The Caste System

A caste system is a form of social stratification that involves a system of hierarchically ranked, closed endogamous strata, the membership of which is ascribed and between which contact is restricted and mobility theoretically impossible.

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Caste is an institution unique to the Indian subcontinent. Although it is an institution characteristic of Hindu society, caste has spread to the major non-Hindu communities of the Indian sub-continent like Muslims, Sikhs and Christians.

Varna vs Caste

VarnaCaste (Jati)
According to the Varna scheme, there are 4 categories: Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya & Shudra. This scheme excludes Untouchables. Hierarchy in the varna scheme is based on ritual ‘purity’ & ‘pollution’. Brahmins are highest, then Kshatriya, vaishyas and last the Shudra.

A theoretical framework (Textual).Legitimacy from Vedic texts.Little or no mobility of varnas among themselves.
Within each stratum of Varna, there are innumerable variations of castes throughout India.

A caste can be ritually high but ranked lower in the caste hierarchy because this hierarchy is determined by secular factors like Economic, Political and Education status.

A real phenomenon (Contextual). Caste groups experience mobility with an accumulation of higher status.

Mobility is low for caste groups placed at the top and bottom of the caste hierarchy. However, mobility is high for castes placed in the middle.

Changes in the Caste system

The traditional nature of the caste system has undergone significant changes in modern-day society. Many features of the caste system have been diluted to some extent due to new developments like:
Modern Education: It instilled values like rationality, justice and equality. Modern educated youth are preferring inter-caste marriages.

  • Industrialisation: It gave equal opportunity to all individuals across castes. This destroyed the traditional caste-based occupation feature of the caste system.
  • Urbanisation: It gave anonymity to caste identities of individuals and caste-based dietary choices and commensality rules are no more strictly adhered to in urban areas. Ex. Restaurants, Eateries.
  • Land reforms undertaken by the Indian government after Independence resulted in the transfer of Land from upper castes to lower castes. This resulted in economic empowerment and improved the status of lower caste groups.
  • Universal adult franchise; the 73rd & 74th Amendment acts, together gave political power to lower castes if they have adequate numerical strength.
  • Constitutional rights and Affirmative action like Articles 14,15, and 16 and reservation policies empowered lower castes educationally and economically.

However, despite all these modern forces of change, the caste system continued to exist in Indian society performing some old and new functions.

  • Continuity of Caste Private realm: The ritual aspect of the Caste system continued but was confined to the personal sphere. Though Industrialisation and Modern education gave new economic opportunities. Even today, most manual scavengers are from lower castes and many entrepreneurs are from upper castes.
  • According to a 2010 study on social discrimination by Oxfam India, Dalits and tribal groups are highly under-represented in better-paid and higher-status jobs, while they are disproportionately concentrated among those with lower wages in the informal sector.
  • Caste-based Political Mobilization Advent of democratic political apparatus like the Universal adult franchise made Caste based political mobilization possible and rendered caste-based identity relevant.
  • New components of status like Education, Income and occupation led to the breaking of barriers of sub-caste for the purpose of Marriage. But Marriage between the Upper caste and the lower caste is still an exception , if someone dares to break the rule of caste endogamy he or she may face honour killings, especially in case the male belongs to the lower caste and the girl belong to the upper caste.

Urbanisation and Caste

The process of urbanisation – if carried out in a planned, sustainable and inclusive manner — can potentially help India mitigate the impact of the all-pervasive caste system in the following ways

  • The relative anonymity of an individual’s identity in a city makes it difficult for rules of purity and pollution to be observed.
  • In acity, buses and trains do not segregate people based on caste.
  • Jobs are distributed based on expertise, ability & merit and not decided by caste.
  • Educational institutions, irrespective of caste, seat students in the same class and on the same benches.
  • Opportunities for inter-mixing multiply at study, at the workplace, in travel, in eating places and in cinemas.
  • Inter-caste marriages based on Individual choices are prevalent in Urban areas. Ex. According to a study done by Princeton University in 2011, more urbanised States displayed a higher rate of inter-caste marriages than their predominantly rural counterparts. Ex. Maharashtra, Gujarat, Karnataka, Punjab and Haryana
  • The urban middle class, once a preserve of upper castes, has become more diverse with the gradual entry of backward castes and Dalits. (Access to government jobs and education due to reservation policy)
  • With the digital revolution, online matrimonial websites displaying personal profiles underplay caste, while new dating apps are moving away from the old practice of mentioning caste.
  • Search for partners in cities shifts its focus from family and caste networks to friends and professional networks.

However, Urbanisation is not a panacea for caste issues. Rural migration to urban areas does not abruptly erase social prejudices of caste. These get carried into cities and probably metamorphose into different shapes.

