Caste and the Secularisation

Process in India

D. L. Shet


[Contemporary India: Transitions, ed. Peter Ronald de Souza, New Delhi, Sage / Lisboa, Fundação Oriente, 2000, pp. 237-261.]




India has the world’s most complex and unique system of social stratification, the ‘caste system’. In existence for thousands of years, the caste system got its name about five hundred years ago when the Portuguese landed on the Malabar coast and began to directly experience Indian society. Derived from casta in Portu­guese, the term caste has since been used generically to describe the whole (varna-jati) system, as well as specifically to refer to its various orders and the different units within an order. The Portu­guese ‘discovery’ of caste, however, went much beyond giving a name to India’s varna-jati system. They were the first Europeans to provide detailed accounts of its functioning. The most perceptive empirical account of caste was given by the l6th-century Portu­guese visitor Duarte Barbosa. He identified the main features of the caste system: (a) as a hierarchy, with Brahmins at the top and ‘untouchables’ at the bottom; (b) as the practice of untouchability premised on the idea of ‘pollution’; (c) as the existence of a plurality of ‘castes’ separated from each other by endogamy, occupation and commensality; (d) as a system in which sanctions are applied to maintain customs and rules; and (e) as a relationship of caste with political organisation.

Although Barbosa did not provide a ‘systematic’ account, the elements of caste he identified remain central to any definition even today. Moreover, Barbosa’s approach to reporting about caste had some distinctive qualities. First, he described caste as he saw it functioning on the ground. He got his facts by talking not just to the elites, but to common people in their own language. Second, he did not use the religious scriptures as a source of information on caste. There is no reference to the varna theory of caste in his narratives. Third, he related the idea of pollution to the practice of untouchability and not to the functioning of the whole system. Fourth, he saw caste not exclusively in ritual-status terms, but also as a plurality of ‘self-governing’ cultural communities. Fifth, he confined himself to a matter-of-fact account of what he saw and was told about caste, and refrained from moralising and passing value judgements on it (Cohn 1987: 139-40).


The Colonial Discourse


Nothing much of significance was added nor any improvement made to Barbosa’s account for the next 250 years by his European successors reporting on caste. It was only after British rule was established in India that a second ‘discovery’ of caste was made by the Europeans. The western orientalist scholars, the Christian missionaries and the British administrators began, in their different ways, to make sense of this complex phenomenon. A new colonial discourse on caste was born It marked important departures from pre-colonial accounts of caste.

First of all, the new discourse centred on whether caste was a system beneficial to Indians or whether it worked against them. The orientalist scholars viewed caste as serving some positive functions, whereas the missionaries saw it as an unmitigated evil. Second, both its sympathisers and opponents saw caste in highly schematised and unidimensional terms: as an inflexible hierarchy of vertically ranked ritual statuses. The idea of pollution, which Barbosa saw in the context of untouchability, was now generalised for the whole system, in which the idea of ritual purity and im­purity of statuses was considered the central principle governing the caste system. The reality of caste was reconstructed largely from its depiction in the religious scriptures. In the event, Barbosa’s empirical view of caste was now superimposed by the scriptural (ideological) varna view of caste. Third, with the ‘discovery’ of Hindu scriptures by orientalist scholars, caste became a prism through which colonial rulers began to see Indians and the whole of Indian society. Caste was now seen as representing the world­view of Indians and the totality of India’s social and cultural life. Certain non-ritual, even non-religious elements, which always existed in the caste system and informed quite a few aspects of inter-caste relations, were theoretically ruled out of the system.

Fourth, in the course of setting up its revenue administration, a number of land and village surveys were launched by the colonial regime in different regions of India. This focused the attention of revenue administrators, many of whom were anthropologically inclined scholars, on the Indian village — which was also a revenue unit. This focus developed into a view of the village as a microcosm of the Indian society, and caste as constituting its social, economic and political organisation, legitimised by its religious ideology. In this village view, caste was seen as an ensemble of local hierarchies, each contained within a village or a group of villages. This view contributed to the image of the village as a stable, unchanging social system. In the later ethnographic studies of caste carried out by Indian sociologists, the varna theory was discarded, but caste continued to be seen as a vertical hierarchy of ritual statuses embedded in the religious and cultural context of the village.

Fifth, the administrative and anthropological concerns of the British officers led them to counter both the orientalist and the missionary views of caste. Their concern was utilitarian, about finding administrative and political ways to tame and change this formidable system functioning from ancient times, to suit the needs of the colonial polity and economy. This concern of the colonialists prompted an ideological debate on caste. The debate achieved a degree of political sophistication which was not shown earlier either by the orientalists in their appreciation, or the missionaries in their condemnation, of the caste system. It introduced a new, theoretical-comparative dimension for viewing caste. Caste now began to be seen in comparison with the normative (values of equality, individualism etc.) and social (estate, race, class etc.) categories of western societies. Eventually, with English-educated nationalist Indians joining the debate on the terms set by the colo­nial regime, caste became a bone of contention between conser­vatives and progressives, traditionalists and reformers. Valuation became the mode of observation.

Sixth, the method British administrators adopted in reporting about caste, unlike that of the orientalist scholars, was ‘empirical’. They saw the caste system not only in terms of the varna categories, but also as separate communities often divided by descent, political organisation and custom. Consequently they theorised caste in terms of its racial and tribal origins and character. In fact, multiple and elaborate systems of classification of castes were evolved by them based on a variety of ethnographic materials, officially obtained through various village and caste surveys (Cohn 1987: 141 -62).

