The author is chairman, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta
Is caste growing stronger or weaker in contemporary India' This question is not easy to answer because the evidence does not all point in the same direction. The evidence from politics points in one direction and the evidence from marriage in another. Fifty years ago, educated Indians who looked to the future took it for granted that caste would decline steadily with the advance of democracy and development. There is now no longer the same optimism about either development or democracy. More and more Indians are becoming inured to the presence of caste in politics as they have become inured to the presence of corruption in it.
When M.N. Srinivas stated in a presidential address at the science congress in 1957 that caste was acquiring a new lease of life in independent India, many felt that his remarks were exaggerated if not outrageous. Yet the course of electoral politics has on the whole vindicated Srinivas and confounded his critics. At the same time, all the evidence that he provided in support of his argument came from the field of politics, and hardly any from other fields of social life. Many commentators have since noted the enlarged role of caste in politics; and some have even welcomed it as an expression of subaltern consciousness.
If we look at the literature on caste in the period before independence, we will find very little discussion in it of caste and politics. Much more attention was paid then to caste and occupation, caste and ritual, and caste and marriage. In all these areas, the hold of caste is being weakened, clearly and visibly in some cases and slowly and imperceptibly in others. The disproportionate media attention given to politics creates the misleading impression that caste as a whole is becoming stronger.
The decline in the association between caste and occupation has been noted by many and over a long stretch of time. N.K. Bose showed through the analysis of census and other data how new economic forces were leading people to give up their traditional occupations to enter new “caste-free” ones. This of course does not mean that occupations are no longer ranked, or even that there is no correlation between occupational rank and caste rank; but that correlation is now weaker and not stronger than in the past.
Even while he was writing about the increasing role of caste in politics, Srinivas was pointing to a secular decline in attitudes and practices relating to purity and pollution. For many of those who wrote on the subject a hundred years ago, the rules of caste were mainly rules of ritual. These rules, relating to food transactions, bodily contact and residential segregation, were many and diverse, and they contributed substantially to the perpetuation of division and hierarchy in the caste system. They are now incontestably in decline, and even the promoters of Hindutva would hesitate to call for their reinforcement.
Considerations of purity and pollution were closely tied to restrictions relating to marriage. Those restrictions have not been relaxed to nearly the same extent as the ones on the sharing and exchange of food and water. Many would say that the real acid test of the strength of caste lies in the durability of marriage restrictions. For it is through them that caste identities are maintained and reproduced. So long as they survive, caste will survive, with or without the benefit of electoral politics.
Restrictions on marriage were a feature of all hierarchical societies, but those associated with caste were exceptionally elaborate and stringent. They were specified in the classical laws of ancient and medieval India, and ethnographers recorded the same kinds of restrictions among the people they observed in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. Until recent times, their violation could lead to expulsion from caste which, at least among upper-caste Hindus, amounted to civil death.
Although inter-caste marriages are now taking place, there is little reliable or systematic data as to their frequency. Most marriages, even in the urban middle classes are still arranged by parents and elders, and here caste is an important consideration. The matrimonial columns of the Sunday papers show that not many Indians are prepared to take chances with caste while seeking a bride or a bridegroom. But there is evidence of some relaxation even in these advertisements. And with increasing education and employment among women and their increasing age at marriage, more and more individuals are marrying on their own, without recourse to traditional match-makers or newspaper advertisements.
A study of inter-caste marriage by C.T. Kannan published in 1963 or nearly forty years ago showed that changes had already begun to take place. Kannan’s sample was relatively small, but his evidence was clear. He wrote, “Just twenty-five years ago (i.e., before World War II) the instances of inter-caste marriages were very few; and those individuals who dared to marry outside the caste had to undergo great hardships. Today the situation is altogether different.” Kannan pointed not only to the increased frequency of inter-caste marriages but also to their increased social acceptance. These changes are incremental rather than radical, but there can be little doubt about their direction.
No matter how strong the inertia of practice may be, the traditional rules of marriage are changing, and the sanctions behind them weakening. In the past, one had to take into account not only the caste but also the subcaste, and sometimes even the sub-subcaste, in arranging a marriage. Today marriages between subcastes of the same caste are common, and a marriage may even be arranged between persons belonging to different but adjacent castes. This enlargement of choice in the arrangement of marriage does not receive media attention, but it is important.
In the past, marriages were regulated not only by the rule of endogamy but also by the rule of hypergamy. The first rule required a person to marry within his or her own caste or subcaste. The second rule, known as anuloma, allowed a man to marry a woman from a caste or subcaste inferior to his own, whereas pratiloma, or the union of a woman with a man inferior to her in caste rank, was strictly forbidden. The very ideas of anuloma and pratiloma are now becoming obsolete among educated urban Indians. Among them where people accept an inter-caste marriage, they are not inclined to ask whether it is of the anuloma kind which was approved under specific conditions or of the pratiloma kind which was condemned without exception.
A consideration of inter-caste marriages shows that the sanctions of caste have declined steadily in the last fifty years. What keep the frequency of such marriages low are the sanctions of the family in the restricted or extended sense rather than of the caste or even the subcaste as a community. Inter-caste marriages will continue to increase, but not very dramatically. This is not because the community’s resistance to such marriages is holding its strength, but because, when it comes to family and marriage, middle-class Indians are reluctant to take even small risks.