One of India’s most distinctive features is its caste system. While there are parallels in other countries and even other caste systems, there is really no comparison with India’s in its rigidity, breadth, and pervasive influence. It’s shaped and dominated Indian life for millennia. It’s also been one of the most persistent axes of social conflict in the subcontinent for the last few generations. This means it’s an important subject to understand for anyone hoping to understand India – and therefore the world.
The caste system dates back to around 1000 BCE, when the Aryan invaders that conquered India classified society in a hierarchy meant to enshrine their dominance and prop up their rule. It can best be thought of as something between class and race: it determines how rich and poor you’re supposed to be, but it also says something about your ethnic background. (There’s a theory that the lower castes originated from the darker-skinned Dravidian peoples the Aryan conquered.) But it’s much more complicated than that.
Caste technically describes 2 different concepts. First, there’s the varna — the social classes defined in the Vedas (Hindu scriptures). These are the Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants), and Shudras (laborers). While the varnas had an important influence on Indian society, their use has faded over the years and they’re not as relevant now. Still, castes are frequently referred to as falling into 1 of these categories.
Caste usually refers to jati, which are almost like ethnic groups. There are thousands of them and they’re scattered all over the subcontinent. Kurmis, Nairs, Baidyas, Vokkaligas, Kalwars, Kammas, Patidars, Khatris, Gurjars, Reddys — there’s even a jati called “Jat.” Some are pervasive while others are very localized. Some are very broad and numerous (these are usually the ones that farm), while others are very narrow and only refer to a specific job. For example, Kayasths are scribes, Marathas are soldiers, Dhobis do laundry, Yadavs herd cows, Pundits are scholars, and Halwais make sweets.
Indians historically did the job their parents did. This is pretty normal, considering that this is how skills are passed on everywhere. But in India, the caste system practically locked families into performing their assigned jobs. There might be some wiggle room — you could switch between construction, farming, or herding, for example — but good luck trying to do a job in a higher caste bracket. The caste system was given religious sanction and helped make Indian society predictable, orderly and well-organized.
Caste also bred vicious discrimination and prejudice. Lower castes were generally treated as mindless minions that did dirty work. Mistreating them was punished lightly, while mistreating a Brahmin was sacrilegious. It was similar to other repressive feudal systems, but… then there are the Untouchables. Untouchables are ranked so low, they’re technically not part of the caste system at all (they’re “out-castes”). Untouchables do really degrading work, like cleaning out poop, sweeping the streets, or tanning cow hides. As a result of their dirty work, they couldn’t be touched — hence the name. Depending on the region, they also weren’t allowed to drink from cups, wear shirts, look upper-castes in the eye, sit in chairs, or go into temples. In the most extreme cases, they had to yell in public so upper castes could get away before they were seen, or sleep with upper castes on their own wedding nights. (Wedding to other Untouchables, of course.) All of this was justified by religion; Untouchables and lower castes were considered spiritually polluting, and their status was earned through bad karma in previous lives. Want a higher status? Be pious and virtuous and you’ll be reincarnated as someone better-off.
This system gave Indian society great stability and predictability, and it obviously suited the upper castes just fine. Everyone knew who to turn to when they needed something done, and all that accumulated knowledge over generations created almost irresistible pressure to go along with the flow. It also guaranteed a steady supply of people to do gross stuff like cremating corpses. But it was also deeply cruel and unfair and couldn’t survive intact into modern times.
When the British colonized India, like previous conquerors, they maintained the caste system and used it to their own ends — they knew who would be most likely to make a good soldier and who would be more likely to rob travelers. They employed upper castes, who already knew how to read, in their civil service. But they were also shocked at its more shameful inequalities and prejudice. Indians began to realize how strange their system was in a global context, and the ones who lost in the caste lottery were attracted to principles of equality, fair opportunity, and universal education.
This meant that alongside the national movement for Indian independence, a movement to eradicate caste prejudice also developed. It was led by Bhimrao Ambedkar, an Untouchable who managed to distinguish himself as a formidable lawyer despite his background. (Studying in foreign universities helped.) Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s Founding Father, was also committed to fighting the caste system and creating a more equal society, so he tasked Ambedkar with writing India’s constitution — a stunning achievement for a country with caste prejudice that deeply embedded into it. Unsurprisingly, Ambedkar guaranteed government jobs for Untouchables in the document.
Ambedkar’s movement — which was taken up by Jagjivan Ram after Ambedkar’s death in 1956 — helped do away with the more egregious anti-Untouchable practices and made it more acceptable and normal for Untouchables to hold high positions in Indian society. The very fact that an Untouchable framed the constitution signaled to the world (and India itself) that the new nation would be committed to equality and progress. But old habits died hard, and Ambedkar’s movement opened up new rifts in Indian politics. Upper castes fought back hard against what they saw as outcastes infringing on their turf. It just made Untouchables more militant and well-organized in retaliation. Outbreaks of violence and caste riots became commonplace in rural areas (and sometimes urban areas too). At the end of his life, Ambedkar became so disgusted with Hinduism that he gave up on it altogether, converting to Buddhism and convincing thousands of his community to do the same. In deeply Hindu India, this just made Untouchables the target of religious persecution on top of caste persecution.