Seventh, crucial to the colonial discourse was the relationship between caste and the state. From the 1901 Census, the colonial state began caste-wise enumeration of the entire Indian population. The decennial censuses not only updated the population figures for each enumerated caste, but gave it a specific name/ label and a rank. In doing so, the census officers tended to rely on their ‘read­ing’ of the scriptures as well as on local knowledge and practice. But when a name and/or a rank given to a caste was in dispute —and this happened frequently—the census officer’s ‘anthropo­logical’ judgement, albeit tempered by representations received from leaders of concerned castes, prevailed. Thus, despite the diversity of the debate, at the end of the day the criterion of ‘social precedence of one caste over the other’, meaning the scriptural principle of ritual-status hierarchy, was explicitly and officially recognised.

The colonial state, thus, acquired an agency, even a legitimate authority, to arbitrate and fix the status claims made or contested by various castes about their locations in the ritual hierarchy. At the same time, the enumeration of castes and their ethnographic descriptions compiled by the state highlighted how social and economic advantages accrued to some castes and not to others in the traditional hierarchy. This led to demands from many castes for special ‘recognition’ by the state for educational and occu­pational benefits as well as for political representation. The colonial state assumed a dual role: that of a super-Bralnnin who located and relocated disputed statuses of castes in the traditional hierarchy, and that of a just and modern ruler who wished to ‘recog­nise’ the rights and aspirations of his weak and poor subjects. This helped the state to protect its colonial political economy from the incursions of the emerging nationalist movement. Among other things, it also induced people to organise and represent their in­terests in politics in terms of caste identities and participate in the economy on the terms and through mechanisms set by the colonial regime.

On the whole, the colonial regime not only introduced new terms of discourse on caste, but also brought about some changes in the caste system itself. A large part of these changes, however, were the unintended consequences of colonial policies. They were related to the larger historical forces of modernisation, secularisation and urbanisation, which had begun to make some impact on Indian society by the end of the l9th and the beginning of the 2Oth century. But some specific policies of the colonial regime, aimed at delegiti­mising the power of the traditional social elites and creating sup­port for its own rule, had direct consequences for the caste system. Towards the end of colonial rule such policies, alongside the larger historical forces, had produced some profound and far-reaching changes in the caste system.

The most important among these changes was the formation of a new, trans-local identity among ‘lower castes’, collectively, as a people with the consciousness of being ‘oppressed’ by the traditional system of hierarchy. The discourse of rights, until then quite alien to the concepts governing ritual hierarchy, made its first appear­ance in the context of the caste system. New ideological categories like ‘social justice’ began to interrogate the idea of ritual purity and impuritv, according to which the traditional stratificatory system endowed entitlements and disprivileges to hereditary statuses. The established categories of ritual hierarchy began to be confronted with new categories like ‘depressed’ and ‘oppressed’ castes. Second, several castes occupying more or less similar locations in dif­ferent local hierarchies began to organise themselves horizontally into regional- and national-level associations and federations, as it became increasingly necessary for them to negotiate with the state and iii the process project their larger social identity and nu­merical strength. Third, movements of the lower castes for upward social mobility, which were not new in the history of the caste system, acquired a qualitatively new dimension as they began to attack the very ideological foundations of the ritual hierarchy of castes, not in terms internal to the system (as was the case with the Buddhist and Bhakti movements), but in the modern ideological terms of justice and equality.

Changes that occurred in the caste system during the colonial period have greatly intensified after India’s decolonisation. Fur­ther, with India establishing a liberal democratic state and with the growth of institutions of competitive, representational democracy, the changes acquired newer dimensions and a greater transfor­mative edge. All this has produced fundamental structural and systemic changes in the traditional stratificatory system.

Despite the fact that such qualitative changes had occurred in the stratificatory system after India’s independence, the changes continued to be interpreted in the old colonial ideological-evaluative frame. The terms and categories used for describing these changes —by sociologists studying caste as well as by social reformers and political thinkers wanting India to become a casteless society —were derived from the colonial discourse. This gave rise to two opposite views of change in the caste system, which in fact re­presented mirror-images of each other. One view, that has long dominated studies of caste m post-independence India, emphasises certain structural and cultural continuities that Indian society has manifested in the course of modernisation. In this view, changes in caste are seen in terms of functional adjustments made by the system for its own survival and maintenance. The other view, that dominated the political-ideological discourse on caste until re­cently, sees modernisation as a linear, universal force of history, transforming the caste system into a polarised structure of economic classes. On the whole, the discourse on caste in post-­independence India remained bogged down in the dichotomous debate on ‘tradition versus modernity’ and ‘caste versus class’.



Secularisation of Caste


The dichotomous view of change has prevented scholars, policy-­makers and political activists alike from taking a view of the process by which caste has changed and by which a new type of strati­ficatory system has emerged. This process, which can broadly be characterised as secularisation of caste, has detached caste from ritual-status hierarchy on the one hand, and has imparted to it the character of a power-group functioning within a competitive demo­cratic politics on the other. Changes in caste thus may be observed along these two dimensions of secularisation: de-ritualisation and politicisation. These changes have (a) pushed caste out of the trad­itional stratificatory system; (b) linked it to the new structure of representational power; and (c) made it possible, in their cumula­tive impact, for individual members of a caste to claim and achieve new economic interest and a class-like identity. Thus, secularisation of caste, brought about through its de-ritualisation and politic­isation, has opened up a third course of change. For lack of a more appropriate term 1 shall call it classisation. In the following sections 1 shall describe these three processes of change in caste and shall examine their implications for the emergence of a new type of stratificatory system in India.





