Sunday, January 11, 2009

The ‘caste’ shadow ‘cast’ in our country!


The caste system that is regarded as a blot on the Indian social set-up

was not at all there until the advent of the British.

There were only Varnas and Jathis.

The Varnas were four, based on temperament

The Jathis were two, based on 'Jaatha:' or birth as male and female.

But castes were an innovation of the British.


The English had castes based on professions.

People were known by their profession.

The surnames in England such as Taylor, Smith, Goldsmith, Baker, Butcher,

Barber, Mason, Carpenter, Turner, Waterman, Shepherd and Gardener

were all about the profession that were practiced generation after generation.

Following the traditional profession has been a practice everywhere including India.

The name of the Pakisthani terrorist arrested in Mumbai attacks

also is of that category – Kasab as his surname indicating the  profession of a butcher.


People of different professions filled the requirements of the entire society

in the spirit of division of labor.

As  a result, everyone was able to earn their living,

every one was needed by the others,

and specialization in their respective crafts also happened.


This kind of co-existence and income earning capacity and dignity of labour

had always been there in our country.

From  Purananuru we come to know how co-existence was there

with in a group of people who had specialized  in different avocations

for co-working towards  a singular goal.

The groups such as Parayan, Thudian, Kadamban and PaaNan

worked together on a symbiotic  basis for earning through singing.

Each one got their share for their work.

But today, parayan is a derogatory word.

The reason for bringing such a  pass lies in the loss of livelihood

with the advent of industrialization in the British period.

Until then the Paraynas had received their due shares from the Kings

whenever they all had performed together.


The evil done by the British was to anoint these avocation based livelihood as castes.

Those who could make living in the changed set-up of industrialization prospered.

Those who could not earn (the traditional earning sources also died

with the advent of the British) were looked down as inferior.

Thus began a state of conflicts and today's politicians have made most

out of these and are still bent on perpetuating the differences.


The following article by the Supreme Court judge Sri Markandey Katju

puts in perspective how the once non-existent caste differences came into place.

 Excerpts from Sri Katju's article is given here.

The complete article can be read at




Why the caste system is on its last legs

Markandey Katju




At the end of British rule, India, which was once one of the world's most prosperous countries, became one of the poorest. It was unable to feed itself. Its industrial development was stalled as the British policy was to not permit industrialisation (see Rajni Palme Dutt's India Today). Life expectancy was low and the literacy rate was very low. As Angus Madison, the Cambridge University historian, points out, India's share of world income fell from 22.6 per cent in 1700 to 3.8 per cent in 1952.


In the revenue records in many Indian States one often finds entries of this sort: 'A, son of B, caste lohar (smith), vocation agriculture,' or 'C, son of D, caste badhai (carpenter), vocation agriculture,' or 'E, son of F, caste kumhar (potter), vocation agriculture,' and so on. This indicates that their ancestors were in those professions, but later they became unemployed (although ostensibly they were shown as agriculturists). British mill industry had destroyed their handicraft.


In England and other European countries, too, handicrafts were destroyed by mill products, but the handicraftsmen got employment in the mills.


Handicraft industry & mill industry

Some people think that if the British had not come to India an indigenous mill industry would have developed in India, because the development of the handicraft industry leads to capital accumulation which is the prerequisite for industrialisation, and India would have become an industrial state by the 19th century, as in the case of countries of North America and Europe. But it is not necessary to dwell on this: there is no use crying over spilt milk.


In the feudal period there were no engineering colleges or technical institutes, and the only way to learn a craft was to sit with one's father from childhood and learn the craft by seeing how he worked, with some tips from him. Thus the father was not only doing the production work through his craft but also teaching his son the craft.


This was totally unlike modern times where the teacher in an engineering college or technical institute is not a producer engaged in some industry. In other words, in modern times the vocation of a teacher is separated from the vocation of a producer. There was no such separation in the feudal age.


In feudal times, one had no choice with respect to one's profession: you had to follow your father's profession. Thus, the son of a carpenter (badhai) became a carpenter, the son of a blacksmith (lohar) became a blacksmith, and so on. This way, carpenter, blacksmith, potter, all became castes. The same thing happened in Europe in feudal times.


Modern mill industry


In the modern industrial age the demand for skilled technical personnel is much more than in the feudal age, because the demand for goods is much more owing to increase in population and other factors. Hence the traditional feudal method of teaching a craft, in which only a handful of persons (usually the sons of handicraftsman) were taught, would no longer suffice for modern society. Now technical institutes or engineering colleges, where a large number of students are taught technical skills, have become necessary. Obviously all these students could not be sons of the teacher. This destroyed the very basis of the caste system in which one had no option in choosing one's vocation and had to follow one's father's profession. The caste system, in which one's vocation is chosen by one's birth, is thus totally outmoded in the modern age.


Today a boy of the badhai (carpenter) caste comes from a rural area to a city where he becomes an electrician or a motor mechanic or takes up some other vocation. If he gets some education he becomes a clerk or even a doctor, lawyer, engineer or teacher. He does not usually follow his father's profession. This has largely destroyed the basis of the caste system economically.


The caste system is now being artificially propped up socially by some vested interests, for example, vote bank politics. But when the basis of an institution has been destroyed (by the advance of technology) how long can that institution survive? To my mind, the caste system in India will not last for more than 10 or 20 years from now because its very basis has gone.


Was it bad for India?


Many people think the caste system did a lot of damage to India. This is undoubtedly true of modern times. But in the feudal age the system did good to India because it corresponded to the feudal occupational division of labour in society, as pointed out above, which resulted in the development of productive forces at that time.


It is a myth that today's Scheduled Castes were always treated with indignity. In fact, up to the coming of British rule the members of these castes were usually in some handicraft vocation and were earning their livelihood from that vocation. It was only when the British mill industry destroyed their handicraft and they became unemployed that they began to be treated with indignity. An unemployed man becomes a poor man, and a poor man is not given respect in society.


For instance, the chamars were at one time a respectable caste because they earned their livelihood by doing leather work. It was only when large companies destroyed their handicraft, and thereby their livelihood, that they sank in the social ladder, so much so that today to call a person a chamar is often regarded as an insult (see the judgment of the Supreme Court in Swaran Singh & Ors. vs. State through Standing Counsel & Anr. [2008(8) SCC 435, JT 2008(9) SC 60]).


Similarly, other castes whose handicraft occupations were destroyed by the British mill industry became unemployed and thereby fell in the social order.


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1 comment:

R.Sajan said...

Originally, modern humanity had two castes – man and woman. The difference between them having become blurred now, we might redefine elementary castes as the ruled and the ruling. Segregation within the community on the lines of power has always been there in all societies; still is, and would be, call it by any name. Genetic technology would make birth-based caste further irrelevant.

Merit would always out. That is why we know of the great Brahmins and Kshatriyas of the Puranic times only through the stories created by meritorious lower caste Valmikis and Vyasas.

But for the caste columns, that the administration wants to be filled up, caste-ism is very insignificant to a major section of Indians. Taking away those columns in the case of those who do not want any affirmative benefits, would be a good initial step to remove current caste-ism quicker.