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Caste in the 21st Century: From System to Elements

The argument that while caste as a system is more or less dead, individual castes are flourishing is widely accepted. However, the notion of "caste as a system" is derived mainly from studies of the rural rather than the urban community. In this article, individual caste is seen in the context of both rural and urban communities and its several aspects, particularly the rule of endogamy as its defining criterion, are analysed at some length and some implications of the analysis are pointed out.

SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly November 3, 2007109In 1955, M N Srinivas presented a paper, ‘Castes: Can They Exist in the India of Tomorrow?’, at a national seminar on “Casteism and Removal of Untouchabilty” in Delhi, attended, among others, by such distinguishedpersonsasSRadhakrishnan, Jagjivan Ram, Govind Ballabh Pant, V K R V Rao,KakaKalelkar and Irawati Karve. The paper was published in the seminar re-port as well as in theEconomicWeekly (1955). After a lifetime of scholarship on caste, in 1999, the last year of his life,Srinivas delivered a lecture under different titles in Bangalore, Delhi and Kolkata, on the passing away of caste as a system. It was pub-lished posthumously in 2003 in theEconomic and Political Weekly under the title, ‘An Obituary on Caste as a System’. Srinivas ex-panded this title into a sentence, “While caste as a system is dead, individual castes are flourishing” (ibid: 459). He made this state-ment almost at the end of the 20th century, after publication of his book,Caste: Its Twentieth Century Avatar (1996). It is time now to think of the 21st century.Caste as a SystemLet me first present briefly Srinivas’ thoughts on the death of caste as a system, using his own language.The localised system of production of foodgrains and other necessi-ties based on a caste-wise division of labour, which has endured for over two thousand years, is fast breaking down all over rural India, and is likely to disappear in the near future. Production will become freed fromjati division of labour, economic relations will become au-tonomous, and grain payments will be replaced by cash. Indian rural society is moving from status to contract. An essential characteristic of the system was hierarchy, which expressed itself in the idiom of ritual purity and impurity. This hierarchy is breaking down under the im-pact of new ideas of democracy, equality, and individual self-respect. While caste as a system is dead or dying, individual castes are thriving [Srinivas 2003: 459, emphasis in the original]. G S Ghurye, one of the founders of sociology in India, had observed long back in his classic work on caste (1932: 26-28) that the community aspect of caste and caste patriotism were increas-ing at the expense of harmony of parts – of course, parts which were subordinated to one another. Srinivas made similar obser-vations in his 1955 paper: “The horizontal solidarity of a caste gained at the expense of the vertical solidarity of castes in a re-gion. … In general, it may be confidently said that the last hun-dred years have seen a great increase in caste solidarity, and the concomitant decrease of a sense of interdependence between dif-ferent castes living in a region” (p 136). Subsequently, a number of scholars formulated their understanding of changes in caste in substantially the same way, though in different words: from Caste in the 21st Century: From System to ElementsA M ShahThe argument that while caste as a system is more or less dead, individual castes are flourishing is widely accepted. However, the notion of “caste as a system” is derived mainly from studies of the rural rather than the urban community. In this article, individual caste is seen in the context of both rural and urban communities and its several aspects, particularly the rule of endogamy as its defining criterion, are analysed at some length and some implications of the analysis are pointed out.This is a revised and enlarged text of my Diamond Jubilee Lecture at the Ethnographic and Folk Culture Society, Lucknow on February 24, 2007. I thank the members of the society, particularly its general secretary Sukant Chaudhuri, for invitation and hospitality. I thank B S Baviskar, P C Joshi, G K Karanth, Lancy Lobo, P J Patel, Tulsi Patel and N R Sheth for comments on the draft of this article.
