The Caste system : A serious threat to National integrity, a barrier to the welfare of society

Mr Hriday Narayan Dikshit

The Caste system has been a common topic of discussion in India. Many scholars such as Dr Ram Manohar Lohia and Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar have stated that the Caste system was a serious threat to National integrity. Dr Lohia even appealed to the masses to get rid of the Caste system. Dr Ambedkar relentlessly pursued his goal of getting rid of it from India. Every visionary has aspired to break free from the clutches of the Caste system. However, many politicians are working towards a stronger Caste-based social identity to achieve their myopic political goals.

Readers would be surprised to know that the Constitution of India does not even define the word ‘Caste’. There are thousands of Castes in India (3,000+ Castes and around 25,000 sub-Castes). Naturally, the Caste system has been a critical aspect of Indian politics and of the majority of social institutions in India.

It is a no-brainer that such Caste-based division has become a threat to our National integrity. The question remains – What is Caste ?

A French Indologist Émile Charles Marie Senart defines ‘Caste’ as a close corporation, in theory at any rate, rigorously hereditary, equipped with a certain traditional and independent organisation, including a chief and a council, meeting on occasion in assemblies of more or less plenary authority, and joining together at certain festivals, bound together by common occupations, which relate more particularly to marriage, food and to questions of ceremonial pollution, and ruling its members by the exercise of jurisdiction, the extent of which varies, but which succeeds in making the authority of the community more felt, by the sanction of certain penalties; and, above all, by final irrevocable exclusion from the group.

However, this theory does not apply to the present-day Caste system in our society. A British ethnographer, Sir Herbert Hope Risley, defines Caste as a collection of families or groups of families bearing a common name which usually denotes or is associated with a specific occupation, claiming common descent from a mythical ancestor, human or divine, professing to follow the same professional callings, regarded by those who are competent to give an opinion as forming a single homogeneous community.

Unfortunately, even this perspective does not encompass everything that constitutes a Caste.

1. What do the scholars say about the Caste system ? 

In his book ‘The History of Caste in India’, Shridhar Venkatesh Ketkar states that Caste is nothing more than a social group. Children born in a particular Caste gel with children in the same Caste and not as much with others. A general restriction imposed upon the youth is not to marry someone beyond their native Caste.

Another scholar, Mr Nesfield, defines Caste as a class of the community which disowns any connection with any other social group, and which can neither intermarry, nor eat, nor drink with any, but persons of their community.

2. The makers of the Constitution dreamt of a society devoid of Caste-based divisions 

The Caste system proved to be a barrier for social and National integrity during the struggle for Independence and even before that. The makers of the Constitution also aspired to eliminate the Caste system to achieve National integration. You will not find the word ‘Caste’ in the Preamble of the Constitution.  It starts with – ‘We, the people of India’. With this, the makers of the Constitution treated every Indian citizen equally, and they dreamt of only one identity/class for all citizens – ‘Indians’.

We must note that the Preamble reflects the core constitutional values that embody the Constitution. With such a beginning, the makers aspired to get rid of the Caste system from Indian society and merge every identity into – ‘We, the people of India’. Unfortunately, the Caste system has been deeply entrenched in our social landscape. To make matters worse, the politicians have exploited this weakness to achieve their myopic goals.

3. The underlying principle of the Constitution of India

Every Constitution is based on some philosophy. If a Constitution is not based on any philosophy, it will not reflect the core values of that Nation. The Constitution of India is based on a philosophy of equality. Jawaharlal Nehru proposed the Objective Resolution to the Constitution of India that laid down the principles of the Constitution. It was adopted by the Constituent Assembly on 22nd January 1947. It stated – ‘The Constituent Assembly declares its true intent to declare India as an Independent Sovereign Republic and to establish a Constitution for the future Government’. It further states – ‘The true power and authority in such an Independent Sovereign Republic reside with its people. The people elect their leaders, and accordingly, a Government gets formed. In an Independent Sovereign Republic, people are entitled to social, economic and political justice, dignity and opportunity, equality before the law, freedom of expression, belief, worship, profession, association and action within the confines of the law and morality. This historic land of spirituality and philosophy will attain its rightful and glorious place in the world order and work towards world peace and human welfare’. We must realise that the phrase – historic land – encompasses ancient tradition. The Objective Resolution was later adopted as the Preamble of the Constitution of India.

4. The mission to get rid of the Caste system and the associated politics 

The Preamble of the Constitution does not talk about unity among Castes. We must note that India is not a sum total of various Castes. Moreover, the Constitution does not confer Caste-based identity on the citizens of India. However, dirty politics revives the dying Caste identity.

Dr Ambedkar said, ‘Caste system is an unnatural division of labourers into separate compartments; hence, it will not survive long’. There was no ‘Caste system’ in the Vaidik times. In those days, social equality prevailed over any attempt to create disharmony among the people.

However, today, the word ‘Brahmanism’ is used in politics along with other political philosophies such as Marxism, Capitalism, Socialism, etc. Naturally, Brahmanism is associated with the Caste system.

Many visionary leaders and social organisations have worked towards uprooting the Caste system from the social landscape. Bramho Samaj in Kolkata, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and a few socialists favoured the complete abolition of the Caste system.

Earlier, the word ‘Shudra’ (One of the four varnas of Hindu Dharma, meant to signify the working class) was commonly used. In theory, it can apply to many social groups related to hundreds of professions in the service industry. Dr Ambedkar said, ‘Inter-Caste marriages are the root cause of perpetuating the Caste system in India. A few
classes restricted inter-Caste marriages to fulfil their selfish goals’.

5. Manu or Brahmans did not create the Caste system : Dr Ambedkar 

Dr Ambedkar raised a very pertinent question in this regard. He said, ‘If we thoroughly study the origins of the Caste system, we should be able to understand which class created this menace that created watertight boundaries between people and disrupted the social landscape’. He further admits that even he could not provide a direct answer to this query.

However, Dr Ambedkar’s speech at Columbia University provides some insights in this regard. He said, ‘I want to clarify that, on the basis of my research, I believe the Caste system was not Manu’s creation’.

Dr Ambedkar did not consider even Brahmans as the creators of the Caste system. He added, ‘Brahmans might have been guilty of many mistakes, and they were. However, they were incapable of imposing the Caste system on other classes of society.

The Brahmans might have aided in strengthening the Caste system; however, they were incapable of going beyond their sphere. It is difficult to change the society based on our wishes. Anyone would pursue this mammoth task and would enjoy this pursuit; however, he cannot take it further’.

– Mr Hriday Narayan Dikshit, Former Speaker of Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly (Courtesy : Weekly ‘Vivek’)

How can the Caste system be eliminated ?

It will take great courage and incessant effort to eliminate the Caste system. We can change the Government with our voting franchise; however, we cannot easily change the societal perspective. The makers of the Constitution arranged to define the scheduled Castes and provide them with additional benefits. They also arranged to form a Commission for identifying all the scheduled Castes. It is quite comforting to see that the Caste system as a social identity is on the decline.

We can change the Government with our voting franchise; however, we cannot easily change the societal perspective !