Caste in India

Caste in India

The caste system in India is a system of social stratification, social restriction and a basis for affirmative action. Historically, it defined communities into thousands of endogamous hereditary groups called Jātis.

The Jātis were grouped by the Brahminical texts under the four well-known caste categories (the varnas): viz Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras Certain people were excluded altogether, ostracized by all other castes and treated as untouchables.

Although identified with Hinduism, caste systems have also been observed among other religions on the Indian subcontinent, including some groups of Muslims, Buddhists and Christians. The latter are similar to the caste system reported in the Igbo-Osu Christian community in Africa.

Caste is commonly thought of as an ancient fact of Hindu life, but various contemporary scholars have argued that the caste system was constructed by the British colonial regime. Caste is neither unique to Hindu religion nor to India; caste systems have been observed in other parts of the world, for example, in the Muslim community of Yemen, Christian colonies of Spain, and the Buddhist community of Japan.

The Indian government officially recognizes historically discriminated lowest castes of India such as Untouchables and Shudras under Scheduled Castes, and certain economically backward castes as Other Backward Castes. 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.

Since 1950, India has enacted and implemented many laws and social initiatives to protect and improve the socio-economic conditions of its Dalit population. By 1995, of all jobs in the Central Government service, 17.2 percent of the jobs were held by Dalits. Of the highest paying, senior most jobs in government agencies and government controlled enterprises, over 10 percent were held by members of the Dalit community, a tenfold increase in 40 years but yet to fill up the 15 percent reserved quota for them. In 1997, India democratically elected K.R. Narayanan, a Dalit, as the nation's President. In last 15 years, Indians born in historically discriminated minority castes have been elected to its highest judicial and political offices. While the quality of life of Dalit population in India, in terms of metrics such as poverty, literacy rate, access to health care, life expectancy, education attainability, access to drinking water, housing, etc. have seen faster growth amongst the Dalit population between 1986 and 2006, for some metrics, it remains lower than overall non-Dalit population, and for some it is better than poor non-Dalit population.

A 2003 report claims inter-caste marriage is on the rise in urban India. Indian societal relationships are changing because of female literacy and education, women at work, urbanization, need for two-income families, and influences from the media.

India's overall economic growth has produced the fastest and most significant socio-economic changes to the historical injustice to its minorities. Legal and social program initiatives are no longer India's primary constraint in further advancement of India's historically discriminated sections of society and the poor. Further advancements are likely to come from improvements in the supply of quality schools in rural and urban India, along with India's economic growth.


Caste paintings of Indian Society
Cover page Muslim man Hindu chief
Cover page
Muslim man
Hindu chief
Seri brahmin Gujarati brahmin Muslim merchant
Seri brahmin
Gujarati brahmin
Muslim merchant
Hindu musicians Hindu milkman Sikh chief
Hindu musicians
Hindu milkman
Sikh chief
Hindu washerman Tailor Fencer
Hindu washerman
Tribal chief Hindu writer Muslim dancer
Tribal chief
Hindu writer
Muslim dancer
Muslim pilgrim Goldsmith Arab soldier
Muslim pilgrim
Arab soldier
A manuscript titled Seventy-two Specimens of Castes in India, published in February 1837. Sponsored and compiled for Christian missionaries, it was given to Reverend William Twining. The 72 images claim to be castes of India as witnessed over 25 years. The images include people from various professions, several images of Arab, Muslim and Sikh couples. The manuscript does not list any observed inter-relationship or hierarchy between the illustrated professions and religious persuasions.

