Friday, 10 August 2012

Contemporary Questions on Caste

Q 1. Changes and Continuities in Caste System

Caste hierarchies have lost much of their power over the thinking and actions of people in rural areas where they have always been strongest. This change has occurred unevenly, but it is a very widespread trend.As has been argued by some scholars, ‘caste’ is increasingly becoming a ‘difference’ rather than ‘hierarchy’. This is one of the two most important changes to occur in India since Independence – the other being the emergence of a consolidated democracy. [James Manor]

Today, we talk about caste mostly in the context of assertion by ‘backward castes’ and Dalits against deprivation, social injustice. We could say that the present moment of caste denotes social identity in terms of power relationships rather than ritual hierarchy. With adult franchise, frequent and competitive electoral processes and panchayati raj institutions, the ritual aspect of caste in social relationships has little meaning. But at the same time the caste ethos/mindset in terms of ‘high’ and ‘low’ continues. How do we read this? The answer to this question lies in engaging with empirical reality, probing empirical situations with comparative perspectives across the regions and time. [Ghanshyam Shah]

The present day context of change is primarily in the arena of politics and society at various levels. - - (a) First, ‘power’ relationships among caste groups at the village or local level are undergoing significant change. Here both collaboration and competition among dominant and lower castes takes place. This, at times, also results in cases of atrocity. In the rural areas of the country, the landed backward castes have emerged as the direct oppressors of the Dalits
(b) Second, in politics, caste still matters in voting patternsCaste is also a vote bank, but not in the same way as it was earlier when Dalits formed the vote banks of mainstream parties. Today Dalits, and in some cases other lower castes, form the core constituency of Dalit parties and they are proud of it. Their support is on the basis of identity, and not on the earlier patron-client relationships which have broken down. In UP for example, they tend to vote for the BSP. They feel that by doing so they are putting their ‘own government’ in power. 
(c) Third, there is greater awareness about sub-castes and they are playing a more important role than earlier. 
(d) Fourth, there is increasing talk about the rise of a small but influential educated middle class generation of Dalits who are demanding a share in the fruits of development. 
(e) It is not only the lower castes but also the upper castes who use caste to improve their economic and political status. 

In sum, there is now a greater diversity in the political and socio-economic position of caste groups particularly at the lower levels of the caste ladder.  [Sudha Pai]

The continuities in caste is indeed a serious issue. We notice significant changes in the public domain regulated by law and relatively less change in the economic and civic domain, and far fewer in the private domain. For example, lower caste and Dalits are no longer prohibited from owning property. They also enjoy civil and political rights. So, to that extent, the traditional rigidities and restrictions have come down. However, there is hardly any change the practice of caste endogamy, particularly in rural areas, endogamy being the core of the caste system. Discrimination in private employment, housing, and many other spheres of social life persists primarily because it remains organized around caste-based networks.
Social Scientists need to work on developing policies to promote forces and factors that induce positive change. [Sukhdeo Thorat]

The universe of caste involves both continuity in its essence and change in its expression. Second, the political expression of caste, particularly in the urban context, has undergone a perceptible change, and to that extent caste no longer remains as a potent factor that was used by the textile mill owners to fragment the working class movement in the 1930s. The changing nature of capital does not require caste as desperately as it once did during the 1920s. [Gopal Guru]

The materiality of caste. ‘Caste’ is not just something in people’s minds – it is not just an idea or an imagining. It concretely affects the lives of people. It can help people to gain tangible advantages, and equally, can prevent that. So it is not just ‘false consciousness’. Caste as a social institution (if by ‘caste’ we mean jati) remains quite strong, despite the declining power of hierarchical thinking. So it continues to affect the opportunities and capabilities that people have – for good, and for ill. As we discuss change and continuity, we need to keep the materiality of caste in mind. [James Manor]

Caste as Hindu traditioncaste as a ‘Hindu tradition’ continues to be important despite the increasing irrelevance of ritual ranking. For example, the Scheduled Castes continue to suffer discrimination, open or subtle, and often become victims of violence when they violate traditional caste rules. [Ghanshyam Shah]
Caste still serves as a social marker for individuals and groups, though other identities and roles have also become important. Caste remains embedded in the Hindu psyche despite the spread of the notion of equality. [Sudha Pai]

Caste associations are no longer simply pressure groups. In rural areas, Dalit panchayats and in urban areas, caste associations have emerged to help the community in various ways – obtain employment or education, legal help when the police harasses them and assistance in various ways.

