A lower-caste Hindu can become a Brahmin


Dr. Uwe Skoda

Uwe Skoda is Associate Professor of South Asian Studies at the Department of Culture and Society at Aarhus University, Denmark. He is currently researching the transformations of royalty and photographic traditions in India.

An introduction

There are numerous theories about the origin of the caste system in India. One thing is certain: the hierarchical classification of people in different castes has shaped social life on the subcontinent for centuries and has left deep marks on social, economic and political life up to the present day.

Dalits (untouchables) during a Human Rights Day protest near the Indian Parliament in New Delhi. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

Hardly any other topic is discussed as emotionally in India as Kaste. The conflict-prone and often creative handling of it, the complexity and political dimension can be seen, for example, on the basis of the controversial Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal - The National Dalit Inspirational Monument - in the Delhier suburb of Noida. The huge facility on the east bank of the Yamuna was opened to the general public on October 2, 2013, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, without any major media coverage and is considered a prestige project of the former Prime Minister of the state of Uttar Pradesh, which extends to the capital. The politician Mayawati, herself a member of the lowest castes or the Dalits, had pushed through the monument, financed by taxes, against all opposition and inaugurated it on October 14, 2011.

On this day in 1956, the Dalit icon Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, along with hundreds of thousands of other Dalits, converted to Buddhism and thus left the Hindu caste system. The Dalit monument is correspondingly rich in Buddhist symbolism. From Mayawati's point of view, it is intended to Empowerment - the socially, economically and politically largely marginalized Dalits contribute, for which Ambedkar had already fought as an opponent of Gandhi.

But it is also considered an indication of Mayawati's political ambitions at the national level. So she had stone elephants set up in the park, the symbol of her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). There are also dozens of larger-than-life statues of Dalit personalities - including her own. Before the state elections in Uttar Pradesh in early 2012, the electoral commission had Mayawati and her elephants veiled in order to prevent possible electoral advantages. The BSP lost power to the Samajwadi party (SP), although the new government initially showed little interest in the monument and figure park. In the end, she gave the facility to the public and handed out bicycles - the SP party symbol - to Dalits at the opening.

The term caste: origin and ideology

The term caste comes from the Portuguese word casto (pure, chaste). As early colonial rulers in India, the Portuguese tried to identify a phenomenon of demarcation and hierarchical arrangement of social groups, especially in relation to marriage, which they did not know from their own culture. Caste is therefore not an Indian term, but an external attribution that is mostly applied to two different but similar Indian categories - jati and varna.

Jati (Genus or root) denotes the population groups relevant for everyday interactions that can be found in India today. In the 1881 census, when the British colonial rulers began to systematically record India, almost 2,000 of these castes were counted. On the other hand denoted varna (Color) mythologically founded castes. According to this, four varna sprang from the primordial man Purusha: from the mouth the Brahmins (priests), from the shoulder the Kshatriya (warriors), from one thigh the Vaishya (trader) and from the sole of the foot the Shudra (servants). The Brahmins are accordingly at the top of the hierarchy. The Shudra form the lowest category within this scheme, from which the "casteless", regarded as even lower, are completely eliminated.

Jati and varna are loosely connected in social practice, that is, members of each jati usually assign themselves to one of the four varna to, whereby the claims are often controversial and can change due to processes of social mobility. While jati is often locally or regionally limited and one can find different castes in different parts of India with regard to their names, myths, numbers, etc. varna can be used as an all-Indian category in order to enable a certain comparability of the status of individual castes.

In addition to the myth, there are other, more speculative theories about the emergence of the caste system. In historical law books (dharmashastra) it is argued that marriage is only possible within the varna should be arranged and the multitude of jati through rather disapproved "mixed marriages" between different ones varna was created.

Other theories put the king at the center of the caste system, which is said to have assigned different roles to people in the traditional sacrificial ritual. These hereditary functions (priest, barber, etc.) then became castes. Historical explanations, however, refer to waves of immigration to India: "Aryans" coming from the direction of the Caucasus would have subjugated the resident population - often identified with the South Indian or Dravidian population - and assigned them the rank of servants or caste-less people in order to "mix" them with the subject Avoid population.

From a sociological point of view, according to the philosopher Célestin Bouglé, the caste system is based on three pillars: (1) the separation of groups, especially with regard to marriage and food, (2) a hereditary division of labor and (3) hierarchy. Building on this, the ethnologist Louis Dumont emphasizes that these three principles are based on the contrast "pure" / "impure". The separation of the ritually "purer" from the "impure" castes thus forms the basis of the caste hierarchy, such as the prohibition of marrying with "impure" ones or the distinction between "impure" professions such as leather workers from "purer" professions such as priests. In addition, contact with "unclean" people is considered to be contaminating and requires more or less extensive cleaning rituals. Brahmins and "untouchables" form the antipodes of the caste system.

