Caste system in India

Gandhi visiting Madras (now Chennai) in 1933 on an India-wide tour for Harijan causes. His speeches during such tours and writings discussed the discriminated-against castes of India and appealed for the eradication of untouchability.[1]

The caste system in India is a system of social stratification[2] which historically separated communities into thousands of endogamous hereditary groups called jātis,[3] usually translated into English as "castes". The jātis are thought of as being grouped into four varnas:[4] Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. Certain groups, now known as "Dalits", were excluded from the varna system altogether, ostracised as untouchables.[5][6]

Traditional scholars identified caste system with Hinduism in the Indian subcontinent, but the system is found in other religions, albeit on a smaller scale, including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism in the Indian subcontinent.[7]

Caste used to be thought of as an ancient fact of Hindu life, but various contemporary scholars argue that the caste system was constructed by the British colonial regime.[8] Between 1860 and 1920, the British segregated Indians by caste, granting administrative jobs and senior appointments only to the upper castes. Social unrest during 1920s led to a change in this policy.[9][10] From then on, the colonial administration began a policy of positive discrimination by reserving a certain percentage of government jobs for the lower castes.[11] After India achieved independence, this policy of caste-based reservation of jobs was formalised with lists of Scheduled Castes (Dalit) and Scheduled Tribes (Adivasi).[12]

Discrimination against lower castes is illegal in India under Article 15 of its constitution. India tracks violence against Dalits nationwide; in 2011, the crime prevalence rate against Dalits was 2.8 per 100,000.[13] Since 1950, the country has enacted many laws and social initiatives to protect and improve the socioeconomic conditions of its lower caste population.[14] These caste classifications for college admission quotas, job reservations and other affirmative action initiatives, according to the Supreme Court of India, are based on heredity and are not changeable. These initiatives by India, over time, have led to many lower caste members being elected to the highest political offices including the election of K.R. Narayanan, a Dalit, as President of the nation from 1997 to 2002.[15]


  • Terminology 1
  • History 2
  • During British rule 3
  • Caste rigidity 4
    • In Ancient India 4.1
    • During British rule 4.2
    • Contemporary India 4.3
  • Modern status 5
    • Other Backward Classes (OBC) 5.1
  • Among religions 6
    • Christians 6.1
    • Muslims 6.2
    • Sikh 6.3
    • Buddhists 6.4
    • Jains 6.5
  • Caste and social status 7
    • Views of Ambedkar 7.1
    • Views of Gandhi 7.2
  • Caste-related violence 8
  • Caste politics 9
  • Criticism 10
    • Historical views 10.1
    • Contemporary criticism 10.2
      • As discrimination 10.2.1
      • Caste and economics 10.2.2
  • In popular culture 11
  • See also 12
  • Notes 13
  • References 14
  • Further reading 15
  • External links 16


In a review published in 1944, D. D. Kosambi noted that "Almost every statement of a general nature made by anyone about Indian castes may be contradicted."[16] The term "caste" has no universally accepted definition. To some, it traditionally corresponds to endogamous varnas of the ancient Indian scripts and its meaning corresponds in the sense of estates of feudal Japan or Europe. To others, endogamous jātis — rather than varnas — are castes, such as the 2378 occupation-classified jātis list created by colonial ethnographers in the early 20th century. To others, such as H. H. Risley, it means endogamous groups that resulted from interactions between what were once different races.[17] Endogamy, the common element in these three definitions, is itself disputed. Ambedkar, who was born in India in a social strata considered to be untouchable, disagreed that "caste" can be defined by endogamy. According to him, India before and during British colonial rule, was a strictly exogamous society because marriage within blood-relatives and class-relations was culturally forbidden. The term, according to Ambedkar, should be defined as a social group that tries to impose endogamy, in an exogamous population.[18]

Using occupation to define castes is also confusing. While Brahmins have been defined as priests and sometimes rulers, Kshatriyas as warriors and sometimes rulers, Vaishyas as traders and sometimes agriculturists and Shudras as labourers and sometimes agriculturists, all of them have also been defined by other professions. Drekmeier, for example, after his study of Indian castes includes agriculturists as Vaishyas, while Goodrich includes them as Shudras. Drekmeier further notes that official positions of power were not exclusive privilege of the traditionally upper castes; for example, Shudras were sought and included in official administrative appointments.[19][20]

Castes are poorly defined, confusing concepts. According to William Pinch, the confusion is in part, because the very idea of hierarchical status and relative social identity has been a matter of disagreement in India.[21]

Sociologist Anne Waldrop observes that while outsiders view the term caste as a static phenomenon of stereotypical tradition-bound India, empirical facts suggest caste has been a radically changing feature. The term means different things to different Indians. In the context of politically active modern India, where job and school quotas are reserved for affirmative action based on castes, the term has become a sensitive and controversial subject.[22][23]

G. S. Ghurye wrote in 1932 that, despite much study by many people,
... we do not possess a real general definition of caste. It appears to me that any attempt at definition is bound to fail because of the complexity of the phenomenon. On the other hand, much literature on the subject is marred by lack of precision about the use of the term.[24]

Ghurye did attempt to find a middle-ground between the complexity and the loose usage. He defined six characteristics of the Hindu caste system as a "social philosophy", being its state prior to the relatively modern corruption of this by theories of "rights and duties". He thought that these could be applied across the country, although he acknowledged that there were regional variations on the general theme.[25]

