An introduction to the caste system  

One of the fundamental characteristics of Hindu society is the presence of castes. What the role of the caste is has been a question of much debate among scholars and activists alike. It is unquestionable, that this social system is at least several millennia-old in its origin, there is consensus that at some point after the fall of the Roman Empire, the system became rigid and acquired its present more oppressive form.

By Adhiraj Bose   –   Mazdoor Inqilab/India

In summary, there are four castes that pertain to four  social positions in the hierarchy:  

Brahmins – The uppermost caste with the most privilege, is meant to be the priestly caste and those destined for intellectual pursuits and careers.  

Kshatriya – Their position lay just below the Brahmin, and are the caste of rulers and warriors.  

Vaishya – The caste of traders whose position is below that of the Kshatriya, despite their wealth they remained below the warrior caste.  

Shudras – The lowest in the caste ladder belong to the caste of workers and labourers who are destined to remain trapped in backwardness and poverty.  

Nehru opined in his book ‘A Discovery of India’ that the caste system helped to organise an early state-based society after the coming of the Aryans. The division of labour created the foundations for what was then a productive and sophisticated system. However, it was not unchallenged even in its time.  

Buddhism emerged in the 6th century BC with an egalitarian message that hit at the caste system.  Buddhism appealed to the lower castes, the Vaisya and the Shudra. It allowed opportunities to advance in society and respect, which would not have been possible within Hindu society. In modern times, the same dynamic can be seen with the re-emergence of Neo-Buddhism after independence.  

Throughout the centuries the upper castes who have held administrative positions, primarily the caste of Brahmin and Kshatriya, have enforced discriminatory rules against the Shudra to ensure they remain subordinate to their rule. This included laws forbidding the marriage of castes below the ladder, so that no one may marry into a Shudra family, and no Shudra may try to marry up, and such marriage would bring punishment. There were laws restricting the shudra from learning the Vedas and ritual incantations which are the preserve of the brahmin. The main text laying out the caste system was the Manusmriti (the Law Book of Hindus). Here you may find a collection of some punishments for the lower  castes and verses establishing discrimination against the Dalit: https://velivada.com/2017/05/31/casteist-quotes-verses-manusmriti-law-book-hindus/  

The precise point of origin of the caste system in Indian history remains a matter of debate, but there is an emerging consensus that the caste system grew into its rigid and more recognisably repressive form sometime around the beginning of the middle ages of Indian history, between the 3rd and 5th century AD. Some opine this was caused by the fall of the Roman Empire and the loss of trade. 

From this point onwards the caste system remained as an oppressive social instrument ensuring the backwardness of the Shudra caste and to a lesser extent the Vaishya caste. This preserved the hegemony of the Brahmin and Kshatriya over these two castes who form the majority of the Indian population. 

Caste and capitalism 

The fundamental capitalist social dynamic, is the exploitation of the working class, the proletariat,  for the enrichment of a capitalist class, the bourgeoisie. All other divisions get subordinated to this fundamental division. Barriers of race and caste, at least in theory, ought not to exist under capitalism, yet they do.  

In the case of India, we must understand the trajectory of capitalism in order to understand how caste survived this. Earlier pre-capitalist modes of production with their rigid hierarchies and unproductive methods could never destroy the caste system. Religious opposition to the caste system from Buddhism, and then from Islam and Christianity, failed to abolish the caste system either. What has been common in each social transformation India has undergone, is the maintenance of a hierarchical and exploitative system of social division, be it in the Asiatic mode of production, or the uniquely Indian social system which evolved in the medieval era after the Gupta  Empire (4th to 5th century AD).  

Capitalism too suffers from this weakness; it is a hierarchical system of social division where the bourgeoisie controls all political and economic power, while the working class remains poor. 

Despite the formal equality before the law, the reality of capitalist exploitation denies such formal equality. The historical evidence of two hundred years of capitalism in India compels us to draw this conclusion, that the capitalist system, does not stand for the abolition of racism and casteism, rather the system adjusts itself to them. The bourgeoisie in America abolished slavery but retained a racial judicial and political system which ensured the exploitation of African Americans remained at similar levels. The Indian bourgeoisie, similarly “abolished” the caste system from the law, but retained the social system, and utilized it to maintain upper-caste hegemony over Dalits.  