There are several theories regarding the origins of the Indian caste system. One posits that the Indian and Aryan classes ("pistras") show similarity, wherein the priests are Brahmins, the warriors are Kshatriya, the merchants are Vaishya, and the artisans are Shudras. Another theory is that of Georges Dumézil, who formulated the trifunctional hypothesis of social class. 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-Flamen of the Roman Empire is etymologically similar to Raj-Brahman of ancient India and that they made offerings to deus and deva respectively, each with statutes of conduct, dress and behavior that were similar. This theory became controversial, but drew support from many including Sophus Bugge in 1879. Bugge proposed that the word flamen is from an older *flădmen and related to the Germanic blót, each derived from the word *bhlād(s)men. The latter is the root of word Brahmin. It is unclear how Dumézil's theory of social division into three functional units developed over time into the hierarchy comprising four such units, and also the outcasts, in ancient India.

From the Bhakti school, the view is that the four divisions were originally created by Krishna. "According to the three modes of material nature and the work associated with them, the four divisions of human society were created."

Criticisms of these understandings of the caste system point out that Varna itself means a complexion, and these Varnas are nothing more than a social classification based on the activities that the individual is involved in.

Human inequality debates

Amartya Sen, the India-born Nobel Prize winner, in his review of the history of caste system in India finds that there have been profound historical debates within the Indian community and numerous movements against caste divisions in Indian history. Writers of these ancient Indian documents could have suppressed these probing discussions and philosophical arguments, but instead the writers included a prominent presence of these anti-inequality arguments in these texts. This, according to Sen, suggests that Indian history wrestled with the moral dilemmas of the caste question, and the preponderance of these discussions across various Indian historical documents challenge a monolithic exposition of the so-called Hindu point of view on caste. For example, in the Mahabharata, an Indian epic, is this discussion:

Bhrigu tells Bharadvaja that caste divisions relate to differences in physical attributes of different human beings, reflected in skin colour. Bharadvaja responds not only by pointing to the considerable variations in skin colour within every caste (if different colours indicate different castes, then all castes are mixed castes), but also by the more profound question: ‘We all seem to be affected by desire, anger, fear, sorrow, worry, hunger, and labour; how do we have caste differences then?

In Bhavishya Purana, another Indian ancient text, considered to be written over several centuries, dated to be between 1500 to 2500 years old, is this genealogical scepticism and discussion:

Since members of all the four castes are children of God, they all belong to the same caste. All human beings have the same father, and children of the same father cannot have different castes.

Caste and social status

Arnold and Robb consider the Indian caste system to be an immensely complex subject. They note that there are differences between the theoretical construct and the practical reality. Doctrinally, caste was defined as a system of segregation of people, each with a traditional occupation that was hereditary, closed and exclusionary. In the Hindu system, people were categorized in one or other of the five major ideological schemes: Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaisyas, Shudras and Untouchables. This ideological scheme was theoretically composed of 3000 sub-castes, which in turn was claimed to be composed of 90,000 local sub-groups, with people marrying only within their sub-group. 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 1000 people of various age groups, variously divided into numerous rigid castes (British India included modern India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar).

Discrimination and trauma from castes

Ambedkar, who was born in India, in a caste that was traditionally 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. Ambedkar wrote extensively on discrimination, trauma and tragic effects of the caste system in India.

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. Above is a 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.

Ambedkar described the Untouchables as belonging to the same religion and culture, yet shunned and ostracized 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 behavior, 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 traumatized 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.

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 Ambedkar, 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).

Gandhi, an admirer of Ambedkar, and who worked together to non-violently protest British colonial rule in India, disagreed with some of Ambedkar's observations, rationale and interpretations about the caste system in India. Caste, 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.

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 colonized nations. Christopher Pinney remarks such imaging was a part of surveillance and imposed identities upon Indians that were resented.

The Harijans or untouchables, the people outside the caste system, traditionally had the lowest social status. The untouchables lived on the periphery of society, and handled what were seen as unpleasant or polluting jobs. They suffered from social segregation and restrictions, in addition to being poor generally. They were not allowed to worship in temples with others, nor draw water from the same wells as others. Persons of other castes would not interact with them. If somehow a member of another caste came into physical or social contact with an untouchable, he was defiled and had to bathe thoroughly to purge himself of the contagion. Social discrimination developed even among the untouchables; sub-castes among them, such as the Dhobi, would not interact with lower-order Bhangis, who handled night-soil and were described as "outcastes even among outcastes."

