Indian History

Caste systems (varna and jatis)

India’s caste system is among the world’s oldest forms of surviving social stratification. This system which divides Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups based on their karma (work) and dharma (the Hindi word for religion, but here it means duty) is generally accepted to be more than 3,000 years old.

Manusmriti, widely regarded to be the most important and authoritative book on Hindu law and dating back to at least 1,000 years before Christ was born, “acknowledges and justifies the caste system as the basis of order and regularity of society”. The caste system divides Hindus into four main categories – Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and the Shudras. Many believe that the groups originated from Brahma, the Hindu God of creation.

At the top of the hierarchy were the Brahmins who were mainly teachers and intellectuals and are believed to have come from Brahma’s head. Then came the Kshatriyas, or the warriors and rulers, supposedly from his arms. The third slot went to the Vaishyas, or the traders, who were created from his thighs. At the bottom of the heap were the Shudras, who came from Brahma’s feet and did all the menial jobs.

The main castes were further divided into about 3,000 castes and 25,000 sub-castes, each based on their specific occupation. Outside of this Hindu caste system were the achhoots – the Dalits or the untouchables.

For centuries, caste has dictated almost every aspect of Hindu religious and social life, with each group occupying a specific place in this complex hierarchy. Rural communities have long been arranged on the basis of castes – the upper and lower castes almost always lived in segregated colonies, the water wells were not shared, Brahmins would not accept food or drink from the Shudras, and one could marry only within one’s caste.

The system bestowed many privileges on the upper castes while sanctioning repression of the lower castes by privileged groups. Often criticized for being unjust and regressive, it remained virtually unchanged for centuries, trapping people into fixed social orders from which it was impossible to escape.

Independent India’s constitution banned discrimination on the basis of caste, and, in an attempt to correct historical injustices and provide a level playing field to the traditionally disadvantaged, the authorities announced quotas in government jobs and educational institutions for scheduled castes and tribes, the lowest in the caste hierarchy, in 1950.

  1. Muslim Social Stratification (website)

Most of the South Asian Muslims were recruited from the Hindu population; despite the egalitarian tenets of Islam, the Muslim converts persisted in their Hindu social habits. Hindus, in turn, accommodated the Muslim ruling class by giving it a status of its own.

In South Asian Muslim society is divided into:

  • Ashraf (Arabic, plural of shārīf, “nobleman”), who are supposedly descendants of Muslim Arab immigrants
  • non-Ashraf, who are Hindu converts
  • Ajlaf, individuals or groups who have converted to Islam, often from lower-caste or disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Arzal, converts who perform occupations considered menial or socially marginalized, such as sanitation work.

The Ashraf group is further divided into four subgroups:

  • Sayyids, originally a designation of descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatimah and son-in-law Ali
  • Shaykhs (Arabic: “Chiefs”), mainly descendants of Arab or Persian immigrants but also including some converted Rajputs
  • Pashtuns or Pathans, members of Pashto-speaking tribes in Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan
  • Mughals, persons of Turkish origin, who came into India with the Mughal armies.

The non-Ashraf Muslim castes are of three levels of status:

  • at the top, converts from high Hindu castes, mainly Rajput’s, insofar as they have not been absorbed into the Shaykh castes
  • the artisan caste groups, such as the Julas, originally weavers
  • lowest, the converted untouchables, who have continued their old occupations.

These converts of Hinduism observe endogamy in a manner close to that of their Hindu counterparts. Two of the principal indexes of Hindu caste, commensality and endogamy (principles governing eating and marital arrangements), do not appear as strongly in Muslim castes. Commensality is prohibited between Ashraf and non-Ashraf, between Muslim and Hindu, and between the various castes of the non-Ashraf. The principle of endogamy is altered by the Muslim preference of marriage within very narrow limits.

Modern Socio-economic classes

In modern Indian society socio-economic classes are diverse and can be broadly categorized based on economic status, education, and occupation. Like in any other community, economic disparities within the Indian community are influenced by a complex interplay of factors including historical, social, and regional variations. India’s socio-economic landscape is diverse and varied. Here are some general socio-economic classes that can be observed in India:

  • Upper Class: This group represents India’s wealthiest individuals. According to data available up to 2021, the top 1% of the population held around 22-23% of the country’s wealth. These individuals typically have high incomes, substantial assets, and access to exclusive privileges and services. Members of the upper class often hold positions of authority in large corporations, family-owned businesses, or occupy influential roles in politics and government. They may be business magnates, corporate executives, or professionals in fields such as law, medicine, and finance. While specific figures can vary, many of them have access to top-paying jobs, and some of India’s richest individuals fall into this category. For example, in 2023, according to Forbes, several Indian billionaires were named under the category of ‘The Richest People in the World’
  • Middle Class: The middle class is a significant segment of the population, accounting for roughly 25-30% of India’s populace. They earn incomes that provide a reasonably comfortable lifestyle, often owning homes, sending their children to schools, and having access to basic healthcare. The middle class in India encompasses a wide range of professions and occupations. This includes IT professionals, engineers, teachers, government employees, small business owners, and skilled tradespeople. According to data from the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), in 2022, a significant number of Indians in the middle class were employed in these sectors.
  • Lower Middle Class: A substantial portion of India’s population falls into the lower middle class category. They have modest incomes that allow for basic living expenses but may struggle to save significantly The lower middle class often consists of individuals employed in clerical positions, small-scale businesses, and semi-skilled or service jobs. Many work in retail, customer service, and administrative roles. . The lower middle class plays a crucial role in various sectors of the economy.
  • Working Class: In 2020, over 80% of India’s labor force was employed in the informal sector, which typically offers lower wages and job security. They often perform physically demanding tasks such as construction work, agriculture, and manufacturing. The working class comprises manual laborers, factory workers, and those in the informal sector.
  • Rural Class: As of 2023, agriculture employed over 50% of the rural workforce, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare. Agriculture remains a primary occupation for a substantial portion of this population, with income levels varying based on factors such as landownership, crop yields, and access to government support
  • Urban Poor: Approximately 20-25% of India’s urban population lived in impoverished conditions or slums in 2022. These communities often faced challenges related to overcrowding, inadequate infrastructure, and limited access to essential services. The urban poor often work in the informal sector as daily wage laborers, street vendors, domestic workers, and in low-skilled service jobs. They may also engage in temporary or seasonal work. According to the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), in 2018, a substantial percentage of the urban poor were employed in these informal and low-paying occupations.
  • Government Reservations: The Indian government has implemented policies to address historical inequalities. These include reservations in education and jobs for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and economically weaker sections (EWS). These policies aim to create opportunities for historically disadvantaged communities. Government reservations ensure their representation across sectors. For example, government jobs, educational institutions, and political positions have quotas for these groups, though the specific distribution can vary by region and year.

