Looking back on the caste system

Markandey Katju

India’s caste system had its roots in race and later developed into an occupational division of labour in tune with the needs of a feudal society. But what lies ahead for it?

The caste system is one of the greatest social evils plaguing India today. It is acting as a powerful social and political divisive force at a time when it is essential for us to stay united in order to face the challenges before our nation. It is a curse that must be speedily eradicated if we wish to progress.

We may consider a few facts to realise how strongly caste is still entrenched in our society:

— Our politics is largely governed by caste vote banks. When the time comes to select candidates for elections, a study is made of the numerical caste distribution in a constituency, because voters in most areas vote on caste lines;

— What to say of illiterate people, even the so-called intellectuals tend to operate on caste lines. Thus, in the elections to many bar associations, lawyers tend to vote for candidates of their caste;

— Many castes want to be declared Other Backward Classes (OBCs) or Scheduled Castes in order to get the benefits of reservation. Even some OBCs strive to be declared the Most Backward Castes (MBCs) or Scheduled Castes;

— Fake caste certificates have become rampant, as is often witnessed in our law courts, to secure jobs, or admission to educational institutions;

— Marriages are still largely performed within one’s caste;

— Violence often occurs between castes, as was noticed in a recent fight between students of different castes in a law college in Chennai, while policemen looked on as silent spectators;

— Even Muslims, Christians and Sikhs often have caste divisions, although their religions preach equality.

We can multiply these facts manifold. Many books and articles have been written on the caste system in India but a scientific study is still to be done. An attempt is made here to explain the origin, development and future of the caste system.


The origin of the caste system was in all probability racial. It is said that caste originated when a white race, the Aryans, coming from the northwestern direction, conquered the dark coloured races inhabiting India at that time, probably 5000 or so years ago.

Some people deny that the Aryans came from outside India and assert that India was their original home (Aryavarta) from where a section of them migrated to Europe. It is difficult to accept this view because people migrate from uncomfortable areas to comfortable areas (see the article ‘Kalidas Ghalib Academy for Mutual Understanding’ in >www.kgfindia.com). Why should anyone have migrated from a comfortable country like India which had level and fertile land ideal for agriculture to a place like Afghanistan or Russia which was cold and mountainous and therefore uncomfortable? Indian history bears out the view that almost all invasions and immigrations were from outside India, mainly from the northwestern direction and to a lesser extent from the northeastern direction, into India.

The caste system is called the varna vyavastha and the word varna in Sanskrit means colour (of the skin). This also points to the racial origin of the caste system. Fair skin colour is usually preferred over darker skin even today, as is evident from many matrimonial advertisements.

Subsequent development

While the caste system thus appears to have racial origins, it subsequently developed an altogether different basis in tune with the needs of the feudal society. In other words, the caste system, though it originated in race, subsequently developed into the feudal, occupational division of labour in society. This needs to be explained in some detail.

In theory there were only four castes: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. This, however, was only a piece of fiction. In reality there were (and still are) hundreds, if not thousands, of castes and sub-castes in India, many of which do not fit into the four traditional castes. For example, there are Yadavs, Kurmis, Jats, Kayasthas, Bhumihars and Gosains. Every vocation became a caste. Thus, in northern India badhai (carpenter) became a caste, as did lohar (blacksmith), sonar (goldsmith), kumbhar (potter), dhobi (washerman), nai (barber), darzi (tailor), kasai (butcher), mallah (fisherman), kewat (boatman), teli (oil presser), kahar (water carrier), and gadadia (sheep herder).

This was not unique to India. For instance, in England even today there are many people with the surnames Taylor, Smith, Goldsmith, Baker, Butcher, Potter, Barber, Mason, Carpenter, Turner, Waterman, Shepherd, and Gardener which indicate that their ancestors followed those professions.

In a feudal society, apart from agriculture the handicraft industry also developed. This happened in India, too, and the caste system became the Indian variation of the feudal occupational division of labour in society, somewhat like the medieval European guild system.

As Adam Smith wrote in The Wealth of Nations, division of labour results in great progress. The caste system in India resulted in great development of the productive forces. Hence in the feudal age it was a progressive institution, as compared to the slave society that preceded it.

It is well known that before the coming of the British, India was one of the world’s most prosperous countries of that time. India was exporting Dacca muslin, Murshidabad silk, Kashmir shawls and carpets, ornaments, and so on, apart from agricultural products such as spices and indigo to the Middle East and even Europe. The discovery of Roman coins in several parts of South India point to a great volume of trade with India, which shows the considerable development of productive forces in feudal India. In fact, India was once a superpower with a 31.5 per cent share in global production, which came down to 3 per cent by 1991.

Destruction of handicraft industry

It is estimated that before the coming of the British to India, about 40 per cent of the population of India was engaged in industry and the rest in agriculture. This industry was no doubt the handicraft industry, not the mill industry. Nevertheless, there was a very high level of production of goods in India by these handicraft industries, and many of these goods were exported to Europe, the Middle East, China and so on.

A rough and ready test of the level of economic development of a country relates to the percentage of the population that is engaged in industry and agriculture respectively. The greater the percentage in industry and the lesser in agriculture the more prosperous a country will be. Thus, the United States, the most prosperous country in the world today, has only about 2 to 3 per cent of its population in agriculture, while the rest is in industry or services.

India was a relatively prosperous country before the coming of the British because a high percentage of the people (which could be up to 40 per cent) was engaged at that time in industry. Thus, Lord Clive around 1757 (the year of the Battle of Plassey) described Murshidabad, then the capital of Bengal, as a city more prosperous than London (Glimpses of World History, Jawaharlal Nehru, Third Impression, Page 416, chapter titled ‘The Indian artisan goes to the wall’).

When the British conquered India, they introduced the products of their mill industry into India and raised export duties on Indian handicraft products exorbitantly. Thus they practically destroyed the handicraft industry in India. The result was that by the end of British rule hardly 10 per cent or even less of the population of India was in the handicraft industry. The rest of those who were earlier engaged in the industry were rendered unemployed. This way those who were employed in the handicraft industry, accounting for about 30 per cent of the population of India, became unemployed. They were driven to starvation, destitution, beggary or crime: the thugs and ‘criminal’ tribes were really these unemployed sections of society. As an English Governor General wrote in 1834, “the bones of the cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India.”

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