Castes - Rigid or Flexible?

Ancient Indian 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.

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." In this period kings of Shudra and Brahmin origin were as common as those of Kshatriya Varna and caste system was not wholly rigid.

Smelser and Lipset in their review of Hutton's study of caste system in colonial India propose the theory that individual mobility across caste lines may have been minimal in British India because it was ritualistic. They theorize 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, claim Smelser and Lipset, 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 further propose 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 favored officials who controlled trade, supplies to the colonial power and Indian administrative services. The bottom layer of colonial Indian society was tenant farmers, servants, wage laborers, indentured coolies and others. The colonial social strata acted in combination with the traditional caste system. The colonial strata shut off economic opportunity, entrepreneurial activity by natives, or availability of schools, thereby worsening the limitations placed on mobility by the traditional caste system. In America and Europe, they argue 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.

Sociologists such as Srinivas and Damle have debated the question of rigidity in caste. In their independent studies, they claim considerable flexibility and mobility in their caste hierarchies. They assert that the caste system is far from rigid — in which the position of each component caste is fixed for all time; instead, significant mobility across caste has been empirically observed in India.

British rule

The caste system in India during the British rule extended beyond being hereditary phenomenon. Some people could apply to be re-classified into a caste they preferred. For example, the above order issued in 1937 shows a Mali (gardener-agriculturist) being legally awarded the Kshatriya: a warrior caste in ancient India, by British officials. Similarly, many laws such as the Stamp Act required Indians to declare their caste in official documents to be granted lease or license.

The role of the British on the caste system in India is controversial. Some sources suggest that the caste system became formally rigid during the British Raj, when the British started to enumerate castes during the ten-year census and meticulously codified the system under their rule. 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 ex hypothesi. Other sources suggest that the caste system existed in India prior to the arrival of the British, and enumerating classes and castes do not constitute the act of constructing it. Bouglé, for example, used 17th to 19th century historical reports by Christian missionaries and some Europeans on Indian society to suggest that a rigid caste system existed in India during and before British ruled India, quite similar in many respects to the social stratification found in 17th to 19th century Europe.

Assumptions about the caste system in Indian society, along with its nature, evolved during British rule. 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. The first trains of the 1860s in north India saw mass adoption. By 1902, 87 percent of passengers carried by the then Indian Railways were in third class coach; these passengers represented all segments of Indian society without the expected concern of caste stereotypes. The number of passengers weren't a small segment of Indian society; by 1905, over 200 million passengers travelled together in shared train coaches of India every year, and about the time of India's independence from Britain's colonial rule, people of India were using trains many times within the same year, and one billion passengers a year travelled in Indian trains. The rapid growth of train travel, with coaches packed with passengers from all caste segments of Indian society, suggests that the nature of British stereotypes about caste system in India, prior to 1860s and thereafter through the 1940s, were flawed.

Célestin Bouglé, in his essay on the caste system in India, published in 1908, observed the British frequently asserting they had no interest in modifying the caste system in India. The Englishman's motto, claimed Bouglé, was to administer its Indian colony by preserving its customs, caste system, and with a minimum of security or justice or governance. Bouglé acknowledged in his essay the empirical evidence of intermingling between Indians as observed on Indian Railways and the mass adoption of te-rain (Bouglé's colorful emphasis for train as pronounced in India). Bouglé used the empirical census facts noted by Risley and the direct observation of mutual acceptance of Indians for Indians on its te-rains to conclude that the historical caste system within 20th century Indian society was fundamentally changing, and that this change was irreversible. British rule, without wanting to, was triggering fundamental social changes in India. The lower castes were becoming officials, the Brahmins were leaving religious occupations and becoming policemen and farmers, and the three pillars of the caste system according to Bouglé—hereditary occupation, social hierarchy and exclusionary repulsion—were crumbling. Bouglé identified the cause for these changes to be economic progress, industrialization and career mobility inside India between 1880 and 1905. He believed that British rule, without intending to, had accelerated the natural demise of the caste system in India.

