Caste System

Last Updated: May 2023 (Caste System)

Caste System

This article deals with the Caste System. This is part of our series on ‘Society’ which is an important pillar of the GS-1 syllabus. For more articles, you can click here.

What is Caste System?

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

Caste System

Origin of Caste System

The meaning of the word VARNA means colour. There are differences 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. The political theory of the caste system

1. Racial theory

  • It is supported by Herbert Risley and G.S.Ghurye.
  • In his book, The Peoples of India, Risley stated that castes’ origin 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 the 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 the caste system in India is a product of Aryans that originated in Ganga Yamuna Doab and then spread to other parts.

2. Occupational theory 

  • Nesfield is the proponent of this theory.
  • He believed that occupation is the basis of the origin of caste.
  • According to him, occupation and only occupation is the basis of the origin of the caste system. All castes are products of division of labour which by time became hereditary. Additionally, they started to marry within the occupational group to support vocational efficiency, which consolidated the caste system.
  • Critics of this theory believe that occupational groups are present in various societies, then why caste system didn’t originate there.

3. Political theory

  • Abbé Dubois is a supporter of this theory.
  • He believed that the caste system was the product of the Brahmanical mind. According to him, to maintain their supremacy for an extended period, they invented the caste system. 
  • But critics don’t support this theory. According to critics, Brahmans were neither the leader of the army nor the class that dealt in wealth, so how did they establish this system.

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

Salient features of Caste System

The caste system in India is mainly associated with Hinduism and has governed Hindu society for thousands of years. Salient features of the caste system include

  • Ascribed status 
  • Endogamy
  • Heredity of occupations
  • Commensal restrictions 
  • Jati panchayat
  • Jajmani system

Ascribed Status

  • In the caste system, a person’s status is decided on his birth only, which he can’t change in his lifetime.


  • A caste is an endogamous group where each caste member is expected to marry within their caste group.

Heredity of Occupation

  • Members of a particular caste can adopt the occupation associated with that caste.

Purity Pollution basis

  • The caste hierarchy is decided according to the degree of purity and pollution. Pure caste is ranked at the top, and impure is ranked at the bottom.

Commensal Restrictions

  • A person belonging to a lower caste are not allowed to dine with people belonging to a higher caste.

Jati Panchayat

  • Every caste has its own Jati panchayat, which enforces marriage, occupational and dietary rules via provisions like a social boycott.

Jajmani System

  • The economic aspect of the 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 the caste system with a functional perspective and believed that the Jajmani system ensures egalitarianism by the dependence of different caste on each other.
  • However, French thinker Louis Dumont believed it to be an oppressive system. According to him,
    • Many castes take services only but do not give services.
    • Many castes give services only but do not take services.
    • Many 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 the Caste system due to the following reasons:-

  • The advent of industrialization.
  • Urbanization: With increasing migration, city life is becoming anonymous where caste identities of co-habitants are seldom known. 
  • Rise of new occupations
  • Exoteric Education System.
  • Impact of the rule of law and constitution
  • Dalit consciousness due to the efforts of stalwarts like BR Ambedkar. 
  • Herbert Risley’s attempt to assign rank in the social hierarchy to castes: The colonialists conducted methodical and intensive surveys and reports on the ‘customs and manners’ of various tribes and castes all over the country to govern them effectively. The 1901 Census sought to collect information on the social hierarchy of caste. This direct attempt to count caste and officially record caste status changed the institution itself. Before this, caste identities had been much more fluid and less rigid. 
  • British Administration took a keen interest in the welfare of the downtrodden like the Government of India Act of 1935, which gave legal recognition to Scheduled Castes marked out for special treatment.
  • Breakdown of Jajmani system: The Jajmani system involves exchanging goods and services, with each Jati contributing its share based on occupational speciality. However, it is dissipating due to the traditional breakdown of occupation and industrialization.  

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

  1. Democracy 
  2. Caste-based reservation 
  3. Caste organizations 

There is a saying that after independence, though caste is diminishing, Casteism is increasing. Andre Beitelle believes that democracy and reservation will provide a lifeline to the caste system for the next 100 years. Recent times show a paradoxical situation- as on the one hand, the caste system has weakened; on the other, caste-based identities have strengthened due to political mobilization.

Manifestations of Caste System

The caste system is manifested at many levels and in many forms.

  • Endogamy: To sustain itself, the caste system relies on endogamy, i.e. marriage within the same caste. Those who dare to go against this norm have to suffer honour killings.
  • Social boycott of those who dare to go against the set norms of caste.
  • Resource deprivation as one goes down the caste hierarchy. E.g., Dalits have to suffer land alienation, bonded labour and indebtedness. 
  • Dalits are forced to take up jobs that are regarded as polluted and unhygienic.
  • SCs and STs have to face various atrocities.

Ill effects  of Caste System on Indian Society

  • Hindered national unity by dividing people based on caste. 
  • It resulted in the creation of a class of idlers.
  • Stood against democracy as democracy works in equality. 
  • It has led to the lower status of women in society. 
  • Resulted in religious conversion: Shudras converted to Islam and Christianity to get out of the exploitative system.
  • It led to the introduction of untouchability.
  • Caste System acts against meritocracy.

Some Benefits

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

Ways to eradicate Caste

  • Improve Education and ensure good quality education to all.
  • Promote inter-caste marriage.
  • Economic stability and a job-producing economy will help resolve the need for a caste-based reservation.
  • Eradicate Timeless Reservation: According to sociologists like Andre Beittle, reservation has provided 100 years lease period to the caste system.
  • Strengthen Section 123 of Representation of People Act (RoPA), 1951: To prevent parties from invoking votes solely on caste grounds. 