SPECIAL ARTICLEnovember 3, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly110cooperation to competition; from hierarchy todifference,divi-sion, separation or repulsion; from whole to parts; from system to elements or units; from structure to substance. Rural versus Urban CasteWhile I agree with the main thrust of the above formulation, I have one major disagreement: the idea of caste as a system is that of caste in the rural community, and ignores caste in the tradi-tional, pre-modern urban community.1 After all, India has had urban communities since the time of the Indus Valley civilisation, centuries before Christ. They have grown in number and size over the centuries, and caste has existed in them for as long as we have had knowledge about their social system. I have argued at some length elsewhere (1982, 1988), and I P Desai joined me in arguing in our book (1988), that it would be false to assume that the nature of caste in cities was the same as that in villages in the past, and therefore our understanding of changes in caste would be unreal if it were based entirely on our understanding of rural caste. In fact, urban caste has acquired increasing salience with the steady march of urbanisation during the second half of the 20th century and its rapid march projected by demographers for the 21st century. Already, practically one out of every three Indi-ans now lives in an urban area, and the figure is likely to be one out of every two during this century. Some parts of India, such as Goa, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, are likely to touch this figure sooner than other parts.2 Along with this demographic possibility, we should keep in mind two social facts. One, since the population of most castes is spread both in villages and in towns, the culture of the urban section in any caste spreads easily to its rural section. And, two, the urban centres wield disproportionately greater influence in society as a whole in comparison with the size of their population. It would not be an exaggeration to predict that urban caste will overwhelm rural caste during the 21st century. Focus on Rural CasteAn understanding of urban caste, both in the past and the present, is therefore imperative for a comprehensive understanding of caste.Unfortunately,however, most sociologists and social anthro-pologists during the second half of the 20th century, i e, during the first phase of modern Indian sociology and social anthropology, focused their attention on rural rather than urban caste, and their general formulations about both structure and change in Indian society were based largely on observation of rural society. One often encountered the statement, “India is a land of villages”. Many stated that although people lived in towns, their social in-stitutions were rural in character. Many considered caste as essentially rural, or as having its origin in rural society, and therefore rural even if it prevailed in cities. For example, Andre Beteille wrote in an essay, “Caste merely represents a systematisation and elaboration of ideas and values which are present as important ingredients in most agrarian societies” (1974: 39). In another essay, he wrote, “One cannot help being struck by the remarkable association between caste or caste-likeorganisationsand the agrarian way of life” (ibid: 60). He then quoted with approval, Michael Young’s statement,“The soil grows caste, the machine makes classes” (ibid: 64). Apart from such statements involving the view that the Indian village consisted of mainly, if not only, agricultural castes, they assumed that castes were rural in origin wherever they existed. I do not belittle the significance of village studies but I would submit that Indian sociology has suffered from a certain imbalance on account ofitsrelativeneglect of intensive studies of towns and cities. Due to this approach, the dominant view of caste system re-mained rural. For my present purpose, it is not necessary to dwell at length on the nature of pre-modern urban caste. I would mention here, only briefly, how urban caste was in general different from rural caste roughly at the beginning of the 19th century. The village was a small community divided into a relatively small number of castes; the population of each caste was also small, sometimes only one or two households, with little possibil-ity of the existence of sub-castes. Inter-caste relationsoperatedin aface-to-facecommunity and overlapped with relations of a number of different types; in brief, they were multiplex. In the city, on the other hand, the population was divided into a large number of castes, and most of them had each a large population, often subdivided up to what I have called divisions of the second, third and even fourth order, i e, sub-caste, sub-sub-caste, and sub-sub-sub-caste (1982). Sometimes a division could even be a self-contained endogamous unit. The members of one caste would interact with members of only some of the other castes and that too with different degrees of intensity. Also, there were many different spheres of interaction, with partial or minimal overlap between them. In most, if not all, urban centres, the Hindu castes lived along with one or more of non-Hindu groups, such as Christian, Jain, Jew, Muslim, Parsi and Sikh.3 Many included Europeans, the most common among them being the British. This fact, along with the fact of multiplicity of castes and sub-castes among the Hindus, restricted the ‘jajmani’ type of inter-caste relations to only a few castes and made the economic relations between most castes contractual and market-oriented. The relations of a Hindu merchant with othermerchantsand craftsmen, both Hindu and non-Hindu, provided a model in respect of economic and social relations in the town.4 Even the service castes could be a part of contractual and market relations. Let me give just one example. In a small town in Gujarat that I know well, there were both Hindu and Muslim barbers,andmanyHindus usedtheservices of either, paying in cash per piece of work. The Hindus required a Hindu barber’s servicesonly inthe context of certainrituals, and here also, he was paid per piece of work. On the whole, the principle of difference, division or separa-tion competed with the principle of hierarchy in urban caste. In other words, the relations between castes were characterised more by juxtaposition than by hierarchy, and more by a sense of being different than by a sense of being higher or lower. This does not mean that the principle of hierarchy did not operate in the city, but just the principle of separation imposed limitations on it.Urban HeterogeneityWe should go a step further. The social and cultural heterogeneity of the city provided a congenial ground for innovation and change, including ideas and movements against caste hierarchy.
