Can one really understand the history of India without understanding the history of the caste system?
The caste system is one of the greatest social evils plaguing India today. It is acting as a powerful social obstruction to our progress, and a political divisive force in our country at a time when it is absolutely essential for us to be united if we wish to face our nation’s challenges. It is a curse on our country which must be eradicated if we wish to progress.
We may consider a few facts to realise how strongly caste is still entrenched in our society today.
1. Our politics is largely governed by caste vote banks. When the time comes for selecting candidates for the elections a study is conducted about the numerical caste distribution in a constituency, because people in most areas vote on caste basis.
2. What to say of the illiterate people, even the so-called intellectuals tend to operate on caste lines. Thus, in the elections to many bar associations, the lawyers tend to vote for the candidates of their caste. In many of our universities, our professors support their caste members in various matters.
3. Many castes want to be declared as Other Backward Classes (OBCs) or Scheduled Castes, to get the benefits of reservation. Even some OBCs strive to be declared as Most Backward Castes (MBCs) or Scheduled Castes.
4. Fake caste certificates have become rampant, as is often witnessed in our law courts, to get jobs or admissions in educational institutions.
5. Marriages are still largely performed within one’s caste.
6. Violence often occurs between castes, as was noticed in the recent fight between students of different castes at a university in Chennai, while the policemen looked on as silent spectators.
7. Even Muslims, Christians and Sikhs often have castes, although their religions preach equality.
We can multiply these facts manifolds. Many books and articles have been written about the caste system in India, but a scientific study is still awaited. An attempt shall be made here to explain the origin, development and future of the caste system.
Origin Of The Caste System
The origin of the caste system was in all probability racial. It is said that caste originated when a white race, the Aryans, coming from the North West, conquered the dark-coloured races inhabiting India at that time, probably 5,000 years ago or so.
Some people deny that the Aryans came from outside India and assert that India was the original home of the Aryans (Aryavarta) from where a section of them migrated to Europe. It is difficult to accept this view because people migrate from uncomfortable areas to comfortable areas (see my article What is India? on my blog). Why should anyone migrate from a comfortable country like India, which has level and fertile land ideal for agriculture to a place like Afghanistan or Russia, which are cold, mountaneous and therefore uncomfortable. Indian history bears out the view that almost all invasions/immigrations were from outside India (mainly from the North West and to a lesser extent from the North East) into India.
The caste system is called 'varna vyavastha’ and the word 'varna’ in Sanskrit literally means colour of the skin. This also points at the racial origin of the caste system. Fair skin colour is usually preferred to darker skin even today, as is evident from matrimonial advertisements, etc.
Subsequent Development Of The Caste System
While the origin of the caste system appears to be racial (as mentioned above), it subsequently developed an altogether different basis according to the needs of the feudal society in India. In other words, the caste system, though originating in race, subsequently developed into the feudal, occupational division of labour in society. This needs to be explained in some detail.
In theory, there were only four castes, Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. This, however, was only a fiction. In reality, there were (and still are) hundreds, if not thousands, of castes and sub-castes in India, many of which do not fit into the four traditional castes mentioned above – Yadavs, Kurmis, Jats, Kayasthas, Bhumihars, Gosains, etc. Every vocation became a caste. Thus, in North India badhai (carpenter) became a caste, and so did lohar (blacksmith), sonar (goldsmith), kumbhar (Potter), dhobi (washerman), nai (barber), darzi (tailor), kasai (butcher), mallah (fisherman), kewat (boatman), teli (oil presser), kahar (water carrier), gadadia (sheep herder), etc.
This was not something unique to India. For instance, in England even today there are many people with the surnames Taylor, Smith, Goldsmith, Baker, Butcher, Potter, Barber, Mason, Carpenter, Turner, Waterman, Shepherd, Gardener, Miller, etc, which indicates that the ancestors of these persons belonged to those professions.
In feudal society, apart from agriculture, there was development of handicraft industry. This happened in India too, and the caste system became the Indian variation of the feudal occupational division of labour in society, somewhat like the medieval European guild system.
As pointed out by Adam Smith in his book The Wealth of Nations, division of labour results in great progress. The caste system in India resulted in great development of the productive forces, and hence in the feudal age it was a progressive institution (as compared to the preceding slave society).
It is well known that before the British arrived, India was one of the world’s most prosperous countries (at that time). India was exporting Dacca muslin, Murshidabad silk, Kashmir shawls and carpets, ornaments, etc apart from agricultural products like spices, indigo, etc to the Middle East and even Europe. The discovery of Roman coins in several parts of South India shows the great volume of trade from India, which shows the great development of the productive forces in feudal India. In fact, India was once a super power with a 31.5 per cent share in the global gross domestic product (GDP), which came down to 3 per cent in 1991.
The Destruction Of Handicraft Industry In India
It is estimated that before the coming of the British into India about 40 per cent of the population of the country was engaged in industry while the rest in agriculture. This industry was no doubt handicraft industry, and not mill industry. Nevertheless, there was a very high level production of goods in India by these handicraft industries before the British arrived, and many of these goods were exported often up to Europe, the Middle East, China.
A rough and ready test of the level of the economic development of a country is to find out how much percentage of the population is engaged in industry, and how much in agriculture. The greater the percentage of population in industry and lesser in agriculture the more prosperous the country.
