Caste as social capital

Caste is back. It is likely to be part of the 2011 census. It was part of the decennial censuses between 1881 and 1931.

Of the 1929 castes aggregated in the 1881 census, 1126 [58%] had population of less than 1000; 275 less than ten. A large number of them were single member castes. The British had created a social “hierarchy” on the basis of caste in that Census.

The alienated metropolitan rootless wonders (AMROWs) and other assorted experts are upset since they have concluded that caste is bad. They want to be counted in the censusas “Indian”.

Every Indian is expected to feel guilty, whenever caste is mentioned and talked about. In international fora, caste is used as a stick to beat anything connected to Indian religions, customs, and culture. In other words, caste for Indians has been turned into what “holocaust” is for Germans and Austrians.

We have an uncanny ability for self-flagellation. But more tragic is our enthusiasm to convert all our strengths into weaknesses since some white men and missionaries started denigrating Indians on the issue of caste.

We fail to recognise that it is a valuable social capital, which provides cushion for individuals and families in dealing with society at large, and more particularly the State. The Anglo-Saxon model of atomised individuals in a contract-based system and forcing him to have a direct link with the State has had disastrous effects in the west where families have been destroyed and communities have been forgotten.

Every person is standing alone, stark naked with only rights as his imaginary clothes to deal directly with the State.

The State also does not have the benefit of concentric circles of cushions to deal with individuals. Caste has been made a curse by our intellectuals based on the half-baked knowledge and acceptance of the Euro-centric individual-based model, which is based on rights and contracts rather than relationships and duty.

At a basic level, caste promotes heterogeneity. Heterogeneous and distributive systems are more stable and long-lasting than homogeneous and centralised systems. Caste is a major bulwark against homogenisation tendencies of systems like Marxism, Maoism or Savarkarism or the Semitic faiths. We should realise that “our strength is our diversity” and acceptance of the “other”. It is much more than “multicultural tolerance”.

It is also assumed that caste is a rigid hierarchical system which is oppressive. But as observed by the renowned sociologist Dipankar Gupta that “In fact, it is more realistic to say that there are probably as many hierarchies as there are castes in India. To believe that there is a single caste order to which every caste, from Brahman to untouchable, acquiesce ideologically, is a gross misreading of facts on the ground” The truth is that no caste, howsoever lowly placed it may be, accepts the reason for its degradation”(Dipankar Gupta in Interrogating Caste; pp1; Penguin Books 2000)

History does not support the thesis of caste discrimination. If it were as oppressive as it is portrayed then there should have been massive and regular caste wars in the last thousand years. There have not been any. If it has survived thousands of years then there is some inherent strength in it. The renowned Gandhian, Dharampal has demonstrated that data for Madras, Punjab and Bengal Presidency for 1800 to 1830 shows that the majority enrolled in the schools were from OBC and SC categories.

Caste has played an important role in the consolidation of business and entrepreneurship particularly in the last fifty or so years. The World Bank suggests that the remarkable growth of Tirupur is due to the coordinated efforts of Gounders, many of whom not even matriculates. “(World Development report, 2002 pp175; The World Bank). In a financial sense caste provides the edge in being a risk taker since failure is recognised and condoned and sometimes even encouraged by the group.

We have the exhaustive Economic Census of 2005, conducted by the Central Statistical Organization (CSO) which covers 41.83 million enterprises engaged in different economic activities.The survey finds that more than 50 per cent of the enterprises are owned by SC/ST/OBC categories.

As MN Srinivas, doyen of sociologists, pointed out that “An important feature of social mobility in modern India is the manner in which the successful members of the backward castes work consistently for improving the economic and social condition of their caste-fellows. This is due to the sense of identification with one’s own caste, and also a realisation that caste mobility is essential for individual or familial mobility”(Collected Essays; pp196-197, OUP2005).

Caste should be counted in 2011 census for all religions since every religion has caste even though we pretend it does not exist. It is required for policy planners and experts to work on a road map to calibrate changes based upon the census. We may have to enumerate a new caste called “Indian” consisting of the AMROWS mentioned above.


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