Dialogue October- December, 2007, Volume 9  No. 2


Caste: from Imperial Invention to Trade Union


Rajeev Srinivasan*


It is necessary to begin this essay with a caveat: it is not possible to discuss the term ‘caste’ objectively in India because of the baggage that has accrued to it over time. There are several reasons for this: first, because of the extreme ideological metastasis of the discourse in India, a number of terms have acquired extraordinary meanings which would startle the dictionary-writer – examples include ‘secular’, ‘minority’, ‘human rights’, all of which mean, in India’s peculiar setup, the very opposite of the dictionary meaning.

      Thus, the term ‘caste’ has become demonized and politicized to the extent that the slightest deviation from conventional wisdom is enough to invite, inevitably, accusations of fascism and Nazism. Thus, it is only the brave, or the foolhardy, who venture forth to put across anything other than the received wisdom.

    Second, the term ‘caste’, even if one were to accept the caveats above, is an inadequate word to describe the complex construct of jati as it exists in India. In keeping with the strictly Manichean world-view of the imperialist European Christians who created the mythology of caste, they deemed caste to be black-and-white: that is, there are ‘good’ castes and ‘bad’ castes. Unfortunately, this Semitic vanity does not quite describe the richness of the concept of jati, which does not attempt value judgments about the relative merits of different groups, but accepts that they are all necessary parts of the organic whole.

       Having said this, it is proper to now make – what might be considered – a bold and provocative statement. I assert that caste is actually a good


*Rajeev Srinivasan is a columnist for rediff.com; a graduate of IIT Madras and  the Stanford Business School, he works in sales and marketing in the IT industry, and divides his time between the US and India. He has taught as a visiting faculty at several IIMs. He can be reached at rajeev.srinivasan@gmail.com


thing. This thought came to me in 1994 when I was debating the very idea of caste for the magazine Hinduism Today with a good friend of mine in California. I took the stance that I had been taught in school and by the media: that caste is an unmitigated evil. My poor friend had to take the unpopular opposite stand and claim, rather timorously, that there was some good to caste.                                                                                

Thinking it through over the years, though, I have come to the conclusion that, despite all my thundering and sound and fury, my friend was in fact right: there is something, a certain je-ne-sais-quoi about jati that has allowed it to survive and thrive for millennia. Indeed, I found it possible to explain my empirical observation in my native Kerala that, far from withering away and disappearing, caste-consciousness was on the rise in that supposedly educated and enlightened place.

    Jati has survived because it has value. In the brutal Darwinian marketplace of ideas, jati has continued to exist because it is a sound organizing principle. In fact, jati and caste-like structures are a hallmark of every human society, because humans are not born equal: there are all endowed differently. Jati is merely an explicit recognition of this fact. So is the Communist idea of ‘class’; and also this is what is practiced, for instance, in America: there is the caste of well-to-do financiers on Wall Street. Very seldom do you find their offspring marrying into the caste of janitors. Caste, therefore, simply is, and is neither good nor bad. Casteism, however, is a bad thing: you must not discriminate against people based on caste.

        An analogy may be with race. Race, it is universally acknowledged, exists, although it is based on utterly superficial genetic differences. Clearly, people of different races are not so far apart that they cannot successfully inter-breed. Thus, even though race is a superficial characteristic, it exists, and has loomed large over the human consciousness for a very long time. Elaborate mythologies have been built up; for instance, eminent scientists like Nobel-Prize winning physicist William Shockley and geneticist James Watson have gotten into serious trouble for suggesting that blacks are inferior to whites. That is the key: race exists, but racism is not good. It is not appropriate to set one race above the other.                                                           If one were to concede that races may interact as equals, then racism would not be much of an issue. Incidentally, racism is fundamentally economic in character: it so happens that as a result of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, the lighter-skinned people of European origin managed to subjugate and colonize the darker-skinned people of the tropics. But that does not mean that lighter-skinned people are destined to rule over darker-skinned people. Indeed, it is only for a brief period, circa 1700 to 2000, that Europeans have had a technological competitive advantage, and this is disappearing now. Intriguingly, apartheid-era white South Africans, keen on Japanese money, deemed Japanese as ‘honorary whites’. As economic power moves to Asia, there will be less and less talk of the allegedly superiority of the white race.

    The problem that the imperialists created in India was precisely that they created a hierarchy among the jatis. Hitherto, jatis had been rather fluid groups whose relative prestige waxed and waned – in a free-market way – based on the economic value of their professions. But the British insisted on two arbitrary things: one, they explicitly assigned jatis to precise slots in a varna hierarchy; two, they insisted that the ManuSmrti was the explicit codification of the hierarchy of castes.

    In fact, they were wrong on both counts. Jatis were not precisely defined on some scale. There were enough incongruities that this should have been evident to the imperialists when they took their census: for instance, the same jati of scribes was considered Brahmin in some places, and Sudras in others. Thus, it was evident that any codification of the hierarchy was fraught with subjectivity; indeed, we face this to this day in the difficulty of assigning a jati to a precise spot in the universe of Backward, Other Backward, or Most Backward Castes.

