Casteism in India: A Critical Analysis
"I have no colour prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. All I
care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can't
be any worse."-- Mark Twain
"CASTEISM in India: A Critical Analysis",
talks about the caste system, as prevalent in Indian society, its features and
other issues related to it. But most importantly, it focusses on the journey of
caste from Vedic Period to Modern Period. This article also focuses on various
aspects which create a perception that caste system is an evil which has to be
destroyed and eliminated from our society.
In present day definition of caste-system "element of caste is dominant and that
of system suppressed". The main reason behind it, is that the word 'caste' is
not of Indian origin. It was the contribution of British. When India was under
the domination of British Empire, the word 'caste' was used by the rulers for
different social groups (known as 'Jaatis' under "Varna System", which
stratified Hindu society into four groups on the basis of their aptitude and
occupation). The words 'Varna' and 'Jaati' are very old and indigenous systems,
conceptualized, developed and practiced exclusively in India. It is difficult
for Westerners and people deeply influenced by Western practices to understand,
what 'Varna/Jaati systems are and what Jaati, now popularly known caste-system
means to a common man in India.
Origin of Varna and Caste
Right from ancient period, different communities in the world remained divided
but the basis of the division remained to be region, race, economic status and
social status. Similar to India's Chaturvarna structure, no other society could
develop such complex social system. While in the many pockets in the world have
had social groups similar to the untouchables e.g., Burakumin in Japan, the Osu
in Nigeria, Baekjeong in pre-colonial Korea, the Cagot in France.
feature of Indian society, under this system hierarchy was guided by the
consideration of purity and impurity, rituals and specific social behaviour. So,
even upliftment in one's economic condition his caste status did not improve.
Class relatively a modern concept. According to Marx, it is economic factor
which shapes one's class status but Max Weber added to it even social factors
like 'status' and 'power'. Still 'class' is different in the sense that with
changing economic, social and political condition the identity of an individual
In the beginning, the term Varna came into use and its literal meaning was
'colour'. It reflects the difference between Aryans and non-Aryans on the basis
of skin. After sometime it came to denote 'occupation'. In the 'Purush Sukta' of
the Rig Veda, four-fold varna system came into existence for the first time,
such as – Brahmana, Kshatriya, Vaishya and Shudra. Apart from occupational
status implicitly, it came to denote the nature and the psychological condition
of a person as well. 'Jati' evolved later but it became a real mark for
different social groups. 'Varna' mark remained to be the ideal of society while
'Jati' became reality.
For the term 'Jati' there is an English term 'Caste'. The
term 'Caste' has originated from the Spanish term 'Casta'. This term came into
use in 15th century for the first time by Portuguese seafarers. Varnas are only
four but Castes are innumerably reaching nearly to 3000 in about 2500 years.
Evolution from Varna to Caste amply shows that, opposed to the view of many
western thinkers, Indian
society was not static but gradually evolving.
There are some factors which can contributed to the evolution of castes and its
multiplication in number are – the concept of Varnasankara, asimilation of
tribals into caste based social order, assimilation of foreign elements into
Indian social fold, transformation of craft groups and guilds into cast groups
i.e., Yajmani system, and different sects in course of time which were
transformed into castes.
Earlier Varna and caste system originated in North
India then it spread to South India as well. Later it became common in South
Asia. Apart from Hinduism even Islam and Christianity adopted the caste system.
The caste system has its specific identity i.e., Commensality (the practice of
eating together), Endogamy (custom enjoying one to marry within ones' own group)
and Craft-exclusiveness. But there are the examples of the contravention in
rules as well.
Historical background behind the evolution of castesIn spite of the concept of gotra to a greater extent social mobility could have
been maintained in Vedic Period (1500-600 B.C.E.). In Buddha Period (600-400
B.C.E.) through the composition of Sutra literature by early Smriti writers,
birth was emphasized as the basis of Varna division. It prepared the basis for
the rise of 'Jati'. The Post-Maurya Period (200B.C.E. -300 C.E.) is marked by
the composition of Manu Samhita which adopted a tough posture towards caste
In fact, during this period, there was assimilation of tribal and
foreign elements on massive scale in Indian society, it threatened the cast
institution. During the Gupta Period and After (300 C.E. -1200 C.E.), the caste
based rigid hindu society and its basis was prepared for the first time in the
society. During this period different craft groups or guilds were transformed
into castes, this system is known as Yajmani system i.e., self-sufficient
village economy. Then through increasing impact of regionalism there was
proliferation of castes.
