Caste and the Secularisation
D. L. Shet
[Contemporary India: Transitions, ed. Peter Ronald de Souza, New Delhi, Sage / Lisboa, Fundação Oriente, 2000, pp. 237-261.]
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
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
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)
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
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
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
Despite the fact that such qualitative changes had occurred in the stratificatory system after
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
Caste has been conventionally conceived of as an insulated system of
ritual-status hierarchy, embedded in the ‘perennial’ religious culture of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.