Caste has been conventionally conceived of as an insulated system of ritual-status hierarchy, embedded in the ‘perennial’ religious culture of India. Rituality (meaning the rootedness of caste be­haviour and organisation in religious ideology and practices) is supposed to constitute the core of the whole system of castes; it has enabled caste to maintain autonomy and stability of status­ hierarchy in the face of changes, both economic and political, that occur in the wider society. Caste ‘accommodated’ these changes only to the extent that the system could absorb them without losing its structural and cultural integrity. In responding to these changes, caste may find ‘new fields of activity’ or assume new functions, but all this to retain its basic structure and ideological (religious) core. Such insularity of the caste system is guaranteed because it is bounded by certain contexts — ambiences — each articulating a form of rituality. These contexts pertain to: (a) the religious ideology of purity and pollution; (b) the religiously sanctioned techno­economic and political organisation of the village, especially its food production and distribution system; and (c) the customs and traditions of castes evolved over centuries. Caste has not only sur­vived in these contexts, but has grown and acquired its systemic character within them. They have provided caste with its ‘support system’.

In what follows, 1 argue that the changes that have occurred in caste, especially after India’s decolonisation, amount to de­ritualisation of caste — meaning the delinking of caste from various forms of rituality which bounded it to a fixed status, an occupation, and specific rules of commensality and endogamy. 1 further argue that, with the loss of rituality, a large part of the ‘support system’ of caste has collapsed. Uprooted from its ritually determined ideo­logical, economic and political contexts, it has ceased to be a unit of the ritual-status hierarchy. Caste now survives as a kinship-­based cultural community, and operates in a different, newly emer­gent system of social stratification.

First, the modernisation of India’s economy and the demo­cratisation of its political institutions have released new economic and political power in the society. The hierarchically ordered strata of castes now function as horizontal groups competing for power and control over resources in society. Alongside this change in organisational structure, meaning horizontalisation, the form that consciousness takes has also changed. The feeling of belonging to a caste is now expressed more m the nature of comrnunity conscious­ness rather than in hierarchical terms. Caste consciousness is now articulated as the political consciousness of groups staking claims to power and to new places in the changed opportunity structure. It is a different kind of collective consciousness from that of belong­ing to a ‘high’ or a ‘low’ ritual-status group. The rise of such con­sciousness of castes has led to a disruption of hierarchical relations and to increase in competition and conflict among them. Far from strengthening the caste system, the emergent competitive character of ‘caste consciousness’ has contributed to its systemic disinte­gration. The disintegrating system of traditional statuses is now thickly overlaid by the new power system created by elections, political parties and above all by the social policies — such as that of affirmative action — of the state.

Second, fundamental changes have occurred in the occupa­tional structure of the society. A vast number of non-traditional, unbound-to-caste occupations and a new type of social relations among occupational groups have emerged. This has resulted in breaking down the nexus between hereditary ritual status and occupation—one of the caste system’s defining features. It is no longer necessary to justify one’s occupation in terms of its cor­relation with the ritual purity or impurity of one’s inherited status. The traditional, ritualistic idea of the cleanliness or otherwise of the occupation one follows has become unimportant. The crucial consideration now is activity that brings a good income to the indi­vidual. If a Brahmin deals in leather, or an ex-untouchable deals in diamonds, it is no longer looked upon as socially deviant behav­iour. That the former is a more frequent occurrence than the latter has only to do with the resources at one’s command, and not with observance of ritual prohibitions attached to the statuses involved. More importantly, the cleanliness or otherwise of an occupation is increasingly seen in the physical and biological sense rather than in ritual or moral terms.

Third, significant internal differentiations have taken place within every caste. Traditionally, an individual caste bounded by rituals and customs functioned internally as a truly egalitarian communitv, both in terms of rights and obligations of members vis-à-vis each other, and in terms of lifestyles, meaning the food they ate, the clothes they wore, the houses they lived in, etc. Dif­ferences in wealth and status (of clans) that existed among house­holds within the same caste were expressed on such occasions as weddings and funerals, but rarely in power terms vis-à-vis other members of the caste. Today, households within a single caste have not only been greatly differentiated in terms of their occupations, educational and income levels, and lifestyles, but these differences have led them to align with different socio-economic networks and groupings in the society—categories which cannot be identi­fied in terms of the caste system.

Fourth, the caste rules of commensality (restrictions on accepting cooked food from members of other castes) have become inoper­ative outside one’s household. Even within the household, observ­ance of such rules has become quite relaxed. In ‘caste dinners’, for example, friends and well-wishers of the host, belonging to both ritually lower as well as higher strata than that of the host, are in­vited, and are seated, fed and served together with the members of the caste hosting the dinner. Caste panchayats, where they exist, show increasingly less concern about invoking any sanctions in such situations.

Fifth, castes which occupied similar ritual status in the traditional hierarchy, but were divided among themselves into sub-castes and sub-sub-castes by rules of endogamy, are now increasingly reach­ing out into larger endogamous circles, in some cases their bound­aries co-terminating with those of the respective varna in the region to which they supposedly belong. More importantly, inter-caste marriages across different ritual strata, often even crossing the self­-acknowledged varna boundaries, are no longer very uncommon. Such marriage alliances are frequently made by matching edu­cation, profession and the wealth of brides and grooms and/or their parents, ignoring traditional differences in ritual status among them. Significantly, such inter-caste marriages are often arranged by the parents or approved by them when arranged by the pros­pective spouses on their own. The only ‘traditional’ consideration that enters into such cases is the vegetarian/meat-eating divide, which is also becoming somewhat fuzzy. Although statistically the incidence of such inter-caste marriages is not significant, the trend they represent is. A more important point is that the mechan­isms through which castes enforced rules of endogamy have weakened in many castes.