During this period the social condition of certain occupations declined and the
people who were associated with them were thrown into the status of
untouchables. For the first time in Katyayana Smiriti, the term 'Asparsha'
(untouchable) is used. And then with the Sultanate and Mughal Period, Islam
arrived by the guided concept of 'Muslim Millet' and there was no scope for a
caste within this system but Islam could not uproot the caste system in India.
During this period, it encouraged few processes i.e., new technologies resulted
into the rise of new professional groups, later they were transformed into
different castes and caste system also emerged within Muslim society itself.
Although the caste system made Hindu society autonomous in practice, the social
structure was not affected by the change of government and castes provided
protection to the individual apart from family and relatives.
The Challenges were always there against Caste System in every period. Buddhist
& Jaina Movement was a great challenge in front of caste system during Ancient
Period and in Medieval Period, Kabir and Nanak was a challenge in front of caste
system. But none of them could give a substitute to caste system rather their
followers were transformed into a new caste.
Modern Age and Indian Caste SystemAfter the establishment of British Rule, the change is inspired due to the
impact of modern transport and communication system, census, new economic
activities, impact of western enlightenment and election politics. But emphasis
has been shifted from the caste identity on vertical level (four varnas) to
horizontal level (jati's).
This period is considered as promoter of Indian Renaissance and Modern
Nationalism. Basically, in this period India has to become a nation and for this
the division based on caste has to be reduced. The attack on the caste system in
course of socio-religious reforms in 19th century has started and the reformers
from Raja Ram Mohan Roy to Dayanand Saraswati criticised the caste division and
untouchability. Then the initiative has been taken by the lower-caste leaders
like Sri Narayan Guru, Pariyar Naykar and Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. Dr. Ambedkar
raised the demand for reservation and separate electorate for depressed class
After Independence, the emphasis will be given on the question of caste
exploitation, Constitutional safeguard and reservation for SC. Then certain
models were adopted by the leaders for caste upliftment program i.e., the
Gandhian model of peaceful transformation, the model of radical reforms of Dr.
Bhimrao Ambedkar and the model of Dravida identity by Periyar Naykar.
Afterwards, a difference has been generated in the approach of Dr. Ambedkar and
Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru on the issue of lower caste upliftment due to the conflict
constitutional values and the Indian caste system. But, from 15th of August 1947
onwards, Independent India is committed to democratic, secular and egalitarian
principles as enshrined in the Constitution of India.
Preamble of the Indian
Constitution promises to secure to all its citizens:JUSTICE, social, economic
and political; LIBERTY of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship;
EQUALITY of status and of opportunity; and to promote among them all FRATERNITY
assuring the dignity of the individual and the unity and integrity of the
Nation. Article 15 of the Constitution prohibits any kind of discrimination on
grounds of caste, race, religion, gender or place of birth; Article 16 gives
equality of opportunity in matter of public employment, Article 338 creates
National commission for Scheduled Castes to safeguard their interests etc.
All over the world, many systems, institutions, structures, principles, and
cultures have been developed from time to time, which created a wave sweeping
the entire world with it for some time. But soon, they became obsolete and were
replaced by anti-waves which replaced them and wiped off the previous influence.
Caste system, on which Indian social structure is based, has proved to be an
exception. Its character is different in the context of village, locality,
region or religion.
Its absorptive nature has internalized alien influences. Don
Martindale is correct in saying that India has simultaneously accommodated caste
"to an almost endlessly varied system of semi-autonomous community and at the
same time, it brings considerable unity, harmony and condition of peace". "It
succeeded in wielding an enormously varied plurality of semi-autonomous
communities arising at many times and in many places and adopting themselves to
many different conditions into a single system of society".
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