Untouchability: "Children of God" or the oppressed?

About 16.6 percent of the Indian population are considered to be according to the 2011 census Scheduled castes (or "untouchables"), who for the most part live in poor conditions. In the box hierarchy, the border to the lowest boxes is particularly emphasized. "Untouchables" often have to live spatially separated in settlements outside the villages. Although illegal under Indian law, they are often prevented from entering temples or using fountains.

Excluded from the services of other castes, they often replicate these services via a kind of sub-caste system with their own priests, but also forms of marginalization. Casteless people are therefore not per se more solidary or less discriminatory because of their position. However, the practice of "untouchability" is very different in different regions of India and can hardly be sustained, especially in cities. India's contradictions also include the fact that, in spite of existing discrimination, Meera Kumar, an "ex-untouchable" woman, has held the office of Speaker of Parliament since 2009. From 1997 to 2002 he served with K.R. Narayanan is even a Dalit as president.

Already during the independence movement the as Babasaheb Ambedkar and Gandhi revered the classification of the "untouchables" as Hindus and the question of their representation in Indian politics, their protection and their promotion. Ambedkar, himself "untouchable" from the Mahar caste, pleaded in 1931 for separate electorates (electorates). A certain number of mandates should be reserved in parliament for "untouchable" MPs and only elected by "untouchable". In 1935, Ambedkar and Gandhi agreed to reserve seats in parliament for "untouchables" according to their proportion of the population, but to allow them to be voted by all Indians of the respective constituency. The agreement was enshrined in the constitution after India gained independence in 1947 by Ambedkar in his role as Minister of Justice. This reservation policy - too Affirmative action or called positive discrimination - still applies today.

Ambedkar saw the "untouchables" as opposed to caste Hindus and demanded that they break away from the caste order. Gandhi, on the other hand, wanted to reform the caste system and cleanse it of "untouchability" as a negative outgrowth. The term coined by Gandhi also arises from this thinking Harijan, which says that people outside the caste order are also children of God. Many "untouchables" today, however, self-confidently refer to themselves as Dalits (oppressed), because they use the term Harijan appear too paternalistic and do not accept the lower position assigned to them.

Social and Economic Change in the 21st Century

Even if the caste system may appear rigid and rigid, processes of change can still be recognized. Changes result, for example, from religious (reform) movements as soon as these move to marrying or eating only within their community and thus to form a new caste. There is also a relatively high level of social mobility in the middle ranks of the hierarchy, while the poles of the caste order - brahmins and "untouchables" - are far more firmly established.

The fluidity in the middle levels, i.e. the ascent and descent of individual castes, can be caused by factors such as land reclamation or irrigation, but above all also by changed political constellations. In addition, castes can try to claim a higher status by leaning on high-status castes or by imitating their customs based more on Sanskrit scriptures (such as vegetarian food). These by no means new processes are often discussed under the term Sanskritization. In addition to urbanization, increasing material prosperity and mobility are also contributing to change, which can be seen, for example, in a growing cross-caste middle class.

Of the three pillars of the caste system described - separation, hierarchy and division of labor - the last pillar in particular becomes increasingly weaker or disappears entirely. This development is due to the emergence of new professions, especially in cities (e.g. in the IT sector). However, there are also tendencies to convert new professions into hereditary occupations, for example by trying to take advantage of provisions of social law, especially in the state sector (engineers, etc.). In the event of a work disability, relatives of the person concerned have certain rights to employment.

A change can also be seen in relation to the hierarchical division of the castes. The importance of the superordinate and comprehensive system character as well as the interdependence of the castes (vertical level) is decreasing. At the same time, the individual elements of the caste system (horizontal level) are increasingly competing with one another. In place of hierarchy, there is an increasing emphasis on the difference between the boxes. The own, specific caste identity is emphasized - a process that is discussed as substantialization, ethnicization or culturalization of caste and is closely related to political changes. The thesis of culturalization, that is, the reference to cultural differences in the new or reinterpretation of caste, is supported by the concept samaj or community linked. Thus, caste becomes, as jati often deliberately played down in public discourse and replaced by the idea of ​​caste as a unifying unit based on quasi-natural cultural differences.

These processes are quite contradictory. While socio-economic changes such as the greater variety of occupational opportunities lead to greater differentiation within the castes, at the same time the difference between individual castes or their otherness is emphasized more strongly. At the same time, the weakening or even the disappearance of an inclusive system should not be confused with the decline of hierarchical values ​​that play a role in the delimitation of lower castes and classes. While the base of the middle class in India is increasingly expanding beyond the upper castes, it still feeds itself predominantly from upper castes, which use their social and cultural capital (especially education) to their advantage.

