BY AMIT RAHUL
The caste as a system of social stratification has been a central point of understanding Indian society. There are traditionally five major principals to define the caste system: marriage within one’s caste, restrictions on eating and drinking within and between castes, hereditary membership to a caste, the association of specific castes with specific occupations, and the ranking of castes into a hierarchy.[i] Among these, the most distinctive feature is the close link between castes and occupations.
A significant connection between the caste status and job status could historically be established, as many castes have traditionally been associated with occupations. Thus, the caste seemed to determine the type of occupations a person can pursue. The traditional village economy revolved around a hereditary caste hierarchy that prescribed individuals’ occupations.[ii] The upper castes were priests & landowners, middle ranked castes were farmers and artisans and the lowest ranked castes, the Dalits (Scheduled Castes) were the labourers and performers of menial tasks.[iii]
The position of castes in the social hierarchy had a clear relationship with their economic status and wellbeing. The Scheduled Castes (SC) clustered in occupations that were least paid and most degrading in terms of manual labour.[iv] The social and occupational restrictions imposed by the hereditary nature of the caste system were the biggest impediment to social mobility among them.[v] The continued occupational linkage with caste contributed in the perpetuation of the caste system.
The association of caste and occupation in the Indian society has been studied by scholars from diverse fields. While some have viewed it as a rigid system with very little or no chance of social mobility, others have viewed the caste system to be dynamic in nature. Kroeber describes caste as a ‘system of social stratification and aggregate ranking of the people into usually a rigid and birth-ascribed structure, which permits no individual mobility’.[vi] He has considered it as an all-encompassing system, an ideology, which governs all other relations.[vii] Srinivas defines caste, as a ‘hereditary endogamous localized group having a traditional association with an occupation and is graded in hierarchy depending on the occupational status’.[viii] For Dumont ‘the caste system comprises the specialization and interdependence of the constituent groups’.[ix] Karve reviews the association between caste and occupational structure by identifying caste designations of some of the groups indicating their occupations.[x] Ghurye views that; “the caste system not only assigns a definite occupation to each individual but also imposes certain restrictions on the change of occupation”.[xi]
The ethnographic studies have documented the changes in occupational structure in Indian villages across castes over time. Several studies find clear evidence of occupational mobility among low castes over time. For example, based on fieldwork for around 20 years in Behror, a village in the Western State of Rajasthan, Mendelsohn finds that with increasing political consciousness, the Chamars, engaged in shoe repair and leather work, the Bhangis engaged in toilet cleaning and the Dhanaks engaged in weaving are no longer willing to perform small traditional work and are increasingly moving out of the village in search of new employment opportunities.[xii] This has adversely affected the old jajmani system in which such functional castes used to work. Many scholars believe that caste as a traditional system of social hierarchy and culture would weaken and eventually disappear with the processes of development and modernization.[xiii] Studies have shown that with increased educational opportunities, the inter-generational occupational mobility rates have increased.[xiv]
The increased modernization and development have created supply and demand of new goods and services. With this, new occupations with skilled and diversified job requirements and division of labour have emerged.[xv] There is a need to look into the impact of these changes on the old occupational structure and on the association between occupations and caste. Panini writes that as ‘new work opportunities emerge, competition opens up and productivity increases, the economic growth rate is likely to get accelerated, which in turn would multiply job opportunities to such an extent that workers and the employers may not consider caste factor in getting and providing jobs’.[xvi]
Looking at the traditional linkage between caste and menial labour we find that the occupations connected with the Dalits were mainly unclean and degrading ones, with little or no scope of vertical mobility. However, with the enactment of radical affirmative action policies, providing quotas in state and central legislatures, village governments, the civil service and government-sponsored educational institutions to SCs a progressive shift and dissociation can be seen between occupations and caste status. Such changes albeit slow are the indications of social change.
The dissociation between caste and occupation can be seen relatively more in urban than rural areas because of the concentration of modern occupations in urban areas. The analysis of the process of delinking becomes important to know whether the trend points towards the evolving of a homogeneous, integrated and casteless society. More so in light of the series of welfare and development measures that have been taken up in the country post liberalization that have resulted in increased opportunities for all sections of the society. The studies have indicated that the impact of caste is declining on new and modern occupations.[xvii] However, it is quite possible that the social stigma associated with traditional occupations reinforces the continuance of SCs and marginalized groups into the traditional occupations. To a large extent the influence of caste on occupation varies by the level of education and professional skills and unless the community is empowered both educationally and socially, the disparity in society entrenched within the caste-occupation nexus cannot be eliminated.
[ii] Anderson, S. (2011): ‘Caste as an impediment to Trade’. American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, 3, 239-263.
[iii] Béteille, A. (1996). Caste, Class and Power: Changing Patterns of Stratification in a Tanjore Village. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
[iv] Mendelsohn, O. and Vicziany, M. (1998). The Untouchables: Subordination, Poverty and the State in Modern India. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Also see Shah, G., Mander, H., Thorat, S., Deshpande, S. and Baviskar, A. (2006). Untouchability in Rural India. Delhi: Sage Publications.
[vi] Kroeber AL “Caste” in Seligman ERA (ed) Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences Volume 3 (Macmillan New York 1930)
[vii] Sharma K.L. (1996), “Indian Society”, NCERT, New Delhi, p. 87.
[viii] Srinivas M. N., 1952, Religion and society among the coorgs of south India, Oxford University Press, P.p.32.
[ix] Dumont Louis, 1966, Homo Hierachicus, Vikas Publications, Banglore, Pp.92.
[x] Karve Iravati, 1958, What is Caste? Caste and occupation, The Economic Weekly, Vol. X No. 12, Pp. 401-407.
[xi] Hutton J. H., 1946, Pp. 122-24, Abbe J. Dubbouis, 1897, Ollott massion, 1944, Pp. 655
[xii] Mendelsohn, O. (1993). ‘The transformation of authority in rural India’. Modern Asian Studies, 27(4), 805-842.
[xiii] Jodhka S. Surinder, “Dalits in Business: Self-Employed Scheduled Castes in Northwest India”, Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, Working Paper Series, Volume IV, Number 02, 2010
[xiv] http://www.dummies.com/how-to/content/indias-caste-system.html, pg. 3
[xv] Sharma, K.N, “Occupational Mobility of Castes in a North Indian Village”, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Summer 1961), pp. 146-164
[xvi] Panini, M.N. 1996. “The political economy of caste.” Pp. 28-68 in Caste – Its Twentieth Century Avatar, edited by M. N. Srinivas. New Delhi: Viking.
[xvii] Karade Jagan, (2009), “Occupational Mobility among Scheduled Castes”, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK
(Dr Amit Rahul is Senior Research Manager, CMS Social, New Delhi.)