  • Strict segmentation of society, with the various groups being rigidly defined and membership of them determined by birth.
  • A hierarchical system that defines a ranking place for all of the castes
  • Limited choice of occupation, which is enforced within a caste as well as by other castes. A caste might follow more than one traditional occupation but its members would nonetheless be constrained to that range
  • The general practice of endogamy, although in some situations hypergamy is acceptable. Endogamy applies to the various sub-groups within a caste itself, preventing marriage between the sub-groups and sometimes imposing an additional geographical constraint, that one can only marry a person from the same gotra and the same place
  • Restrictions on dietary and social interactions that defines who could consume what and accept from whom. As with marriage arrangements, these restrictions apply at sub-caste level, not merely at the caste level
  • Physical segregation in, for example, villages. This is accompanied by limitations on movement and access, including to religious and educational areas and to basic facilities such as supplies of water. Again, this segregation applies at sub-caste level as well as at the higher level

Not everyone has agreed with the definition proposed by Ghurye, which in any event was intended as an exercise to reduce the gap between lax terminological usage and the realities of an immensely complex system, More recently, Graham Chapman is among those who have reiterated the complexity, and he notes that there are differences between theoretical constructs and the practical reality.[26]


Caste system in 19th century India
Hindu musician
Muslim merchant
Sikh chief
Arab soldier
Pages from Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India according to Christian Missionaries in February 1837. They include Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and Arabs as castes of India.

There are several theories regarding the origins of the Indian caste system. One posits that the Indian and

  • Articles on Caste by Dr.B.R.Ambedkar: CASTES IN INDIA: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development Paper & Presentation with slides, Annihilation of Caste with a Reply to Mahatma Gandhi Part I & Part II, Essays on Untouchables and Untouchability Social, Political, Religious
  • Hidden Apartheid Caste Discrimination against India's "Untouchables"
  • The International Dalit Solidarity Network: Dalits in India
  • Dr. Ambedkar and Untouchability: Fighting the Indian Caste System

External links

  • Baldev Upadhyaya, Kashi Ki Panditya Parampara, Sharda Sansthan, Varanasi, 1985.
  • Jogendra Nath Bhattacharya, Hindu Castes and Sects, Munshiram Manoharlal, Delhi, first edition 1896, new edition 1995.
  • E.A.H.Blunt, The Caste System of North India, first edition in 1931 by Oxford University Press, new edition by S.Chand Publishers, 1969.
  • Christopher Alan Bayly, Rulers, Townsmen, and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770–1870, Cambridge University Press, 1983.
  • Anand A. Yang, Bazaar India: Markets, Society, and the Colonial State in Bihar, University of California Press, 1999.
  • Acharya Hazari Prasad Dwivedi Rachnawali, Rajkamal Prakashan, Delhi.
  • Bibha Jha's Ph.D thesis Bhumihar Brahmins: A Sociological Study submitted to the Patna University.
  • Arvind Narayan Das, Agrarian movements in India : studies on 20th century Bihar (Library of Peasant Studies), Routledge, London, 1982.
  • M. N. Srinivas, Social Change in Modern India, Orient Longman, Delhi, 1995.
  • Ambedkar, B.R. (1946). The Untouchables: Who Were They and Why They Became Untouchables? as reprinted in Volume 7 of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar Writings and Speeches, published by Government of Maharashtra 1990; Complete Writings.
  • Atal, Yogesh (1968) "The Changing Frontiers of Caste" Delhi, National Publishing House.
  • Atal, Yogesh (2006) "Changing Indian Society" Chapter on Varna and Jati. Jaipur, Rawat Publications.
  • Duiker/Spielvogel. The Essential World History Vol I: to 1800. 2nd Edition 2005.
  • Dumont, Louis. Homo Hierarchicus: The Caste System and Its Implications. Complete English edition, revised. 540 p. 1970, 1980 Series: (Nature of Human Society).
  • Forrester, Duncan B., 'Indian Christians' Attitudes to Caste in the Nineteenth Century,' in Indian Church History Review 8, no. 2 (1974): 131–147.
  • Forrester, Duncan B., 'Christian Theology in a Hindu Context,' in South Asian Review 8, no. 4 (1975): 343–358.
  • Forrester, Duncan B., 'Indian Christians' Attitudes to Caste in the Twentieth Century,' in Indian Church History Review 9, no. 1 (1975): 3–22.
  • Forrester, Duncan B., Caste and Christianity: Attitudes and Policies on Caste of Anglo-Saxon Protestant Missions in India (London and Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Curzon Press and Humanities Press, 1980).
  • Ghurye, G. S. (1961). Caste, Class and Occupation. Popular Book Depot, Bombay.
  • Jaffrelot, Christophe (2003). India's Silent Revolution: The Rise of the Lower Castes, C. Hurst & Co.
  • Kane, Pandurang Vaman: History of Dharmasastra: (ancient and mediaeval, religious and civil law) — Poona : Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, 1962–1975.
  • Lal, K. S. Growth of Scheduled Tribes and Castes in Medieval India (1995).
  • Murray Milner, Jr. (1994). Status and Sacredness: A General Theory of Status Relations and an Analysis of Indian Culture, New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Raj, Papia & Aditya Raj (2004) "Caste Variation in Reproductive Health of Women in Eastern Region of India: A Study Based on NFHS Data" Sociological Bulletin 53 (3): 326–346.
  • Ranganayakamma (2001). For the solution of the "Caste" question, Buddha is not enough, Ambedkar is not enough either, Marx is a must, Hyderabad : Sweet Home Publications.
  • Rosas, Paul, "Caste and Class in India," Science and Society, vol. 7, no. 2 (Spring 1943), pp. 141–167. In JSTOR.
  • Liz Stuart, in the Guardian Weekly, 10 January 2002

