The Die is Caste

NYT is now  outsourcing their  vacuous analysis on the Opinion Pages to op-ed contributors from Bangalore, no less.  Tom Friedman beware, your competition has arrived. Ms Sankaran’s column in a nutshell, nobody I know of speaks of uncomfortable stuff like caste or caste discrimination, ergo its no longer a relevant factor.  Also, it makes me sad that others, not as enlightened as I am, are using caste when deciding who to vote for.


In a country where everything from your name to what you eat, to whom you can marry, depends on caste, I would be extremely surprised if it was not a dominant factor in electoral politics.  Her personal experiences are hardly representative of all of urban India. Perhaps she should actually talk to the the cooks and  gardeners she  refers to in her column before she presumes to speak for them.

In today’s urban India, this land of possibility, separated from rural India by cultural and economic chasms, it seems reactionary even to speak of caste. Certainly it shouldn’t — and usually doesn’t — come up at work or at play or in the apartment elevator.

A quick Google search with the  word caste, came up with multiple stories from Indian newspapers  with caste in the head lines.  Even when it is not in the headlines, caste provides the subtext for almost everything in India.  So much for her claim that newspaper headlines don’t obsess over caste anymore.  Even if explicit mentions of caste had disappeared from headlines in the English language newspapers what exactly is that supposed to prove?  Does it mean, that if something is not in headlines, it does not happen? Caste-based discrimination is the reality of life for far too many Indians.    Although, truly reprehensible practices around who you can touch and share food with may be dying out in the urban areas out of sheer necessity.  The opportunities that are available to you depend to a great extent on your caste.   Since caste and class usually go together, abject poverty is the fate of many at the bottom of the caste ladder.

The reality of the caste system in India is many layered and greatly differs from her simplistic Cliff notes variety description,

Traditionally, Indian society was divided into four main castes. At the top, Brahmins, as priests and teachers; second came the Kshatriyas, the warriors and rulers; third, Vaishyas, who were merchants; last, Shudras, the laborers. And below them all, the Dalits, or untouchables, called Harijans, or “children of God,” by Mahatma Gandhi (for indeed, who isn’t?).

You have all kinds of flexibility the higher up in the caste ladder you are, for example any profession is open to you if you are Brahmin, but not so, the lower on the ladder you are.  In addition there is a lot of regional variation in the caste hierarchies.

When Ms Sankaran, or any other upper caste Indian has a priest who is a scholar of Hindu scriptures but is not a Brahmin  officiate at a religious ceremony, I will buy her tall claim, that caste is irrelevant.  Also, if caste is irrelevant, why is every mention of Mayawati followed by her caste descriptor?

Politics is where caste has gotten a surprising new lease on life. After money and education,
democracy is, of course, the third powerful force transforming Indian society. But Indians, it turns
out, are passionate about the caste of their politicians. Nearly half of the voting population of even
a highly educated city like Bangalore considers caste to be the No. 1 reason to vote for a candidate.

To get a new lease on life, you need to be dead or dying, caste and caste based discrimination is alive and well in India and twenty years of relatively weak economic reforms have not done much to change that dynamic.  Politics is one arena where lower castes  can affect the outcome  due to their sheer numbers.  Like many urban Indians of her class she is not happy with the results.   By the way how exactly can a city be educated? Does it go to college?

Democracy gives power to people who previously had none. But, like race, caste can shift political
discussions from present-day merit to payback for historical injustices.

Shorter Ms Sankaran, those uppity Dalits are making me uncomfortable. Caste based injustices are hardly in some distant past to be described as historical.  But no matter, the lower castes should just get over it, according to Ms. Sankaran. Also,  merit and privilege go hand in hand. It is hard to excel at school when you don’t know where your next meal will come from.   She makes her biases crystal clear in her next paragraph

Six decades of democratic statehood have attempted to correct the imbalances of the past through
“reservation” — job and education quotas for the so-called backward castes, like the Dalits. This
program has been effective, in a fairly hit-or-miss fashion. Some say that nearly all university seats
are reserved for lower castes, effectively blocking Brahmins from higher education.

She ends with this gem

So that is the fascinating conundrum of Indian society: on one hand, caste is losing its virility as
India opens up opportunities and mind-sets, while on the other, the forces of democratic politics
ensure that it will thrive and never be forgotten as a crucial social index.