The ideology and organisation of the traditional caste system have thus become vastly eroded. Its description as a system of ritual-status hierarchy has lost theoretical meaning. As may be expected, such erosion has taken place to a much greater extent and degree in the urban areas and at the macro-system level of social stratification. But the local hierarchies of castes in rural areas are also being progressively subjected to the same process. In the villages, too, traditional social relationships are being redefined in economic terms. This is largely because in the last three decades, particularly after the Green Revolution and with the increasing role of the state and other outside agencies in the food production and distribution system in rural areas, the social organisation of the village has changed substantively. From the kind of social-­religious system the Indian village was, it is increasingly becoming primarily an economic organisation. The priestly, trading and service castes—social groups not directly related to agricultural operations are leaving villages or serving them, if and when such services are still required, from nearby towns. Members of such castes continuing to live in the villages have largely moved out of the ‘village system’ of economic and social interdependence of castes. They increasingly function in the emergent national market­ related rural economy or the secondary and tertiary sectors of employment.

In this process, many a caste has structurally severed its relation­ship with the system of ritual obligations and rights which once governed its economic and social existence and gave it an identity in terms of its status in the ritual hierarchy. Inter-caste relations in the village today operate m a more simplified form, as between castes of landholders/operators and those of the landless labour. This relationship is often articulated in terms of the political con­sciousness of two groups of castes representing different economic interests in the changed political economy of the village.

The socio-religious content of economic relationships m the village has thus largely disappeared; they have become more con­tractual and almost totally monetised. The traditional jajmani relationships, which regulated economic transactions between castes in social-ritual terms, have been replaced by relationships of employer and employee, of capital and wage labour. When the traditional social and religious aspects of economic relationships are insisted upon by an caste, such as traditional obligations of one status group to another, it often leads to inter-caste conflicts and violence in the villages. Briefly, the pattern of social relations sustained by the internal system of food production of a village, and by conformity of status groups to their religiously assigned roles in the system and to norms defining the roles, has virtually disintegrated.

In sum, while castes survive as micro-communities based on kinship sentiments and relationships, they no longer relate to each other as ‘units’ of a ritual hierarchy. The caste system, for long con­ceived as a ritual-status system, has imploded. Having failed to cope with the changes that have occurred in the larger society, particularly after India’s decolonisation, the caste system is unable to maintain itself on the basis of its own principle of ritual hier­archy. It cannot sustain vertical linkages of interdependence and co-operation among its constituent units, nor can it enforce its own rules governing obligations and privileges of castes vis-à-vis each other.

In the few specific contexts where ritual relationships between castes still survive, they have acquired contractual, often conflictual forms, negating the system’s hierarchical aspect. Ritual roles which members of some castes (like the role of a priest or a barber) still perform have been reduced to those of functionaries called upon to do a job for payment on specific occasions (weddings, deaths etc.). Performance of such roles/functions by a few members of a caste, however, has no relevance for determining its place in the changed stratificatory system. Such roles, it seems, now survive outside the stratificatory system, as a part of Hindu religious prac­tices. But such phenomenal changes have occurred in Hinduism itself in recent years that inter-caste relations can no longer be viewed as constitutive of a ritually determined religious practice. The growth in popularity of new sects, of deities and shrines, the growing importance of gurus and godmen and the new practice of public celebrations of Hindu religious festivals on a much wider social and geographical scale, involving participation of members of a number of castes across ritual hierarchy and regions, have all shored up the popular-cultural and political aspects of Hinduism. These have considerably weakened the traditional ritual and social organisational aspects of Hinduism. In this process, inter-caste re­lations have not only lost systemic context, but also to a large extent their religious reference. Castes now negotiate their status claims in the newly emergent stratificatory system.

The simultaneous processes of detachment of castes from ritual hierarchy and the growth, albeit in varying degrees, of economic, social and cultural differentiations within every caste have resulted in castes entering into various new, larger social-political forma­tions which have emerged in India’s changing stratificatory system. As we shall see in the next section, each of these formations grew in the process of politicisation of castes, and has acquired a new form of collective consciousness, a consciousness different from that of a ritual-status group. Yet, the new consciousness is not of a ‘class’ as in a polarised class structure. This consciousness is based on the perception of common political interest and modern status aspirations on the part of the members of these new formations. in this process, the unitary consciousness of individual castes has diffused into an expanded consciousness of belonging to a larger social-political formation, which cannot be described as a ‘caste’ or ‘class’.


Politicisation of Castes


For about two decades after independence, the political discourse on caste was dominated by left-radical parties and liberal-­modernist intellectuals who viewed, rather simplistically, the changes in the caste system in linear terms—as suggestive of its transformation into a system of polarised economic classes. In so believing, they ignored the fact that while caste had lost its signi­ficance as a ritual-status group it survived as a ‘community’, seek­ing alliances with other similar communities with whom it shared political interest and consciousness. Consequently, political parties of the left, both the communist and the socialist, by and large sought to articulate political issues and devise strategies of mobilising electoral support in terms of economic interests, which in their view divided the social classes in India. in the event, although these parties could credibly claim to represent the poorer strata and even occupied some significant political spaces in opposition to the Congress party at the time of independence, they failed to expand their electoral support in any significant measure for de­cades after independence.