During the British East India Company's rule, caste differences and customs were accepted, if not encouraged, the British law courts disagreed with discrimination against the lower castes 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, contributed towards the hardening of caste identities.

Terminology during British Rule

The nature of caste, its definition, its characteristics and its effect on social mobility within Indian society during British colonial rule was a subject of confusion and controversy. In a review published in 1944, Kosambi noted that almost every statement made by anyone about caste system in India may be contradicted.

Herbert Risley, the colonial ethnographer, noted in 1915 that there are many misconceptions about India's caste system. For example, he disagrees with "the proposition by Sir Henry Yule that Indian people are so superstitious that no one of a higher caste can eat or drink with those of a lower caste." In Risley's experience, social mores within people of India on eating and drinking with other sections and castes of its society were unlike those claimed by Yule, rather they were fluid and transitory.

Risley further notes that, according to his 1901 Census Report on India, only 8 to 17 percent of Brahmins were involved in a religious occupation, only 8 percent of one Shudra sub-caste commonly assumed to be dedicated to leather work was actually involved in leather work, and less than 50 percent of several sub-castes were involved in their traditional occupations. Rest were involved in occupations such as farming or laborers. Castes, particularly the lower castes were changing their occupations with time and need, observed Risley; and once they changed their occupation, they would evolve into their own social group. Barbers became or were becoming confectioners, washermen became or were becoming farmers, pastoralists became or were becoming farmers as well. In other words, neither occupational mobility was set for life nor social mores on eating or drinking together were rigid. These were fluid in the empirical study of Risley, and not an appropriate means to define the caste system of early 20th century India.

Terminology after British Rule

The term caste has no universally accepted definition. To some, the term caste 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 early 20th century. To others such as Risley, castes in India means endogamous groups that resulted from interactions between what once were different races. Endogamy, the common element in these three definitions, is itself disputed. Ambedkar, who was born in India in a social strata considered untouchable, disagreed that the term castes in India can be defined as endogamous groups of India. According to Ambedkar, India during and before the British colonial rule, was a strictly exogamous society because marriage within blood-relatives and class-relations was culturally forbidden. The term caste, according to Ambedkar, should be defined as a social group that tries to impose endogamy, in an exogamous population. To 19th century Christian missionaries in India during the British Raj, the term castes included people outside the four varnas or many jātis within these varnas; it included the Muslims, the Sikhs and the Arabs, each sub-classified by their occupations.

The use of occupation to define castes is confusing as well. Brahmins have been listed as priests and sometimes rulers or other professions, Kshatriyas include warriors and sometimes rulers or other professions, Vaishyas are listed to include traders and sometimes agriculturists and other professions, while Shudras are listed to include laborers and sometimes agriculturists and 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 in India's history. In modern India, people of the so-called lowest castes are to be found in all positions of responsibility and authority.

Varnas, jātis, castes and race 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.

Sociologists such as Anne Waldrop observe that while outsiders view the term caste as a static phenomena of stereotypical tradition-bound India, empirical facts suggest caste has been a radically changing feature of India. The term caste means different thing 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.


Gandhi collecting money for Dalits, 1930s.

There have been challenges to the caste system from the time of Buddha, Mahavira and Makkhali Gosala. Opposition to the system of varṇa is regularly asserted in the Yoga Upaniṣads.

Gandhi collecting money for Dalits.ogg

Many Bhakti period saints rejected the caste discriminations and accepted all castes, including untouchables, into their fold. During the British rule, this sentiment gathered steam, and many Hindu reform movements such as Brahmo Samaj and Arya Samaj renounced caste-based discrimination.

