Like it or not, each and every one of us is marked into a caste by birth. We may or may not choose to follow a religion, but we are never fully disconnected from the caste group we belong to. Mainstream religion has thus far not been the primary category of discrimination, excluding the pockets of communal violence. Killing and maiming each other in the name of religion has been glaringly visible, while the question of contemporary caste based discrimination is largely unseen by the public eye, yet far more widespread.
India’s foray into a democratic system of governance and unprecedented levels of capitalistic development might make one question whether or not the caste system really exists today. But social and political scientist Rajni Kothari has pointed out that the existence of caste system is unquestionable. A social hierarchy so powerful, caste, a primarily Hindu system, has managed to invade even the people of other religious communities in south Asia. Hence the question should be what form the caste system has taken in the recent years and not whether it exists at all. [Rajni Kothari; Form and substance in Indian politics; 1961]
Proponents of caste based hierarchy have evolved from “Don’t eat from your friend’s tiffin. God knows what jati they belong to” to “People of our caste group are known for their bravery”; from prejudice against other castes to pride belonging to a certain community. If people do not follow untouchability and dine with everyone, they believe they’re free from all prejudice. But in all probability, they would still identify themselves as the member of a certain caste group and be proud of it. The Indian constitution, while deeming untouchability or any other caste based prejudice illegal, is silent about caste based associations. The Dalit upsurge and other such movements by the underprivileged classes resulted in the formation of caste based associations to enable them have a political voice. But this resulted in the dominant castes forming their own associations to soak in their own pride.
Another significant factor which perpetuates the caste system is arranged marriages. Around 5% of marriages that happen in India are inter-caste; the rest perpetuate their own caste systems and the norms unique to them. One look at matrimonial columns would confirm my statement. People mostly seek grooms or brides from their own caste. If they’re modern enough, they would mention ‘caste no bar’ but would add ‘SC/ST please excuse’ which is another form of discrimination. The recent storm created by a Mumbai-based gay rights activist whose mother had put an ad saying ‘groom wanted’ for her son was a tad bit disappointing for me because she had mentioned she would prefer an ‘Iyer’ (a sub caste of tamil Brahmins) groom. [The Hindu, 30 May 2015]
Some people would protest Brahmin domination, equating the caste system to something in the lines of white vs. black racist debate, a powerful Brahmin versus the oppressed rest. One of the famous proponents of this view was EVR Periyar. Dipankar Gupta has reminded us that there is no objective hierarchy of which caste is to be placed where in the caste hierarchy. Here, one must remember that the fourfold varna is different from caste. Also, he claims caste is not to be confused with race, citing the following example: ‘While blacks were despised they were not considered polluting. Imagine the horror that would be aroused in the home of a traditional privileged caste in India at the very suggestion of an untouchable cook in the kitchen. Thus, while racism at its height might consider blacks to be despicable, it did not regard them as polluting.’ [Dipankar Gupta; Caste, Race and politics] He also critiques the unilinear narrative of Brahmin vs. Non Brahmin by pointing out that various regions of India have had dominating and oppressed castes, for example- jats are against gujars- together they are against urban castes; kolis are against patidars; thevars oppress pallars or the devendrakula vellalas; the vanniyars torment adi dravidas [Dipankar Gupta]
Let us keep these nuances in mind before delving into a discussion about the caste system.