India’s caste system is among the world’s oldest forms of surviving social stratification (“What is India’s caste system?”, 2019). The caste system in India has existed for eons now and while some claim caste-based discrimination does not take place anymore, it is very much alive and kicking. Most scholars believe that occupation, survival of tribal organization, the rise of new belief, cross-breeding and migration are responsible for the creation of this system (Ambedkar, 1916). This paper will focus on migration and caste in India. An overlap between the social and economic status of people was seen and it was found that migration benefits those with a higher class status. The relationship between caste and migration is a complex one and in order to understand the implications of caste on migration; we will look into the history of the caste system in India, analyse the spread of the system within India- both in terms of geography and religion and evaluate its impact on the job market within the country since one of the main reasons for migration is the search for jobs. Referring to the works of scholars like B.R Ambedkar and M.N Srinivas; this paper aims to decode the negative implications of the caste system in India in the 21st century.
According to Ambedkar, “Caste in India means an artificial chopping off of the population into fixed and definite units, each one prevented from fusing into another through the custom of endogamy” (Ambedkar, 1916). The Indian caste system is a socially constructed organisation of society which is based on unequal entitlements to various rights, including social and economic rights. These inequalities lead to discrimination and exploitation of certain groups. These discriminations have further led to the exclusion of such groups and ultimately, left these groups in poverty (Thorat, 2009). It is through the caste system that people are differentiated and have unequal access to resources like income, wealth, prestige and power. This system, which divides the society into an extremely rigid hierarchy based on karma (work) and dharma (duty) into 4 main groups- Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras; originated nearly 3,000 years ago. The Brahmins, who sit on top of the hierarchy, have the most access to resources and were usually teachers or priests. The Kshatriyas were composed of mainly warriors and rulers and were placed below the Brahmins. The Vaishyas came next and were mainly traders. The Shudras were at the lowest rung of the hierarchy and usually performed other menial jobs. The Dalit’s, or the untouchables; were those who were left out of the caste system (“What is India’s caste system?”, 2019).
India gives so much importance to this caste system, that often; entire communities have been formed and arranged on the basis of this system. The Manusmriti, which was referred to as the constitution during the ancient times “acknowledges and justifies the caste system as the basis or order and regularity of society” (“What is India’s caste system?”, 2019). Ambedkar believes that the caste system existed even before the creation of the Manusmriti and that the text simply “codified the existing caste rules” (Ambedkar, 1916). However, according to most historians, it was only after the British came in that the system became extremely rigid. Many scholars are of the opinion that the system allowed for far more mobility and flexibility with social identity when compared to post-colonial times. It was the British who were responsible for making Caste a defining social feature in the country for the purpose of easy governance, according to some scholars (“What is India’s caste system?”, 2019).
Spread of the Caste system
Ambedkar believed that the “superposition of endogamy on exogamy means the creation of caste” (Ambedkar, 1916). According to him, endogamy was also responsible for the preservation of caste in India. He went as far as to say that caste without endogamy is a fake (Ambedkar, 1916). The caste system originated among the Hindu population of the country originally. However, over time, the system spread to other non-Brahmins and non-Hindus as well. He believes that the spread and the growth of the system within the country was not possible by the Brahmins alone and is too big a job to be successfully implemented by one individual or class, however powerful they might be. The existing caste system was initially a class system based on occupation wherein one could change their class if they were eligible to. However, the Brahmins eventually detached themselves from the rest of the society and the other classes became a caste system because of the patterns of the law of the social division of labour (Ambedkar, 1916). Endogamy was initiated by the Brahmin class and practised by them which separated them into a caste. The non-Brahmin classes followed them because they were considered to be demi-gods and sat at the top of the hierarchy. This imitation led to the other classes becoming castes. People thought of the Brahmins as noble people and as leaders and so wanted to follow their practices. According to Gabriel Tardes 3 laws of imitation, imitation always flows from higher to lower. The source of imitation must enjoy prestige in society and the Brahmins, in this case, had exactly that. According to Tarde, people tend to copy and emulate others instead of being inventive (Ambedkar, 1916)
Ambedkar argued that caste is not something that exists singularly. It always exists in Plural. A single caste does not exist, there exists many castes. For example, the Brahmins in the process of making themselves an exclusive caste created other non-Brahmin castes. A country like India is home to people from various religious backgrounds. India is home to a significant number of Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Jews and Parsi’s apart from Hindus. Of these, Hindus are the caste communities. But by closing themselves out, the Hindus automatically make the other communities castes. With respect to one another, these communities are castes. When one community is closed out, they indirectly get closed in. For example, if group X wants to be an endogamous group, circumstances force Group Y to be endogamous too (Ambedkar, 1916). This leads to communities continuously being converted into castes.
