A Dalit woman carrying water in Orissa, India. Mikkel Ostergaard/Panops


Caste lives on, and on

Indian society deludes itself that caste discrimination is a thing of the past, yet it suffuses the nation, top to bottom

by Prayaag Akbar + BIO

A Dalit woman carrying water in Orissa, India. Mikkel Ostergaard/Panops

In October 2016, a young man walked into a flour mill in Uttarakhand, a state of northern India where the mist-wrapped mountains of the outer Himalayas begin. He was Dalit (Sanskrit for broken, scattered, downtrodden), a relatively recent collective identity claimed by communities across the nation that are considered untouchable in the caste system. Present in the mill was a Brahmin schoolteacher – Brahmins are the caste elite – who accused the Dalit man of having defiled all the flour produced there that day, merely by his entry: notions of purity and pollution are integral to caste. After the Dalit man objected to the insult, the schoolteacher took out a blade and slit the Dalit’s throat, killing him instantly.

The incident caused uproar in the national press. Dalit groups in Uttarakhand staged a series of protests. The Brahmin schoolteacher was arrested, along with his brother and father, who had threatened the murdered man’s family if they went to the police; booked for murder and criminal intimidation, the men were also charged under the ‘Prevention of Atrocities’ act – a vital part of the Indian Penal Code that prohibits a range of violent and non-violent action against members of the lowest castes and tribes.

After the initial flurry of limited upper-class angst – followed by self-congratulation (at the foresight of the lawmakers for how the state machinery kicked into gear to protect the lower-castes) – the violence was then safely imagined as belonging to a distant, retrograde realm, where things would soon change. Silence followed, then forgetting. There was no discussion of the deep-seated convictions and codes that enabled this gruesome act, or how each Indian life was linked to it: the key to living in a caste society is to distance yourself from its most horrifying manifestations.

The American documentary Meet the Patels (2014) illustrates yet another dimension of caste that Indian society has trained itself to ignore. Made by an Indian-American brother and sister team, Geeta and Ravi Patel, it relates how ‘Ravi’, on approaching 30, decides to leave his Caucasian girlfriend and marry a girl of the Patel caste to fulfil a lifelong demand made by his parents. Endearing and witty, the film shows in granular detail Ravi’s painful quest to find a suitable wife, and thereby silence his parents (who are no ogres, I might add, but a hardworking couple of distinctively Indian humour and charm).

Most striking is that at no point do the Patels realise that they are making a film about the endogamous (same-social or same-ethnic) strictures vital to caste. Ravi is a seemingly assimilated Indian American. In speech, bearing, even ambition (he is a comedian and actor), he transcends the bounds of traditional Indian society; still, a lifetime of conditioning ensures that he feels the pressure of endogamy so deeply that he will overturn his life to search for a Patel mate. He travels to huge conventions where young men and women can meet Patel members of the opposite sex. He allows his parents to set up a string of dates. He visits astrologers: and he does all this out of filial duty, never interrogating why his parents demand this of him. Endogamy is shown as a trait of Indian society, not caste society. Yet the documentary stands as a revelatory exposition of how caste exercises control between generations; how, without a whisper of violence or even punishment – simply, the fear of disappointing your parents – caste ensures its own survival, even in lands and cultures distant from its place of genesis.

It is unsurprising that the Patel siblings are unaware that they are, in effect, making a film about caste. Many Indians watching this movie would experience the same blindness. As caste has been globally castigated as a social evil, upper-caste Indian society has found numerous ways to refer to caste without explicitly mentioning it. In everyday language, media and advertising, proxies include ‘community’ and ‘family background’. Endogamous pressure is condoned as vital to Indian society because it preserves the community (few modern Indians would admit to wanting to preserve the caste group). Another linguistic proxy for lower-caste groups is ‘different’. These proxies carry the full range of meanings that caste categorisations do, and are used in a variety of situations, from school and job interviews to a landlord meeting prospective tenants.

This sleight of hand lets Indian society permit itself the feel-good release of loudly castigating brute incidents of caste violence, even as it perpetuates a self-serving mythology about the nature and limits of caste. As we will see, caste is both varna (hierarchy) and jati (endogamous groups). The failure to break caste stems in part from India’s unwillingness to examine how just how jati feeds into varna.

Popular understanding of caste in India is deeply influenced by the way that caste has been written about in the West. Perhaps because Brahmins tightly controlled the production of knowledge through most of India’s history, there is little sociological examination of caste from pre-colonial times. The term ‘caste’, or casta, was attached to the social stratifications of India by 16th-century Portuguese merchants: casta is Portuguese for race, or breed (from the Latin castus: chaste or pure).

