The relevance of caste in India today

 

However, paradoxically, as the political parties find their loyalties within their own caste, it is this very movement which could see the continuation of the caste system, this very movement which makes the caste system ever more relevant. Gorringe (2005:86) recognises the emergence of the political movement following India becoming an independent state, due to the growth of democracy, no doubt due to the fact that those governing the country were now in some way accountable for their actions, the voices of the people had to be heard.

As I discussed earlier Beteille (1996:54) was of the opinion that since the independence of India, Indian intellectuals were keen to dismantle the caste system, seeing is as out of date and an obstacle to progress. Perhaps it is this that led then to the “crisis of governability” Gorringe talks about, by setting out with such an ambitious, and, as some may view it, sacrilegious, objective, the government opened the floodgates for opposition to the caste system, which let us not forget, Dumont notes as the cornerstone to Indian society.

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This denotes the biggest challenge to the caste system: that of the political threat of certain parties. By allowing those that were before excluded from governing the country to now take part, it is also allowing many built up grievances to have a voice, and none in India had more to contest against than the Dalit (who coined this new term, finding the term “harijans” patronising (Eriksen, 2001)). It can be strongly argues that these new political parties have had significant impact on India, not only in breaking down barriers between castes, but more noticeably in promoting unity and identity amongst those within a caste.

Gorringe (2005:100) talks of those among a caste wearing “”identifiers”, such as flags, posters, banners” all of which strengthened unity and ties amongst those in the same caste. Deliege (1994) too talks of the strong sense of unity among those in the same caste, suggesting that hierarchy does not exist within a caste, only between them, he writes that those within a caste share a sense of egalitarianism.

Thus, by challenging the caste system, they are only strengthening it, making it more relevant than ever, as people still identify themselves through caste. Paradoxically, through trying to eradicate the system of caste, stopping the discrimination and violence toward those of a lower caste, they are promoting the sense of safety and strength in numbers, those within the same caste stick together and support each other.

Gorring(2005:106) points out that due to there being a weak government in India, repression is likely due to “fear of being toppled”, therefore implicating that riots, protests and demonstrations to gain electoral support and recognition are often crushed, as the present government is in fear of being ousted. However the growing challenge to the caste system is still visible, extremist parties such as PMK are of growing influence and have succeeded in gaining political recognition. Although the repercussions of extremists groups such as this, Gorringe (2005:108) “violence…

having a degree of legitimacy”, as it is the only means challengers to the system can make their sure their voice is heard. Once again this kind of behaviour could be used to look at the relevance of caste today, by using violence to try and get the caste system reviewed will have a negative impact of those that have been attacked, meaning they will be less likely to want to dispose of the current system, the Dailt are not conveying themselves in a manner becoming to those in a higher caste, who already think the Dalit are beneath them.

The Dalit movement claims to have broken and dispersed the slave instinct (in a popular movement song mentioned in Gorring(2005:112), but when we look at India today, we still see the ancient hierarchical system determining who does what job, who lives where, who can go and use certain things etc, the list is endless. It is clear to see that whilst there has been many challenges to the system, and with somewhat more clarity and influence since the Independence of India.

There has been social protest, a rise of democracy, emergence of class based economy and certain religious alternatives, none of which, however, have been wholly successful in getting rid of the relevance of caste in India today, although the political movement is ever on going and with what some might say growing clarity and power. After examining some of the challenges to the system, it is possible to use Beteille’s argument to demonstrate the state of caste today.

Beteille writes that it is with a growing ambivalence that many regard caste today, (1996:153) “to deny any significance to caste at one time and to give it exaggerated importance at another”. Demonstrating that whilst many Dalit may argue that caste is not inherent and should be abolished, they seek solidarity and strength from the numbers of their own caste, fighting against something by ever strengthening the ties that hold them where they are.

Beteille also notes in his essay (1996) that educated Indians feel that “caste does not exist anymore”, although this should not be taken to disregard the relevance of caste today, as it is only those at the top of the caste system who feel they are not affected by it, similar to those at the top of the British class system, who feel there is no class conflict in Britain anymore. It is therefore largely arguable that caste today has as much relevance as it ever has done, even those fighting it fight it through identifying themselves within their caste.

Bibliography Beteille, A. 1996.”Caste in contemporary India”. In fuller C. J. (ed) Caste Today. Oxford university press: Delhi. Chandra, R. 2005. Identitiy and Genesis of Caste system in India. New Delhi: Kalpaz publication Deliege, R. 1994. Caste without a system: a study of South Indian Harijans. In Searle Chatterjee, M. and Sharma, U. eds. Contextualising Caste: post Dumontian Approaches. Blackwell/ The Sociological Review Driver, E. D. and Driver, A. E. 1987. Social class in urban India: essays on cognitions and structures. The Netherlands. Dumont, L. 1980 (1961). Homo Hierarchicus. The University of Chicago Press Eriksen, Thomas H.2001 Small places, large issues: an introduction to social and cultural anthropology. London, Chicago: Pluto.

Gorriinge, Hugo. 2005. Untouchable Citizens: Dalit movements and Democratisation in Tamil Nadu. Delhi: sage publications Mukherjee, S. N. 1970 Class, Caste and Politics in Calcutta 1815-1838. In Leach, E. and Mukherjee, S. N. (eds) Elites in South Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge university. Sharma, K. L. 1974 The changing rural stratification system . New Delhi: Orient Singh, E. 2009. Caste system in India: a historical perspective. New Delhi: Kalpaz publications. Srinivas, M. N. 1964. Caste in modern India. Bombay: Asia publishing house

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