The institution of caste represents the entire system by which the whole society is organized into different groups their interrelationships are determined division of labor and exchange of goods and services are carried on the social roles and obligations of the individuals are prescribed. Risley defined caste as a collection of families or group of families bearing a common name claiming a common descent from a mythical ancestor, human or divine, professing to follow the same hereditary calling and forming a single homogeneous community. According to M.N Srinivas the features of caste prevailing through the past centuries may be described under 9 heads: hierarchy, restriction on food drink and smoking; distinction in custom, dress and speech; pollution, ritual and other privileges and disabilities; caste organization and caste mobility.
- Hierarchical division of society– Caste brings an element of hierarchy in society by dividing it into different strata, Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaisya and Sudra on the basis of relative ritual purity. These major groups are again subdivided into a number of small groups which are also graded into various positions in terms of high or low. According to Bottomore in modern India there are perhaps some 2500 jatis in each major region. Ghurye also finds that in each linguistic region there are about 200 caste groups which are further subdivided into about 3000 smaller units each of which is endogamous and constitutes the area of effective social life for the individual.
- Division of labour – There is division of labour because of caste system. Every caste has a particular occupation attached to it Ghurye said many castes might have left their traditional occupation but that division was there all along with them. However Deepankar Gupta has criticized Ghurye and even those British scholars who said that division of labour was source of the origin of caste system. Gupta said, the division of labour doesn’t emerge from the different occupations and skills possessed by different caste. Rather this is because of enforced and imposed division by the powerful people.
- Hereditary – Each caste is a hereditary group. The membership of the caste is confined to those who are born into it by an endogamous marriage relation. The status of an individual is determined by virtue of his birth. Each caste has a traditional occupation and all the members strictly follow this occupation to earn their livelihood.
- Endogamy – Every caste is an endogamous group. This endogamous character is maintained by the rules and regulation of marriage. Some of the scientists from calcutta genomics institute have pointed out that caste endogamy started in Gupta period probably from 5th centuryAD. However gotra exogamy is maintained in each caste. Every caste is subdivided into different small units on the basis of gotra.The members of one gotra are believed to be successors of a common ancestor-hence prohibition of marriage within the same gotra.
- Unique culture – Ghurye says that castes are small and complete social worlds in themselves marked differently from one another though subsisting within the larger society. Every caste has a distinct culture, traditions and customs which distinguish it from those of the other groups.The behavioral pattern, food habits etc is prescribed by the caste rules.
- According to R.K. Mukherjee, Upper castes in Bengal are called as ‘Bhadralok’ / gentlemen and lower castes are called ‘chotolok’/lower people.
- Also in Gujrat some people are called brown and black people, there is even in other parts of India, distinctions of social interactions.
- Closed group – Endogamy, unique culture and heredity combined together to make caste a closed group. No person can enter into a particular caste except by birth.Srinivas talks about process of Sanskritisation which takes place with in Indian society.
- Organization – Every caste has its own organizational structure known as caste panchayat which lays down rules and regulations that have to be obeyed by the members of that caste. The internal differences and conflicts are settled in the caste panchayat which serves as a judicial system.Socially every caste group is an autonomous body having judiciary, executive and financial power of its own which it exercises over the members of that caste in the interests of the caste as a whole.
- Rights and Privileges – These vary from caste to caste. Generally the Brahmins enjoy the most privileged position and have extensive rights which they can exercise over the members of other castes. They have a dominant position in social, political and economic fields of rural life. Such rights and privileges decrease as one descends the caste hierarchy.
Caste and Migration
- Caste plays an equally important role as a source of migration. The most important feature is caste system that is an important aspect of social stratification. It is a closed endogamous social group in which social position is hierarchically arranged and ascribed
- The patterns of landownership and the distribution of occupational and educational opportunities remain very closely lined with caste groupings in India. As a result different caste groups have different degrees of access to economic, social and cultural resources. The caste system by its normative order differentiates various segments within and between the castes.
- The hierarchical and localized nature of caste system, the rigidity of its rules, the strict adherence to them and the attachment to caste and its close knit boundaries tend to hamper spatial mobility but at the same time the caste system pushes the process of migration through the presence of a social basis of economic inequality and conflict.