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly november 3, 2007111Romila Thapar is perhaps right in attributing the rise of hetero-dox sects such as Buddhism and Jainism in ancient India to the growth of urban centres (1984: 109, 153-54). A large number of social thinkers who later propagated against the hierarchical features of caste came from urban centres. Even Louis Dumont, the most ardent advocate of hierarchy as the overarching principle of caste, did not rule out the possibility of separation existing as an independent principle. He wrote in his book,Homo Hierarchicus, “It is not claimed that separation, or even ‘repulsion’, may not be present somewhere as an independ-ent factor”. He did not give importance to this possibility because, as he stated, “What is sought here is a universal formula, a rule without exceptions” (1972: 346, n 55b). At least one of these ex-ceptions was, I think, urban caste. Dumont himself clarified that he neglected urban caste (ibid: 172). In my view, this neglect was due to the city being the prime site for the principle of difference, division, separation, or repulsion. The main point is that an emphasis on individual caste was al-ready a feature of pre-modern urban caste to a certain extent. The new economic, political, social and ideological forces of the 19th and 20th centuries affected first the urban centres, and strengthened the emphasis on individual caste in them. Gradually, the rural economy and society also came under the impactof these forces, and caste as a systemlostitsstrength,givingwayto emphasis on individual caste. Boundaries of Individual CasteWith the growing emphasis on individual caste, its identity emerged as the prime characteristic of caste during the 20th century.What shape it takes during the 21st century should be considered a prime sociological problem. I discuss some of its aspects here. Every caste, in its quest for maintaining its unity, faces the problem of maintaining its boundaries. As long as a caste unit is small, with its population spread over a small number of villages and towns in an area, it is able to maintain its boundaries more or less successfully. A large caste, with its population spread con-tinuously in village after village and in towns over a large area, often in two or more districts in a state, and sometimes, even in two or more states, faces enormous problems in maintaining its identity. Two major developments during the 20th century have complicated these problems: one, a tendency to break the bound-aries of sub-castes and amalgamate them into the larger caste; and two, dispersal of the population of almost every caste over a larger area due to migration, not only within but also outside In-dia. A few castes became huge conglomerates, each with its pop-ulation spread over two or more states within India and a sub-stantial population in other countries of the world. We now live in an era of mega castes. Castes too are globalised.Four traditional mechanisms of maintaining caste boundaries became weak, and more or less broke down, during the 20th century: (1) The prohibition on exchange of water and food (called ‘roti vyavahar’ in northern and western India) between castes, even between the former untouchables and the others, has practically disappeared in urban areas and is on the way out in the rural areas. This development is part of the general decline in ideas of purity and pollution throughout theHindusociety;5 (2)Thedistinctivecustoms and institutions – the diacritical marks – of every caste are gradually disappearing, and a certain cultural uniformity is emerging in society. In the past, one could identify a person’s caste by looking at his/her dress, listening to his/her speech, and watching his/her general bearing. Gone are those days, not only in towns, but also in many villages. Similarly, the rites of passage and other rituals are also becoming uniform. The uniformity is emerging because of the increasing spread of both sanskritisation and westernisation.6 To take just one exam-ple regarding sanskritisation, the wedding rituals among a sec-tion of the dalits in Gujarat I observed recently are as sanskritic as those of the upper castes.7 And to take just one example re-garding westernisation, even village girls have begun to wear jeans; (3) The traditional, close, though not invariable, relation-ship between caste and occupation has more or less disappeared, and almost every caste is now multi-occupational; and (4) The caste panchayat as custodian of rules and regulations of caste, an important boundary-maintenance mechanism, has practically disappeared not only in towns and cities, but also in most villages. Thereareveryfew castes now with a mechanism for imposing punitive action against violation of its rules by its members. On the whole, the defenders of caste boundaries have a hard time.Endogamy versus HypergamyIt is widely believed that, among the traditional boundary-main-tenance mechanisms of individual castes, the most powerful has beentheruleofcasteendogamy. It is the hardest nut to crack, as isoften said. It is considered the defining characteristic of caste, because it alone decides the hereditary nature of caste member-ship. It has also acquired legal sanction since protective discrimi-nation was provided on the basis of caste and tribe in the Indian Constitution in 1951. Every caste or tribe included in the three categories of backward classes (scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and Other Backward Classes) is assumed to have discrete boundaries due to the assumption of endogamy. Nevertheless, the rule of caste endogamy requires critical examination. Although the scriptures enjoined upon all Hindus to observe the rule of caste endogamy, they also provided for ‘anuloma’ (hy-pergamous) and ‘pratiloma’ (hypogamous) marriages, both of which violated the rule. The Dharmashastras sanctionedanulo-ma marriage [Kane 1941: 50-66]. In hypergamy, a woman of a lower caste married a man of an upper caste, but it did not in-volve a man from a lower caste marrying a woman from an upper caste. In hypogamy, it was the reverse. Almost every large caste used to have internal hypergamy related to its internal hierarchy. Internal hypergamy created surplus of marriageable women at the upper rungs and their shortage at the lower rungs. The latter usually led men to marry women from acceptable lower castes and caste-like groups such as tribes. Intra-caste hypergamy was thus intimately linked with inter-caste hypergamy. While hypogamy was rare, hypergamy was widespread. The historical as well as ethnographic literature mentions innumer-able castes arising out of hypergamous marriages, with appro-priate myths of origin concocted by bards and by authors of puranas to legitimise them. Such myth-makers, brahmin as well