Put simply, competitive politics required that a political party seeking wider electoral bases must view castes neither as a pure category of ‘interest’ nor as one of ‘identity’. The involvement of castes in politics fused ‘interest’ and ‘identity’ in such a manner that a number of castes could share common interests and identity in the form of larger social-political conglomerates. The process was one of politicisation of castes which, by incorporating castes in competitive politics, reorganised and recast the elements of both hierarchy and separation among castes in larger social collectiv­ities. These new collectivities did not resemble the varna categories or anything like a polarised class structure in politics. The emer­gence of these socio-political entities in Indian politics defied the conventional categories of political analysis, which is class analysis versus caste analysis. The singular impact of competitive demo­cratic politics on the caste system thus was that it delegitimised the old hierarchical relations among castes, facilitating new hori­zontal power relations among them.


Congress Dominance: First Phase of Politicisation


The process of politicisation of castes acquired a great deal of so­phistication in the politics of the Congress party, which scru­pulously avoided taking any theoretical-ideological position on the issue of caste versus class. The party, being politically aware of the change in the agrarian context, saw castes as socio-economic entities seeking new identities through politics in place of the old identities derived from their traditional status in the ritual hier­archy. Thus, by relying on the caste calculus for its electoral politics and, at the same time, articulating political issues in terms of eco­nomic development and national integration, the Congress was able to evolve durable electoral bases across castes and to maintain its image as the only and truly national party. This winning com­bination of ‘caste politics’ and ‘nationalist ideology’ secured for the Congress a dominant position in Indian politics for nearly three decades after independence. The party rarely used such dichot­omies as upper castes versus lower castes or capitalists versus working class in its political discourse. Its politics was largely ad­dressed to vertically linking the rule of the newly emergent upper­ caste and English-speaking ‘national elite’ to lower-caste support. And the ideology used for legitimation of this vertical social linkage in politics was neither class ideology nor caste ideology; the key concept was ‘nation-building’.

The Congress party projected its politics and programmes at the national level as representing the ‘national aspirations’ of the Indian people. At the regional level, the party consolidated its social base by endorsing the power of the numerically strong and up­wardly mobile, dominant but traditionally of lower status, castes of land-owing peasants; like the Marathas in Maharashtra, the Reddys in Andhra, the Patidars in Gujarat, the Jats in Uttar Pradesh and so on. In the process, it created patron—client type relationships in electoral politics, relationships of unequal but reliable exchanges between political patrons the upper and dominant (intermediate) castes and the numerous ‘client’ castes at the bottom of the pile, popularly known as the Congress’s ‘vote-banks’. Thus, in the initial two decades after independence, hierarchical caste relations were processed politically through elections. This ensured for the Congress a political consensus across castes, despite the fact that it was presided over by the hegemony of a small, upper-caste, English-educated elite in collaboration with regional social elites belonging, by and large, to the upwardly mobile castes of landed peasants. The latter, however, were often viewed by the former (the ‘national elite’, with the self-image of modernisers), as par­ochial traditionalists. Still, the alliance held.

This collaboration between the two types of elites created a new structure of representational power in society, around which grew a small middle class. This class consisted of the upper-caste na­tional elite living in urban areas and the rural social elite belonging to the dominant peasant castes, as well as those upper-caste mem­bers living in rural areas. The ruling national elites, although they belonged to upper castes, had become detached from their trad­itional ritual status and functions. They had acquired new interests in the changed (planned) economy, and lifestyles which carne through modern education, non-traditional occupations, and a degree of westernisation which accompanied this process. The dominant castes of the regional elites still depended more on sanskritisatíon than on ‘westernisation’ in their pursuit of upward social mobility. But they encouraged their younger generations to take to modern, English-medium education and to new profes­sions. In the process, despite their Sudra origins but thanks to their acquisition of new power in the changed rural economy and polit­ics, several peasant communities succeeded in claiming a social status equivalent to that of the dwija castes.

Consequently, such communities as Patidars, Marathas, Reddys, Kammas and their analogues in different regions were identified with ‘upper castes’, and not with ‘backward castes’. Acquisition of modern education and interest in the new (planned) economy enabled them, like the dwija upper castes, to claim for themselves a new social status and identity—those of the middle class.

At the same time, the caste identities of both these sections of the ‘middle class’ were far from dissolved. They could comfortably own both upper-caste status and middle-class identity, as both categories had become concomitant with each other. While the alliance between the upper-caste national elite and the dominant ­caste regional elites remained tenuous in politics, together they continued to function as a new power group in the larger society. In the formation and functioning of this middle class as a power group of elites, caste had indeed fused with class, and status dimension had acquired a pronounced power dimension. But in­sofar as this process of converting traditional status into new power was restricted only to the upper rungs in the ritual hierarchy, the latter sought to use that power to establish their own caste-like hegemony over the rest of society. It is this nexus between upper traditional status and new power that inhibited the transformative potentials of both modernisation and democracy in India.

This conflation of the traditional status system with the new power system, however, worked quite differently for the numerous non-dwija lower castes. In negotiating their way into the new power system, their traditional low status, contrary to what it did for the upper and the intermediate castes, worked as a liability. The func­tions attached to their very low traditional statuses had lost relevance or were devalued in the modern occupational system. Moreover, since formal education was not mandated for them in the traditional status system, they were slow to take to modern education compared to the upper castes. Nor did they have the advantage of inherited wealth, as their traditional status had tied them to the subsistence livelihood patterns of the jajmani system.

