Caste System

Caste System

This article deals with Caste System.


This is part of our series on Society as per UPSC syllabus. For more articles, click here .


Caste, class and occupations

Caste is system of social stratification which trace it’s origin from Varna system . In this, person’s special privileges and ineligibilities  are decided by birth and  can’t be transformed in person’s lifetime.

Caste System
Caste System

The meaning of word VARNA means color. There are difference among social thinkers about the origin of castes, though three theories about castes origins are quite famous.

  1. Racial theory
  2. Occupational theory of caste system
  3. Political theory of caste system
Racial theory It is supported by Herbert Risley and G.S.Ghurye.

Risley in his book, The Peoples of India, stated that origin of castes is linked to Racialism. According to him,

  • Aryans came from Middle Asia & were divided into 3 Varnas (Brahman, kshatriya and vaishya) .
  • They defeated natives with their better warfare capabilities and merged them in Varna system giving them Shudra status . The new system was called chaturvarna .
  • Additionally they invented endogamy rules to maintain their racial purity

Ghurye also supported Risley and accepted that caste system in India is product of Aryans that originated in Ganga Yamuna Doab and then spread to other parts .

Occupational theory
  • Nesfield is the proponent of this theory
  • Believed that occupation is the basis of origin of caste.
  • According to him, occupation and only occupation is the basis of origin of caste system. All castes are products of division of labor which by time became hereditary . Additionally to support vocational efficiency they started to marry within the occupational group which consolidated caste system.
  • Critics of this theory believe that occupational groups are present in various societies then why caste system didn’t originate there.
Political theory
  • Abbé Dubois is the supporter of this theory.
  • He believed that caste system is the product of brahmanical mind (question). According to him , to maintain their supremacy for long period they invented caste system
  • But critics donot support this theory. According to critics Brahmans were neither the leader of army nor the class which deals in wealth so how did they established this system.

The most accepted theory for caste system is MULTIFACTORIAL THEORY which believes that origin of caste system is due to many factors.

Salient features of Caste System

Salient features of caste system are :

  • Ascribed status
  • Endogamy
  • Heredity of occupations
  • Commensal restrictions( restrictions on dining)
  • Jaati panchayat
  • Jajmani system
Ascribed status  In caste system, person’s status is decided on his birth only  which he can’t change in his life time.
Endogamy Caste is endogamous group where each  member of caste is expected to marry within his or her own caste group.
Heredity of occupation
Purity Pollution basis Hierarchy of caste is decided according to the degree of purity and pollution.
Commensal restrictions Person belonging to lower caste are not allowed to dine with people belonging to higher castes
Jati panchayat Every caste has its own jati panchayat which enforces marriage,occupational and dietary rules via provisions like social boycott.
Jajmani system
  • Economic aspect of caste system is called Jajmani  System.
  • Jajmani  system  denotes the exchange of  services and objects among different caste groups.
  • Those castes which take services from other castes are called JAJMANS and those which give services are called Praja or Kamin.

Western thinker William Wisser studied  caste system with functional perspective and believed that jajmani system ensures egalitarianism by way of  dependence of different caste on each other.

However, French thinker Louis Dumont believed it to be oppressive system. According to him,

  • Many castes take services only but not give services
  • Many castes give services only but not take services
  • Many a times the value of  exchanged services or objects are not equivalent.

Above mentioned caste system remained in force till British arrival. With and after British arrival many changes were seen in Caste system due to following reasons

  • Industrialisation
  • Urbanisation
  • Rise of new occupations
  • Exoteric Education System
  • Impact of rule of law and constitution
  • Dalit consciousness
  • Market economy
  • Herbert Risley’s attempt to assign  rank in social hierarchy to castes => before this mobility of castes was present but this made Caste system rigid
  • British Administration took keen interest for welfare of downtrodden => GoI Act 1935 gave legal recognition to Scheduled Castes marked out for special treatment.

Where as above mentioned causes weakened the caste system, on the other hand there are 3 main reasons which provided lifeline to caste system

  1. Democracy
  2. Caste based reservation
  3. Caste organisations

There is saying that after independence though caste is diminishing but Casteism is increasing.Andre Beitelle has said that democracy and reservation will provide lifeline to caste system for next 100 years.