- The system of caste is root cause of differential values being attached to different castes, discrimination and tensions between the castes, differential resource distribution based on caste, consequent caste based categories such as landed privileged and affluent on the one hand and the landless, deprived and the poor on the other and the exploitative social forms of relationship among the consequent categories. All these are very closely linked with caste based migration.
- There are some studies that have shown the impact of caste on migration. They reveal that caste has a different effect on migration because different caste groups perceive migration differently and take decisions to move out accordingly.Their perceptions and motives of migration are regulated by the caste based socio-economic inequalities. For example if the caste position varies the perceptions and motives of migration also vary accordingly.
- Since social caste and economic class inequalities co-exist there is both the caste and class selectivity in migration. The study of Rajasthan villages by Kothari shows that the propensity to migrate is high in upper and lower caste groups. This is confirmed by Yadav sstudy done in 1989 on the rural-urban migration in India.
- The rate of migration varies by caste background; the economic status the caste and the role performed by the caste in the caste based social hierarchy. The relationship between caste and migration is complex and the available evidence in this respect is not conclusive.
- The traditional caste system is breaking but caste survives as an ethnic unit and affects various aspects of life.
Changes in Caste System
Caste in India has neither disintegrated nor it has weekend. It has simply changed because of modernization, democracy, industry, urbanization, nation building and migration.
There have been many changes
- The ritual aspect of caste or the religious aspects of caste has weekend Signs and symbols attached to caste system are no longer visible.
- Hierarchy of the caste system has changed In legal terms no caste can declare itself to be superior and one cannot call others inferior. In reality also as the empirical studies have pointed out that upper backward castes have become dominant castes in many areas.
- There is no longer a division of labour as existed before, on the caste lives. Deepankar Gupta says, even in earlier times it was imposed from above. Today, upper caste have taken to all the occupations. The Dalits also have changed their occupation. Jodhka, Sukhadeo thorat, satish Deshpandy, Amita Baviskar after their studies said that among Dalits the division of labour still persistent This points out to change with continutly of tradition.
- Untouchability has weekend and there is great awareness even among the upper caste not to practice it However, caste atrocities are still prevalent Honour killing is one such example. Vivek Kumar said that there is less resistance to inter-caste marriages and there is more self choice marriages among all the castes. But the claim is more of baseless without empirical data. Rajni Kotheri has discussed more of the modernizing changes and political changes in the caste system.
According to Kotheri, there has been politicization of caste. He argues that “Politics needs caste as much as caste needs politics”. Caste group have become political groups. He wrote book “Caste and politics in India”. Where he argues that caste has become an interest group and pressure group. It has organized itself to realize the economic and social interests. While M.N. Srinivas and Beteille argues that caste based reservation has given it new life. On other hand Kothari says this has been a political demand. It has democratized the caste system.
The transition of caste from system to identity
Now it has been accepted that caste has changed from system to identity. This means it is not a collection of castes integrated together with one or two castes at the top and some castes ate the bottom. G.S.Ghurye and Luis Dumont had said that caste is a system defined by hierarchy and notion of purity and pollution.
- This system indicates, all the castes are integrated and some are at the top and other are at bottom.
- System indicates there is occupational division which is complementary to each other.
- System indicates, there is unequal distributions of privilege and they work as unequal units.
- System indicates, they have reciprocity among themselves.
- It also indicates everybody is in need of everybody else.
Now, there is consensus among sociologists that caste has transformed from system to identity. K.L.Sharma argued that Britishers strengthened caste system. But in present time castes work as units. Srinivas in 1999 wrote an essay, “An obituary to caste system”. By which he meant no longer caste system exists but castes do-exists. Andre Beteille in his presidential address to sociology association said that caste has transformed into identity and consciousness. The transformation into identity and consciousness. The transformation of caste into identity has not weekened caste.
Identity as a concept has the notion that the group or the person is conscious of his own self and regards his importance. Every caste is now trying, marriage, social interaction, politics and political mobilization. On the other hand class is the basis of state and politics, economic policies and budget preparation etc. That way class is more important. In India in future of caste is not going to end Since it acts as a support system and medium of political mobilization. It would remain but its forms may change.