In brief, for the lower castes of peasants and artisans, the ex-­untouchables and the numerous tribal communities, their low statuses in the traditional hierarchy worked negatively for their entry in the modern sector. Whatever social capital and economic security they had in the traditional status system was wiped out through the modernisation process; they no longer enjoyed the protection that they had in the traditional status system against the arbitrary use of hierarchical power by the upper castes. On top of that they had no means or resources to enter the modern sector in any significant way, except by becoming its underclass. They remained at the bottom rung of both hierarchies, the sacred and the secular, caste and class.

This did objectively create an elite—mass kind of division in politics, but it still did not produce any awareness of the polar­isation of socio-economic classes in society. In any event, it did not create any space for class-based politics. In fact, all attempts of the left parties at political mobilisation of the numerous lower castes as a c!ass of proletarians did not achieve any significant results either for their electoral or revolutionary politics. Neither did their politics, focused as it was on class ideology, make much of a dent in Congress-dominated politics, for the latter had established the political hegemony of the upper-caste-oriented middle class with the electoral consent of the lower castes! A very peculiar caste—class linkage was forged, in which the upper castes functioned in politics with the self-identity of a class (ruling or ‘middle’), and the lower castes, despite their class-like political aspirations, with the consciousness of their separate caste identities. The latter were linked to the former in a vertical system of political exchange through the Congress party, rather than horizontally with one another.



Politics of Reservations: Second Phase of Politicisation


It took about three decades after independence for the lower castes of peasants, artisans, the ex-untouchables and the tribals, to express their resentment towards the patron—client relationship that had bound them politically to the Congress party. With a growing awareness of their numerical strength and the role it could play in achieving their share in political power, their resentment took the form of political action and movements. Awareness among the lower castes about using political means for upward social mo­bility, and for staking claims as larger social collectivities for a share in political power, had arisen during the colonial period, but it was subdued after independence for almost three-and-a­ half decades of Congress dominance.

It was around the mid-1970s that upper-caste hegemony over national politics began to be seriously challenged. This was largely due to the social policies of the state, particularly that of Re­servations (affirmative action). Despite tardy implementation, towards the end of the 1970s the Reservations policy had created a small but significant section in each of the lower-caste groups which had acquired modern education, and which had entered the bureaucracy and other non-traditional occupations. In the pro­cess, a small but highly vocal political leadership emerged from among the lower castes.

The process of politicisation of castes, however, came to a head at the beginning of the 1980s. This was when the Second Commis­sion for Backward Classes (the Mandal Commission) proposed to extend reservations in jobs and educational seats to the Other Backward Classes (to castes of lower peasantry and artisans) in all states and at the central level. This proposal was, however, stoutly opposed by sections of the upper and intermediate castes. They saw the newly politicised lower castes forcing their way into the middle class (particularly into white-collar jobs), and that too not through open competition but through ‘caste-based’ reservations. This created a confrontation of interest between the upper and intermediate castes on the one hand and the lower castes on the other. But it led to a resurgence of lower castes in national politics. This resurgent politics, guided by lower-caste aspirations to enter the middle class, was derided as the ‘Mandalisation of politics’ by the English-educated elite. The so-called Mandalised politics, a euphemism for the politicisation of lower castes, has since resulted in radically altering the social bases of politics in India.

First, the Congress-dominated politics of social consensus, pre­sided over by the hegemony of an upper-caste, English-educated elite, carne to an end. The Congress organisation could no longer function as the system of vertical management of region—caste factions. The elite at the top could not accommodate the ever­ increasing claims and pressures from below, by different sections of the lower castes, for their share in power. From the mid-1970s through the 1980s, large sections of the lower strata of social groups abandoned the Congress and constituted themselves into shifting alliances of their own separate political parties. The vertical arrangement of the region—caste factions that the Congress had perfected simply collapsed. The national parties — the Congress, the BJP and the Communist parties alike—had to now negotiate for political support directly with the social-political collectivities of the Other Backward Castes (OBCs), the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), or with the regional—caste parties con­stituted by them.

Second, the categories of OBCs, SCs and STs, expressiy devised for the administrative purpose of implementing the Reservations policy, perhaps as an unintended consequence acquired a strong social and political content, and surfaced as new social formations in the macro-stratificatorv system. They now operated in politics with the self-consciousness of socio-economic groups. Not content with proxy representations by the upper-caste—middle-class elites, they wanted political power for themselves. Politics now became  a contest for representation among horizontal power groups, repre­senting social collectivities as identified by the policy of Re­servations. These groups began to bargain with different existing parties or formed their own new parties. Whatever survived of the hierarchical dimension of the traditional stratificatory system in politics was thus effectively horizontalised.

Third, the ‘Mandalised politics’, by generating aspirations among the lower castes to attain ‘middle-class’ status and lifestyles, prevented the process of class polarisation. This politics created new compulsions in the social arena. The old middle class, dominated by the upper and intermediate castes, was now compelled to admit expansion beyond itself and make space, even if grudg­ingly, for different sections of the lower castes. At the same time, lower castes, while forming coalitions in politics, began to compete intensely among themselves at the social level for entry into the growing middle class.