Jati as primary identity: For a large majority of Indians, jati remains a focal point of social relationships in everyday life. This is their primary identity. The ritual hierarchy does not matter a great deal in inter-caste relationships. However, social networking for supporting each other emotionally and materially, more often than not, remains confined to one’s jati mates. [Ghanshyam Shah]

Dominance a function of economic power: People from lower castes, including Dalits, no longer accept status/dominance of upper castes on the basis of their ritual ascribed status. For them, dominance is a result of their economic power. This is a significant and widespread change. The Dalits and lower castes no longer accept their birth or past karma as a reason for their poverty and deprivation. They squarely blame upper or middle castes for their exploitation. However, the situation is complicated. Those who defy ritual hierarchy also invoke myths and symbols, and reconstruct their caste history in terms of their real or imagined upper caste status. While doing this, they invariably have in mind some other social groups that are socially and ritually ‘lower’ than them. On the other hand, the traditionally upper castes project their upper caste status because of their imagined ritual status. [Ghanshyam Shah]

Caste Conflict: A point related to the above is that, as people at lower levels of the old hierarchies increasingly refuse to accept hierarchy and their subordination to formerly dominant castes, tensions develop between groups. There is an age factor at play here. The younger age group is more aggressive than its parents, and no longer accepts caste hierarchy. This sometimes leads to violence.
But there are also situations where a new form of accommodation is worked out in which the two manage to co-exist with minimum conflict. This means that caste relations have adapted to new conditions, but the hierarchy has not broken down. This is true of both urban and rural areas. [James Manor and Sudha Pai]

Changes in social position of non-Dalits: The change is not confined to social position of Dalits; other castes have also changed. There is a reshuffling of opportunity structures. For example, the upper castes who were traditionally barristers or doctors have moved into more lucrative jobs in IT, and the ‘traditionally’ superior jobs are being taken over by the middle castes. But because of reservation, there is tension, which has now shifted from the Brahmin to the non-Brahmin and from the non-Brahmin to the Dalit. [Gopal Guru].

Q.2  How do you look at ‘hierarchy’ and ‘inequality’ or the shift from ‘hierarchy’ to ‘difference’?

Gopal Guru: Inequality is a structural condition. Structures underlie and renew this condition. Caste as an ideology forms a part of this condition. Caste not only articulates this condition, but also makes the hierarchical condition applicable and effective. Caste continues to regulate the condition of inequality across time and space. Thus, in contemporary times, caste shows some signs of withdrawal from the public domain but at the same time also betrays its ‘soft character’ when it explodes into the most pernicious and obnoxious violence in the countryside. Difference, on the other hand, is basically defined against the cultural homogenization by the majority. Caste as a signifier of social hierarchy may operate within a cultural group which is seeking recognition of its cultural difference. Thus, cultural difference may subsume within itself elements of both material and social hierarchy. For example, each religious identity might subsume within itself a caste-based social hierarchy.

Caste, especially the institution of jati (that is, a group within which people usually marry their children), has never been unchanging. It continues to be strong because it has changed. It has adapted to forces like capitalism and democracy in ways that help it to remain potent. This is likely to remain true even as hierarchies wane in strength. [Change ensures Continuity here- Spurthi]

Hierarchy and inequality are interlinked concepts. As Ambedkar has argued, the caste system is not based on inequality alone, but on graded inequality (you may call it hierarchical inequality). Except the Brahmins, every caste suffers from denial of equal rights, but suffers unequally, to the extent that the entitlement or assignment of rights reduces as one moves down in caste hierarchy from Brahmin to untouchables.It will be safe to assume that while barriers of hierarchy have been reduced, they nevertheless persist. [SK Thorat]

Q 3. How should we look at changes that have occurred in the sphere of politics and representation?

S.K. Thorat: Political participation has significantly increased because of reservations, panchayats and other institutions. Initially, Dalits did not take reservation in these institutions seriously. But gradually they have recognized its value in terms of acquiring power. I think in Maharashtra and elsewhere, Dalits have gained. 