Modern status of the caste system

The injustice of caste system, and the means of addressing it, has been an active topic of modern Indian discourse, particularly in the last 80 years. In 1933, the seriousness of the issue and its trauma on Indian consciousness, is exemplified by the following message from Ambedkar to Gandhi:

The Out-caste is a by-product of the Caste system. There will be outcastes as long as there are castes. Nothing can emancipate the Out-caste except the destruction of the Caste system. Nothing can help to save Hindus and ensure their survival in the coming struggle except the purging of the Hindu Faith of this odious and vicious dogma.

A 2004 report, compiled by a society of Dalits and people against caste-based discrimination, summarized the developments over last 60 years, and status of the caste system in modern India, as follows:

  • Article 15 of Indian Constitution, as enacted in 1950, prohibits any discrimination based on caste. Article 17 of Indian Constitution declared any practice of untouchability as illegal. In 1955, India enacted the Untouchability (Offenses) 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, similar to the Hate Crime Laws in the United States, was passed in India in 1989.
  • India created National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to investigate, monitor, advise, and evaluate the socio-economic progress of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes.
  • India implemented a reservation system for its citizens from Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes; this program has been in use in India for over 50 years. This program is similar to Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunities statutes in the United States.
  • In India, where the presence of private free market corporations is limited, government 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. 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. In 1995, about 16.1 percent of India's population were 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.
  • In 1997, India democratically elected K. R. Narayanan, a Dalit, as the nation's President.
  • In 2007, India elected K. G. Balakrishnan, a Dalit, to the office of Chief Justice.
  • In 2007, Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state of India, democratically 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."
  • In 2009. Indian parliament unanimously elected Meira Kumar, as the first woman speaker. She is from Dalit community.

In addition to taking affirmative action for people of schedule castes and schedules tribes, India has expanded its effort to include people from poor, backward castes in its economic and social mainstream. In 1990, the Government of India introduced reservation of 27% for Backward Classes on the basis of the Mandal Commission’s recommendations. This became the law with the issuance of Gazette notice 36012/31/90-Estt. (SCT) dated 13 August 1990. 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.

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. 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. 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 same in 1999.

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. The quality and quantity of schools are now major issues in India.

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

  • 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 1995–2005, compared to a national average change from 35 to 27 percent.

An indicator of caste-based violence, extent of hate crimes, disease and systematic discrimination in health care availability is the average life expectancy distribution for various castes. 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 differentiator in life expectancy in modern India.

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

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.

A 2003 article in The Telegraph claimed that inter-caste marriage and dating are not uncommon in urban India. Indian societal and family relationships are changing because of female literacy and education, women at work, urbanization, 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.

The caste system is still socially relevant in India. Caste has become (see Caste politics in India) an important factor in the politics of rural India, although elections in the first decade of the 21st century seem to have diminished a hold that was very much evident in the previous few decades.

The Government of India has officially documented castes and sub-castes, primarily to determine those deserving reservation (positive discrimination in education and jobs) through the census. The Indian reservation system relies on quotas. The Government lists consist of Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes:

Scheduled castes (SC)

Scheduled castes generally consist of "Dalit". The present population is 16% of the total population of India (around 165 million). For example, the Delhi state has 49 castes listed as SC.

Scheduled tribes (ST)

Scheduled tribes generally consist of tribal groups. The present population is 7% of the total population of India i.e. around 70 million.

Other Backward Classes (OBC)

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%. 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.

The caste-based reservations in India have 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).

In May of 2011, the government approved a caste census with the intention of verifying the claims and counterclaims by various sections of the society about their actual numbers. The census would also help the government to re-examine and possibly undo some of the policies which were formed in haste like Mandal commission and bring more objectivity to the policies with respect to contemporary realities. 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.

Caste systems among non-Hindus

Caste systems have been observed in other major religions of India.


In some parts of India, Christians are stratified by sect, location, and the castes of their predecessors. In many ways this presence of social strata system has been witnessed elsewhere, such as the society structured by Christian Spaniards who, according to Cahill, established a caste system in the new world: the Indies, the New Spain and the Viceroyalty of Peru, within the last 500 years.