Due to inter-caste marriages and people converting to other religions, the caste system has spread throughout the country. For instance, when a Kshatriya Hindu woman marries a Muslim man, she has to convert to Islam in order for the marriage to be legally binding. This creates a caste system with her new faith as well. Conversion of religion is one of the main factors responsible for the spread of the caste system to other religions as well. While people change their religion, their caste follows them to that religion as well. Migration of people is another major contributor to the spread of caste throughout the country.
Migration and Caste
Migration is essentially the movement of people from one space to another which involves a change in the usual place of residence. Internal migration refers to the movement of people within the national boundaries where “people leave their native place to move to nearby towns and cities or places of better opportunities in a hope to improve their livelihoods” (Chauhan, 2020). People belonging to lower castes are deprived of basic educational resources which leaves them with limited job opportunities. They do not enjoy social mobility and are forced to suffer under the rigid caste systems. This unequal distribution in educational and occupational opportunities lead to different caste groups having unequal access to economic, social and cultural resources which is reflected in the migration patterns of these groups. Because the “inferior” i.e. the lower castes cannot afford the costs of migration, they do not enjoy the benefits of migration. The more privileged “superior” classes can afford to travel further distances in order to avail the benefits of migration. Different caste groups have different motives to migrate. A study of villages in Rajasthan in 1989 showed that people belonging to upper caste and lower caste groups were more likely to migrate. However, the motives varied and the upper caste groups benefited to a large extent while the lower caste groups availed almost no benefits and migrated in order to escape oppression in their villages and find better employment opportunities (“Caste and Migration, Perspectives in Sociology, Three major Caste and Migration”, 2020). For instance, even today we see a large number of people migrating from rural areas to urban areas in search of better employment. Rural areas generally follow the caste system more rigidly when compared to the urban population. When a Dalit man seeks employment in a village, he is most likely to only get odd jobs or menial jobs owing to his low social status. However, in cities today, people are comparatively less concerned about a person’s caste and the same man who was eligible to only be a sweeper in the village, could get a job that commands a higher salary and more respect like that of a construction worker or a bus conductor.
According to the Census of India 2011, approximately 93 million people from lower castes migrate to other areas either within their state or to other states in order to find better employment opportunities (Chauhan, 2020). Of these, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh saw the highest number of intra and inter-state migrants along with Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab and West Bengal. People from these states more often than not migrated to either Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, Gujarat or Andhra Pradesh (Chauhan, 2020). Government policies, however, lead to such migrants being pushed to parts of the cities that have the worst infrastructure and migrants are on the receiving end of poor health and sanitation facilities. People belonging to Scheduled castes and Scheduled tribes were impacted the most because they usually belong to the poorer sections of society owing to their low social status. These migrants are no longer eligible to receive their state-specific benefits of particular schemes and lose out on those benefits too (Chauhan, 2020).
People belonging to lower castes were usually the most disadvantaged groups in the job and labour market as well as owing to their limited access to education and other facilities. A study conducted in Gujarat revealed that people belonging to lower castes took up the lowest paying jobs like helpers, sweepers and masons while people belonging to the General category took up more skilled jobs (Chauhan, 2020). Another reason for the migration of people from rural areas is due to the loss of forest land and forest-based resources. Here too, it was found that caste played a major role in determining the kind of jobs taken up by migrant women. For instance, tribal women usually took up work in the construction sector, while lower caste women where concentrated in the brick-making sector and other backward class (OBC) women ended up taking up paid domestic work or seasonal agricultural work (Chauhan, 2020).
Today, Scheduled castes make up about 17 per cent of our population (Thorat, 2009). It can clearly be seen that because of the historical disadvantages faced by them in terms of social, educational and economic opportunities, people belonging to these lower castes do not have the option of moving up the social ladder and have no choice but to follow the caste system. One can move cities, states or even countries, but their caste will still follow them. This century-old rigid and oppressive caste system cannot be done away with easily because of its complex nature despite various efforts by the government. Very few exceptional examples of people rising from and breaking away from the caste system can be seen. In fact, the number is so small, that it cannot even be considered. The caste system is nothing but a never-ending cycle of oppression and disadvantage that even this “new and improved, modern” India has not been able to break away from. Judging by the current situation, the day we completely do away with this unfair caste-based discrimination is very far away.
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