The new European arrivals saw in Indian society’s obsession with lineal purity and demarcated living an echo of their own understanding of racial purity. British, French and Dutch traders, doubling as amateur anthropologists, subsequently sent back detailed descriptions of the social system, coloured by Orientalist ideas about static Hindu culture and the inscrutable East. These were used by scholars as varied as Karl Marx, Max Weber and Oliver Cox to construct theories of society in India and beyond. Perhaps the most influential, Homo Hierarchicus (1966), was written by the French sociologist Louis Dumont.

Dumont described an unchanging, neatly segmented hierarchy, where everyone accepted their position, premised not on political power but on considerations of purity. Drawing on classical Hindu texts such as the Manusmriti (dating from as early as 2nd century BCE), Dumont, in effect, described the varna system: the pyramid conception of caste that ranks Brahmins, or scholar-priests, over, in descending order, Kshatriyas (warrior class), Vaishyas (merchants and skilled workers), and finally Shudras (unskilled workers). Untouchables, forced in the old system to clean and deal with refuse, toilets, and animal and human carcasses, are considered so impure as to sit outside the caste system; along with others such as the forest tribal communities, they are literal outcastes.

The varna system, ordained in ancient India, has diminished relevance today. More pertinent economically, and socially, is the division between high-castes (the top three groups) and low-castes (Shudras and, after a further cleavage, untouchable communities). Still, whether via Vedic scripture or Dumont, the varna pyramid is what most people think of when considering caste. Importantly, in independent India, in what seems like an act of collective self-deception, this pyramid hierarchy is also popularly seen as containing the limits of caste. Flatten the pyramid, and caste will end. Education, republicanism, industrialisation, modernisation – each has been portrayed as the agent that will bring about this flattening, finally ridding the Indian subcontinent of caste divisions.

Yet every Indian knows that there is another aspect to caste: jaat, or jati. Jati is the caste identity that every Indian is born with, the multifarious groupings of clans, tribes, communities and religions that comprise Indian society. Each jati is typically associated with a traditional job function, and some jatis are defined by religious variation or linguistic groupings. Jati is not limited to Hindus: Indian Muslims, Sikhs and Christians all hold to age-old sectarian identities, with prescribed rules and customs analogous to jati, within their larger belief system. Indian society is divided into thousands of these endogamous kinship groups, no one is sure how many. The bigger jatis are further subdivided, in accordance with observable differences in custom and rule. A Hindu’s jati prescribes the rules and rituals of life: the foods they can eat, whom they can marry and socially interact with, where and how they pray. When the Portuguese wayfarers ventured inland from the Western coast, it is the numerous social divisions that jati mandates that would have reminded them of casta. Endogamy, chief among them.

the Brahmin attacking the Dalit man is seen as casteist, but the young Patel man searching for a Patel wife is just an act of community

Caste is no static pyramid. It’s a dynamic social organisation, both hierarchy and segmentation. The revered Dalit scholar and leader B R Ambedkar likened the jati system to ‘a string of tennis balls hanging one above the other’, the string twining about, separating each caste from the other. This image helps us understand how, within a hierarchy, castes can shift in status; how different jatis can each believe themselves superior to the other; and how neatly separated, as planets in a system, each group is from even those occupying a similar status.

It is this intellectual duplicitousness – the simultaneous knowing and unknowing – that allows many Indians to claim that the Brahmin attacking the Dalit man in a flour mill was casteist, but that the young Patel man searching for a Patel wife is nothing more than an act of community.

In 1916, in a paper presented at Columbia University, Ambedkar identified endogamy as the ‘key to the mystery of the caste system’. He wrote that caste in India meant ‘an artificial chopping off of the population into fixed and definite units, each one prevented from fusing into another through the custom of endogamy’. The history of 20th-century India certainly seems to bear him out. Anthropologists have identified any number of ways that caste has mutated and adapted in those years, yet the pressure of endogamy and the social sanctions against it remain as real in India as they were in 1916. Though the pressures have diminished in permissive social circles, for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and Christians, in every corner and class of India, endogamy remains a cherished observance.

‘Love marriages’ (a euphemism for inter-caste and inter-religious unions) have spurred horrifying incidents of jati violence over the past decades – of brothers, fathers and mothers attacking or condoning attacks on their kin. Indian newspapers decry caste violence on their front and editorial pages, yet rely for survival on the revenue from the jati-based matrimonial advertisements that fatten their middle pages. These ads are now shifting online. One of the great successes of the Indian dotcom industry is, a matrimonial website whose founders understood early on that Indians looking to marry were most interested in jati as their metric. Now numerous sites have sprung up dedicated to one jati group or the other. Even in cyberspace, separation and distance seem essential.