Further reading

  • Jeffrey, Craig (2001). "'A Fist Is Stronger than Five Fingers': Caste and Dominance in Rural North India". Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, New Series 26 (2): 217–236.  
  • Ketkar, Shridhar Venkatesh (1979) [1909]. The History of Caste in India: Evidence of the Laws of Manu on the Social Conditions in India During the 3rd Century A.D., Interpreted and Examined. Jaipur: Rawat Publications.  
  • Michaels, Axel, Hinduism: Past and Present 188-97 (Princeton 2004) ISBN 0-691-08953-1.
  • Olcott, Mason (December 1944). "The Caste System of India". American Sociological Review 9 (6): 648–657.  
  • Robb, Peter (1997). The Concept of Race in South Asia (2nd ed.). Oxford University Press.  
  • Ahmed, Imtiaz (1978). Caste and Social Stratification Among Muslims in India. Manohar.  
  • Ansari, Ghaus (1960). Muslim Caste in Uttar Pradesh: A Study of Culture Contact. Lucknow: Ethnographic and Folk Cultural Society.  
  • Chapman, Graham (1993), "Religious vs. Regional Determinism India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as Inheritors of Empire", in Arnold, David; Robb, Peter, Institutions and Ideologies: A SOAS South Asia Reader, Curzon Press,  
  • Bayly, Susan (1999). Caste, Society and Politics in India from the Eighteenth Century to the Modern Age. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  


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See also

Mulk Raj Anand's debut novel, Untouchable (1935) based on the theme of untouchability. Hindi film, Achhoot Kanya (Untouchable Maiden, 1936) starring Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani was an early reformist film. The debut novel of Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things (1997) also has themes surrounding the caste system. A lawyer named Sabu Thomas filed a petition to have the book published without the last chapter, which had graphic description of sexual acts between members of different castes.[138] Sabu Thomas, a member of Syrian Christian community of Kerala, claimed the obscenity in the last chapter deeply hurts the Syrian Christian community, the basis of the novel.[139]

In popular culture

Cassan has studied the differential effect within two segments of India's Dalit community. He finds India's overall economic growth has produced the fastest and more significant socio-economic changes. Cassan further concludes that legal and social program initiatives are no longer India's primary constraint in further advancement of India's historically discriminated castes; further advancement are likely to come from improvements in the supply of quality schools in rural and urban India, along with India's economic growth.[22]

Critics believe that the economic liberalisation has benefited just a small elite and left behind the poor, especially the lowest Hindu caste of dalits. But a recent authoritative survey revealed striking improvements in living standards of dalits in the last two decades. Television ownership was up from zero to 45 percent; cellphone ownership up from zero to 36 percent; two-wheeler ownership (of motorcycles, scooters, mopeds) up from zero to 12.3 percent; children eating yesterday's leftovers down from 95.9 percent to 16.2 percent ... Dalits running their own businesses up from 6 percent to 37 percent; and proportion working as agricultural labourers down from 46.1 percent to 20.5 percent.
For specific evidence, Aiyar mentions the following [137]In a 2011 study, Aiyar too notes that such qualitative theories of economic exploitation and consequent land redistribution within India between 1950 and 1990 had no effect on the quality of life and poverty reduction. Instead, economic reforms since the 1990s and resultant opportunities for non-agricultural jobs have reduced poverty and increased per capita income for all segments of Indian society.

A 1995 study notes that the caste system in India is a system of exploitation of poor low-ranking groups by more prosperous high-ranking groups.[133] In India, 36.3% of people own no land at all, 60.6% own about 15% of available land, with a very wealthy 3.1% owning 15% of available land.[134] A study by Haque reports that India contains both the largest number of rural poor, and the largest number of landless households on the planet. Haque also reports that over 90 percent of both scheduled castes (low-ranking groups) and all other castes (high-ranking groups) either do not own land or own land area capable of producing less than $1000 per year of food and income per household. However, over 99 percent of India's farms are less than 10 hectares, and 99.9 percent of the farms are less than 20 hectares, regardless of the farmer or landowner's caste. Indian government has, in addition, vigorously pursued agricultural land ceiling laws which prohibit anyone from owning land greater than mandated limits. India has used this law to forcibly acquire land from some, then redistribute tens of millions of acres to the landless and poor of the low-caste. Haque suggests that Indian lawmakers need to reform and modernize the nation's land laws and rely less on blind adherence to land ceilings and tenancy reform.[135][136]

Caste and economics

A hypothesis that caste amounts to race has been rejected by some scholars.[130][131][132] Ambedkar, for example, wrote that "The Brahmin of Punjab is racially of the same stock as the Chamar of Punjab. The Caste system does not demarcate racial division. The Caste system is a social division of people of the same race." Various sociologists, anthropologists and historians have rejected the racial origins and racial emphasis of caste and consider the idea to be one that has purely political and economic undertones. Beteille writes that "the Scheduled Castes of India taken together are no more a race than are the Brahmins taken together. Every social group cannot be regarded as a race simply because we want to protect it against prejudice and discrimination", and that the 2001 Durban conference on racism hosted by the U.N. is "turning its back on established scientific opinion".[132]