In the case of India, we have to take into account not just the penetration of the capitalist world market,  but the manner in which it happened. Colonialism brought in additional layers of oppression and inequality which made it particularly exploitative and destructive. The pre-colonial regimes of India under either the Islamic empires or the Hindu kingdoms had never seriously challenged caste divisions, the Islamic empires, on the contrary, tolerated the caste system and the caste hierarchies which existed at the time of their arrival. The overwhelming motivation was practical, brahmins and the unique intermediate caste of ‘Kayastha’, were necessary for building up an efficient administration in India. Rather than try to rock the boat, the Turks and then the Mughals would retain them in their respective political and social roles.

The only disturbance to the caste system could be the spread of Islam at the hands of Sufi saints, which allowed the Shudra caste an avenue to escape the indignity of caste oppression. However, the system remained and soon enough a caste system emerged among the converted population, between the foreign conquerors (Ashraf) and the local converts (Ajlaf) as well as the continuation of the Indian caste system.

When colonial capitalism arrived as a major political force, let’s say after the East India Company took control over the Nawabi of Bengal in 1757, they had a ready-made system of administration, which they chose not to alter entirely. Many of the administrative systems and roles remained in place along with those who ran the system. Accordingly, the upper caste who had remained in a  position of privilege under the Nawabs, remained in power under the East India company power, despite their occasional egalitarian impulses like opening recruitment to the lower castes Mahars and Dalits into the Bombay Army [1], the East India Company preferred keeping the pre-capitalist status quo where it served their interests. The company introduced capitalism in its most bestial and exploitative forms, which was devoid of all the progressive features of early bourgeois revolutionism and liberalism, and all of its exploitative and destructive qualities.

The East India Company

They would play an important role in the East India Company’s battles against the Maratha Peshwas in the Anglo Maratha wars. The battle of Bhima Koregaon, where 500 Dalit soldiers of the company army beat a Peshwa army numbering in the thousands has assumed legendary stature. The victory is annually commemorated in Maharashtra. 

The East India Company also destroyed the political and economic power of the Nawabs and Rajas, making them subordinate instruments of capitalism, but in doing so it did not seek to fix the worst features of Indian society. Caste hierarchies remained, caste oppression remained, but now subordinated to the interests and directions of capitalism. For this reason, Marx called the East India Company a  prodigy of creative destruction, with the destructive characteristics outweighing the creative ones.  

Thus, when Indian capitalism emerged from the womb of colonial capitalism, it did so with all the muck and filth of caste-ridden society. The social layer of merchants in India had a curious position, being of the vaishya caste, they could not be equal to the Kshatriya or Kayastha, nor could they compete with the brahmin in social privileges, yet their wealth made them influential and sometimes quite powerful. With the advent of capitalism in India and the fall of Indian feudalism to the rule of the East India Company, this section of society grew in strength, as they could not improve their social position with the world capitalist market. From here came some of the most prominent capitalist families in India. However, rather than seek to abolish the caste system, they sought to improve their position within the caste ladder, Hindu identity politics emerged in the late  19th century and early 20th century from two streams, either the Marwari and Gujarati [2] merchants based in Calcutta and Bombay respectively, or the Hindu landed gentry centred around Calcutta. By and large, the caste of Vaishyas and the merchant community as a whole is steeped in social conservatism and is hostile towards progressive movements.  

The inequalities of caste-ridden society in India influenced the growth of Indian nationalism as well. The upper caste of Indian society, particularly brahmins, monopolized administrative positions and professions requiring intellectual talents, such as teaching, lawyering, and the medical profession. 

From this layer came the first leadership of the modern Indian independence movement, and it was overwhelmingly upper caste and almost entirely Hindu. The Dalits were never considered a part of this movement, and the upper caste leadership never let go of their caste privileges, rather they retained it as part of their social standing within wider Hindu society.  

The trajectory of Dalit struggles

What is remarkable about the caste system is how long it has lasted and how it continues to last,  albeit without legal sanction. The social institution has been remarkably resilient to almost every challenge it has faced. It leaves analysts confused as to what keeps it ticking, some leftists have even claimed the caste system will somehow exist under socialism!  