SPECIAL ARTICLEnovember 3, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly112asnon-brahmin, have existed since ancient times [see Shah and Shroff 1958; Das 1968; Thapar 1984; Shah 1986].In early ethnography, Denzil Ibbetson, superintendent of the 1881 Census of Panjab, was perhaps the first to report on hyper-gamy (1883: 356). Not only that, Herbert Risley, the commissioner of the 1901 Census of India,8 in his monumental work,The People of India, even credited Ibbetson with “inventing” the term (1915: 163,fn).9 Risley provided a general account of the custom, putting together evidence from different parts of India (ibid: 163-71, 178-81, 184-85). He thought, “[the custom] to be of great anti-quity, and to prevail in India over a wide area at the present day” (ibid: 165). The later census and other ethnographic reports dur-ing the colonial times are replete with references to hypergamy. JH Hutton, the commissioner of the 1931 Census of India,10 the last caste-based census with published results, stated in his well known book on caste, “[Hypergamy] is a widespread feature of the caste system” (1946: 53). McKim Marriott, in a recent paper on varna and jati (2004: 358) based on an extensive study of historical materials since the ancient times as well as modern ethnographic literature, states, “Since the nineteeth century, jatis have been widely but mistak-enly equated with theoretical “castes” – entities imagined from fragmentary, mostly priestly, information to be uniform, strictly hereditary isolates … The ‘rigid caste system’ made up of a collec-tion of such entities is not likely ever to have existed …” If violation of caste endogamy was thus widespread in pre-modern India, then why is caste endogamy considered as the de-fining criterion of caste in modern India? It seems to me that the British bureaucracy and judiciary, looking for certainty in Hindu custom in their efforts to codify customary law, played an impor-tant, if not the decisive, role in defining caste as a strictly endoga-mous group. They were helped in coming to this conclusion by the orthodox pandits and shastris whom they consulted for expert opinion. This conclusion was more or less accepted in scholarship on caste. It also led to vigorous attempts to show castes as racial groups, supported by anthropometric measurements. This enter-prise failed, though the idea continues to raise its head among vested interests around the world from time to time. All in all, the faith in endogamy as the defining characteristic of caste was so strong that it led to relative neglect of intensive study of hypergamy in modern sociology and social anthropology. We have only a few good studies, but not sufficient to give a wider and deeper view. Study of HierarchyAnother factor contributing to this neglect was the dominant concern for studying hierarchy or vertical unity of castes, and lesser concern for studying the horizontal unity of individual castes. The caste hierarchy was studied usually in a village or a few neighbouring villages. The study of horizontal unity, on the other hand, required observation of the population of a caste spread over a large area. Only such observation can help observe hypergamy adequately. Let me narrate briefly my field experiencein this respect. When I first went to my field village in Kheda district in Gujarat in 1955, I went with the assumption of caste endogamy. And indeed every caste in the village appeared discrete. For ex-ample, the dominant caste of rajputs always claimed that their marriages were confined to their caste. There was no way of checking this in the village, because no rajput marriage took placein the village or even in the neighbouring villages. However, once I accompanied a rajput groom’s party (‘jan’ in Gujarati, ‘barat’ in Hindi) going to the bride’s village located far away in another district. I discovered that the bride belonged to the lower caste of koli. This experience put me on the trail of a number of other such marriages,whichhelped me understand the hypergamy be-tween kolis and rajputs, and the kolis’ claimtobeingrajputsand kshatriyas.Later I observed, and read literature on, hypergamy among other castes and tribes in Gujarat as well as in the neigh-bouring regions [Shah 1982; Shah and Desai 1988; Shah 2002].11 In pre-modern India, most Hindus, of course, practised endog-amy, but there was also hypergamous relationship between many lower and upper castes as an accepted norm. Hypergamy was far more prevalent than we might like to believe.12 The most well known case is that of hypergamous relation between the rajputs or kshatriyas, on the one hand and many peasant castes, as also tribes, on the other, all over western, central, northern and east-ern India. Other well known cases are those of relations between marathas and kunbis in Maharashtra [Orenstein 1963; Carter 1974; Deshpande 2004], between patidars and kunbis in Gujarat [Pocock 1954, 1957, 1972 and Shah 1982, 2002], and the unique case of hypergamy between the matrilineal nairs and the patri-lineal namboodiri brahmins in Kerala. Hypergamy provides a rope to a lower caste to help it rise in social status, to claim equality with a higher caste, and eventually to adopt its name. Usually, the upper caste opposes this claim. There is at play here a complex process of inclusion and exclusion – the lower caste trying to get included in the higher one, and thelatter trying to exclude it (for a pioneering analysis of this process, see Pocock 1954). Hypergamy thus implies loose and fluid caste boundaries. Significantly, this boundary affects not only the relationship between the hypergamously married hus-band and wife but also their children and other relatives, patri-lateral, matrilateral and affinal. Many of the numerous cases of lower castes claiming to be higher ones reported in the reports of the Census of India for var-ious British administered provinces and princely states from 1871 to 1931 arose out of hypergamy. These claims were made in order to seek legitimacy from the government for higher ritual and so-cial status. The census officials declared their verdict on what they considered was the actual status. After reservations for backward classes became operational in independent India, a lower caste in hypergamous relation with a higher caste usually claims to be included in the backward class category with a view to get advantages of reservation. However, it continues to prac-tise hypergamy, and claims simultaneously to be a higher caste for ritual and social purposes. Such a caste is thus both “forward” and “backward”. This is a contradiction, but Indian society seems to have chosen to live with it.Hypergamy among TribesLike lower castes, many tribal groups all over the country, except perhaps the north-east, have hypergamous relationship with certain castes in their vicinity. We have known through the pioneering