Sociologists Kevin Reilly, Stephen Kaufman and Angela Bodino, while critical of caste system, conclude that modern India does not practice apartheid since there is no state-sanctioned discrimination.[128] They write that casteism in India is presently "not apartheid. In fact, untouchables, as well as tribal people and members of the lowest castes in India benefit from broad affirmative action programmes and are enjoying greater political power."[129]

The maltreatment of Dalits in India has been described by some authors as "India's hidden apartheid".[124][125] Critics of the accusations point to substantial improvements in the position of Dalits in post-independence India, consequent to the strict implementation of the rights and privileges enshrined in the Constitution of India, as implemented by the Protection of Civil rights Act, 1955.[126] They also argue that the practise had disappeared in urban public life.[127]

As discrimination

People winnowing in a Dalit village near Madurai, Tamil Nadu, India

Contemporary criticism

Vivekananda similarly criticised caste as one of the many human institutions that bars the power of free thought and action of an individual. Caste or no caste, creed or no creed, any man, or class, or caste, or nation, or institution that bars the power of free thought and bars action of an individual is devilish, and must go down. Liberty of thought and action, asserted Vivekananda, is the only condition of life, of growth and of well-being.[123]

For example, Jyotirao Phule vehemently criticised any explanations that the caste system was natural and ordained by the Creator in Hindu texts. If Brahma wanted castes, argued Phule, he would have ordained the same for other creatures. There are no castes in species of animals or birds, so why should there be one among human animals. In his criticism Phule added, "Brahmins cannot claim superior status because of caste, because they hardly bothered with these when wining and dining with Europeans." Professions did not make castes, and castes did not decide one's profession. If someone does a job that is dirty, it does not make them inferior; in the same way that no mother is inferior because she cleans the excreta of her baby. Ritual occupation or tasks, argued Phule, do not make any human being superior or inferior.[122]

The caste system has been criticised by many Indian social reformers.

Historical views

There has been criticism of the caste system from both within and outside of India.[121]


Many political parties in India have indulged in caste-based votebank politics. Parties such as Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party and the Janata Dal claim that they are representing the backward castes, and rely on OBC support, often in alliance with Dalit and Muslim support, to win elections.[120] In Uttar Pradesh, the Bahujan Samaj Party was able to garner a majority in the state assembly elections with the support of the high caste Brahmin community.

The Mandal Commission was established in 1979 to "identify the socially or educationally backward" and to consider the question of seat reservations and quotas for people to redress caste discrimination.[119] In 1980, the commission's report affirmed the affirmative action practice under Indian law, whereby additional members of lower castes—the other backward classes—were given exclusive access to another 27 percent of government jobs and slots in public universities, in addition to the 23 percent already reserved for the Dalits and Tribals. When V. P. Singh's administration tried to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission in 1989, massive protests were held in the country. Many alleged that the politicians were trying to cash in on caste-based reservations for purely pragmatic electoral purposes.

Ambedkar and Jawaharlal Nehru had radically different approaches to caste, especially concerning constitutional politics and the status of untouchables.[118] Since the 1980s, caste has become a major issue in the politics of India.[118]

Caste politics

Independent India has witnessed caste-related violence. According to a 2005 UN report, approximately 31,440 cases of violent acts committed against Dalits were reported in 1996.[114][115] The 2005 report claimed 1.33 cases of violent acts per 10,000 Dalit people. For context, the UN reported between 40 and 55 cases of violent acts per 10,000 people in developed countries in 2005.[116][117] One example of such violence is the Kherlanji Massacre of 2006.

Caste-related violence

A 1922 stereograph of Hindu children of high caste, Bombay. This was part of Underwood & Underwood stereoscope journey of colonial world. This and related collections became controversial for staging extreme effects and constructing identities of various colonised nations. Christopher Pinney remarks such imaging was a part of surveillance and imposed identities upon Indians that were resented.[111][112][113]

He claimed that Varnashrama of the shastras is today nonexistent in practice. The present caste system is theory antithesis of varnashrama. Caste in its current form, claimed Gandhi, had nothing to do with religion. The discrimination and trauma of castes, argued Gandhi, was the result of custom, the origin of which is unknown. Gandhi said that the customs' origin was a moot point, because one could spiritually sense that these customs were wrong, and that any caste system is harmful to the spiritual well-being of man and economic well-being of a nation. The reality of colonial India was, Gandhi noted, that there was no significant disparity between the economic condition and earnings of members of different castes, whether it was a Brahmin or an artisan or a farmer of low caste. India was poor, and Indians of all castes were poor. Thus, he argued that the cause of trauma was not in the caste system, but elsewhere. Judged by the standards being applied to India, Gandhi claimed, every human society would fail. He acknowledged that the caste system in India spiritually blinded some Indians, then added that this did not mean that every Indian or even most Indians blindly followed the caste system, or everything from ancient Indian scriptures of doubtful authenticity and value. India, like any other society, cannot be judged by a caricature of its worst specimens. Gandhi stated that one must consider the best it produced as well, along with the vast majority in impoverished Indian villages struggling to make ends meet, with woes of which there was little knowledge.[1][108]