In sum, the state policy of affirmative action gave a big impetus to the process of politicisation of castes (as well as to de-ritual­isation of inter-caste relations). The policy itself, by providing special educational and occupational opportunities to members of the numerous lower castes, converted their traditional disability of low ritual status into an asset for acquiring new means for up­ward social mobility. The politicisation of castes, along with the spread of urbanisation and industrialisation, has contributed to the emergence of a new type of stratificatory system in which the old middle class has not only expanded in numbers, but has begun to acquire new social and political characteristics.


Classisation of Caste: Emergence of a ‘New Middle Class’


Classisation’ is a problematic, even controversial, concept used for describing a certain type of change in caste. As a category derived from the conventional ‘class analysis’, it articulates the issue of change itt linear and dichotomous terms, asking how caste is (rather, ‘why caste is not’) transforming itself into a polarised structure of economic classes. Just as the role of status and other ‘non-class’ elements (gender, ethnicity etc.) is routinely ignored in analvses of class in western society, ‘class analysis’ in India too undermines the role of ‘caste’ elements in class and vice versa. At the other end of the spectrum are scholars devoted to ‘caste analysis’, who have little use for a concept like ‘classisation’. Ac­customed to viewing caste as a local hierarchy and to interpreting changes in it in terms of the caste system’s own ideology and rules, they view class elements in caste (such as the role of modern edu­cation, occupational mobility, and economic and political power) as elements extraneous to the caste system; elements which, of course, it incorporates and recasts into its own image to maintain its systemic continuity. Classisation neither follows a linear, teleo­logical course of change, nor does it represent the caste svstem’s own reproductive process. I, therefore, view classisation as a two­fold process: (a) releasing of individual members of all castes (albeit the extent of this may vary from one caste to another) from the religiously sanctioned techno-economic and social organisation (the occupational and status hierarchy) of the ‘village system’; and (b) linking of their interests and identities to organisations and cate­gories relevant to the urban-industrial system and modern politics. This process operates not only in urban areas, but also increasingly in rural areas. The two aspects of the process are not temporally sequential, nor spatiallv separated. They criss-cross, and changes become visible in the form of elements of a newly emergent macro­system of social stratification. Thus viewed, ‘classisation’ is a process by which castes, but more frequently their individual mem­bers, relate to categories of social stratification of a type different from caste.

The emergent stratificatory arrangement, however, is far from having acquired a ‘systemic’ form. Yet, new and different types of social and economic categories have emerged at all levels of society, by relating to which caste is not only losing its own shape and character, hut is acquiring a new form and ideology. Thus, as we saw earlier, caste survives, but as a kinship-based cultural com­munity, not as the status groups of ritual hierarchv. It has acquired new economic interests and a political identity. Its members now negotiate and own larger and multiple social and political ident­ities. In this process, caste identity has lost its old character and centrality. The economic and political activities in which members of a caste are now engaged are of a radically different type from the ones perpetuated by the caste system. The ritually determined vertical relationship of statuses, which encouraged harmony and co-operation among castes, has been transformed into one of hori­zontally competing, often conflicting power blocs, each constituted of a number of castes occupying different statuses across traditional local hierarchies. In the process, new socio-economic formations, some of ‘ethnic type’, have emerged at the macro-level of society. They compete for control of economic, political and cultural re­sources in the society. The idea of upward social mobility today motivates people of all castes (not just of the ‘lower’ castes) collec­tively as well as individually. For the quest today is not for register­ing higher ritual status; it is universallv for wealth, political power and modern (consumerist) lifestyles. In short, caste has ceased to ‘reproduce’ itself, as it did in the past.

All these changes have imparted a structural substantiality to the macro-stratificatory system of a kind it did not have in the past. In the absence of a centralised polity, the system functioned superstructurally as an ideology of varna hierarchy. Lacking structural substance, it served as a ‘common social language’ and supplied normative categories of legitimation of statuses to various local substantive hierarchies of jatis (Béteille 1996; Srinivas 1962:: 3—69). But, as we saw earlier, after India became a pan-Indian political entity governed by a liberal democratic state, new social formations, each comprising a number of jatis — often across ritual hierarchies and religious communities—emerged at the regional and all-India levels. Deriving its nomenclature from the official classification devised by the state in the course of implementing its policy of affirmative action (Reservations), the new formations began to be identified as: the forward or the ‘upper castes’, the backward castes (OBCs), the dalits or Scheduled Castes (SCs) and the tribals or the Scheduled Fribes (STs).

Unlike status groups of the caste system, the new social for­mations function as relatively loose and open-ended entities, com­peting with each other for political power. In this competition, members of the upper-caste formation have available to them the resources of their erstwhile traditional higher status, and those of lower-caste formations have the advantages accruing to them from the state’s policy of affirmatjve action. Thus, the emergent strati­ficatory system represents a kind of fusion between the old status system and the new power system. Put differently, the ritual hierarchy of closed status groups has transformed into a fairly open and fluid system of social stratification.

This system is in the making. It cannot be described either in caste terms or in pure class terms. However, the salience of one category in this newly emergent stratificatory system has become visible in recent years. It can be characterised as the ‘new middle class’; ‘new’ because its emergence is directly traceable to the disintegration of the caste sys tem. This has made it socially much more diversified compared to the old, upper-caste-oriented middle class that existed at the time of independence. Moreover, high status in the traditional hierarchy worked implicitly as a criterion for entry into the ‘old’ middle class, and sanskritised life-styles consti­tuted its cultural syndrome. Both rituality and sanskritisation have virtually lost their relevance in the formation of the ‘new’ middle class. Membership of today’s middle class is associated with new lifestyles (modern consumption patterns), ownership of certain economic assets and the self-consciousness of belonging to the ‘middle class’. As such, it is open to members of different castes— who have acquired modern education, taken to non-traditional occupations and/or command higher incomes and political power—to enter this ‘middle class’.