In truth, Indian history has been through phases when the role of caste was either marginalized or nearly undone. The effect of Buddhism and its spread was one such period. Buddhism was in many ways a direct attack on the Hindu caste system, as the religion preached egalitarianism and denial of creator Gods. The struggle between Buddhism and Hinduism assumed a political character through the Mauryan Empire when the religion became the state religion of India. Furthermore, aggressive proselytization resulted in the majority of Indians leaving the fold of Hinduism to join Buddhism.  However, Buddhism was not a socio-political movement, it provided an escape from the caste system, it did not provide the means for abolishing the social institutions nor the political means to do it. The fall of the Mauryan Empire led to the establishment of the Sunga Dynasty’s rule over Magadh (located in modern-day Bihar and Jharkhand) and with came the return of Hinduism as the state religion. By many accounts, the Sunga dynasty enforced the return of the caste system as the dominant social order of India and began persecuting Buddhists, though the motives behind it are debatable. What this does show, is the political conflict on the basis of caste taking place in Ancient India.

Such struggles have shaped Indian society throughout its history, with movements often influenced by theology and religion, critiquing the caste system, and providing the oppressed castes with an escape from the enforcement of caste dominance. In almost every case the movements have either been suppressed, or incorporated into the amorphous fold of Hinduism, where they no longer served to attack the social dominance of the caste system. The rule of the upper caste, Brahmin and Kshatriya over Indian society, was thus guaranteed by a combination of coercion and assimilation.  

The contest between Hinduism and Buddhism was settled in victory for the former by the time of the Gupta Dynasty (3rd century AD – 6th century AD), it was under the Gupta dynasty, that most historians agree that the Hindu caste system became ‘rigid’, and grew into its more oppressive form that we are familiar with today. One phase of a centuries-long struggle between the caste of workers and peasants (Shudras and Vaishyas) and the castes of Kings and priests (Kshatriya and Brahmin) ended with a victory for the ruling castes. Buddhism by this time had become corrupted and was in decline, mahants grew corrupt and exploitative, and no longer did the religion provide an escape for the lower and middle castes of Dalits and Vaishyas. The Brahmins had reinforced their hegemony and it remained uninterrupted till the advent of Islam. The role of Islam was not fundamentally different from that of Buddhism, in that it provided an escape for the oppressed castes. However, they failed even in this.  

Muslim rulers who first came from Arabia, and later from among the Turks in Central Asia, needed to enforce their political and economic will over India that was largely Hindu and very much under the hegemony of the upper castes. As the upper caste held an absolute dominance of administrative functions, and most economic functions, they held knowledge of administration and religious functions, which kept their relevance as intermediaries for Muslim rulers, thus preserving their position in relation to the lower castes. Even if their hold was weakened, the caste system was not undone. The nature of land ownership also plays a part in this, as property held in common or under the state as the property of the king, did not change one bit under the Arabs or Turks. The rural sphere was almost entirely unchanged. Rather than convert Indian society to its terms, Islam adapted to Indian conditions and in time even incorporated a caste system within itself.  

From the failure of Islam to abolish casteism, emerged Sikhism, again a religious movement that combined features of Hindu asceticism and Islamic tenets like the belief in one God. Such syncretic movements while not unique in India did not emerge as a power to the same level as Sikhism.

However, this too fit into a pattern of such movements failing to undo the caste system. Throughout the medieval era till the advent of the East India Company and the imposition of capitalist rule in the sub-continent, numerous movements rose and fell which critiqued the caste system and sought to challenge it, but none succeeded in even ending it as a formal institution. The trend changed with the emergence of the Enlightenment, while the modern phase of the Indian independence movement was starting in Bengal [3].

In Western India, modern-day Maharashtra saw the rise of what would be the precursor of a modern Dalit movement under the Satyashodhak Samaj.

The Satyashodhak Samaj was formed in 1873, by Jyotirao Phule who is arguably the first modern leader of the Dalit caste and is credited with having established the term ‘Dalit’ which means broken or oppressed. Like many social reformers of his time, he did not oppose the British colonization of India, rather he sought to emancipate the Dalits through the institution of the empire. This was a fundamentally wrong assumption, as the British empire was not a force of progress but in its own way reinforced the caste system, allowing its transition into capitalism. Despite the formal abolition of the caste system from the legal framework, it remained as a social force and, in certain cases, like devolution of property, testamentary succession, marriage, and religious affairs still remained within religious laws and thus within the ambit of caste boundaries. The British did little to change these laws or customs. However, we must acknowledge Jyotirao Phule’s contribution as the pioneer of the modern Dalit movement. For the first time, the struggle against caste assumed a clear and self-conscious political expression.  