In his younger years, Gandhi disagreed with some of Ambedkar's observations, rationale and interpretations about the caste system in India. "Caste," he claimed, has "saved Hinduism from disintegration. But like every other institution it has suffered from excrescences." He considered the four divisions of Varnas to be fundamental, natural and essential. The innumerable subcastes or Jātis he considered to be a hindrance. He advocated to fuse all the Jātis into a more global division of Varnas. In the 1930s, Gandhi began to advocate for the idea of heredity in caste to be rejected, arguing that "Assumption of superiority by any person over any other is a sin against God and man. Thus caste, in so far as it connotes distinctions in status, is an evil."[110]

Views of Gandhi

According to Ambedkar, castes divided people, only to disintegrate and cause myriad divisions which isolated people and caused confusion. Even the upper caste, the Brahmin, divided itself and disintegrated. The curse of caste, according to him, split the Brahmin priest class into well over 1400 sub-castes. This is supported by census data collected by colonial ethnographers in British India (now South Asia).[108]

Ambedkar described the Untouchables as belonging to the same religion and culture, yet shunned and ostracised by the community they lived in. The Untouchables, observed Ambedkar, recognised the sacred as well as the secular laws of India, but they derived no benefit from this. They lived on the outskirts of a village. Segregated from the rest, bound down to a code of behaviour, they lived a life appropriate to a servile state. According to this code, an Untouchable could not do anything that raised him or her above his or her appointed station in life. The caste system stamped an individual as untouchable from birth. Thereafter, observed Ambedkar, his social status was fixed, and his economic condition was permanently set. The tragic part was that the Mahomedans, Parsis and Christians shunned and avoided the Untouchables, as well as the Hindus. Ambedkar acknowledged that the caste system wasn't universally absolute in his time; it was true, he wrote, that some Untouchables had risen in Indian society above their usually low status, but the majority had limited mobility, or none, during Britain's colonial rule. According to Ambedkar, the caste system was irrational. Ambedkar listed these evils of the caste system: it isolated people, infused a sense of inferiority into lower-caste individuals, and divided humanity. The caste system was not merely a social problem, he argued: it traumatised India's people, its economy, and the discourse between its people, preventing India from developing and sharing knowledge, and wrecking its ability to create and enjoy the fruits of freedom. The philosophy supporting the social stratification system in India had discouraged critical thinking and cooperative effort, encouraging instead treatises that were full of absurd conceits, quaint fancies, and chaotic speculations. The lack of social mobility, notes Ambedkar, had prevented India from developing technology which can aid man in his effort to make a bare living, and a life better than that of the brute. Ambedkar stated that the resultant absence of scientific and technical progress, combined with all the transcendentalism and submission to one's fate, perpetrated famines, desolated the land, and degraded the consciousness from respecting the civic rights of every fellow human being.[107][108][109]

Ambedkar was born in a caste that was classified as untouchable, became a leader of human rights in India, a prolific writer, and a key person in drafting modern India's constitution in the 1940s. He wrote extensively on discrimination, trauma and what he saw as the tragic effects of the caste system in India.[107]

B. R. Ambedkar delivering a speech to a rally at Yeola, Nasik, on 13 October 1935

Views of Ambedkar

This ideological scheme was theoretically composed of 3,000 sub-castes, which in turn was claimed to be composed of 90,000 local endogamous sub-groups.This theory of caste was applied to what was then British India in the early 20th century, when the population comprised about 200 million people, across five major religions, and over 500,000 agrarian villages, each with a population between 100 to 1,000 people of various age groups, variously divided into numerous rigid castes (British India included what is now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma).[8][31][33][105][106]

Doctrinally, caste was defined as a system of segregation of people, each with a traditional hereditary occupation. The Jātis were alternatively grouped into four caste categories (the varnas): viz Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras.[104] Certain people were excluded from varna, ostracised as untouchables.[6]

Caste and social status

Jains also had castes in places such as Bihar. For example, in the village of Bundela, there were several exclusionary jaats amongst the Jains. Martin claims these castes avoided eating with each other.[102] Walter Hamilton in his trip to the Tulava region of South India noticed that the Jains there do not accept Shudras into their sect.[103]


In parts of India, such as Ladakh, with significant historical presence of Buddhists, a caste system existed in a manner similar to caste structure in Tibet.[98] The upper castes belongs to sger gzhis, and they are called sgar pa. The priestly caste belonged to monastery, and are called chos-gzhis. Miser are the serf caste. Serfs, the majority of the people, farmed and paid taxes. An individual's social status and lifelong occupation was destined by birth, closed, and depending on the family one was born into, the individual inherited a tenure document known as khral-rten. Buddhist castes had sub-castes, such as nang gzan,[99] khral pa and dud chung. Buddhist also had castes that were shunned by their community and ostracised, such as hereditary fishermen, butchers and undertakers. The untouchables in Buddhist regions, as in Tibet, are known as Ragyappa, who lived in isolated ghettos, and their occupation was to remove corpses (human or animal) and dispose of sewage.[100][101]

When Ywan Chwang traveled to South India after the period of the Chalukyan Empire, he noticed that the caste system had existed among the Buddhists and Jains.[97]


Although the [95][96]


Some assert that the Muslim castes were not as acute in their discrimination as those of the Hindus,[93] while others assert that the discrimination in South Asian Muslim society were worse than those seen in Hindu society.[85]

Castes are known as qaum among Muslims in India, as well as in Pakistan and Afghanistan.[90] Qaums have patrilineal hereditary, with ranked occupations and endogamy. Membership in a qaum is inherited by birth.[90] Barth identifies the origin of the stratification from the historical segregation between pak (pure) and paleed (impure) - the former being lighter complexion Arabic in origin, the later being darker skinned native South Asian Muslims.[91] Endogamy is very common in each Muslim qaum in the form of arranged consanguineous cousin marriages among Muslims in India and Pakistan.[92] Malik states that the lack of religious sanction makes qaum a quasi-caste, and something that is found in Islam outside South Asia.[90]