The economic change that is particularly evident in cities should therefore not be overestimated. In metropolises like Delhi, too, the vast majority of marriages are still arranged within the castes, which means that cast and class inequalities are passed on. Even modern technologies, e.g. online marriage portals, do not automatically lead to the disappearance of arranged marriages. However, changes can also be seen here.

Caste and politics

On the public holiday of Ambedkar Jayanti (April 14), Dalits worship their idol, the late lawyer Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Standing on a ladder, a woman places wreaths of flowers around an Ambedkar statue in Pune, Maharashtra
Photo: Rainer Hörig
In addition to the continuity in relation to marriage, caste is also gaining in importance within the political system. On the one hand, this is inextricably linked with the emergence of caste organizations since the beginning of the 20th century, which are dedicated to their own interests. On the other hand, this process is related to the system of positive discrimination, which makes caste and community and not the individual or the individual household the criterion for state funding. In many cases, discounts are not given on the basis of individual economic hardship, but on the basis of caste membership. In this way, social mobility continues to be linked to caste.

According to the proposals of the Mandal Commission, reservations for jobs in the public service and for the allocation of university places were made by quota for the Scheduled castes and some tribal groups as well Other backward classes (other backward classes, OBC) extended. The ongoing debate about the introduction of reservations for economically disadvantaged segments of the upper castes is likely to further the politicization of the castes. One consequence are caste-specific parties in India who represent particularly large castes or caste conglomerates, use their numerical advantages in democracy and are committed to their concerns in the distribution of state privileges.

One example of a successful, more caste-specific party is the one founded in 1984 Bahujan Samaj Party (analogously: party of the majority society, BSP). While Ambedkar's attempt to organize a Dalit party had failed, the Ambedkar supporter Kanshi Ram largely managed to overcome the conflicts of interest between the Dalit castes. Kanshi Ram benefited from a growing educated Dalit elite and middle class, which had benefited from state reservations. For example, he managed to organize Dalit employees in the public sector, on whom the BSP, under Kanshi Ram's successor Mayawati, was later able to rely.

The BSP also benefited from coalitions in the state of Uttar Pradesh in which it was involved. These often short-lived alliances of convenience with the Samajwadi Party (1993-95) and the Hindu-nationalist Indian People's Party BJP (1995, 1997, 2002-2003) not only heaved Mayawati into the office of Prime Minister of Uttar Pradesh, but also enabled a mixture of symbolic and substantial politics in the interests of the Dalit castes. She relied on the erection of Ambedkar statues as well as laws to prevent acts of violence against Dalits, which were consistently implemented. There were also special funding programs, for example for villages with a high proportion of Dalit populations.

At the same time Mayawati tried to broaden the base of the BSP: on the one hand and with moderate success beyond Uttar Pradesh, on the other hand through strategic alliances with other castes. While Ambedkar already saw tribesmen and OBC as allies, Kanshi Ram explicitly included religious minorities such as Muslims in his definition of majority (Bahujan). Mayawati went beyond that and promoted a new alliance with Brahmins.

The success of this strategy was shown in the state elections in 2007, in which the BSP with the slogan Sarvajan Sukhaye, Sarvajan Hitaye (All prosperity, all interests) won an absolute majority in Uttar Pradesh and Mayawati became Prime Minister for the entire legislative period. But already in the all-Indian elections in 2009, the BSP was unable to repeat its success. In addition to allegations of corruption, the pro-Dalit policy, which is less decidedly pursued with regard to newly won voters, probably also played a role.Ironically, Mayawati disappointed Dalit regular voters who had placed particular hopes in a BSP majority in the state parliament.

Corrections in the course of the BSP after 2009 brought the core electorate back to the fore, so that Mayawati's politics oscillated between two contradicting interests: expanding the base and not alienating Dalit interests. Your loss of power in 2012 seems to document the temporary failure in terms of an expanded electorate. However, a part of the Dalit electorate also turned away from her disappointedly in the state elections.

Fundamental contradictions can also be found in the all-Indian discourse on castes and caste systems: while on the one hand the constitution forbids any discrimination and disadvantage based on caste, on the other hand the successively expanded reservations for certain castes or caste-specific aid programs strengthen the political discourse and the consciousness of the population Process in which parties are also involved. There is thus a fundamental tension, which is still unresolved and anchored in the constitution, between two different, rival perspectives on India: on the one hand as a society of different castes and communities, or on the other hand as a nation of citizens with equal rights, which the state founders Jawaharlal Nehru and Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar had in mind .