When an urban Indian today says that caste is a matter of the past, or a concern of the village, he means that the hierarchical formation (varna) is no longer as relevant as it once was. He knows that kinship communities (jati) remain relevant and visible, but sees that influence as benign; a natural, eternal division of peoples that does not rupture society but is instead a marker of civilisational strength, modern India’s link with its ancient custom and social practice.

In the summer of 2010, I travelled to Mirchpur, a small village in rural Haryana, rent by a horrific burst of casteist violence. The dominant caste in the state, the Jats (not to be confused with jaat or jati), had set fire to a long cluster of Dalit homes and shops. Jats were once the rural peasantry in this region, but now many are important landowners. Tensions between Jats and Dalits have grown with the recent Jat demand for reservations in government jobs and education, which they believe Dalits have cornered. You can see here the interplay between jati and varna: the felt identity of both Jats and Dalits derives from jati, but the anger is fuelled by Dalit upward mobility, which is seen as a threat to the ancient varna hierarchy.

In a final act of fury, the Jat mob torched a home in which Suman, a polio-stricken teenage girl, was sleeping. When her elderly father went to save her, the mob latched the door from the outside and waited as both burned to death. The tricycle Suman had been given by the state because of her condition stood blackened in a corner, melted plastic like burnt flesh against the spokes.

The conflagration had been sparked by a scuffle, after two young Dalit men responded to the provocations of two Jat men of similar age. The Dalit response was seen as an insult to the Jat community so egregious that Jats were called in overnight from neighbouring villages to attend a caste council meeting and determine the retaliatory action required. I was most surprised by the way that the Jat violence seemed to inspire solidarity not shame. En route to the village, Jat men had refused to give us directions. At one point, we stopped at a haveli (mansion) in another village two hours’ drive away, where the patriarch, a former politician, aware where my sympathies lay, had gathered some Jat elders so that I could hear ‘their side’. None of them had been to Mirchpur. They knew details of the incident only from community networks. They didn’t condone the violence. But they were prepared to give me many reasons why the Jats’ anger had been triggered.

Just this February, the village again made headlines after a group of Dalit men were beaten with rods and sticks by upper-caste villagers. The provocation: one of the Dalit men was winning the village races traditionally won by upper-castes.

Lower-caste groups faced intense discrimination but were simultaneously told such discrimination no longer existed

For decades after independence in 1947, caste remained a conversational and analytic taboo in India. It was claimed and popularly believed that the Indian republic had eradicated the caste problem in the first years of nation-building, with the abolition of untouchability and landlordism, and the apportioning of reclaimed land to sharecroppers. The erroneous formulation here was that the varna system had crumbled or was on its way out, while the jati system was simply a sectioning, and therefore not truly an expression of caste. This claim was burnished by public institutions, and by the English and Hindi media still firmly in the grip of caste elites. It was taught in classrooms across the country. The Indian Census, a vast, vital undertaking that gives statistical grounding to policymakers, did not count caste numbers and the concentrations of wealth therein until 2011. Outside academia, it was considered regressive or unpatriotic to use caste as a lens with which to examine India.

As Satish Deshpande wrote in Contemporary India: A Sociological View (2003), only now ‘are [we] beginning to understand why caste was almost invisible in urban middle-class contexts. The most important reason, of course, is that these contexts were overwhelmingly dominated by the upper castes. This homogeneity made caste drop below the threshold of social visibility.’ Meanwhile, lower-caste groups faced intense discrimination but were simultaneously told such discrimination no longer existed.

Buses were burnt, students immolated themselves, the capital was brought to a halt – and caste was kicked firmly back into public consciousness

This elite silence has had varied societal impacts, not least the failure to examine how privilege and disprivilege have been carried over within caste groups from the colonial state to the modern republic. The association with Indian tradition was key. Another scholar, Surinder Jodhka, writes: ‘One of the obvious implications of this identification of caste with culture and tradition was that considerations of caste could not become part of the hard questions of economic redistribution, privilege and poverty, or the mainstream development discourse.’

The silence began to erode in 1990, with a series of violent high-caste protests, known as the Mandal Commission riots, over the government’s decision to expand the reserved quotas in government jobs and education to a large section of the population. Caste-based quotas in government jobs date back to colonial times: they were first introduced in Tamil Nadu in 1831, with the spread of modern education, as the British sought to create a bureaucratic class outside the Brahmins. The Indian state expanded this policy post-independence, guaranteeing members of the ‘Scheduled Castes and Tribes’ (previously, the untouchables) a proportion of low-level government positions. In 1990, when the Mandal Commission recommendations were implemented, a huge grouping of low- and middle-caste jatis availed themselves of similar reservations in jobs and education. This sparked riots across north India. Buses were burnt, students immolated themselves, the capital and other cities were brought to a halt – and caste was kicked firmly back into public consciousness.