  • Residential segregation and identity-based discrimination are on a steady rise in urban spaces. Dalits and Adivasis are still heavily concentrated in slums. Dalits are denied by house owners to rent out their properties in metro cities.
  • Lower caste migrants, with no skills, confined to Informal sector jobs.
  • Caste-based networks play a key role in getting job opportunities for migrants in urban areas.
  • Caste-stickers on vehicles.
  • Passive discrimination at the workplace.
  • Caste-based matrimonial sites, honour killings etc.
  • Caste-based political mobilization.
  • Prevalence of caste associations in urban areas.

COVID and Caste

COVID Pandemic hit lower caste groups disproportionately:

  • Lost their livelihoods as they were confined predominantly to the unorganised sector.
  • Reverse migration to rural areas during the lockdown pushed them back to the den of casteism.
  • Benefits of employment schemes for those returning to villages failed to percolate down to the lower castes as the programs are mostly allocated by village headmen to upper caste workers.
  • Lack of social security and unequal access to healthcare made lower caste groups more vulnerable.

Caste and Gender

Women are considered key to maintaining the Caste system:

  • Brahmanical Patriarchy: Controlling Women’s sexuality is vital to maintaining Caste purity as Endogamy (Marriage within the caste) is an essential aspect of the Caste system. Women’s freedom to marry outside her caste ends the power wielded by upper castes to further maintain the caste system. Often this control is manifested in “Honour killings”.
  • Bargaining with Patriarchy: Women are regarded as upholding patriarchal traditions by confirming to them because compliance brings them certain benefits within the patriarchal framework.
  • Dietary Rules: Upper-caste women are required to observe strict rules of purity & pollution while preparing food.
  • Gender is not a monolithic Category: Though such subordination of women is a universal phenomenon, the extent and nature of this subordination are conditioned by their social, economic and cultural environment. Gender is, thus, not a monolithic category.
Upper Caste womenLower caste women
Lower caste women, owing to their poverty, must work and contribute to their family income.

This makes the gender division of domestic labour less unequal in lower-caste families.

Dalit women face oppression at multiple levels–caste oppression at the hands of upper castes and patriarchal oppression at the hands of all men, including men of their own caste.
Lower caste women, owing to their poverty, must work and contribute to their family income.

This makes the gender division of domestic labour less unequal in lower-caste families.

Dalit women faces oppression at multiple levels–caste oppression at the hands of upper castes and patriarchal oppression at the hands of all men, including men of their own caste.

The demand of dominant castes for reservations

Recently, there has been growing demand for reservations from various middle caste groups like Marathas, Jats, Patels, Kapus etc.


  • Agrarian Distress: All these castes are agrarian-based communities and are directly or indirectly affected by Agrarian distress.
  • Unemployment crisis: The slowdown of economic growth has not been able to absorb the increasing labour force entering the job market. Thus, their only option is government jobs, but their general category status makes the competition challenging for them.
  • Vote bank politics: Political mobilization of caste groups on the lines of reservation serves the vested interests of few political parties or leaders
  • Resentment against other backward communities: Due to successful affirmative action and other policies, the socio-economic gap between lower castes and Intermediary castes decreased to some extent and this resulted in resentment among dominant castes.


  • Extending reservations to these castes will have a domino effect on other castes and result in the proliferation of reservation demands from a greater number of castes.
  • Reinforces caste identities.

Extending reservations to these intermediary castes will not solve the root cause of the issue- The agrarian crisis and Unemployment. Reservations are not employment benefit schemes but a tool to enable social and economic mobility of traditionally oppressed castes.

Inter-caste marriages

Recently, Supreme Court observed that inter-caste marriages could reduce caste tensions in society.

  • Educated youth are choosing their life partners, which is a departure from earlier norms of society where caste and community play a major role. Possibly, this is the way forward where caste and community tensions will reduce by such intermarriages.
  • B.R. Ambedkar in ‘Annihilation of Caste’ said, “Real remedy is intermarriage. Fusion of blood can alone create the feeling of being kith and kin, and unless this feeling of kinship, of being kindred, becomes paramount, separatist feeling—the feeling of being aliens—created by caste will not vanish”.

Article 21

LibertyChoices of faith and belief & choice in \ marriage lie within an area where individual autonomy is supreme. (Shafin Jahan Vs Ashokan case)
The ability of every person to choose a partner forms the essence of personal liberty under the Constitution.
Constitution protects personal liberty from disapproving audiences. (Navtej Singh Johar case)
Privacy“Intimacies of marriage lie within a core zone of privacy”
Dignity“The choice of an individual is an inextricable part of dignity, for dignity cannot be thought of where there is erosion of choice.” (Aadhar Judgement)

“The social values and morals have their space, but they are not above the constitutionally guaranteed freedom”. Individual freedom prevails over purported group rights. (Shabrimala Judgement).

The right of an individual to choose a life partner is an absolute right. Most state governments are giving cash incentives to promote inter-caste marriages.

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