Thus, the US, the most prosperous country in the world today, has only about 2 per cent or 3 per cent of its population in agriculture, while the rest is in industry or services.
India was a relatively prosperous country before the coming of the British because a high percentage of the people (which could be up to 40 per cent) was engaged at that time in industry (though no doubt this was handicraft industry, not mill industry). Thus, Lord Clive around 1757 (when the Battle of Plassey was fought) described Murshidabad (which was then the capital of Bengal) as a city more prosperous than London, vide Glimpses of World History by Jawaharlal Nehru (Third Impression p. 416, chapter entitled `The Indian Artisan goes to the wall’).
When the British conquered India, they introduced the products of their mill industry in the country, and exorbitantly raised the export duties on the Indian handicraft products. Thereby they practically destroyed the handicraft industry in India. The result was that by the end of the British rule hardly 10 per cent or even less of the population of India was still in the handicraft sector, and the rest of those who were earlier engaged in the handicraft industry were made unemployed. In this way, about 30 per cent of the population of India who were employed in handicraft industry became unemployed, and were driven to starvation, destitution, beggary or crime (the thugs and ‘criminal’ tribes were really these unemployed sections of society). As an English governor general wrote in 1834, "the bones of the cotton weavers are bleaching the plains of India". At the end of the British rule, India, which was one of the most prosperous countries in the world, became one of the poorest, unable to feed itself, with industrial development stalled (as the British policy was to not permit industrialisation of India), low life expectancy and very low literacy rate. 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 this connection, it may be noted that in the revenue records in many states in our country one often finds recorded: ‘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’, etc. This indicates that the ancestors of these people were in those professions, but later they became unemployed (although ostensibly they were shown as agriculturists) as British mill industry destroyed their handicraft. Some people think that if the British had not come into India an indigenous mill industry would have developed in the country, because the high development of handicraft industry leads to capital accumulation, which is the prerequisite for industrialisation, and India would have become an industrial state by the 19th century, like North America or Europe, but it is not necessary to go into this here, as there is no use crying over spilt milk.
In England and other European countries, too, the handicrafts were destroyed by the mill products, but the handicraftsmen got employment in the mills, whereas in India the British policy was to prevent industrialisation of India (see Rajni Palme Dutt’s India Today) with the result that the millions of handicraftsmen either starved or became beggars or criminals. The thugs of India or the `criminal tribes’ were those former handicraftsmen who became unemployed.
Handicraft Industry And Mill Industry
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 works, with some tips from him. Thus the father was not only doing the production work through his craft but also teaching the craft to his son.
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, but there was no such separation in the feudal age.
In feudal times, one had no choice of one’s profession, one had to follow his father’s profession, and thus the son of a carpenter (badhai) became a carpenter, the son of a blacksmith (lohar) became a blacksmith, etc. In this way carpenter, blacksmith, potter, etc all became castes. The same thing happened in Europe too in feudal times (as mentioned above).
Modern Mill Industry
In the modern industrial age, the demand for skilled technical personnel is much larger than in the feudal age, because the demand of goods is much more (due to increase in population, etc). Hence the traditional feudal method of teaching a craft, in which only a handful of people, (usually the sons of the handicraftsman), were taught, no longer sufficed for modern society. Now technical institutes or engineering colleges have become necessary, where a large number of students are taught the technical skill. 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 choice in choosing one’s vocation and had to follow his 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 the rural areas in India to a city where he becomes an electrician or 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, and 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 – 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).
A modern mill no longer bothers about the caste of the worker it employs, it only sees his technical skills.
The caste system was a social institution corresponding to handicraft industry. Now that handicraft industry has largely been replaced by mill industry, the caste system has today become totally outmoded, and is hindering our progress. The sooner it is destroyed the better.
Was The Caste System Bad For India?
Many people think that the caste system did a lot of damage to India. This is undoubtedly true of modern times. But it must also be said that in the feudal age the caste 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 great development of the productive forces (at that time).
It is a myth that the Scheduled Castes of today were always treated with indignity. In fact, upto the arrival of British rule, 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 Bata and other 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 a word of insult (see the judgement 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 also became unemployed and thereby fell in the social order.
How Will The Caste System Be Destroyed?
To my mind, the caste system will be destroyed (and is in fact being destroyed) in India by (1) The advance of technology (2) The people’s struggles, and (3) Inter caste marriages.
As regards the advance of technology, it has already been pointed out above that in modern industrial society the division of labour cannot be on the basis of one’s birth but on the basis of technical skills. Hence industrialisation destroys the caste system, and in fact the caste system has become weak in a state like West Bengal, which was partially industrialised before most other states.
As regards the people’s struggles, these are in fact going on everywhere in view of the harsh economic conditions in India (price rise, unemployment, etc). People in India are realising that united they stand and divided they fall, and caste is certainly a dividing force.
As regards inter caste marriages, I have stated in my judgement in Lata Singh Vs State of UP. [2006(5) SCC 475, JT 2006(6) SC 173], that inter caste marriages are in the national interest and hence should be encouraged.
This article was first published on Markandey Katju's blog, Satyam Bruyat, and has been republished here with permission.