These ‘reservations’ have since become a fault-line. The limited upward mobility they engender through affirmative action is perhaps Indian democracy’s most significant challenge to the age-old social order. Yet reservation schemes are attacked by privileged groups everywhere: as the denial of the ‘merit’ of deserving (for which read: upper-caste) candidates. In India’s finest scientific institutions, notably the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi and the Indian Institutes of Technology, where the entrance exams are among the most competitive in the world, reports surface every year about ‘reserved’ category students being discriminated against by upper-caste students and faculty who feel that the reservations have denied spots to more deserving students.

dominant castes seek to downgrade their own status to ‘Other Backward Classes’, so that they, too, can claim a share of protected government jobs and college seats

The discrimination is so entrenched that it has led to a disturbing spate of suicides by lower-caste students. Yet Jodhka explains how this caste discrimination is replicated in the job market. Some universities hand recruiters separate lists, of ‘general’ category students versus ‘reserved’ category students, the implication being that only students on list one are meritorious. Recruiters in India also prize metrics that serve as a proxy for considerations of caste (again, the simultaneous knowing and unknowing). ‘Family background’ is a routine area of enquiry, enabling the determining of ‘social origins’. The soft skills and cultural capital afforded by being a member of a high-caste are also overvalued. (This leads to interesting responses, such as the Dalit movement that paints the English language as a ‘mother goddess’ – or the only true enabler of social mobility in India.)

India’s democratic progression has produced fascinating reactions from caste groups. Politically dominant castes seek to rewrite official histories to excise embarrassing aspects of their past from the school curricula, and claim new feats and victories for long-gone kings and chiefs. Meanwhile, a new challenge to the system of reservations comes from dominant castes who seek to downgrade their own status to ‘OBC’, or ‘Other Backward Classes’, so that they, too, can claim a share of protected government jobs and college seats. Caste has always responded to political authority in this way, with groups willing themselves lower – though more typically higher – if benefits can be accrued.

In the past two years, massive violent protests have been orchestrated in the states of Maharashtra, Haryana and Gujarat against state organs. So far, the Supreme Court has resisted the protestors’ demands for protections, citing the economic and opportunity advantages their communities already enjoy. The matter is complicated because the important political parties in each state aggregate their support from these dominant groups.

Another important incursion of caste into the mainstream discourse has been in electoral politics. For many decades after independence, the Congress Party dominated democratic politics, forming a succession of governments. The political scientist Rajni Kothari described this as the ‘Congress system’, where the Congress was an umbrella organisation that could accommodate various kinds of pressures, simultaneously Left- and Right-wing, elite and populist. Yet the Congress has always been predominantly upper-caste. As universal adult franchise took root post-independence, its upper rungs drew heavily from Brahmins, and also the zamindar castes (feudal landlords) prevalent in rural areas, where the vast majority of the Indian population resided, leading to the incendiary Dalit critique that the Indian freedom movement had simply replaced the colonial elite with the pre-existing caste elite.

The noted American scholar Paul Brass identified a phenomenon he called caste succession, where it took lower-caste communities a number of successive elections to feel free and assertive enough within the democratic system to vote for their own, though finally producing ‘their own leaders who have given them a voice in the political process and access to political and economic patronage’. Now caste parties dominate politics in some important regions of India, as multiple jatis have banded together in jati-clusters so that they can maximise their numerical strength in the hope of gaining advantages in the public sphere.

In The Saffron Wave (1999), the anthropologist Thomas B Hansen argues that the consolidation of Hindu nationalism in India is, in part, a reaction to this caste-based churn, as upper-castes have coalesced around a fervid ideology that champions tradition and custom, and consequently, if quietly, the ancient hierarchy. The ruling party of India, the Right-wing BJP, is not typically seen as a caste outfit, yet its parent organisation and own ranks are dominated by Brahmins; Hindu nationalism is a deeply Brahminical ideology; and since inception has enjoyed the unswerving financial patronage of the upper-caste Baniya jati-cluster.