Jyotirao Phule was given the title of ‘Mahatma’ for his contribution to the cause of Dalit emancipation and his role in supporting the education of women along with his wife Savitribai  Phule. His work with the Satyashodhak Samaj laid the groundwork for the rise of B.R. Ambedkar and the modern movement for the annihilation of caste. Around the same time Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy, commonly known as ‘Periyar’, built up the ‘self-respecting’ movement in the Southern state of Madras, present-day Tamil Nadu. He built what would become the precursor of both modern Tamil regional bourgeois parties, the Dravid Kazhagam. 

Both these figures stand tall among the early modern leaders of the Dalit movement, and both provided leadership to the Dalit community in what was the first socio-political challenge to the system of caste. The growth and impact of this movement cannot be understated. However, we must acknowledge its failures as well. Both Periyar and Ambedkar sought solutions for the eradication of caste within the framework of a capitalist state, but as history has shown, the mere formal removal of caste distinctions through constitutionalism and the establishment of a republic would not be enough to eradicate caste oppression, it requires a change that is more fundamentally rooted in the revolutionary transformation of society.  

In all of this, the role of the Congress party is revealing of how the Indian bourgeoisie approached the caste question. Gandhi was heavily criticized during his time and even now, for his apology towards the caste system, and his tepid defence of it. He never stood for the eradication of caste and saw Ambedkar’s movement as ‘smearing Hinduism’. Gandhi would enunciate the ‘merits’ of caste while defending the system [4].

At the same time, the Congress party could not turn its back on the Dalits nor on Dalit politics. They desired hegemony over every community in India but could not overcome their own biases. They failed to win over the Muslims and would eventually fail to win over the Dalits. The contentious and shaky relation with the Dalits and with Ambedkar, in particular, would come to a head in 1946 on the eve of partition.  

During the first-ever Constitution Day celebrations on 26 November 2015 in Parliament, the ignorance of some MP from West Bengal about the election of Dr B. R. Ambedkar to the Constituent Assembly in 1946 was deplorable, to say the least. His election forms a memorable chapter, marked by tension, lawlessness, and violence in the streets of Calcutta, besides the illegal confinement of a supporting MLA by opponents of Dr Ambedkar. The Indian National Congress had waged a hidden war, turning the whole of India against his entry into the august house that was to draft the Constitution of the newly independent nation. Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel led the charge against Ambedkar by publicly proclaiming that “apart from the doors, even the windows of the Constituent Assembly are closed for Dr Ambedkar. Let us see how he enters into the Constituent Assembly” [5].

The election of Ambedkar from the Jessore-Khulna constituency ensured his presence in the assembly as well as his position in the drafting of the constitution. This victory also represented a consolidation of the Dalits of Bengal, called the Namasudra. As such, it was a dire threat for the upper caste leadership of the Congress challenging their hegemony. Such a threat would be completely undone by partitioning Bengal as well as the communal carnage which preceded it that led to nearly a million deaths by 1947. Thus, while the Congress Party had conceded some ground to the Dalits through Ambedkar, it also craftily destroyed the organized power of the Dalits as well as stem the rising tide of class struggle emerging in India, as seen from the revolutionary events of  February 1946 when the naval ratings rose up in revolt, along with the workers, students, and peasants across the country.  

While speaking of the Dalits of East Bengal, it is important to mention what followed partition, as it reveals how the elites of India and Pakistan, both worked together to destroy a powerful social movement and maintain caste hegemony. Most Namashudra remained in Pakistan after the partition, mainly due to the influence of Jogendra Nath Mondol. In time, the full barbarity of the Pakistani state would be revealed as the country primarily ruled by Punjab-based landed Ashraf landed gentry would usher in a veritable genocide against Hindu Dalits in East Pakistan, to destroy the nascent language movement in the 1950s. A much larger slaughter would ensue in the 60s and 70s, where hundreds of thousands of mostly Dalit Hindus, would be subjected to large scale massacres and forced displacements. As refugees, the Bengali Dalit would not fare well, as the Indian state treated them poorly, and subjected them to massacres of their own, like the one at Marichjhapi in Southern  West Bengal. They remained at the margins of Bengali society and remained in the reserve army of labour, an easy source of cheap exploitable labour for Indian capitalism. Thus, one of the most politically advanced Dalit communities was shattered by the combined action of the Indian and Pakistani bourgeoisie [6]. 

