Event ReportsPublished on Jan 20, 2016
Caste hierarchy breaking down in urban India

The meaning of caste has changed and it has reshaped, argued Dr. Ashutosh Varshney, Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at the Watson Institute of International Studies, and Department of Political Science Brown University, during a discussion on his paper ‘Caste and Religion in the Era of Economic Growth’ organised by Observer Research Foundation, Delhi on 19 January, 2016.

Dr. Varshney said the caste hierarchy, as it traditionally existed, is breaking down in Urban India. He said a survey highlighted that in metros and other cities, a staggering 70% and 50% of the people, respectively, didn’t know the dominant caste in their area. Most of the remaining also identified the castes in terms of population size and wealth and not the traditional view of pollution and purity.

Dr. Varshney pointed out that Wealth and size aren’t the traditional characteristics of caste identification.

Another key statistic Dr Varshney pointed out was the inter-caste marriage trend. While 70% lower caste people were willing to marry person from a higher caste, a phenomenal 50% upper caste people were willing to marry persons from a lower caste as long as they are rich. This is vital as newer caste identities are breaking the endogamy principle of caste.

Moving on to the issue of religion, Dr. Varshney stated that a survey cited in the paper points out that more people in cities reported to praying daily or once a week and attending religious gatherings. In comparison to the United States and Europe where economic growth has seen conflicting trends in religiosity, the author claimed that the Indian scenario was more similar to that of the US. While in Europe, there was a political rebellion against religion, there was no such rebellion in the US. The author claims in India, politics would not be the agents of secularization, unlike Europe.

The second argument Dr. Varshney made was that rioting across the country has seen a downward trend. In terms of the number of reported deaths and incidents of rioting among Hindus and Muslims, there has been a declining trend since 1993 after a period of increase from 1975-92.

He identified three factors that have resulted in the downward trend in rioting. First, as income increases, rioting decreases. It is at low income levels that more continuous rioting is experienced. The author also pointed out the increase in the state’s capacity to put out sparks before they become bigger issues also increase.

However, Dr. Varshney does not suggest that such a declining rioting trend would continue. This might not be the case when the state capacity reaches a certain threshold. Second, in areas where there is active business operations between Hindu and Muslim communities, there is less rioting as compared to areas where business is dispersed within communities. Therefore, the author argues that if economic growth is to bridge the gap between Hindus and Muslims, the downward trend in rioting would continue. But if economic growth were to develop intra-community bond, the downward trend may change. Third, the strategic use of communal violence for electoral politics is also relevant to determine the future of religious conflicts. The rise in Hindu nationality and animosity creates chances of communal clashes and rioting as long as Muslims do not remain mute. But the growth of BJP and Hindu right usually leads to the growth of the Muslim right who mobilize the people acting as their protectors.

Dr. Varshney noted that the long run trend, which depends more on income levels and Hindu-Muslim ties and less on the political class, would be that of declining riots.

While arguing that there is a downward trend in rioting, he also pointed out that this has not reduced the prejudice that exist between the two religions. This is similar to the USA where, while rioting and clashes between the communities has reduced, there are many instances of prejudice playing out, as in the number of African-Americans who are put in jail.

Dr. Varshney’s presentation was followed by a panel discussion with Prof. Surinder S. Jodhka of the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi and Prof. Ravinder Kaur of the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Delhi. Professor Jodhka appreciated the way cast was looked at, not as an irritant of the past, but as a social reality with its own dynamics. He pointed out that the moral expectation of a casteless society was not the correct way to study the issues. He added that the change in caste hierarchy was radical even in rural India, citing the example of Madhubani in Bihar. Another key point highlighted was that caste has always been a part of economic growth, but came much later into Indian economic planning.

Professor Kaur elucidated on the shifting caste identities in India and attributed it to the success of institutionalization of castes in terms of SC, OBC and pointed out that people have accepted the categorization with much less humiliation. She noted that the huge rate of immigration has even made it difficult for politicians to mobilize castes. She also pointed out that it is necessary to identify the interplay between caste and class in the present society. She questioned the argument regarding the breaking down of the endogamy principle by highlighting the fact that even today the marriage between the highest and the lowest castes are few and far between. On the aspect of religion, she argued that the ‘emerging middle class’ exhibits great religiosity and patronage to religion and that this religious patronage is much more in urban areas.

In response various questions relating to caste identities during the question and answer session, Dr. Varshney pointed out that the existence of prejudice and discrimination is very true but that even in rural areas, the identity is undergoing radical transformation. He  also noted the existence of communal tension and opined that fear is being felt very intensely today. He also noted the existence of regional identities, as opposed to caste identities, among migrants in different parts of the country.

(This report is prepared by Rajendran Nair Karakulam, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)

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