A Note on Caste and Class

Caste and Class are not separate concepts or projects

Jana Shatabdi trains are one of the prides of our middle classes. After Rajdhaani, it was the Shataabdis that offered us the dreams of speed and comfort (i.e., reservation) (and if one wants to see evidence for the expansion of the middle class and its dreams, one need only look at the increase in similar ‘comfortable’ services, not only in trains, but in air travel, education, housing, etc. etc. The state is basically taking up large amounts of commons and offering them to private capital to produce and consume).

class or caste?
caste or class?

 Jana Shatabdi trains run between important local cities. They stop at intermediate small-towns and district capitals, thus inviting a lot of people who travel daily for a living. All seats have to be reserved, but when daily commuters see empty seats, why would they stay back? That is why, Indian law permits for a person with a reserved ticket to make an unreserved traveler vacate “his/her” seat, whether pregnant or old or PH. And hereon, unreserved travelers keep increasing in the gangway between the two gates on the two sides of compartments, while “comfortable”, reserved travel takes place in the seats. In these kind of trains, these contradictions are merely visible; they are far more acute in long distance travel. Increasingly, unreserved travel in Sleeper class upward is becoming unthinkable. On certain routes in which trains ply between regional towns, bands of youth who occupy seats despites muffled outcries, demand of propriety, etc. from reserved travelers are still seen, but the state’s bid to crack down on these kinds of acts forcefully (by increased policing) and strategically (by introducing trains that only go long-distances) is only a further indication of its allegiances to the upwardly mobile classes. On the other hand, in a long distance train, the four unreserved compartments, free-for-all, no ticket-checking happening, near-absence of the state (except for the ritual of the lathi-bearing policeman), contain more people than the rest of the train. Two women’s compartments out of those become general compartments, to speak nothing of the other kinds of hierarchies that arise within.

One casual look usually tells us that the unreserved travelers consist mainly of the dispossessed, even if within them there is a continuous struggle to rise upwards or do better in the long run. Whereas reserved travelers usually come from a class that enjoys better life-chances, whether acquired or by patrimony. And we shouldn’t forget similar scenes that range across our institutions, whether hospitals, schools and colleges, cafeterias and tea-stalls, etc.

These symptoms of exclusion speak of certain processes that are less local. While we cannot discount away the force of life-experiences in affecting where people stand in societies, those experiences themselves seem to be shaped out of certain dominant tendencies in society. We find that today the money-economy is decisive in including or excluding people in and out of institutions. If one can imagine pre-monetary states (say, skills at reading in Urdu, Hindi or English), those will be converted into some monetary value as people enter material society. Apart from certain other kinds of related notions, like meritocracy, first preference for the talented, etc., it is mostly the lack of enough money that tells people they need to back off, or go away if they don’t have a ticket, and so money-economy also becomes an ideological and psychological factor in people’s self and world perception. At a time when money was less common, there was still some material basis to this kind of exclusion – who holds “rights”-based access to what land, who toils on whose fields, etc., while some kinds of practices showed very elaborate kinds of ideological tools to perpetuate hierarchy: what kind of person is fit for carrying shit, what kind of a person will deal in leather works, these kinds of imaginary essences ascribed to professional roles under religious authority.

At a time when we find that authority based on money or land trumps ritual authority based on allusion to imaginary essences, how far should we refer to ‘caste’ and ‘class’ as wholly different concepts, and politically different projects? Sometimes, we keep the activities of the major parliamentary communist parties in our mind models of class-politics, and end up making crass reductionisms about differences between caste and class. More specifically, there is the suggestion that all the dehumanization – manual scavenging, name-calling, etc. – is only remnant caste-society, which leads us to other bizarre kinds of formulations, like “Brahmins rule this land” or “Dalits are beef-eating Hindus” which tell us nothing about what kind of state-power exists, how is our political-economy organized, the strategies people employ to cope with it, the kinds of alliances/hostilities being churned out, and so on. More importantly, it falls flat of addressing how money-economy fractured earlier communities leaving none in a position of total privilege. Hence, we suggest that we cannot use two separate concepts to explain a hierarchy that has the money economy as its spine; at the same time, in the abolition of state and hierarchy, we suggest that it is the smashing of the money economy that is crucial at ending the kinds of exclusions and privileges that emerge from current society.

