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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.

Caste specific 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 also changes.

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 castes

In 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 division.

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 System

After 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 people.

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 of western
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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