After independence and partition, the Dalit movement took a different trajectory. Ambedkar formally endorsed Buddhism as a religion that could help in the emancipation of the Dalit community. He was known for deeply symbolic events and building mass mobilizations around them, such as the mass burning of the Manusmriti, and the strike for access to water. In the 1950s,  disillusioned by the failure of the newly independent republic to pass the Hindu Code Bill, which would push for the abolition of caste, Ambedkar sought conversion as a means for liberating the Dalits from their bondage to the Hindu caste system and chose Buddhism as the proper route. A  mass conversion ceremony was held in which hundreds of Dalits converted, echoing the dynamics of past social efforts against caste discrimination.  

In Southern India, the Justice Party had reorganized itself into the Dravida Kazhagam under the leadership of Periyar. More and more the agenda of the annihilation of caste was coupled with a  regionalist agenda pitted against the imposition of Hindi as a national language. Both still sought solutions within the framework of the capitalist republic, not acknowledging the role of colonial capitalism in retaining the caste system, nor its failure to eradicate caste. Modern bourgeois or petty-bourgeois Dalit parties, such as the Bahujan Samaj Party, largely based in Northern India, or the failed Dalit Panthers party in Western India, failed to bring about the necessary transformation of Hindu society. Partition only sharpened caste divisions and helped in retaining the hegemony of the upper caste elites who have dominance in the Parliament and in professional services such as the Indian Administrative Services, and in the parliament, where Brahmins count for 15% of the legislature, against being 5% of the total population. Efforts at bringing about change through affirmative action have been fiercely resisted or been corrupted thanks to the dynamics of Indian capitalism.  

Thus, in 2020 we still find crimes against Dalits committed with feudal levels of barbarism, and are forced to fight the struggles of past generations again.  

Conclusions  

The continuity and resilience of the caste system in India must be understood in the context of historical materialism. This was the result of the growth of society from primitive communism,  into early Asiatic despotism, albeit with uniquely Indian characteristics. The resilience of the system owes to the ability of the Indian caste elite to adapt to every challenge thrown at it, and the retention of the social foundations of the system which had not been altered at a fundamental level for centuries. The coming of capitalism did disturb the status quo, but again did not overturn it, because it came to India in a most distorted and reactionary package through the East India Company.  

Even in the private corporate sector, it is not uncommon to find recruitment to high managerial offices being reserved for the upper caste, while recruitment to lower staff offices being reserved for the lower caste of Dalits and Vaishyas. The influence of caste is even more glaring when it comes to the system of arranged marriage. A most common feature of matrimonial ads in India is to find caste preferences when looking for brides or grooms. Inter-caste marriages, especially in the villages, are often met with hostility, which can sometimes turn deadly. Upper caste members of a village have been known to respond with brutal violence to break up and punish inter-caste relationships. All of this, while we live in the 21st century! 

In some ways capitalism only modified the manner in which the oppression of Dalits would work, it did not fundamentally change it. We must also acknowledge, that real gains have been won from the decades of struggle under the leadership of Ambedkar, Phule, and Periyar, and others like him.  These victories have been, the acquiring of equal rights guaranteed by a constitution, the spread of mass literacy, and most importantly, the establishment of a political tool by way of Dalit parties, to fight for socio-political change. While acknowledging these victories, we cannot deny the fundamental failures that come from their insistence on finding a solution to the caste question within the boundaries of capitalism, which is an inherently unequal and exploitative system.  

The way forward must be to fight for a system that is truly equal and fair, where the exploitation of man by man ceases. That can only come about under socialism. No caste system can survive that.

Notes:

1 – The current state of Maharashtra

2 – Marwari is a mercantile community from the Western Indian state of Rajasthan, specifically from the province of Marwar. Gujarati merchants hail from the Western Indian state of Gujarat.

3 – It is commonly held that the end of the Sepoy uprising and the beginning of the Indigo revolt in 1860 is considered the start of the modern independence movement in India. The Indigo revolt was led by the urban intelligentsia in Calcutta but dealt with indigo farmers who were viciously exploited by indigo plantation owners, most of whom were foreigners. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Koregaon)

4 – https://thewire.in/history/mahatma-gandhi-jayanti-ambedkar-caste. Enunciating all these merits of caste, Gandhi  declares: “These being my views I am opposed to all those who are out to destroy the caste system.”

5 – https://www.forwardpress.in/2016/11/how-the-bengali-chotalok-shaped-indias-destiny/

6 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Namasudra#Post-independence