The next big milestone in caste history came in 1990. As guaranteed government positions increased the visibility and self-confidence of Untouchables, lower castes also became more prominent in Indian society as they came to dominate the countryside, taking advantage of a shift towards cities of the old upper-caste elite. A government report in the 1970s called the Mandal Commission recommended setting aside positions for lower castes as well. Although it was shelved in the ’80s by a new government from an opposing party, the report was implemented in 1990. Its effect on Indian society was to churn it up even more.
Although the new rules only affected less than 50% of government jobs (and university positions), lower castes (officially called “Other Backward Classes”) make up a much bigger part of Indian society than Untouchables. This policy of increased “reservation” stimulated the growth of caste consciousness and political parties organized along caste lines. It also prompted a backlash from upper castes increasingly dismayed at how hard it was for them to get jobs. They did better in school; that meant there was now fierce competition for fewer positions. They resented poorer people getting jobs and places in top schools without having to work as hard for them (at least theoretically).
Although caste conflict has sometimes been overshadowed or subsumed by India’s religious conflict, it’s been a persistent feature of Indian politics since the Mandal Commission. As I noted earlier, it’s especially acute in northern Indian states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where ongoing caste discrimination has kept the area poor and underdeveloped. With the prominence of lower-caste leaders like Mulayam Singh Yadav (in Uttar Pradesh) and Lalu Prasad Yadav (in Bihar), the lower castes have gained a sense of common identity across jati lines. Despite violent reprisals from the upper castes, it’s become commonplace for lower castes to appear in elite settings, whether on the farm, in companies, or in government ministries. Narendra Modi, India’s current prime minister, is lower-caste (his father sold tea).
Untouchables have continued to make gains too. Now officially called Dalits (“the oppressed”), they remain organized and visible in Indian society. A Dalit woman, Mayawati Prabhu Das, has been chief minister of Uttar Pradesh — the head of the state, in other words — 4 times since 1995. Ambedkar is revered as a national hero, with statues and place names all over the country. Discrimination against them has decreased and is punished more rigorously.
But of course, discrimination still exists. In rural areas and the north especially, caste distinction is deeply ingrained in society; caste-based violence is common, and police routinely ignore discrimination (or even enforce it). Far from blurring rigid caste lines, reservations have only sharpened them. The politicization of caste means that politicians often work for the benefit of their own caste only; as my Bihar post made clear, caste-based politics didn’t push Bihar very far ahead in development or the national economy.
In the cities, caste is often lost in the melting pot of migrants from different parts of the region or even country; communities are often much younger and therefore lack the long traditions of discrimination in rural areas. But discrimination persists there too; marriage rarely occurs between castes, and most people only mingle with members of their own caste. In the private sector and upper echelons of government, upper castes continue to dominate. Petty prejudice is still common.
Caste can have deep psychological effects. In a society where you are regularly told that you can never amount to anything, that all you’re good for is cleaning the sewers, it can be hard to be motivated to stay in school, because what’s the point? Alternatively, if you’re expected to get a good job and earn lots of money, there is intense social pressure to do well and study hard. The idea that a particular job or status is your lot in life is hard to shake. The American political scientist Myron Weiner even suggested that India’s chronic education deficiencies stem from its caste system: why bother educating the masses, if they’re supposed to do menial labor only?
Lest you might think that caste is rigid and strictly defined, there is a lot of disagreement in India of which jati fits into which varna, and therefore who counts as low-caste or upper-caste. Government classification tends to rely on British surveys from a hundred years ago, but caste status has shifted since then. The rise of the lower castes several decades ago has shuffled the hierarchy a bit. Caste definitions are in flux. This has led some to argue that their caste is actually OBC (low) and therefore eligible for reservation; economic security is more important now than social status. Last year the Patidar caste in Gujarat protested for OBC status; this year Jats rioted in Dilli, the national capital, and Hariyana, its surrounding state, over the same issue.
In some ways the caste issue is similar to race in other countries. Both systems are deeply entrenched in society and hard to shake off. Discrimination in both cases is banned, although government efforts to allocate jobs for the oppressed category perpetuates divides. Both issues are highly emotional and distract people from more pressing problems; both also perpetuate economic inequality. Some Dalit leaders have even taken inspiration from black civil rights movements. The main difference is that you can’t always tell what someone’s caste is just by looking at them; caste’s religious foundations are also unique. Caste is also almost irrelevant beyond India; you’re supposed to “lose your caste” when you travel overseas, and the Indian diaspora rarely cares about caste or discriminates based on it.
Caste is an enduring part of life in India. Love it or hate it, it won’t go away just because the government and urban elite want it to. In some ways its regulation and order offer comfort in a turbulent world. But for the most part it’s considered a stifling, outdated and deeply unfair system. Continued embarrassment on the world stage and continued pressure from Dalits and lower castes will mean the government will keep fighting against caste discrimination; at the same time, the politicization of caste and its deep roots in Hindu society will mean it will persist. Again much like race, how India is doing on the caste issue depends a lot on whom you ask; upper castes tend to be optimistic, lower castes and Untouchables less so. But the advances since independence offer hope. Take the southern coastal state of Kerala, for instance: in the 1930s it was considered one of the most deeply unequal and barbaric parts of the colony. Now its egalitarianism and social harmony is looked at as a model for the rest of India.