      It is indeed laughable, or more likely, a measure of European Christian mischief that they unilaterally chose to anoint the ManuSmrti as the absolute lawbook for Hindus. This is patently false. Nobody in all of Hindu history has ever claimed the ManuSmrti is anything more than the dyspeptic fantasies of a rather disagreeable medieval person. It has precisely as much divine sanction as innumerable other Smrtis written by other personalities, notable and otherwise. But for the British, it fit in with their hypothesis, and therefore they simply declared the ManuSmrti to be the truth.


Furthermore, in a very real sense, the European Christians invented caste, just as they created the Third World, as in the damning expose by Mike Davis: Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino and the Making of the Third World. They impoverished many parts of the world, and created an artificial shortage of wealth. Before they arrived with their guns – despite a millennium of Mohammedan depredation – India was rich.  According to Angus Maddison’s magisterial The World Economy: A Millennial Perspective, India had been for the entire period 0 CE to 1700 CE the richest economy in the world. The Brahmaputra Delta and the Kaveri Delta alone – Bengal and Madras, not coincidentally the first targets of the European Christians – accounted for something close to 20% of world GDP.

      A rich India had a highly diversified workforce, because a wealthy society needs its poets, painters, artisans, traders, etc., in addition to agricultural and industrial laborers. By destroying the fabric of this society – for instance by wiping out the weavers of fine textiles in Dacca by imposing crushing tariffs – they instantly turned middle-class, highly skilled labor into unskilled, poverty-stricken itinerant laborers. Clearly the value of the jati of weavers would have plummeted. Thus, the imperialists created what have come to be an unemployable underclass.

        Furthermore, the imperialists were especially concerned, in security terms, about the small kingdoms around the country and their rulers. They systematically went about undermining their warrior and samurai

jatis, for fear of uprisings: and they were downgraded to Other Backward Castes. In Kerala, for instance, the Thiyyas/Ezhavas who were the kalari payat exponents and the mercenaries hired by local kings were downgraded into an Other Backward Caste; as their martial occupation was dismantled, they too became landless agricultural laborers. This has happened to such an extent that it is likely that most of the small warrior groups have become Other Backward Castes.

      Thus, despite all the propaganda, it is neither the case that caste is monstrous; nor is it the case that the so-called lower-castes are looking for handouts. Jatis have their own pride and their view of their value in the social system; they are not the truly downtrodden, starving refugees that you see in famine-ridden nations, those vaastu-hara, those bereft of all hope.

      Jatis are quite coherent in structure in many cases. They have really become nothing more than collective bargaining entities. Since, thanks to misguided Nehruvian Stalinism, the pie has not grown in India, it is important for groups to attempt to grab more than their fair share. That is, jati as trade union. Surely this is a positive aspect that even hard-core Communists can relate to.

     Therein, interestingly, lies the salvation of the disadvantaged. There is no need for the race to the bottom being indulged in by various vested interests, each group seeking to portray itself as more miserable

than the others. In fact, studies show that those jatis that pursued politics, thus attempting vote-bank tactics, have consistently under-performed those that took the path to economic self-improvement. In the words of the great philosopher-saint Sri Narayana Guru of Kerala, “educate, and become enlightened; organize, and become strong.”

   Given their racial memory of having been productive members of society, most jatis are capable of raising themselves by their bootstraps. An excellent example is the Gounders of Tirupur near Coimbatore. They have created an enormous textile empire with nothing more than hard work and co-operation, by pooling resources and helping their clan-members. Similarly, the sociologist Joel Kotkin writes in Tribes about Gujarati diamond traders. It is strictly the fellow-feeling of jati that allows a merchant to entrust a million dollars-worth of uncut diamonds to a fellow jati-member on nothing more than a handshake: the fear of ostracism and excommunication from the jati is so great that nobody will ever violate the codes of conduct.

    As the nation moves away from the shackles of stultifying socialism, those jatis that recognize opportunities will prosper. But that is not a purely laissez-faire model. There is still a positive role for reservations and affirmative action programs because the resurgence of a group is dependent on dedicated insiders who are role models. These role models have to be developed, and affirmative action clearly helps in giving that leg up to the deserving.

       The lessons from affirmative action programs around the world are mixed: some of the recipients did well and improved themselves, while others wallowed in self-pity and rage. For instance, Hispanics in the US (aided partly by strong family ties) have done better than blacks. Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants have done poorly in the UK, while Indians have done much better.

     It is the collective, self-interested actions of thousands of people that triggers their ascent. That would be social justice if the State were to desist from interfering. Alas, the actual track record of the Tamil Nadu parties who shout from the rooftops about “social justice” is rather poor. Despite having been in power for decades, they have not been able to create “social justice”, and they are still looking for scapegoats. In fact, they could have done much more for their people at large by unshackling their entrepreneurial instincts.

     This essay has attempted to demonstrate that the mythology about caste over the last two centuries has been based on economic mischief. Caste is a rather neutral concept. In a free-ish market where the pie is growing, castes provide an important support system for individuals. Far from being the monster that the self-proclaimed ‘intelligentsia’ in India proclaim it to be, caste is an instrument of social justice and development.


Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

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