Caste is a male? Who knew? In any case, this male does not require Viagra. Tough luck Ms Sankaran, you can be rest assured that people will continue exercising their franchise in a way that protects their interests whether or not it meets your approval or hurts your tender feelings.  Caste based politics is a reality in Indian politics and it is not going away, unless the underlying issues of caste discrimination are addressed.   Politics in India is dirty and messy and caste-driven,  and reflects the society.

P.S.  Why  is NYT publishing this drivel?

Posted on June 19, 2013, in India, Punditubbies say Hello and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Castes have a lot do with culture and traditions for any Indian. How your wedding is conducted, what you eat, etc. varies by caste. I don’t think blending all the unique traditions away is something Indians want.

    On the other hand, as more and more backward castes get educated and move up the economic ladder, I think the day-to-day caste discrimination will wind down.

    Whether the politics will follow suit or continue to be focused on identity politics (i.e. all the Yadav’s in UP vote for Mulyam Singh Yadav) is going to be a major issue in India’s future. I think the politics will still be caste based.

    As much as day-to-day discrimination can wind down, people still aren’t willing to go all-in for intercaste marriages or inter-religious marriages. The attitudes towards that sort of mixing have changed dramatically, since Independence from “not going to happen ever” to some degrees of acceptance in some communities.

    • I think I left off in the middle of a thought.

      Despite day-to-day discrimination not being as pronounced, I think there’s no drive to have a “melting pot” in India, where unique castes sort converge to some homogenized average.

      There’s still going to be plenty of scope for identity politics and reservations, etc.

  2. True, caste identities are deeply rooted and go way beyond mere economics.

  3. OK – but discrimination happens at ALL caste levels – its not just ‘brahmins vs the lower castes’. Take for example – south india – a significant number of brahmins have made use of their wealth and access to education to bugger off abroad – mainly to the US. The others – apart from a few ultra rich dynasties – are irrelevant. The real battles are between the marginalized castes for electoral dominance. Take for example the periyathalis and the chinnathali communities – scheduled castes both – The chinnathalis look down on the periyathalis because the latter are supposed to have descended from the illegitimate children of the chinnathalis and the land owning vokkaligas of Karnataka. You cannot expect a periyathali to expect decent treatment in a chinnathali dominant village and vice-versa. And a chinnathali candidate will not win in a periyathali constituency. Of course political parties will use this dynamic when selecting candidates.
    Or take the case of S.Ramadoss, the head of PMK, a Vanniyar party – a backward caste. Some time ago he ranted about how dalit boys were seducing vanniyar girls. (
    The opportunities open to you are dependent on your caste, yes – especially so in the public sector, government service. Take for example the Karnataka Public service commission for government jobs in Karnataka. Its an open secret that the panels are made of people who identify as Lingayats, Vokkaligas, Kirubas and SCs. And ‘SC’ istself is not a homogenous group, A Bujigejangamma may select a Kiruba over another SC – if the SC in quesstion is a Banajiga or some other community that doesnt play well with the panelist’s community.
    So – this whole oversimplification of castes as oh – yeah – four castes and the untouchables – is just ignorant posturing.
    Caste is a primary aspect of Indian identity. Its been around for fucking millenia. Its not going to go away. And expecting it to go away as a result of education is naivete. (Of course, in modern India, great wealth is a better equalizer – but even that is a poor equalizer). The closest parallel would be a clan. If you are part of a clan, you are supposed to keep the clan’s honour up. Take care of your own. (Maybe tribes sounds better). And nobody – however well educated s/he is wants to lose such a significant aspect of their identity.
    I know this guy, well educated, studied in the UK, works in Manchester. Father is a wealthy doctor in Madras, grandfather was a lawyer. Dalit Christian. Will not dream of marrying outside his dalit sub-caste. His sister, studying in the US is much the same. The family is more likely to tolerate a husband of another race than one of a different caste.

    “Caste based politics is a reality in Indian politics and it is not going away, unless the underlying issues of caste discrimination are addressed doesnt make sense.” There is no national or state level issue. There are a billion little issues, and no national or state level policy can attempt to address this.

  4. Great post.

    It appears Ms Sankar’s got the whole package – denial, distraction, and dissembling. She’ll fit in well with the rest of the FerengiMedia™.

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