Gopal Guru: The question of representation has become intense within the sub-castes of the Dalit cluster. This acuteness is often reflected in mutual hatred within some Dalit groups all over the country. For example, in Maharashtra, the Mahars are sidelined as compared to the Chamars and the Matang in the domain of electoral politics. But in the administrative spheres, the other sub-castes still find that they are the latecomers as compared to Mahars to the process of modernity. 

Sudha Pai: The change is indeed complex. On the one hand we have Dalit and Backward caste-based parties that have come to power. However, this does not mean that these social groups have achieved political voice, representation and empowerment. Only some sections, the better-off among Backwards and Dalits such as Yadavs and Jatavs respectively, have benefited; others have not. Two reasons are responsible. 
(a) The process of democratization is moving downwards to the smaller and poorer sub-castes, but at a slow pace; hence their inclusion and levels of political participation still remain low. 
(b) Governments such as the BSP have not succeeded in reaching out to and improving the social and economic position of these groups. Nor have reserved seats helped, as Dalits who win from such positions have not been instrumental in improving the political position of their community. 
Mobilization of civil society by Dalit leaders has had much greater impact. While mainstream parties, including the Congress, have few leaders from the Backward and Dalit groups, most of them find a place in lower caste parties. Hence, social deepening has taken place but its impact remains uneven.

Ghanshyam Shah: Caste is being mobilized as identity. Such mobilizations lead to ever increasing participation of the deprived communities in the democratic political processes. A major thrust of their participation is to have dignity in everyday life and improve their material condition for better life chances. 

However, such processes have their own contradictions and tensions. Most of the jatis who managed to create a large configuration for political objectives are heterogeneous in economic condition. Stratification among them and within the jati has sharpened with economic development. In the process, the gap between the representatives (elected or others who proclaim to represent ‘caste interests’) and their caste mates has increased.

Q. What are the critical challenges faced by groups located at the receiving end of the traditional caste system, such as Dalits and lower OBCs?

Ghanshyam Shah: On the whole the socio-economic condition of the Dalits and lower OBCs as social groups remains marginal and excluded from the process of economic development. Reservation has helped a  tiny section to improve its conditions, but reservation – political and employment – cannot uplift the majority of them. It is meant for those who have some assets and marketable skills, technical and/or higher education. And, for such education, one needs material support from one’s family. A majority of them do not have these prerequisites. Moreover, employment in the public sector is both limited and declining. The private sector (a few exceptions apart!) under a neoliberal economy will not entertain such a policy of reservation. And, more important, reservation has created competition and rivalry among them. Notwithstanding the importance of certain positive contribution of reservation, which no government will (and cannot) revert back, its utility for further transformation seems low.

The increasing privatization of education, preventive and curative health services, and other essential services, will make it even more difficult for marginalized groups trying to come out of destitution. Even as their political mobilization over the last three decades or so have sharpened their identity, but that is not enough. What they need is quality education, health services, decent work for livelihood and social security. There is a need to universalize these basic services so that everyone can get ‘equal quality’ and opportunities to improve their life chances. Identity politics has reached its limits.

It is in the economic sphere that the most critical challenges lie. The groups at the bottom of the ladder remain deprived of basic needs such as quality education, healthcare, employment, housing and drinking water. The large majority remain within the informal economy. Not many own land or any assets. The middle class among them, who have been able to use protective discrimination and obtain jobs, remains very tiny. Moreover, public sector jobs are shrinking and obtaining employment in the private sector requires high educational attainments and skills. [Sudha Pai] 

Why is caste relevant? For whom is it relevant? I would say it is not relevant for those who are its victims. Caste persists because there are no opportunities. In some sense, it is a moral-ethical problem. The spirit of practising constitution in civil society is really important, which we have not taken seriously. So there are two ways – one is to provide the facilities to people so they don’t really require caste. The other is to reform yourself morally so that you do not reproduce the feeling of caste. The circumstances emerging from civil society makes one depend more and more on the state; there is no succour in civil society. Civil society is hostile, whether in rural or urban India. To get ahead, people do not have to appear in the public sphere with one’s caste identity. For SC, ST or OBC, caste is a source of anxiety. Freedom from anxiety is an important freedom. Who can really grant this freedom? Not the people who are its victims, but those who ascribe meaning to it.

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