Indian Muslims are a mix of Sunni (majority), Shia and other sects of Islam.[81] From the earliest days of Islam's arrival in South Asia, the Arabic, Persian and Afghan Muslims have been part of the upper, noble caste.[81] Some upper caste Hindus converted to Islam and became part of the governing group of Sultanates and Mughal Empire. These two came to be known as Ashrafs (or nobles). Below them are Ajlafs, the middle Muslim castes and then the converts from backward or Dalit communities.[81] The Ashrafs have a superior status,[83][84] while the Ajlafs have a lower status. The Arzal caste among Muslims was regarded as the equivalent of untouchables, by anti-caste activists like Ambedkar, and by the colonial British ethnographer Risley who claimed more than 60 percent of Muslims in British India were of a caste equivalent in status as the Hindu Shudras and Untouchables,[85][86] While other sources state an estimate between 75 and 80 percent.[87][88] In the Bengal region of India, some Muslims stratify their society according to 'Quoms.'[89]

Contrary to the Qur'anic worldview, Muslims in India have a caste system. Muslim caste system in South Asia is divided into hierarchical stratum such as Ashraf, Ajlaf and Arzal. They practice endogamy, hypergamy, hereditary occupations, avoid social mixing and have been stratified.[81] There is some controversy[82] if these characteristics make them social groups or castes of Islam.


The earliest reference to caste among Indian Christians comes from Kerala. Duncan Forrester observes that "... Nowhere else in India is there a large and ancient Christian community which has in time immemorial been accorded a high status in the caste hierarchy. ... Syrian Christian community operates very much as a caste and is properly regarded as a caste or at least a very caste-like group."[76] Amidst the Hindu society, the Saint Thomas Christians of Kerala had inserted themselves within the Indian caste society by the observance of caste-rules and were regarded by the Hindus as a caste occupying a high place within their caste hierarchy.[77][78] Their traditional belief that their ancestors were high-caste Hindus such as Namboodiris and Nairs, who were evangelised by St. Thomas, has also supported their upper-caste status.[79] With the arrival European missionaries and their evangelistic mission among the so-called lower castes in Kerala, two new groups of Christians, called Latin Rite Christians and New Protestant Christians, were formed but they continued to be considered as lower castes by higher ranked communities, including the Saint Thomas Christians.[80]

Christians in India are sometimes stratified by caste as well as by their denomination and location. The caste distinction is based on their caste at the time that they or their ancestors converted to Christianity.[75]


Distribution of Population of each Religion by Caste Categories
Religion/Caste SCs STs OBCs Forward Caste/Others
Hinduism 22.2% 9% 42.8% 26%
Islam 0.8% 0.5% 39.2% 59.5%
Christianity 9.0% 32.8% 24.8% 33.3%
Sikhism 30.7% 0.9% 22.4% 46.1%
Jainism 0.0% 2.6% 3.0% 94.3%
Buddhism 89.5% 7.4% 0.4% 2.7%
Zoroastrianism 0.0% 15.9% 13.7% 70.4%
Others 2.6% 82.5% 6.25 8.7%
Total 19.7% 8.5% 41.1% 30.8%
[50]Below is the distribution of population of each Religion by Caste Categories, obtained from merged sample of Schedule 1 and Schedule 10 of available data from the NSSO 55th (1999–2000) and NSSO 61st Rounds (2004–05) Round Survey

While identified with Hinduism, caste systems are found in other religions on the Indian subcontinent, including groups of Buddhists, Christians and Muslims.[72][73][74]

Among religions

In May 2011, the government approved a poverty, religion and caste census to identify poverty in different social backgrounds.[69] The census would also help the government to re-examine and possibly undo some of the policies which were formed in haste such as the Mandal Commission in order to bring more objectivity to the policies with respect to contemporary realities.[70] Critics of the reservation system believe that there is actually no social stigma at all associated with belonging to a backward caste and that because of the huge constitutional incentives in the form of educational and job reservations, a large number of people will falsely identify with a backward caste to receive the benefits. This would not only result in a marked inflation of the backward castes' numbers, but also lead to enormous administrative and judicial resources being devoted to social unrest and litigation when such dubious caste declarations are challenged.[71]

The reservation system has led to widespread protests, such as the 2006 Indian anti-reservation protests, with many complaining of reverse discrimination against the Forward Castes (the castes that do not qualify for the reservation).