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

Side Topic: Caste Mobility

Mobility in the caste system can be seen at two levels

Inter Caste Mobility

  • Sanskritization: The process whereby people emulate the ritual practices and customs of upper caste people.

Intra Caste Mobility

  • Elite sub-stratum: Sub Stratum of elites has formed within the lower castes. E.g., Meenas in STs.
  • Westernization 


  • M.N. Srinivas gave the concept of Sanskritization 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 by emulating the rituals and practices of the upper or dominant castes.
  • The lower castes tend to do the 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, Sanskritization doesn’t lead to any structural change in caste hierarchy but only positional change. 

Issues with Sanskritization

  • It doesn’t lead to 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 the customs of the higher castes by the lower.   
  • It leads to practices of secluding girls and women adopting dowry practices.   


  • Due to the policy of positive discrimination (reservation in jobs and admission) adopted by the Indian government, an increasing number of groups now lay claim to backward status in state matters and a forward status in society. This trend is exactly opposite to Sanskritization, thus termed as De-Sanskritization. 
  • The agitation of Gujjars in Rajasthan to claim the status of Scheduled Tribe and by Jats in north-western India to include them in backward caste list exemplifies this trend. 

Side Topic: Dominant Castes

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

Modern avatar of Caste

  • According to M.N. Srinivas, after the Mandalization of politics, the vertical hierarchical nature of caste has been replaced by a horizontal arrangement of competing caste groups free from any stigma of purity & pollution & this has been termed as the modern avatar of caste. 
Modern avatar of Caste
  • Elite substratum: Within backward caste, a class has been created which has taken advantage of affirmative action and is now monopolizing all new opportunities. 
Elite substratum
  • The caste system has become ‘invisible’ for the upper caste, urban middle and upper classes. The opposite has happened for the so-called scheduled castes and tribes and the backward castes. For them, their caste has tended to eclipse the other dimensions of their identities.   
  • The secular pattern of living has been emerging because of urbanization. 
  • Trends for intercaste marriage: Due to economic and social necessities, inter-caste marriages on western lines are being performed at increased frequency.
  • New food habits: Due to the frequent mixing of the people at meetings, conferences, seminars etc., food habits have changed. People have started to eat at the same table, accept food prepared by low caste people etc.

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

Various phases in Dalit Movement in India are as follows:-

1. Pre-Independence

These can be divided into two parts.

  • Reformative: They never questioned the Caste System. All they wanted was discriminatory aspects of the Caste System should be reformed. E.g., the Harijan Movement of Gandhi. 
  • Alternative: Create an alternative socio-cultural system where there was no caste system. E.g., Religious Conversions etc. 

2. Post Independence

2.1 1950-60s

  • Congress was manipulating Dalits as a vote bank, but they were not given any leadership role. To challenge it, 
    • The Republican Party of India was formed.
    • There was a mass conversion of Dalits to Buddhism.
  • But Republican Party wasn’t able to sustain itself due to Marxist vs Ambedkarite ideology. Ambedkarites favoured gaining political power and using it for the social upliftment of their community. But Marxists wanted to annihilate socio-political structure and create a completely classless society. 

2.2 1970s

Dalit Panther Movement 
  • It was inspired by the ‘Black Panthers Movement of USA’.  
  • It was aimed at generating awareness among people regarding the plight of the Dalits.
  • Educated students carried it out, and the methodology included public debates, pamphlets, plays etc. Students of other sections of society apart from Dalits also participated in this. 
  • They defined dalits in a holistic way consisting of “all those who are exploited politically, economically and in the name of religion.”

2.3. 1980s

Rise of Bahujan Samaj Party

  • They were of the ideology that, ‘In a democracy, the majority should rule. 
  • They wanted to take power out of the hands of elites, especially Brahmins, Rajputs and Baniyas. 

Caste Census

  • Caste Census is the caste-wise tabulation of the population in the census exercise. 
  • Caste was included as a category in the Census in 1931 for the last time. From 1951, although the population of SCs and STs is counted, caste is not included. 

Timeline of Caste Census

1872 The first population Census of India was conducted.
1881 The first synchronous census of India was conducted.
1931 The last census that counted the different castes of India.
1951 In the first census post-independence, the government decided to include SC and ST data but didn’t include data on other castes.
1979 Mandal Commission estimated that the OBC population in India is approximately 52%.
2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) was conducted, which studied the socioeconomic status of rural and urban households and ranking of households based on predefined parameters like the structure of the house (Kuccha or Pucca), ownership status, the main source of income etc.   

But the data of SECC was never made public.
2021 There were demands of including Caste Data in the Census-2021. But PM has replied in the Lok Sabha that Caste data will not be enumerated in Census-2021.

Arguments against Caste Census

  • It will subvert India’s anti-caste struggle and make the castes more rigid by reinforcing caste identities. 
  • Identity Politics: Caste Census will strengthen the caste boundaries and force political parties to indulge in caste politics instead of focusing on development issues. 
  • Rise in demand for reservations: Caste census would lead to a clamour for higher quota in government jobs and admissions to educational institutions.
  • Estimates of caste are already available in surveys conducted by the NSSO and National Family and Health Survey (NFHS). 

Arguments favouring Caste Census

  • The collection of caste data will help better policymaking and understanding the effects of affirmative action and redistributive justice. It will help in rationalising reservation policy as per the needs of specific caste.
  • Further, Indra Sawhney’s judgment of the Supreme Court has also demanded that such evidence be collected every 10 years to bar privileged castes from cornering all the affirmative actions.
  • For OBC sub-categorization, the need of a new caste census is sine quo none.

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