Caste in Modern India

Girls in a village

Role of colonialism in India’s caste system

British rule in many ways sharpened and expanded the norms and conventions. In many ways the colonists saw the system as a hierarchical and inflexible means of perpetuating a Brahmin centered value system. This insistence played a big role in making the country more caste-conscious. It can be argued that the initiative in this was as much Indian as it was British. It is important, therefore, to understand India’s recent international situation. It was then, and continues to be today, in the process of adapting itself to a world that functions very differently from it’s own infrastructure, namely a Western-dominated global market economy. It is expected that during a period of such profound transition, a nation will do its best to assimilate to the norms set by the world powers of that time. The world power was England and its norms were founded on Western ideals.
In many ways representative government, more so in India that in any other part of England’s non-white colonial rule, furthered the development of caste affinities in the political arena. Nevertheless, for both the British and those in India, caste was used as means to not only bridge many boundaries such as faith, region and economic status but it was also used as a tool to exclude, subjugate and disempower others. This was done in order for certain groups to gain advantage over others using the “divide and conquer” approach. India is a country in which there are hundreds of different cultures and languages: although this characteristic can be used to bring the nation together in pride, it can also be used to gain political and economic advantages. In the colonial quest for monetary exploitation, caste was used to create political allegiances and create obstacles in the path of unity.
 Field Workers

Social Implications of the Caste System in Modern India: How Perceptions have Changed

What does it mean in India today for a person to be a part of a caste or subcaste? This question is very difficult to answer, as it is hard to come up with a single formula to apply to all of the diverse Indian society.
In order to get a good idea of the changes in the perceptions about caste, we have to go back to the period right before independence. Immediately preceding independence caste became a subject of debate and more than one view emerged about its importance in society. There were many, however here I will discuss the main two. The first was the view of the colonial administrator that stated that caste was thriving institution in India and it permeated almost every part of Indian life: thus making it indispensable. The opposing view, held by many Indian intellectuals, was that that caste was largely exaggerated by the colonial administration and that it was most certainly on its way out of the system. They argued that the decline would be greatly expedited by India’s independence. These arguments were greatly influenced by the nationalist and colonialist attitudes that were prevalent at this stage in Indian history. For the Indian intellectual it had become a matter of pride to dispute the colonial view that caste was a distinct downfall of Indian culture. Thus began the "modern era."
Today if you asked a person who lives in the city what caste means to them, you would get a very different response than that of a person who lives in a village. It can be argued that in India’s emerging middle class, consisting of about 50-75 million people, many would say that there is no longer such a thing as caste. However, it soon becomes evident that though in many respects caste is diminishing, in many others it is still an important part of Indian society. In the villages especially, caste dictates marriage, rituals concerning birth and death as well as occupation which all in turn have a large role in economic status. In this way the impact is tremendous although subtle and varied.
A village girl with her brother.

Role of Caste in Marriage

In 1963 C.T Kannan did a full length study on intercaste marriage. He states:

"Just 25 years ago the instances of intercaste marriage were very few; and those individuals who dared to marry outside the caste had to undergo truly great hardships. Today the situation is altogether different. Not only has the prevalence of intercaste marriage become considerable, but even the difficulties the intercaste couples have to face have become comparatively quite mild" (Kannan, 1963).

Kannan did a study of 200 intercaste marriages (and 50 inter-community marriages), therefore, his study cannot provide us with any real statistical data. There are also other drawbacks to his examination. He does not necessarily examine the tremendous amount of variation that can make one intercaste marriage very different from another. For example a marriage between two different Brahman subcastes is very different than one between someone from a Brahman background and someone who has a Shudra background.
Nevertheless, Kannan’s overall assessment does in many respects capture the trend in India to remove the once extraordinarily stringent rules of marriage. Though by no means has the concept of caste marriage been eradicated, its force is often times much less prevalent than it once was.
High caste Hindu wedding



History of the Caste System

Theories and Future Implications