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly november 3, 2007113work of Surajit Sinha (1962, 1965) how a number of tribes in cen-tral India have used hypergamy to claim to be rajputs and kshatri-yas [see also Dube 1977:passim]. Similarly, Deliege’s book shows how the bhils, a large and widely spread tribe in western India, practised hypergamy with the rajputs (1985: 8, 42, 96-97, 118, 152, 156). Many families in these tribes were rich and powerful, usually tribal chieftains claiming to be rajas, and they were able to get their women married into established, though lower sta-tus, rajput families, and then claim rajput and kshatriya status. Hypergamy enables tribal groups to claim equal status with the castes receiving their women as wives, thus making the boundary between tribe and caste blurred. Many tribal groups seem to have become castes by this process in history. It is well known that female infanticide prevailed in a number of castes during the 19th century and continued perhaps for a few decades during the 20th century. Risley saw its relation with hy-pergamy (1915: 173-78), and recent researches have confirmed it [Vishwanath 2000]. The two together created, as mentioned ear-lier, shortage of marriageable women at the lower rungs of inter-nal hierarchy of a caste, which in turn led to marriages of its men with women in other, usually lower, castes and tribes. In recent times, the increasing incidence of female foeticide has resulted in a similar situation, perhaps on a larger scale, in several parts of India. It is reported, for example, that many men in Haryana and Punjab are bringing women for marriage from as far-off as Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. We do not know the consequences of such hypergamy for the concerned castes at both ends. If one gets tempted to think that the rule of caste endogamy was being violated only at the lower ends of caste hierarchy, it would be a mistake. It could be violated even at the highest level. To understand this, we should keep in view the fact that every raja or maharaja belonged to a caste (jati) in a region and stood at the apex of its internal hierarchy. If we take into consideration all the Hindu royal families from Nepal to Kanyakumari and from Manipur to Saurashtra, they belonged to a large number of different jatis. Even the claim that all of them belonged to the same varna, namely, kshatriya, was not always sustained; there were subtle arguments against it. If marriage alliances of the members of these royal families are examined closely,13 they would show how the rule of caste endogamy was violated at the highest level of Hindu society. Hypergamy operatedinthiscontext also,withtherajput royal families of Rajasthan occupying the highest position and receiving brides from royal families in the rest of India but not giving brides to them in return. Modern Inter-Caste MarriageIn addition to the traditional hypergamous inter-caste marriages discussed above, there are inter-caste marriages taking place under the influence of westernisation and modernisation. That such marriages are increasing rapidly in urban areas is well known, but they are also increasing slowly in rural areas. Opposition to them has weakened to such an extent that the defenders of caste boundaries are finding it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to punish such newly wed spouses by throwing them out of their respective castes. As mentioned earlier, hardly any caste panchayat is now left in urban areas, and the few left in rural areas are hardly able to take such punitive action. In any case, such punish-ment is no longer a real threat. Modern law does not allow it. Dissolving CasteSince inter-caste marriages have been taking place for more than a century, there is now not only a second and third but even fourth generation population that does not have any caste. After an inter-caste marriage in one generation, usually the marriages of children of such a couple would be marriages between caste-less individu-als. The argument that a child born out of an inter-caste marriage inherits the father’s caste, will no longer work in view of increas-ing gender equality. The child may not like to inherit the mother’s caste either. S/he might choose not to have any caste at all. Inter-caste marriages appear to be an inevitable change in view of changes taking place in a number of spheres of culture and society, the most important being the rising age at marriage, the ideology of freedom of choice in marriage, the increasing freedom in gender relations in educational institutions, in the workplace, in the performing arts, and in entertainment activities, and the powerful role of both the print and the electronic media in spreading the idea of freedom of choice in marriage. To understand inter-caste marriage adequately, we have to take into account the structural distance between the castes of the spouses. I have shown [Shah 1982; Shah and Desai 1988] how a caste (jati) of the first order is divided often into divisions of up to the third order, in other words, into sub-sub-sub-castes. When the movement for inter-caste marriage began in the beginning of the 20th century, if not earlier, inter-caste marriages took place between divisions of the lowest order, i e, the third order. The connubial field then widened gradually during the century. Now-adays, marriages are taking place between the major castes, i e, divisions of the first order, for example, between brahmins and banias or between kayasthas and jats. In addition, marriages are taking place, particularly in large cities, between castes of one region and another, for example, between a Punjabi and a Tamil Hindu, or between a Gujarati and a Bengali Hindu. There are also marriages between tribes and castes, which are