India recently announced plans to require its citizens to enter their caste in the 2011 national census, the first such count since the days of the British Raj. The plan has set off vigorous debate at home and is confounding many in the United States, where India’s—and other South Asian nations’—deeply embedded class hierarchy is often dismissed as antiquated and discriminatory. In fact, after gaining independence in 1947, India’s political leaders removed caste from all official records.
But the obligatory, far-reaching caste count, the first since the British census of 1931, would provide the basis for quotas for university enrollment spaces, government employment, social welfare and other entitlement programs. Caste distinctions are starting to blur among India’s expanding urban middle class, but caste is still synonymous with destiny in most of the subcontinent. The concept might be elusive to westerners, but most Indians would have trouble concealing their castes, which are reflected in surnames, villages, and occupations. As a glance at Indian matrimonial advertisements shows, even the nation’s millions of highly educated, globally oriented citizens continue to seek spouses only among their own castes or close subcastes. And although a very small percentage of India’s 160 million Dalits—once called “Untouchables”—now attend university and enter skilled professions, members of this former pariah population are still deemed unworthy of handling Brahmins’ food and are charged with the most menial, offensive tasks, like carting off human waste.
India’s four main castes—from privileged Brahmins and Kshatriya “warriors” to the Vaishya, or merchants, and Shudra, the laborers—have spawned hundreds of subcastes, which continue to sprout today. With its Hindu foundations and centuries of pragmatic refinements, it’s a potentially confusing, nuanced system that is often poorly understood by westerners. To put the census decision into historical and social perspective, BU Today spoke with Frank Korom, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of religion and anthropology, who has traveled and worked extensively in South Asia.
BU Today: What do you make of India’s decision to include caste in its upcoming census?
Korom: Caste has always been there. The last time, the caste census was to better serve the Raj; this time it’s to better serve individuals or the people as a whole. For the Raj it was a way of learning who was out there, the old divide-and-rule policy, and the census was a mechanism for this control. It was inherited by independent India, so I’m not surprised.
Among Indians, is it obvious who belongs to which caste?
The surname usually reflects the caste. Castes are occupationally based. And then you have the subcastes. But usually the name alerts you—it’s a carpenter name, a printer name, a priestly name, or one of the major Brahmin names, which can vary from region to region. You have caste dialects. A linguist can tell who is an outcaste, or Dalit. And sometimes clothing is an indication. In a village, everyone knows everyone’s caste. It’s your caste group with whom you have the most dealings.
How much does caste influence everyday life in India?
Caste is an everyday reality. The most recent studies show that even in urban areas, where class concerns are more important than caste concerns, the marrying up rule is still the same, and Brahmin daughters marrying below their caste, or falling in love with an untouchable, can still face village gangs. You have caste brotherhoods in London, and even among the Hindu diaspora. Look at the matrimonials [newspaper and online advertisements]—it’s all based on caste. Especially for the most affluent, marriages are about alliances; a desirable match benefits the entire family.
Is one’s caste carved in stone? Can a person change or rise above the caste into which he was born?
It’s not a fossilized system. There are cases throughout history in which entire castes have been promoted or demoted. People can move up in caste by siding with victors after a battle. People can move to one place or another and reinvent themselves; there are ways around it. Then there are the sadhus, the holy men who symbolically die and are reborn casteless. But even in ashrams there’s a caste pecking order. Certain sadhus will only beg food from their caste or higher. Caste rules are stronger than religious ideologies.
Doesn’t the Indian constitution abolish untouchability and ban discrimination based on caste?
Yes. It also abolished child marriage and sati [the traditional Hindu practice of a widow burning herself on her husband’s funeral pyre]. It’s tradition versus law. I’ve seen children of 13 married off, though not necessarily moving in with their spouses. I see it all the time.
Is the push to include caste in the new census just about extending opportunities and social services to those who need them most?
There’s another motive. Have you heard the term “vote bank”? If a leader of a caste says, “I’m voting for this politician,” then the entire group votes for that politician. So it’s in a politician’s interest to know this caste. Another factor is that India inherited its bureaucracy from the British and it hasn’t changed that much. Everywhere there are long forms in duplicate and triplicate to fill out; a lot of information is gathered by hand. But the final results are useful to demographers and help anthropologists with our studies.
Defenders say the caste question will help Dalits receive more opportunities and services. How effective are these services?
I hear all the time that India’s reservations [quota] system elevates Dalits in education and income. So you do have Dalit doctors and lawyers now. But they’re still treated like second-class citizens, even if they’re the top surgeon in Delhi or Bombay. People still believe the Dalits are unworthy. When the Mandal Commission [established in 1979 by the Janata Party government in order to “identify the socially or educationally backward”] came out, young upper-castemen immolated themselves in protest against university seats being set aside for Dalits.
What are the most common western misconceptions about the caste system?
Its relation to religion is misunderstood. Religion is a western concept. If you look for religion in India you might hear about one’s dharma, or duty, and that refers to caste duty. In law books it says, if you’re a Brahmin you have to abstain from eating garlic and meat, and if you’re of the warrior caste you can eat meat because you need your strength. There are caste laws governing diet, marriage, even defecation. One’s loyalty is first to family and second to caste, and caste and family are often the same. Yet if you asked people in any of India’s languages, “What is your dharma?” you’d get a variety of answers. Some might answer by caste, others by the deity they worship. I once asked one of my hosts what his caste was, and he said Hindu. The lines that separate these things are very fluid. Western scholars’ neat divisions don’t work.
Susan Seligson can be reached at email@example.com.