further, even clusters are sweat shops, especially of women, and caste does not seem to have played a benevolent role. As David Mosse explains, caste is a complex institution and is a contributor to persisting national socioeconomic and human capital disparities.

A different sphere

The chapter on ‘Caste and politics’ is superficial and does not recognise the role of caste in politics. It builds on the basis of family politics and generalises it across the country. As Beteille explained, caste behaviour is weakening in some ways and we have to turn to a different sphere to understand the tenacity of caste and “that is the sphere of politics.” Post-Mandal, caste groups and parties are aligning to get a share in power to advance their interests. This is in essence a democratic process and the author misses it.

Social capital was once a fashionable idea promoted by the World Bank. In recent years, it has been given up as a lost cause, as there is no accepted definition of social capital or the factors that constitute it. Many authors find it convenient to hang their views on it as a peg like Prof. Vaidyanathan does to defend the caste system.

Caste as Social Capital; R. Vaidyanathan, Westland Books, ₹299.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 4:04:20 PM |

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