virtually like inter-caste marriages. Finally, add to all these marriages among the Hindus the marriages between Hindus and members of other religions. The advocates of caste-based census will have to provide in the questionnaire, a box, “No Caste”, for respondents to tick and I am sure they will find the total number of caste-less people in the country quite substantial. The caste ideologues all over the country are alarmed by the changing marriage scenario. They are devising a variety of strat-agems to counter the trend, mainly through caste associations. As mentioned earlier, punitive measures are more or less ruled out. Therefore, the leaders in every caste focus on creating a number of opportunities for young boys and girls of the caste to meet and engage in such activities as would facilitate their know-ing each other intimately and they can then decide to marry. The elders tell the youth, “You have the freedom to marry according to your choice, but confine your choice to your caste”. To put it in popular language, it is “love marriage” within the caste. Ofall the stratagems, structurally the most significant is the stratagem
SPECIAL ARTICLEnovember 3, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly114to widen the field for choice by organising activities for the larger caste, because it also has political implications. It is not surprising that politicians often attend these gatherings. However, it appears at present that the defenders of caste boundaries are unlikely to succeed in halting the march of inter-caste marriages, which is ba-sically the march of the individual’s freedom of choice in marriage. Social analysts will have to follow this march carefully during the 21st century. Caste and RelativesDue to caste endogamy, every individual’s network of relatives by kinship and marriage was confined to his/her caste. This network included: (a) patrilineal kin, descended from a common ancestor by several, usually seven, generations14 and (b) a number of relatives on the side of mother, sister, wife, father’s mother, father’s sister, mother’s mother, mother’s sister, wife’s father, mother and brother, and so on. Sometimes, an individual was related with another in-dividual by two or more of such relationships. That such overlap-ping relationships prevailed in south India, mainly due to close-kin marriage, is well known. They prevailed in north India, too, but unfortunately we do not have adequate research on them. The network of relatives occupied the social space between the individual and his/her caste, and mediated between them. Any caste could be visualised as composed of a series of interlocking networks of relatives. The number of such networks would be small in a small caste, so much so that an entire caste could be one large network. I have known endogamous units in Gujarat composed of just two or three hundred households each, so much so that almost all of them can be placed on one genealogical chart. On the other hand, large castes like koli, maratha, okkali-ga, jat or yadav had a widely spread series of networks of rela-tives. For an individual in a large caste, the network of relatives was the most immediate representation of his/her caste. Some networks could be so tightly knit that they would look like sub-castes. A large, widely spread, caste was in fact a congeries of castes rather than a single cohesive caste entity. The networks of relatives thus worked as the foundation of a caste. Even when caste panchayats were active and powerful, they had to operate through networks of relatives. The main reason was that most of the panchayat members used to be leaders of these networks. While a small caste would have only one pan-chayat, a large one had a series of panchayats, with possibility of cooperation as well as conflict between them. These networks are now shrinking in urban centres, both in size as well as in intensity of relationship. Large lineage groups with deep genealogies are difficult to find in one place, because of migrations of members in many different directions both within and outside India. Even joint families with genealogical depth of three or four generations have been losing spatial cohesion. The same is true of relationships by marriage. An individual interacts with just a few close relatives becausean increasing number of marriages are now taking place outside the erstwhile caste unit, and even within such a caste they tend to be with previously unrelated members. All in all, the networks of relatives are gradually weakening as the foundation for unity of individual caste. Caste associations have emerged as an important new institution supporting individual castes since at least the beginning of the 20th century. Initially, they were small units set up in large cities to promote welfare of the members of the caste in the city. Gradu-ally they diversified their welfare activities as well as spread their membership to include small towns and villages. There are now caste, sub-caste and even sub-sub-caste associations in every city and at the local, regional, national and even international levels. Usually they have written constitutions, with membership fees, rules, regulations, offices, elections and so on. Many are regis-tered under the Societies Registration Act or the Public Trusts Act, and some claim to beNGOs. While a few associations with manifest political aims came into existence quite early in the 20th century,most of such associations were formed after independence with a view to represent the caste in electoral politics and to ad-vance its claims for benefits of reservation. Caste AssociationsAlthough a caste association might claim to represent the caste as a whole, membership of no caste association, as far as I know, is coterminous with membership of the entire caste. The main rea-son is that every member of the caste is not always interested in becoming a member of the association, and even though s/he might be a member, s/he might not participate actively in its ac-tivities. Some associations are only caucuses, with false claims of representing the entire caste. Every caste is internally differenti-ated in wealth, prestige and power, and therefore, no caste asso-ciation represents the interests of the entire caste. Every caste has internal politics, often with rival associations. There can be conflict even on vital issues. Let me illustrate. I P Desai, as a member of the Second Socially and Educationally Backward Class Commission of Gujarat (popularly known