By Pratik


3 thoughts on “A Note on Caste and Class

  1. There is no doubt that economic power is extremely significant in the context of political power, however, it would be reductionist to make this formulation:

    “At a time when we find that authority based on money or land trumps ritual authority based on allusion to imaginary essences, how far should we refer to ‘caste’ and ‘class’ as wholly different concepts, and politically different projects?”

    Or “We find that today the money-economy is decisive in including or excluding people in and out of institutions.”

    Not always. In fact you’ll find counter-examples quite frequently.

    A study says that 1 in every 4 Indians practice untouchability. Now how money-driven is untouchability? You’ll find people spending extra or losing profit so that they can practice untouchability. Most of the marriages in India are intra-caste, and it’s not just class that ensures this endogamy, you can see that even the ‘eligibility criteria’ in matrimonial mention the caste requirements. In villages, you have caste-segregated neighbourhoods. In urban areas you have landlords unwilling to rent to people who do not belong to their caste or religion, and it’s not just about whether you can pay rent or not. There is caste discrimination even when you’re applying for a job. A study by Attewell and Thorat found that even with the same CV, dalits are 33% less likely to be called for the next stage of the hiring process in private sector firms of Mumbai, Hyd, Bangalore, Delhi and Chennai than their upper caste counterparts. (Muslims were 66% less likely.) We can go on and on with examples.

    Are caste and class wholly different? Surely not, but they’re not identical either. Casteism shapes the perception about a person from a certain caste. Casteism attaches a profile to a caste – such as a lower caste person is inferior in one way or the other. This in turn plays a role in determining who is treated how, even without any explicit reference to caste. Also, how can one forget the innumerable examples of murderous casteism running rampant? Overlooking the particularities of casteist oppression by reducing it to class won’t give you a complete picture.

    So yes, I agree that the smashing of the class society is “crucial at ending the kinds of exclusions and privileges that emerge from current society” as you say, but I disagree that “we cannot use two separate concepts to explain a hierarchy that has the money economy as its spine”, firstly because casteism predates money economy (but not class society, of course), and secondly because caste and class aren’t identical as said in the previous paragraph.


  2. Su Some of the points you raise have a strong case for changes beset by a money economy. If we look at the contexts and reasons for the murders and other atrocities, they often suggest a breaking of traditional caste-based taboos. The recent killing in Shirdi, Maharashtra for example shows upper caste angst over breaking of inter-dining taboos. Previous killings in both maharashtra, tamil nadu, up and haryana suggest that more and more non-dalit women are coming into contact with dalit men and considering them as love partners, mostly in college spaces (so the killings emerge as reactions to these). The bhagana case and the recent dangavas (as well as the recent vallabhgarh case in which muslims were chased off and their cattle and cattle feed burnt) suggest that contestations are very strongly taking place over who has access to land to what degree. Similarly, it has become difficult for upper castes to monitor or prevent dalits or other “lower” castes from participating in celebrations or forms that are traditionally held the monopoly of upper castes. One can’t deny the violence that is emerging from the upper castes, but it is quite misleading too to ignore the contradictions based upon which this violence is emerging.

    There are two trends that seem to me important here: firstly, there is a high level of distress upon agrarian based economies, therefore struggle for what have traditionally been held as commons, caste-privileges, taboos, etc. Secondly, excluded castes find themselves in a minority in these setups, and hence are at the receiving end of violence. If we push this under the carpet of ahistorical caste atrocities we also ignore the tendencies of change that are latent in these situations. I take your point that it isn’t possible to reduce everything to money-economy.. ctd..

    Especially untouchability and ghettoization.. But when it comes to things like inter-marriage, how many modern, “caste-free” societies show marriages across class? How far has the idea of “hygiene” been given up in societies that show a marked rise in consumption of hand sanitizers? Caste becomes a convenient ideological expression of a professional newly rich class that otherwise lacks a cultural imagination, and in that caste remains, but there’s also the fact that if another cultural paradigm is provided, caste will not be held on to so rigidly as one imagines it would. Beef-eating and sexual choices are to me the most stark examples.

    As for practices in the corporate sector, I’ll take a look at the works you’ve cited, but merely mention now that we shouldn’t look at these as isolated practices, but part of the larger administrative policy of corporates, which is generally quite fucked up, so it won’t be a surprise if they absorb some of the shit that has been churned up by chanakyas here. Broadly, though, how far do we need to consider a corporation as a domain for our intervention?


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