The Mandal Commission covered more than 3000 castes under Other Backward Class (OBC) category, regardless of their affluence or economic status and stated that OBCs form around 52% of the Indian population. However, the National Sample Survey puts the figure at 32%.[66][67] There is substantial debate over the exact number of OBCs in India; it is generally estimated to be sizable, but many believe that it is lower than the figures quoted by either the Mandal Commission or the National Sample Survey.[68]

Other Backward Classes (OBC)

A 2003 article in The Telegraph claimed that inter-caste marriage and dating are common in urban India. Indian societal and family relationships are changing because of female literacy and education, women at work, urbanisation, need for two-income families, and global influences through the television. Female role models in politics, academia, journalism, business, and India's feminist movement have accelerated the change.[65]

Leonard and Weller have surveyed marriage and genealogical records to empirically study patterns of exogamous inter-caste and endogamous intra-caste marriages in a regional population of India, between 1900 to 1975. They report a striking presence of exogamous marriages across caste lines over time, particularly since the 1970s. They propose education, economic development, mobility and more interaction between youth as possible reasons for these exogamous marriages.[64]

Life expectancy statistics for Indian caste groups
Life expectancy at birth (in years)
Castes group 1998–1999 2005–2006
Lowest castes 61.5 64.6
Other backward castes 63.5 65.7
Poor, tribal populations 57.5 56.9
Poor, upper castes 61.9 62.7
National average 63.8 65.5

The table below presents this data for various caste groups in modern India. Both 1998 and 2005 data is included to ascertain the general trend. The Mohanty and Ram report suggests that poverty, not caste, is the bigger differentiation in life expectancy in modern India.[63]

  • In 2001, the literacy rates in India's lowest castes was 55 percent, compared to a national average of 63 percent.
  • The childhood vaccination levels in India's lowest castes was 40 percent in 2001, compared to a national average of 44 percent.
  • Access to drinking water within household or near the household in India's lowest castes was 80 percent in 2001, compared to a national average of 83 percent.
  • The poverty level in India's lowest castes dropped from 49 percent to 39 percent between 1995 and 2005, compared to a national average change from 35 to 27 percent.

A study by Darshan Singh presents data on health and other indicators of socio-economic change in India's historically discriminated castes. He claims:[62]

A 2007 nationwide survey of India by the World Bank found that over 80 percent of children of historically discriminated castes were attending schools. The fastest increase in school attendance by Dalit community children occurred during the recent periods of India's economic growth.[61]

In a 2008 study, Desai et al. focussed on education attainments of children and young adults aged 6–29, from lowest caste and tribal populations of India. They completed a national survey of over 100,000 households for each of the four survey years between 1983 and 2000.[60] They found a significant increase in lower caste children in their odds of completing primary school. The number of dalit children who completed either middle-, high- or college-level education increased three times faster than the national average, and the total number were statistically same for both lower and upper castes. However, the same study found that in 2000, the percentage of dalit males never enrolled in a school was still more than twice the percentage of upper caste males never enrolled in schools. Moreover, only 1.67% of dalit females were college graduates compared to 9.09% of upper caste females. The number of dalit girls in India who attended school doubled in the same period, but still few percent less than national average. Other poor caste groups as well as ethnic groups such as Muslims in India have also made improvements over the 16-year period, but their improvement lagged behind that of dalits and adivasis. The net percentage school attainment for Dalits and Muslims were statistically the same in 1999.

In addition to taking affirmative action for people of schedule castes and scheduled tribes, India has expanded its effort to include people from poor, backward castes in its economic and social mainstream. In 1990, the government reservation of 27% for Backward Classes on the basis of the Mandal Commission's recommendations. Since then, India has reserved 27 percent of job opportunities in government-owned enterprises and agencies for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBCs). The 27 percent reservation is in addition to 22.5 percent set aside for India's lowest castes for last 50 years.[59]

  • The National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes was established to investigate, monitor, advise, and evaluate the socio-economic progress of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.[53]
  • A reservation system for people classified as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes has existed for over 50 years. The presence of privately owned free market corporations in India is limited and public sector jobs have dominated the percentage of jobs in its economy. A 2000 report estimated that most jobs in India were in companies owned by the government or agencies of the government.[54] The reservation system implemented by India over 50 years, has been partly successful, because of all jobs, nationwide, in 1995, 17.2 percent of the jobs were held by those in the lowest castes.
  • The Indian government classifies government jobs in four groups. The Group A jobs are senior most, high paying positions in the government, while Group D are junior most, lowest paying positions. In Group D jobs, the percentage of positions held by lowest caste classified people is 30% greater than their demographic percentage. In all jobs classified as Group C positions, the percentage of jobs held by lowest caste people is about the same as their demographic population distribution. In Group A and B jobs, the percentage of positions held by lowest caste classified people is 30% lower than their demographic percentage.
  • The presence of lowest caste people in highest paying, senior most position jobs in India has increased by ten-fold, from 1.18 percent of all jobs in 1959 to 10.12 percent of all jobs in 1995.[55]
  • In 2007, India elected K. G. Balakrishnan, a Dalit, to the office of Chief Justice.[56]
  • In 2007, Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of India, elected Mayawati as the Chief Minister, the highest elected office of the state. BBC claims, "Mayawati Kumari is an icon for millions of India's Dalits, or untouchables as they used to be known."[57]
  • In 2009, the Indian parliament unanimously elected a Dalit,[58] Meira Kumar, as the first female speaker.