However, the ‘new middle class’ can not be seen as constituting a pure class category—a construct which is in fact a theoretical fiction. It carries some elements of caste within it, insofar as the entry of an individual in the middle class is facilitated by the collec­tive political and economic resources of his/her caste. For example, upper-caste individuals entering the middle class have at their disposal the resources that were attached to the status of their caste in the traditional hierarchy. Similarly, for lower-caste members lacking in traditional status resources, entry into the ‘middle class’ is facilitated by modern-legal provisions like affirmative action to which they are entitled by virtue of their low traditional status. It seems the Indian ‘middle class’ will continue lo carry caste ele­ments within it, to the extent that modern status aspirations are pursued, and the possibility of their realisation is seen by indi­viduals in terms of the castes to which they belong.

Yet, crucial lo the formation of the ‘new middle class’ is the fact that while using the collective resources of their castes, individuals from all castes entering it undergo the process of classisation; this means they (a) become distant from ritual roles and functions attached to their caste; (b) acquire another, but new, identity of belonging to the ‘middle class’; and (c) have economic interests and lifestyles which converge more with other members of the ‘middle class’ than with their own ‘non-middle-class’ caste com­patriots.

The process of middle-class formation in India is empirically illustrated by the findings of an all-India sample survey. The survey, based on a stratified-random sample (probability propor­tionate lo size) of 9,614 Indian citizens (male and female) drawn from all the Indian states, except the state of Jammu and Kashmir, was conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, in June—July 1996. For lack of space and due to the prelimin­ary nature of the analysis, 1 provide below a broad profile of the ‘new middle class’.

The middle class, which at the lime of independence almost exclusively consisted of English-educated members of the upper castes, expanded lo include the upwardly mobile dominant castes of rich farmers during the initial three decades after independence. In other words, this period saw the emergence of a small rural­ based middle class.

The survey conceived the category middle class in terms of subjective and objective variables. The subjective variable pertained to the respondent’s own identification as ‘middle class’ and an explicit rejection of a ‘working-class’ identity for himself/herself. Using self-identity as a precondition, certain objective criteria were applied for inclusion of a respondent in the category ‘middle class’. Thus, from among those with middle-class self-identification, respondents possessing two of the following four characteristics were included in the category ‘middle class’: (a) ten years or more of schooling. (b) ownership of at least three assets out of four— motor vehicle, TV, electric pumpset and non-agricultural land; (c) residence in a pucca house — built of brick and cement; and (d) white-collar job. Accordingly, 20 per cent of the sample population was identified as belonging to the middle class.

The survey analysis revealed that even today, the upper and the rich farmer castes together dominate the Indian ‘middle class’. While members of the two ‘upper’ categories, the dwija upper castes and the non-dwija dominant castes, account for about a quarter of the sample population, they constitute nearly half of the new middle class. But this also means the percentage representation of upper castes has reduced in today’s middle class, for the old middle class was almost entirely constituted of them.

About half of the middle-class population came from different lower-caste social formations — the dalits (SCs), the tribals (STs), the backward communities of peasants and artisans (OBCs) and the religious minorities. Considering that members of all these social formations constituted 75 per cent of the sample population, their 50 per cent representation in the middle class is much lower than that of the upper and intermediate castes. But seen in the context of their inherited lower ritual status in the traditional hier­archv, this is a significant development. Even more significant is the fact that when members of the lower castes, including those belonging to castes of ‘ex-untouchables’, acquire modern means of social mobility such as education, wealth and political power, their low ritual status does not come in the way of their entering the ‘middle class’ and, more importantly, acquiring the conscious­ness of being members of the ‘middle class’.

The analysis of the survey data also revealed statistically highly significant differences in political attitudes and preferences bet­ween members of the middle class and the rest of the population. More importantly, on certain crucial political variables (like support to a political party) and cultural variables (for example, belief in the karma theory), the difference between the lower-caste and upper-caste members of the middle class was found lo be much less than that between members of the ‘middle class’ and their caste compatriots not belonging to the ‘middle class’.

The Indian middle class today has a fairly large rural component, thanks to the earlier inclusion in it of the rural-based dominant castes, and now of members of the lower castes participating in modern economy and administration. in brief, the ‘middle class’ in India today is not a simple demographic category comprising certain ritual-status groups. It is a social-cultural formation in which, as individuals from different castes and communities enter, they acquire new economic and political interests and lifestyles in common with other members of that ‘class’. Within this ‘new’ mid­dle class, the caste identities of its members survive; however, oper­ating in conjunction with the new, overarching identity of ‘middle class’, they acquire a different political and cultural meaning.

To conclude, secularisation of caste, occurring along the dimen­sions of de-ritualisation, politicisation and classisation, has reduced caste lo a kinship-based micro-community, with its members acquiring new structural locations and identities derived from cate­gories of stratification premised on a different set of principles than those of ritual hierarchy. By forming themselves into larger, horizontal, not vertically hierarchical, social groups, members of different castes now increasingly compete for entry to the ‘middle class’. The result is that members of the lower castes have entered the middle class in sizeable numbers. This has begun to change the character and composition of the old, pre-independence middle class, which was constituted almost entirely by a small, English­ educated, upper-caste elite. The new and vastly enlarged middle class is becoming, even if slowly, politically and culturally more unified and socially diversified.