Effects/Ill-effects  of Caste System on Indian Society

  • Hindered national unity
  • Resulted in the creation of a class of idlers
  • Stood against democracy: Democracy works in equality.
  • Lower status to women 
  • Resulted in religious conversion: Shudras converted to Islam and Christianity to get out of exploitative system
  • Introduction  of Untouchability
  • Against Meritocracy

Some Benefits

  • Caste system started as natural division of labour and was useful in its original form.
  • It helped in accommodating multiple communities including invading tribes in the Indian society.
  • Passing Knowledge and skills from one generation to the next  
  • Through subsystems like Jajmani system, caste system kept our villages self-sufficient and made village community in the words of Charles Metcalfe to be ‘Little Republics

Ways to eradicate Caste

  • Improve Education  and ensure good quality education to all.
  • Promote Inter-caste Marriage
  • Economic Stability and Job producing economy 
  • Eradicate Timeless Reservation: According to sociologists like Andre Beittle , Reservation has provided 100 years lease period to Caste System

India has been a signatory to Convention for  Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969)   which places  country  in “anti-racism” camp .

Side Topic : Caste Mobility 

Mobility can be seen at two levels

Inter Caste Sanskritization (process whereby people emulate the ritual practices and customs of upper caste people)
Intra Caste
  • Elite sub-stratumism : Sub Stratum of elites is formed within Caste which achieve mobility. Eg : Meenas in ST
  • Westernization 


  • M.N.Srinivas gave the concept  of Sanskritisation  after studying village Rampura (Mysore)  in his book Caste and Religion among the Coorgs of South India
  • It denotes the process by which caste or tribes placed lower in the caste hierarchy seek upward mobility (punch word )by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes.
  • The lower castes tend to do following things to get upward mobility and social prestige
  • Renunciation of polluted vocations
  • Renunciation of non vegetarianism and acceptance of vegetarianism
  • Renunciation of alcoholism
  • According to Srinivas , following sanskritization there is not any structural change in caste hierarchy but only positional change.

Issues with Sanskritisation

  • It leads to no structural change but only positional change of some individuals.
  • It exaggerates the scope of ‘lower castes’ to move up the social ladder.  In a highly unequal society such as India there were and still are obstacles to  taking over of the customs of the higher castes by the lower.
  • It leads to practices of secluding girls and women, adopting dowry practices

Dominant Castes

  • Concept given by M.N Srinivas holds that a caste is dominant when it is numerically higher than the other castes.
  • This can be seen as anomaly to Caste System .
  • Dominant caste may not be ritually highest but enjoy high status because of wealth, political power and numerical strength.
  • Example are Jats in Haryana, Jatts in Punjab, Yadavs in UP & Bihar, Reddys in AP & Telengana etc ( agrarian communities)
  • The power of the dominant caste is supported by a norm discouraging village from seeking justice from  court or police
  • After Mandalisation of Politics, power of Dominant caste has increased very much.

Modern Avatar of Caste

  • After Mandalization of politics , according to M.N. Srinivas vertical hierarchical nature of caste replaced by horizontal arrangement of competing caste groups free from any stigma of purity & pollution & this has been termed as the modern avatar of caste.
  • Elite substratum : within backward caste , a class has been created which has taken the advantage of affirmative action and now monopolising all new opportunities .
  • Caste system has become ‘invisible’ for the upper caste, urban middle and upper classes.
  • For the so called scheduled castes and tribes and the backward castes – the opposite has happened.  For them, caste has become all too visible, indeed their caste has tended to eclipse the other dimensions of their identities.
  • Secular pattern of living has been emerging because of urbanisation

Politicisation of Caste vs Casteisation of Politics

Politicisation of Caste : Manipulation of people on basis of caste 

Casteisation of Politics : Emergence of caste based political parties

Rajni Kothari : Politics is like an enterprise and politicians are like entrepreneurs who know very well how to use their resources. Main resource for them in Indian society is Caste and Religion

Role of Caste in Politics (based on Rajni Kothari’s study)

Various phases in Dalit Movement in India

Pre-Independence These can be divided into two parts

  • Reformative : They never questioned the Caste System. All they wanted was  , discriminatory aspects of Caste System should be reformed . Eg : Harijan Movement of Gandhi
  • Alternative : Create alternative socio-cultural system where there is no place for caste system . Eg : Religious Conversions etc
Post Independence
  • Congress was manipulating Dalits as vote bank but they were not given any leadership role. To challenge it ,
        • Republican party of India formed
        • Mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism
  • But Republican Party wasn’t able to sustain itself due to Marxist vs Ambedkarite ideology . Ambedkarites were  in favour of gaining political power and use it for social upliftment of their community. But Marxist wanted to annihilate socio-political structure and create completely classless society.
1970s Dalit Panther Movement

  • Inspired by Black Panthers Movement of USA
  • It was aimed at generating awareness among people regarding the plight of the dalits
  • It was carried out by educated students and methodology included public debates, pamphlets , plays etc . Students of other sections of society apart from Dalits were also participating
  • They defined Dalits in holistic way consisting of  “all those who are exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion.”
1980s Rise of Bahujan Samaj Party

  • In democracy , majority rules .
  • They wanted to take power out of the hands of elites especially Brahmins , Rajputs and Baniyas .

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