Classes within Caste post Mandal Commission

The Mandal Commission, officially known as the Mandal Commission on Reservation in Services for Backward Classes, was a pivotal government-appointed body in India formed in 1979. Its fundamental objective was to investigate and address social and educational disparities among various caste groups, particularly focusing on the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). The commission’s landmark report, submitted in 1980, recommended a 27% reservation for OBCs in government jobs, along with a separate quota in educational institutions. This recommendation led to significant changes in the composition of the Indian bureaucracy and the educational landscape, aimed at providing greater representation and opportunities to historically disadvantaged communities.

The emergence of class divisions within castes, particularly among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs), became a prominent social phenomenon following the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations in India. While the Mandal Commission was originally conceived to address historical social and educational disparities, its policies inadvertently gave rise to economic and political class distinctions within various OBC communities. Understanding the emergence of these class distinctions within castes is crucial for a comprehensive analysis of India’s social dynamics and the ongoing pursuit of equitable opportunities for all. Some of the disparities that have emerged after the implementation of Mandal Commission are :

  • Economic Disparities: According to the National Sample Survey (NSS) data as of 2019, the average monthly per capita consumption expenditure among OBC households was approximately Rs. 1,663, while among the general category households, it was significantly higher at approximately Rs. 2,588. The Mandal Commission’s implementation aimed to uplift OBCs by providing them with reservations in government jobs and educational institutions. However, it became apparent that not all OBCs were equally economically disadvantaged. Some OBC groups were more economically advanced, while others remained in poverty.
  • Educational Divide: The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2020 revealed that while there has been an increase in school enrollment among OBC children, learning outcomes remain low. For instance, in rural India, only about 15% of OBC children in Grade 5 could read a Grade 2 level text. A significant aspect of classes within castes post Mandal was the educational divide. While reservations increased OBC representation in educational institutions, disparities persisted. Some OBC subgroups had better access to quality education, while others struggled to access even basic schooling.
  • Dominant OBCs: Some OBC groups, like the Yadavs in North India and the Vokkaligas in Karnataka, have seen a significant increase in political representation and influence. For instance, as of 2021, Yadavs held influential political positions in several North Indian states. More dominant and politically influential OBC groups managed to secure a substantial share of reserved positions in government jobs and higher education. These dominant OBCs often belonged to the middle or upper-middle class, benefiting the most from the Mandal Commission’s recommendations.
  • Less Privileged OBCs: The Sachar Committee Report (2006) revealed disparities within OBCs. For example, it highlighted that some OBC subgroups, like the Musahars in Bihar, faced extreme poverty and lack of access to basic amenities. The less privileged OBCs, often belonging to the lower socioeconomic strata, faced challenges in reaping the benefits of reservations. They continued to experience economic and educational disadvantages, leading to a class divide within their caste.
  • Political Dynamics: In states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where OBCs constitute a substantial portion of the population, political parties often court dominant OBC groups due to their vote bank potential. This can lead to policy decisions that favor the more influential OBCs. The interplay between caste and class interests became a crucial aspect of post-Mandal politics. Dominant OBCs aligned their class interests with political parties to maintain their share of reservation benefits, sometimes at the expense of less privileged OBCs.
  • Debate on Sub-Categorization: The Justice R.M. Lodha Committee, appointed by the Government of India, recommended sub-categorization of OBCs in 2020. It suggested categorizing OBCs into three groups—extremely backward classes (EBCs), more backward classes (MBCs), and backward classes (BCs)—to ensure that reservation benefits reach the most marginalized subgroups. Some argue that sub-categorization is necessary to ensure that reservations are more equitably distributed among OBC subgroups based on their economic and social conditions.
  • Economic Mobility: According to a study by the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, as of 2019, while some OBC groups had experienced upward economic mobility due to reservations, a significant portion remained economically disadvantaged.
  • Policy Implications: The sub-categorization of OBCs has been implemented in some states like Bihar, where EBCs have been given separate reservation quotas to address disparities within OBCs more effectively. This policy move underscores the need for a more tailored approach to address the classes within castes. It recognizes that a one-size-fits-all approach may not effectively address the disparities within the OBC community, emphasizing the importance of data-driven and targeted policy solutions.
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