Article 15 of the Constitution of India prohibits discrimination based on caste and Article 17 declared the practice of untouchability to be illegal.[51] In 1955, India enacted the Untouchability (Offences) Act (renamed in 1976, as the Protection of Civil Rights Act). It extended the reach of law, from intent to mandatory enforcement. The Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act was passed in India in 1989.[52]

The Indian government officially recognises historically discriminated communities of India such as the Untouchables under the designation of Scheduled Castes, and certain economically backward Shudra castes as Other Backward Castes.[48] The Scheduled Castes are sometimes referred to as Dalit in contemporary literature. In 2001, the proportion of Dalit population was 16.2 percent of India's total population.[49] Of the one billion Hindus in India, it is estimated that Hindu Forward caste comprises 26%, Other Backward Class comprises 43%, Hindu Scheduled Castes (Dalits) comprises 22% and Hindu Scheduled Tribes comprises 9%.[50]

Modern status

[47][46][41] Sociologists such as

The Supreme Court of India ruled in 2007 that social organisation based on caste is inherited and cannot be changed.[45]

Contemporary India

Smelser and Lipset propose in their review of Hutton's study of caste system in colonial India the theory that individual mobility across caste lines may have been minimal in British India because it was ritualistic. They say that the sub-castes may have changed their social status over the generations by fission, re-location, and adoption of new external ritual symbols. Some of these evolutionary changes in social stratifications were seen in Europe, Japan, Africa and other regions as well; however, the difference between them may be the relative levels of ritualistic and secular referents. Smelser and Lipset also say that the colonial system may have affected the caste system social stratification. They note that British colonial power controlled economic enterprises and the political administration of India by selectively cooperating with upper caste princes, priests and landlords. This was colonial India's highest level caste strata, followed by second strata that included favoured officials who controlled trade, supplies to the colonial power and Indian administrative services. The bottom layer was tenant farmers, servants, wage labourers, indentured coolies and others. The colonial social strata acted in combination with the traditional caste system. It shut off economic opportunity, entrepreneurial activity by natives, or availability of schools, thereby worsening the limitations placed on mobility by the traditional caste system. They say that in America and Europe individual mobility was better than in India or other colonies around the world, because colonial stratification was missing and the system could evolve to become more secular and tolerant of individual mobility.[44]

During British rule

Fa Xian, a Buddhist pilgrim from China, visited India around 400 AD. "Only the lot of the Chandals he found unenviable; outcastes by reason of their degrading work as disposers of dead, they were universally shunned ... But no other section of the population were notably disadvantaged, no other caste distinctions attracted comment from the Chinese pilgrim, and no oppressive caste 'system' drew forth his surprised censure. Peace and order prevailed."[42] In this period kings of Shudra and Brahmin origin were as common as those of the Kshatriya varna and the caste system was not wholly rigid.[43]

Ancient Hindu texts suggest caste system was not rigid. This flexibility permitted lower caste Valmiki to compose the Ramayana, which was widely adopted and became a major Hindu scripture. Other ancient texts cite numerous examples of individuals moving from one caste to another within their lifetimes.[41]

In Ancient India

Caste rigidity

In the round table conference held on August 1932, upon the request of Ambedkar, the then Prime Minister of Britain, Ramsay Macdonald made a Communal Award which awarded a provision for separate representation for the Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Anglo-Indians, Europeans and Dalits. These depressed classes were assigned a number of seats to be filled by election from special constituencies in which voters belonging to the depressed classes only could vote. Gandhi went on a hunger strike against this provision claiming that such an arrangement would split the Hindu community into two groups. Years later, Ambedkar wrote that Gandhi's fast was a form of coercion.[40] This agreement, which saw Gandhi end his fast and Ambedkar drop his demand for a separate electorate, was called the Poona Pact.

Corbridge concludes that British policies of divide and rule of India's numerous princely sovereign states, as well as enumeration of the population into rigid categories during the 10-year census, particularly with the 1901 and 1911 census, contributed towards the hardening of caste identities.[39]

Assumptions about the caste system in Indian society, along with its nature, evolved during British rule.[32] For example, some British believed Indians would shun train travel because tradition-bound South Asians were too caught up in caste and religion, and that they would not sit or stand in the same coaches out of concern for close proximity to a member of higher or lower or shunned caste. After the launch of train services, Indians of all castes, classes and gender enthusiastically adopted train travel without any concern for so-called caste stereotypes.[37][38]

From the 1850s, photography was used in Indian subcontinent by the British for anthropological purposes, helping classify the different castes, tribes and native trades. Included in this collection were Hindu, Muslim and Buddhist (Sinhalese) people classified by castes.[36] Above is an 1860s photograph of Rajpoots, classified as the highest secular Hindu caste. Amongst the Rajpoot clans, Chohans, descendents of warrior princes, were classified to have the highest position.

The role of the British Raj on the caste system in India is controversial.[32] Some sources suggest that the caste system became legally rigid during the Raj, when the British started to enumerate castes during the ten-year census and meticulously codified the system under their rule.[31][33] Zwart, for example, notes in his review article that the caste system used to be thought of as an ancient fact of Hindu life, but contemporary scholars argue that the system was constructed by the British colonial regime.[8] Nicholas Dirks has argued that Indian caste as we know it today is a "modern phenomenon,"[31][34] as caste was "fundamentally transformed by British colonial rule."[35]

During British rule

[31], before colonialism caste affiliation was quite loose and fluid, but the British regime enforced caste affiliation rigorously, and constructed a much more strict hierarchy than existed previously, with some castes being criminalised and others being given preferential treatment.Nicholas Dirks According to scholars such as the anthropologist [8] Caste used be considered as an ancient fact of Hindu life, but various contemporary scholars have argued that the caste system as it exists today is the result of the

respectively, each with statutes of conduct, dress and behaviour that were similar. deva and deus of ancient India and that they made offerings to Brahman of the Roman Empire is etymologically similar to Raj-Flamen. According to the Dumézil theory, ancient societies had three main classes, each with distinct functions: the first judicial and priestly, the second connected with the military and war, and the third class focused on production, agriculture, craft and commerce. Dumézil proposed that Rex-social class of trifunctional hypothesis the [30]