The issue of caste is something that has been discussed in this blog time and again; while Vishal, for example, is happy being a practicing Shudra, a Theyyam practitioner from Kerala feels that caste based restrictions on performing Theyyam are part of the tradition (and, every community has a certain role to play in the tradition). For Nita, the very word caste implies discrimination; and, anybody who had read Ujj and Oranjee on the plight of denotified communities can understand why. And, it is comes as no surprise that 55% of Indians think that the caste system is a barrier to social harmony in India. The efforts of government to promote inter-caste marriages, reservation policy, and reservation in private sector have also been discussed (though, not as often as one would wish). Under these circumstances, to ask “What is caste” might sound a bit frivolous; but, not when Andre Beteille raises the question, and tries to answer it.
Prof. Beteille studied caste in Thillaisthanam (a village near Tanjore) for his PhD, and his book Caste, Class and Power: Changing Patterns of Stratification in a Tanjore Village (published in 1965) is something that I have enjoyed thoroughly. As Prof. Beteille himself notes elsewhere,
In Caste, Class and Power, which was a lightly revised version of a Delhi University Ph.D thesis written under the supervision of M.N. Srinivas, I followed the established convention of the anthropological monograph based on intensive fieldwork, long stay in a community and detailed observation of its everyday life. But, instead of focusing on problems that were then central to anthropology such as kinship, marriage, religion and ritual, I chose class and stratification which were central to the concerns of sociology. That book was written with the conviction that the convergence of sociology and social anthropology was a distinct and exciting possibility, and that Indian sociologists could contribute something to its realisation. The book had a mixed response. I was sharply criticised by some anthropologists in Europe for trying to introduce class and stratification into a domain where they did not fit. On that point I believe I have prevailed over my critics.
In his latest essay in Economic and Political Weekly (pdf), Prof. Beteille discusses the distinction between class and caste; the essay is based on the text of the A K Dasgupta memorial lecture that Prof. Beteille delivered recently.
The essay while acknowledging that caste is the defining feature of the community in India, and that is has been a vital socio-economic institution since historical times, goes on to discuss the distinction between class and caste in the Indian context, and the politics associated with it. All this discussion would have been purely academic and would have been of interest only to sociologists, but for the clear connection that Prof. Beteile makes between the Indian middle class, and their political mobilisation towards their own communities. Thus, the article is both of academic and practical interest.
Finally, there are some interesting pieces of historical information too in the essay; for example, I found that K B Krishna’s 1939 book The problem of minorities (which Prof. Beteille feels made the shrewd observation of the connection between the Indian middle class and their caste politics) got this following note the International Affairs journal:
This work is by a convinced Communist who wholeheartedly approves the conditions created by the Bolshevist regime in Russia and who wishes to see a similar state of affairs created in his native country, India.
The note goes on to point out that Krishna faulted the Imperialist Government for its communal representation schemes. In this sense, the present day reservation and communal representations, as they are practised in India might be British legacies.
In any case, if the questions of caste, reservation and caste politics interests you, here is an essay that you must read.