Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze on the changing nature of India’s caste system

December 4, 2013

     By Duncan Green     

This excerpt comes from An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions, a wonderful new book from Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen. Review tomorrow.Uncertain Glory launch

‘It is often argued that caste discrimination has subsided a great deal in the 20th Century. Given the intensity of caste discrimination in India’s past, this is true enough, without making the present situation particularly close to equality. In large parts of India, in the old days, Dalits were not allowed to wear sandals, ride bicycles, enter temples or sit on a chair in the presence of higher castes – to give just a few examples of the vicious system of humiliation and subjugation that had developed around the caste system.

Many of these discriminatory practices have indeed declined or disappeared, thanks to the spread of education, movements of social reform, constitutional safeguards, as well as economic development, and also, of course, growing political resistance from the victims of discrimination.

This trend is far from uniform. Some caste prejudices, such as the disapproval of inter-caste marriages, remain rather strong today among many social groups. And while caste divisions are subsiding in large parts of the country and society, they have also been making inroads where they did not exist earlier, for instance among various Adivasi, Muslim, Sikh and Christian communities. More importantly, however, caste continues to be an important instrument of power in Indian society, even where the caste system has lost some of its earlier barbarity and brutality…..

The dominance of the upper castes seems to be, if anything, even stronger in institutions of ‘civil society’ than in state institutions. For instance, in Allahabad the share of the upper castes is around 80% among NGO representatives and trade union leaders, close to 90% in the executive committee of the Bar Association, and a full 100% among office bearers in the Press Club. Even trade unions of workers who belong mainly to disadvantaged castes INDIA/are often under the control of upper-caste leaders. There is some food for thought here about the tendency even of anti-establishment movements in India to reproduce, within their own political activities, images of the old divisions……

One of the barriers to rectifying caste-based discrimination is that caste has become virtually unmentionable in polite society in India, not just because any caste-based practice has to face legal challenge but also because any kind of caste consciousness is taken to be socially retrograde and reactionary. This can be superficially justified as a contribution to the obliteration of caste consciousness, but it does not help to understand the world for what it is, let alone change it.’

December 4, 2013
Duncan Green