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." 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. Their traditional belief that their ancestors were high caste Hindus such as Namboodiris and Nairs, who were evangelized by St. Thomas, has also supported their upper-caste status. 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.

Goa also witnessed mass proselytizing missions of by Portuguese missionaries from the 16th century onwards. The Hindu converts retained their caste practices. Thus, the original Hindu Brahmins in Goa now became Christian Bamonns and the Kshatriya and Vaishya Vanis became Christian noblemen called Chardos. Those Vaishya Vanis who could not get admitted into the Chardo caste became Gauddos, and Shudras became Sudirs. Finally, the Dalits or "Untouchables" who converted to Christianity became Maharas and Chamars, the latter an appellation of the anti-Dalit ethnic slur Chamaar.


Like castes elsewhere in Islamic world, Muslims in India have a caste system. Ashrafs are presumed to have a superior status, 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 Herbert Risley who claimed that 56 percent of Muslims in British India were of a caste equivalent in status as the Hindu Shudras and Untouchables. In the Bengal region of India, some Muslims stratify their society according to 'Quoms.' Some scholars have asserted that the Muslim "castes" are not as acute in their discrimination as those of the Hindus, while other scholars argue that the social evils in South Asian Muslim society were worse than those seen in Hindu society.


The Indian state of Punjab has the highest percentage of Dalits, as well as Sikhs in India. While the Sikh Gurus criticized the hierarchy of the caste system, a caste system has existed midst the Sikhs. In the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee, out of 140 seats, 20 are reserved for low caste Sikhs.


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.

Buddhism in India, like other religions, has attempted to reform and create a society without classes. Nevertheless, in some parts of India such a Ladakh, with significant historical presence of Buddhists, a caste system existed in a manner similar to caste structure in Tibet. The upper castes belonged to sger gzhis, and were called sgar pa. The priestly caste belonged to monastery, and were called chos-gzhis. Miser were 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, khral pa and dud chung. Buddhist also had castes that were shunned by their community and ostracized, such as hereditary fishermen, butchers and undertakers. The untouchables in Buddhist regions, as in Tibet, were known as Ragyappa, who lived in isolated ghettos, and their occupation was to remove corpses (human or animal) and dispose of sewage.


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. There are about 110 different Jain Communities in India and overseas.


The Baha'i Faith has grown to prominence in India, since its philosophy of the unity of humanity attracted many of the lower castes.

Caste-related violence

Independent India has witnessed caste-related violence. According to a UN report, approximately 110,000 cases of violent acts committed against Dalits were reported in 2005. The report claimed 6.7 cases of violent acts per 10000 Dalit people. For context, the UN reported between 40 and 55 cases of violent acts per 10000 people in developed countries in 2005.; and the total number of cases pending in various courts of India, on Dalit related and non-Dalit related matters were 31.28 million as of 2010.

Various incidents of violence against Dalits such as Kunbis Kherlanji Massacre of 2006 have been reported. In Kherlanji Massacre, a mob of about 40 Kunbis killed four members of a Dalit family. Various retaliatory violent protests by Dalits, such as the 2006 Dalit protests in Maharashtra, were then reported. In one instance, Dalits were claimed to have set three trains on fire, damaging over 100 buses and clashing with police in violent protests that left four persons dead and over 60 injured. In both cases, lengthy investigations and judicial processes followed.

Caste politics

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

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. 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.

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. Remarkably, in what is called a landmark election in the history of India's most populated state of 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.


There has been criticism of the caste system from both within and outside of India. Criticism of the Caste system in Hindu society came both from the Hindu fold and without.

Historical criticism

The caste system has been criticized by many Indian social reformers over India's history.

For example, Jyotirao Phule vehemently criticized any explanations that 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, 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.

Vivekananda similarly criticized 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 create, 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.