as the Rane Commission), had received petitions from a large number of caste associations. He gave me a huge pile of them for perusal. I found that, from a number of castes, more than one association in each had submitted petitions, one demanding status and the other opposing it. Desai himself reported two such cases in our book (1988: 87, 122). Let us hope some members of the numerous caste/tribe commissions will tell us – provided they are not bound by oath of secrecy – how they went about deciding the inclusion or exclusion of castes/tribes in the relevant schedule. This informa-tion will throw a lot of light on the nature of individual castes. One may be tempted to think that the modern caste associa-tion is only another form of the traditional caste panchayat. This is far from reality. The fundamental difference is that, while the panchayat had disciplinary authority, the association does not have it. Of course, the associations have taken upon themselves the role of facilitating endogamous marriage, and thus maintain caste boundaries, but how far they will succeed in this role has to be watched. Some Implications of the AnalysisThe above analysis should have indicated that every individual caste has had complex internal structure and organisation. There was considerable economic, social and political differen-tiation in every caste. No caste should be viewed as a monolith,
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly november 3, 2007115with its members having had egalitarian relationships in the past. Except a few castes of highly skilled craftsmen and scribes residing in the city, the population of every caste was divided intoruraland urban sections. The caste leaders usually lived in the town, and the rural-urban inequality expressed itself in rural-urban hypergamy. Every peasant caste, for example, had large landlords, holding land under feudal tenures, usually residing in thetown,and playing part in regional politics. Every merchant caste had big businessmen and financiers residing in the town and petty shopkeepers in villages. Even the ex-untouchable castes were differentiated. If I may use the language of current discourse on protective discrimination, a “creamy layer” of some sort or other existed in every caste, and is by no means a modern phenomenon. The internal differentiation in every caste has increased during the 20th century and is likely to in-crease further during the 21st century. Therefore, the identity of a caste should not be assumed to be an unambiguous reality; it has to be cultivated continuously by a variety of means. This is true much more now when all caste identities are threatened by modern social, cultural and ideological forces. That castes play an important role in politics is well known. However, we do not have, as yet, even an outline of the precise nature of relation between the internal structure and organisa-tion of individual caste and its role in wider politics. The main reason is a general failure to grasp the nature of individual caste. It is reified, and seen as a monolith, ignoring its internal structure and organisation. Let us take, as an illustration, the studies of electoral politics, where caste figures so prominently. On the whole, we are led to believe that caste plays a dominant, if not decisive, role in this arena. That this is a facile assessment is shown in a recent collection of essays based on field studies of elections in small communities, both rural and urban, in differ-ent parts of India [Shah 2007]. Gupta (2000: 148-76) has also shown how there is no correlation between the caste composition of voters in a constituency and the election results. The main rea-son is that every caste is highly differentiated, such that its mem-bers even in a village do not always vote en bloc. Actually, caste is onlyoneofthe many factors influencing voting behaviour. The politicalparties and candidates always try to mobilise voters on caste basis, but their success depends a great deal on the matrix of various factors in a locality. The arena in which caste plays the most crucial political role is that of reservations for the backward classes. Here also, there are significant differences between its role in the three categories of backwardclasses, i e, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, and other backward classes (that is castes). All the same, the schedule for each category includes individual castes and tribes, the boundaries of each of which are assumed to be discrete. Since the statutory benefits have to be given only to the bonafide members of a caste or tribe in the schedule, its boundaries have to be clear-ly defined. After all, when an individual wants to get benefits of reservation, s/he has to produce a certificate of being a member of the caste or tribe included in the schedule. Since the Census of India has been conducting the census of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes every 10 years since 1951, it is generally assumed that all is well with the data about them. However, how far the Census of India takes care of the changing ground realities regarding the boundaries of every caste and tribe included in the schedule should be examined. As regards the other backward classes, there is no reliable data about them since 1931. During the last three quarters of a century, the bound-aries of almost every one of them have changed and become quite fuzzy. Even the names of many of them have changed. Therefore,the data about their population, education, employ-ment, income, and so on, are bound to be dubious. It is no won-der we read contradictory proportions and percentages about them in the newspapers, and the law courts demand accurate data from the government. Census CollectionSince the boundaries of many castes are loose and fluid, at the present time it would be impossible for the Census of India, the National Sample Survey organisation, or any other investigating agency to collect reliable information about boundaries of castes and tribes, and then, about their population. These agencies would face several complicated problems in their investigations. Should their field investigator at the ground level record only what the respondent says, or should s/he investigate the truth – status in the context of societal relationships or in the context of getting the benefits of reservation? How does s/he ensure that the respondent does not answer under pressure from the local politicians? Is the investigator properly