How economists in India underestimated the importance of caste in 1960s?

I have been trying to diversify my reading and trying to read up on other social sciences (at a snail’s pace though).

I came across this super lecture by Prof. André Béteille a top-notch sociology professor at Delhi University. I only learnt of him lately which speaks about how little I know of Indian academia.

He speaks on this very interesting and issue pertaining to India – caste system. The lecture is part of annual lecture organised by Kolkata Port Trust (cannot locate lectures post 2008). Prof. Béteille says:

I thought that I would choose a topic which might be of some interest to the more general public and I decided to talk to you about “Caste Today”, its present significance in Indian society. Now, as it was indicated in my introduction, I have, in fact, written books on caste. In the 50s’ and 60s’ and into the 70s’, caste was the subject of academic interest, not necessarily a subject of very wide public interest. Today, I think it has become a subject of public interest and I would like to give some thought as to how this has happened. How a subject, whose study was confined to a rather specialized group of academics in the field of social anthropology and sociology, has now captured the public imagination. What does it indicate about the changes in our society and the changes in our perceptions of where the Indian society is moving.

He says during 1960s etc. academia particularly Indian economists thought importance of caste in Indian society is declining:

When I go back to my own experience of the Delhi School of Economics and the University of Delhi in general, to which I came as a young lecturer in the year 1959, the subject of caste was considered rather boring, particularly by my colleagues in the Department of Economics, who believed that caste belonged to India’s past, not to India’s future ; and when I talked about caste with these people, they felt that it was a subject of highly specialized interest with which, intelligent people, who were concerned with the transformation of Indian society, should not pre-occupy themselves too much.

But today, if you go to Delhi University and ask about admissions and whether the admissions are transparent or fixed, within five minutes, you will come to the point, where people will tell you that all of this is, in fact, done in terms of caste. Caste is very important in the operation of our public institutions, whether in education or in employment. I don’t know to what extent this is actually true. My sense is, that caste bias certainly exists even in our premier public institutions, though this tends to be somewhat exaggerated by the media.

There were some econs who still believed caste mattered but were just exceptions.

Why did econs feel that way? Well it was because they saw three trends which showed role of caste was diminishing:

Now the question I would want to ask myself is that, were these distinguished economists, academics, journalists who believed that caste was in decline, completely deluded? Were they unable to see what was going on in the Indian society? Frankly, I don’t think they were wholly deluded, and I would explain why. Because there are many areas of social life in this country in which there is a secular trend of decline in the significance of caste and I would like to say a few things about this secular trend of decline in many areas of our social life. And again, I would pick out three areas and argue that there is substantial evidence that caste is in decline in all these three fields of social life or action. 

Now, what are the three areas? First, is the area of religion and ritual. Second, is the area of inter-marriage and third is the area of the association with the caste and occupation.

He explains the three areas really well. On this occupation bit:

Whereas there were earlier anthropologists, who either believed that the heart of the caste system lay in the ritual opposition of purity and pollution or in the rules of inter marriage, there were other anthropologists and sociologists who argued that the real foundation of the caste system lay in the association between caste and occupation. I would say that there is still some association between caste and occupation but it is weakening. If one wants to understand, what is the association between caste and occupation, then I think one has to examine it at two different levels.

First of all, there was a very specific association between caste and occupation of the kind which was studied in very great detail by my own teacher, the Late Prof. Nirmal Kumar Bose. For instance, he pointed out that among oil pressers, the Telis, there were two or three different sub-castes of Telis and each of these sub-castes practised oil pressing, using their respective techniques 

But apart from the specific association between caste and occupation, i.e., a sub-caste pursuing a particular craft in a particular manner, there is also a general association between caste and occupation, i.e, caste belonging to the higher levels, usually practice superior non-manual occupation and castes of lower levels were usually relegated to the inferior, manual and menial occupations and that association is still quite noticeable. It has not yet disappeared, although it has been curbed quite a bit.

Now the factor behind loosening up of the association between caste and occupation is the emergence of a very large number of new caste-free occupations. There are new occupations to which there is no appropriate caste or sub-caste. There are no particular castes or sub-castes, which match the new occupations that are emerging before our eyes at a very rapid rate. So that is another factor, which leads to the weakening of the association between caste and occupation.


This answers why top econs then thought caste issues are on a downhill. However, what again led to the surge?It was politics:

It was in decline in that sense but why is it that people have acquired a renewed interest in caste? I would say, in conclusion and this is the last point I want to make : if caste has been given a new lease of life in our society, in Indian society, it is the political system which has given it. Srinivas’ name was long associated with the idea that the caste is still very strong and is growing stronger ; and his paper, ‘Caste in Modern India’ which was read as part of the presidential address of the Indian Science Congress and which is still regarded as a landmark is a strong pointer to the continuing existence of the caste system and even to its strengthening. It’s a very outstanding paper and I have read this paper many times.

It has many examples. But every single example Srinivas uses for his argument that the caste is becoming stronger, is in the field of politics. There is not a single example from all the three areas I have just discussed. And these were the three very areas, which seemed to Srinivas’ predecessors, who were writing about caste, to be constituting the real source that caste derived its strength from.

This is something common across the world:

There is no doubt at all, and there is no way that we could deny the fact that democratic politics has given a new lease of life to caste by allowing caste to be used as a basis for mobilizing electoral support. And it’s a very large subject in itself. This is a worldwide phenomenon. This is what is described as identity politics. It is not only caste; it can be religion, language, or ethnicity. In fact, throughout Eastern and Central Europe, you see the resurgence of identity politics. So, in that sense, caste has been given a new lease of life. So Srinivas was right and so also K.N. Raj was right. So, when K.N. Raj was arguing that the caste is weakening, he had in mind the association between caste and occupation, the very stringent rules restricting inter-caste marriages and the rules regarding ritual inclusion and  exclusion; so he was right. But when Srinivas was arguing that caste had been given a new lease of life, he was also right.

Of course, people may point out to me that caste was given a new lease of life only by the political process for mobilizing electoral support but I would argue that if there were nothing to it, how could one have used caste for mobilizing political support? The point is not that the people were not conscious of their caste identity; of course they were and this comes up when one talks about marriage. But this consciousness, in my judgment, was weakening and it has been given a new lease  of life. It has been strengthened as a result of a kind of identity politics, which has been particularly in vogue since 1977, but particularly since the Mandal agitations and now, since the aggressive push for quotas in Central Universities and IITs.

Final take..

But again, I must say, in finality, that one must always be very sensitive to regional variations in India. I find it extremely difficult to generalize for the whole of India when I am talking about the power played by caste in politics or in ritual or in intermarriages in certain parts of the country. There are enormous regional variations, those between rural India and urban India etc. Nevertheless, I think it is a very important subject and I think I wouldn’t be much mistaken to hold the view that the Bengali intelligentsia has not taken the importance of caste sufficiently seriously. I think that they should do it and I believe that it is going to be a very important part of political life of India, at least in the next decade or so.

Superb. Interesting times for Indian economy…

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