Contemporary criticism

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

Caste as racial discrimination

Activists consider the caste system a form of racial discrimination.

The maltreatment of Dalits in India has been described by some authors as "India's hidden apartheid". 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. They also note that India has had a Dalit president, K.R. Narayanan, and argue that the practise had disappeared in urban public life. Several people from Dalit backgrounds have been elected members of Parliament and held senior political posts like chief ministers in several states.

Sociologists Kevin Reilly, Stephen Kaufman and Angela Bodino, while critical of casteism, conclude that modern India does not practice apartheid since there is no state-sanctioned discrimination. 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." The Constitution of India places special emphasis on outlawing caste discrimination, especially the practice of untouchability.

Allegations that caste amounts to race has been rejected by prominent scholars. 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". Prominent 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 economical undertones. The sociologist, Andre Beteille, draws from the works of anthropologists Franz Boas and Ashley Montagu, as well as historian Ramachandra Guha, to assert that that treating untouchability as a form of "race racism" (sic) is "politically mischievous" and worse, "scientifically nonsense". He bases his assertion on the lack of any discernible difference in the racial characteristics between Brahmins or other Scheduled Castes and the Dalits. 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".

Other scholars propose that caste and race based discrimination may be related. Cahill, for example, suggests that the social structure engineered by colonial Spaniards, with limpieza de sangre, in South America, one based on race, ethnicity and economic condition was a caste system. The Spanish colonial rule posited, according to Cahill, that the character and quality of people varied according to their color, race and origin of ethnic types. Caste system and racism have empirically been the two faces of the same coin in recent human history, in a colonial migrant society outside of India. Martínez calls the discriminatory social structure in New Spain as a caste system that was race based colonial order, inspired in part by degrees of racial impurity. Haviland suggests that race and caste systems are related and each a type of social stratification. Both create social classes determined by birth and fixed for life. Both are opposite of the principle that all humans are born equal, both tend to be endogamous, and offsprings are automatically members of parent's social strata. As examples, Haviland describes castelike situations in Central and South America where wealthy, upper class European-descent population rarely intermarried with people of non-European descent; the social strata in current practice by the royal families and nobility in modern Europe; racial segregation and castelike separation of people by their ethnicity in townships of modern South Africa.

In her book Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia, Pakistani-American sociologist Ayesha Jalal writes, "As for Hinduism, the hierarchical principles of the Brahmanical social order have always been contested from within Hindu society, suggesting that equality has been and continues to be both valued and practiced."

Caste and economics

A 1995 study suggests that the caste system in India must be viewed as a system of exploitation of poor low-ranking groups by more prosperous high-ranking groups. Such qualitative theories have been questioned though by other studies. Haque 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 very small land area only capable of producing less than $1000 per year of food and income per household. 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. However, but for some short term exceptions in some states, these laws have not met the expectations. 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 1990s and resultant opportunities for non-agricultural jobs have reduced poverty and increased per capita income for all segments of Indian society. For specific evidence, Aiyar mentions the following

Critics believe that the economic liberalization 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 laborers down from 46.1 percent to 20.5 percent. [...]

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.

Genetic analysis

There have been several DNA studies examining caste and tribal populations of India. These seek to discover, in part, if there are racial origins to the caste system. These studies have so far failed to achieve a consensus, possibly because of the developing nature of genotyping science and technologies.

Several reports published between 1995 and 2005 propose that Indian tribal and caste population samples they studied, have similar genetic origins and have received limited gene input from outside India. These studies imply that racial differences may not have influenced caste system in India.

Other reports, also published between 1995 and 2007 find that there was gene flow from many migratory populations. These studies propose that people migrated into India through northwest as well as northeast. Prior to these waves of human migrations, India had a settled native population. People in northwest India, as well as upper castes in other parts of India, share more genetic material with central Asia, west Asia, and parts of Europe. People in northeast India share more genetic material with southeast Asia and East Asia. These genetic marker studies also find admixing between people and across castes was frequent and endogamy along caste lines may have been far less than what would be expected in a rigid caste system over thousands of years.