trained to be able to cap-ture the social reality on the ground? If s/he fails to get the cor-rect information, should his/her boss in the state capital decide the way the census officials during the colonial times decided? How will the boss decide? Does s/he have the requisite expertise? In the case of a caste whose population is spread over vast areas – not only over many districts in a state, but often also over two or more states – how will s/he reconcile the varied responses? Are there competent anthropologists and sociologists in suffi-cient number in the Anthropological Survey of India, or in the office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of In-dia, or in any other government agency, to give reliable opinion? Finally, a basic question: does the Constitution empower the state to force a citizen to declare the name of her/his “real” caste if s/he chooses not to declare it? During 1871-1931, the Census of India was not always success-ful in identifying caste and tribe boundaries. Now, in the first decade of the 21st century, when these boundaries – even those of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes – are known to be fuzzy, should the state take upon itself the job of identifying them, a job it in any case cannot perform successfully? It is also likely that the efforts to fix caste and tribe boundaries might lead to violent conflicts. In this situation, should the government become an agency to impose rigidity on caste and tribe boundaries, and should the judiciary endorse it by considering castes and tribes as discrete units? That is, should the state take a retrograde step to-wards caste-and-tribe bound society? If not, then should the state indulge in providing reservations based on caste and tribe? It is rarely realised that to support caste-based reservations is also to support caste endogamy; in other words, to support the restriction on freedom of choice in marriage. In this context, it is
SPECIAL ARTICLEnovember 3, 2007 Economic & Political Weekly116noteworthy that many of the politicians championing the cause of caste-based reservations are themselves violators of the rule of caste endogamy as well as of many other customs of their caste. If they have themselves not married outside their caste, their chil-dren and grandchildren would have. The main reason is that once a politician climbs high by using the caste ladder, s/he and her/his family move to a city, may be to a mega city such as Delhi or Mumbai, and then become part of its metropolitan culture – its numerous non-caste social networks and institutions. One of the dominant features of this culture is individual freedom, includ-ing freedom from the bonds of caste, which contradicts the em-phasis on caste boundaries implied in caste-based reservations. The supporters of caste-based reservations include many caste-less intellectuals. Even though they would announce loudly that they do not believe in caste and would have actually broken caste boundaries in marriage and otherwise in personal life, they nevertheless support caste-based reservations. They think that reservations are “progressive” and would lead to empowerment of the backward classes, which in turn would lead to a caste-less society. In effect, however, these intellectuals become indirect, if not direct, supporters of caste endogamy and thus opponents of freedom of choice in marriage. This is a contradiction, but India seems to have chosen to live with it. I hope I have given some idea of how the dynamics of individu-al caste is likely to be the dominant feature of caste during the 21st century. Therefore, the study of this dynamics should become a prime concern of sociological and social anthropological research in the coming decades. This does not mean that we abandon the study of hierarchy, but we have to identify its changing nature, and place individual castes in the changing social and cultural environment. All this will require us to devise new strategies of research, particularly in urban areas. The method of intensive fieldwork will have to occupy an important place in these strate-gies as ever, but it will have to be used with innovations. Email: arvindmshahdse@yahoo.comNotes 1 For my other disagreements with this formulation, see my book (2002) on a village in Gujarat in the early 19th century. 2 According to the 2001 Census, the urban population of India formed 27.8 per cent, and according to the projections made by an expert committee appointed by the census organisation it will be 33.5 per cent in 2026. In 2001, the urban percentage for Goa was 49.8, Gujarat 37.4, Maharashtra 42.4, and Tamil Nadu 44.0 [see Registrar General and Census Commissioner 2006]. 3 The Jews had spread not only all along the west coast but also in the interior as far north as at least Ahmedabad and Baroda. Two small old synagogues have survived in these cities. 4 See also Mattison Mines’ paper (1982) on a caste of artisan-merchants in Tamil Nadu for a similar argument on models of rural versus urban caste. 5 I have developed this point in my forthcoming paper, ‘Purity, Impurity, Untouchabil-ity: Then and Now’. 6 For an elaboration of this point, see Srinivas (1966) and Shah (2005, 2006). 7 The demand for dalit priests performing Sanskritic rituals is so high that the Gujarat government’s department of scheduled caste welfare has been organising, since 2000-01, a course to train them inKarmakand (performance of rituals according to scriptures). 8 Risley occupied several other important positions, including the directorship of the Ethnological Survey of India.The People of India was published originally in 1908, and its second edition edited by W Crooke in 1915. 9 Ibbetson himself, however, acknowledged that he was indebted to Coldstream, one of his officers, for the word “hypergamy”. He explained, “Hypergamy indeed would appear rather to mean ‘too much marriage’ than ‘marriage in a higher rank’; but the highest classical authority in India prefers it …” (1983: p 356, fn 3). This authority was possibly an eminent scholar of the Dharmasastras writing on anuloma marriage. 10 Hutton later became professor of social anthropology at the University of Cambridge. 11 I have cited as much ethnographic evidence as I could collect in support of this obser-vation in Shah and Desai 1982: pp 11-18, 37-38 n 8-16. 12 It seems inter-caste hypergamy prevailed to a lesser extent in south India, possibly because of close kin marriage there. 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