Tellingly, the silence around caste was broken only when lower-caste mobilisation really took hold, influencing electoral politics and social status

The BJP’s recent electoral success is described by the party and pliant sections of the media as a transcendence of caste, with votes accruing around the promise of economic development rather than caste loyalties. Yet the BJP picks candidates and elevates them to high positions based on their caste. The prime minister Narendra Modi has played up the fact that his own jati belongs to the numerically dominant OBC categorisation – a demographic category that has become a political force via the reservation system. The surprising support that the party has lately received from OBC jatis nationally derives, in part, from Modi’s careful caste-based appeal.

Arguably, caste has been the most influential social reality in India over all the years that its disappearance was cheered, decades when horrific acts of group violence against lower-castes was routine, when the perpetrators were either never arrested or later freed by local courts (all these practices continue in India today). Tellingly, the silence around caste was broken only when lower-caste mobilisation really took hold, influencing electoral politics and social status.

Though the two national parties, Congress and BJP, have always relied on aggregating support from various jatis to win elections at the local level, it is the political mobility of non-elite castes that is seen to have fundamentally changed the game. Lower-caste assertion is portrayed as having beset the previously clean political system with caste. In this, a parallel can be drawn with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, which broke the silence around race-based discrimination among police. For years, it was privately acknowledged that US policing had a problem with black minorities. It was aired in conversation, joked about in popular culture, referenced in important avenues of black culture such as hip-hop music and film. Yet only after video evidence began building on social media, and grassroots political mobilisation rallied, did white-controlled media acknowledge the scale of the problem. The responses it spawned – All Lives Matter, Blue Lives Matter, and increased support for Donald Trump – are an instructive demonstration of how elite groups deal with the demand for fair and equal treatment.

Caste has tremendous, overarching effects on society, but it is most intimately concerned with the person, the body; what humans take in and what we push out. Saliva, semen, sweat, excreta and blood are all agents of ritual pollution, the effluents of lower-caste bodies more so than those of high-castes. Food, what can be eaten and what is prohibited, creates fault lines that divide Indian society into minute configurations.

The taboo around the sharing of potables continues to this day. In ‘Waiting for a Visa’ (written in the 1940s), Ambedkar wrote movingly of an incident in his childhood – little more than 100 years ago – when he and his brothers and sisters took a bullock cart from a train station to visit their father, who was working in another town. They ended up having to spend the night en route. Riding through the dark of rural Maharashtra, the children were denied water in house after house. The bullock cart driver also refused to share. Ambedkar cites this as his moment of political awakening: coming from a relatively privileged family within his Mahar clan (a Dalit subcaste), he had not yet understood what it would be like outside the geographical bounds of his jati.

From the 1970s on, anthropologists have reported from villages that the caste structure as Dumont understood it is disappearing. Certainly, middle-caste assertion and mobility have been noticeable aspects of the democratic experience in India. It is also often argued that urban living has destroyed caste; for example, since people of different castes are forced to live with each other in high-rise buildings, apartheid is no longer possible. There is some truth to this. In economic terms, caste inequalities are smallest in metropolitan cities. But it needs to be qualified: only in India’s largest cities has caste-influence been moderated: elsewhere economic benefits accrue to privileged groups.

rich and poor caste cohorts are more likely to live together than rich people of different castes and poor people of different castes

And the intimate considerations of purity that are essential to caste – have those disappeared? In any Indian city today, especially in the torrid, torpid summer, it is hard to imagine household after household denying a Dalit child water. The act of sharing water has itself become political: a way of asserting that caste does not matter. But it is also true that upper-caste households will have a separate set of utensils and crockery for their domestic servants. Outsiders who come in on menial work drink from glasses the family does not use. The safe presumption is that both servant and outsider are lower-caste, and therefore liable of polluting the everyday cutlery used in the home.

With the increase in gated communities, the divide between rich and poor and upper- and lower-castes has become so sharp that it is equally hard to imagine Dalit children having access to the doorsteps of upper-caste homes. A paper published in 2012 studied urban residential segregation in India’s seven largest metro cities. The authors found that residential segregation by caste was sizably larger than the level of segregation by socio-economic status. This is a remarkable finding, telling us that rich and poor caste cohorts are more likely to live together than rich people of different castes and poor people of different castes.

In India’s biggest cities, caste-communities create strong social sanctions around eating and living habits so that people of different castes are eventually forced out. Informal strictures – in defiance of Indian law – about whom to rent or sell to also help to solidify the geographical concentrations of castes.

Caste has proved itself a resolute, nimble institution, surviving the dramatic political and economic transformations of three millennia. There is no question of it having disappeared from either the rural or urban context. Instead, it has shifted, morphed in ways that we must continually examine. It has claimed an important role in modern Indian urbanism. The first step is to relieve ourselves of the old, colonial idea of caste. Instead, we must understand how both hierarchy and segmentation seep continually into every Indian life.