A 2009 article published in Nature finds strong evidence for at least two ancient populations in India, genetically divergent, that are ancestral to most Indians today. One, the Ancestral North Indians, who are genetically close to Middle Easterners, Central Asians, and Europeans, whereas the other, the Ancestral South Indians, who are genetically distinct from Ancestral North Indians and East Asians as they are from each other. The study observes that genetic markers suggest endogamy within population clusters was prevalent in various Indian kingdoms over time. The report includes a novel method to estimate ancestry without accurate ancestral populations. With this method, the scientists show that Ancestral North Indians ancestry ranges from 39–71% in most Indian groups, and is higher in traditionally upper caste and Indo-European language speakers. Groups with only Ancestral South Indians ancestry may no longer exist in mainland India due to genetic pool mixing. However, the indigenous Andaman Islanders are unique in being Ancestral South Indians-related groups without Ancestral North Indians ancestry. This study suggests that caste system in India may have some relationship to historical migration of diverse people into Indian subcontinent.

A 2010 review claims that there are at least four population groups in diverse India. Other than Ancestral North Indians and Ancestral South Indians, the population consists of Tibeto-Burman, Austro-Asiatic and Andamanese genetic pools suggesting human beings migrated into India from Africa, Eurasia, Tibet and southeast Asia. The caste system in India is possibly a complex intra-group and inter-group admix of interactions between various population groups. The review paper notes that studies so far were based on small sample sets for the diversity in India. With the availability of new genotyping technologies, future diversity studies encompassing a large number of populations, both tribals and castes, at the genome-wide level may help understand patterns of micro-evolution of populations in India.

In popular culture

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. 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.

The 2011 Hindi cinema (Bollywood) movie Aarakshan deals with caste-based educational reservations.

Caste system in India from an international perspective

Many scholars have compared and contrasted the caste system in India from an international perspective. For example, Neisser notes that although the word caste is usually associated with India, India is not the only such society. Numerous other countries have caste-like minorities, who have been ostracized, discriminated, denied civil rights, forced to sit in the back of bus, asked to use designated toilets, considered impure or shunned in recent human history. Examples include Burakumin in Japan, Jews in certain parts of Europe, Afro-Americans in the United States, Oriental Jews in Israel, Al-Akhdam of Yemen, Baekjeong of Korea, Midgan of Somalia, Osu in Nigeria and West Indians in Great Britain. The extent of discrimination, exclusion, segregation and the details differed; for example, Maoris in New Zealand suffered less than Stolen Generations of Aborigines in Australia under the Half-Caste Act where children were systematically and forcibly removed from their parents, so that the British colonial regime could protect the children from their so-called inferior parents.

Ogbu suggests that, in international context, the emotional feeling and the result is the same, that anyone born into a lower caste or caste-like minority—a Burakumin in Japan, a minority in America, or Shudra in India—is to grow up with this feeling that one's life will eventually be restricted to a small and poorly rewarded set of social roles.

Berreman is amongst those who use the term social stratification to discuss the caste system in India from an international perspective. He claims that regardless of its characteristics in a particular society, stratification is based upon three primary dimensions: class, status, and power, which are expressed respectively as wealth, prestige, and the ability to control the lives of people. Berreman suggests that, from an international perspective, social stratification systems present everywhere in the world share these crucial facts:

  • the identity is regarded as being a consequence of birth or ancestry and therefore is immutable;
  • the identity confers upon its possessor a degree of societally defined and affirmed worth which is regarded as intrinsic to the individual; and
  • this inherent worth is evaluated relative to that of all others in the society; that is, those of different birth circumstances are inherently unequal and are avoided, while those of similar birth circumstances are innately equal and are sought.

The issues and challenges with caste system in India have been, and are currently no different than religion, gender, ethnic or race-based social stratification and discrimination systems anywhere else in the world.

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