Casteism has always played an important role in the Indian socio-political scenario, especially since medieval times. In the modern democratic form of government, it is still a trending issue along with the rising tide of protest against it.
In this globalised and technocrat world, a school of thought has grown advocating the establishment of a society based on egalitarian principles, calling for the elimination of caste. It envisages a society formed on the basis of modern scientific principles. Hence, it raises an important question. Should caste be completely eliminated? For answering this question, we have to look into the evolution of the caste system.
The origins of the term ‘caste’ are attributed to the Spanish and Portuguese word “casta”, meaning race, lineage or breed but in the Indian context, it signifies social stratification posing greater restrictions on the intermingling of various castes. These restrictions and rigidities were not there at the very origin of it and were subject to various changes in the different periods.
The primitive early Vedic society was an egalitarian one and it was a pastoral economy with greater importance to animals. For example, the cow was used as an exchange unit. Their number signified the richness and also was the reason for inter-tribal fights as well. Agriculture was rarely practiced; hence land was of lesser importance. Further, the concept of common ownership was prevalent.
But with the development of agriculture in the later Vedic era, land and private property gained importance. Now a race to capture more and more land started between different tribes. All these developments called for the need of a King, Army, Weaponry, Forts etc and to sustain them, taxation system also evolved.
With the diversification of the economic activities, a division of work took place among community members. This played a dominant role along with other factors in the establishment of the Varna system, a concept traced to the Purush Sukta verse of Rig Veda which mentions four Varnas: Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras. In later times, this system became more complex giving rise to Jati system or caste system. Generally, caste signifies the profession or the region from where a person belongs.
In its ideal form, it seems like a beautiful system as the settlements used to grow according to their profession. Homogeneity in the profession was a notable attribute of the settlements. The learning process of a child used to start from his early childhood as he had to grow up in the locality practicing the same profession. It helped in the development of expertise as evident in archaeological findings.
The Mehrauli iron pillar along with many others throughout the country, standing rust free even after many centuries is the testimony of Indian blacksmiths’ wisdom. Even Delhi’s pollution couldn’t do anything to it. Further, everybody knows the popularity of Indian textiles like Muslin, Chintz etc. before the advent of British.
One of the other important characteristics of the early caste society was that it was not rigid. Anybody could switch to other occupations as well. Even in later times where rigidities in castes evolved, many rulers like Nandas, Mauryans, Satvahanas, Sungas etc were not caste Kshatriyas.
However, with time, castes started becoming rigid and inequalities also started climbing. One of the main reasons for the same was the unequal growth of the professions. Those who were rulers or priests, they became more powerful and the peasants, skilled workers, laborers were left deprived by growing taxes and hardships. This led to increase in the prestige of few professions at the cost of others.
Now, the powerful castes never allowed openness in the system as it would have created competition, which could have resulted in a Shudra becoming a ruler or vice versa. So those who were up in the hierarchy in order to save their position advocated rigidity in the system. Now caste was decided by birth, further endogamy was promoted, interdining was prohibited. Those who were out of four Varnas were known as Avarnas or Untouchables. They are the worst sufferers of discrimination even in the present times. The atrocities on Dalits are not uncommon even today.
This age-old system led to the deprivation of lower castes. The soldiers other than Kshatriyas were not accepted in the Army. Further, it led to lack of unity in the public to fight against the invaders. Those who were deprived had no reasons to support their own rulers against invaders. It affected the armed strength as evident from the successful invasions of foreigners at various time periods.
Hence, history is the witness of the harm caused by the caste system to the society. It may be argued that it is declining with the growth of education but meanwhile a new form is evolving as a class system. Although in present democratic society, inter-class mobility is not restricted but still upper classes always enjoy a favoring edge in all forms of competitions. Here also upper class tries its best to prevent lower classes to climb up. A successful Politician, Doctor, Lawyer or a Businessman would never want anyone to come into their competition.
Hence, there is need to strengthen the democratic and socialistic values by providing requisite resources to enable a level play field for competition. Also, casteism needs to urgently go along with all forms of inequalities and discriminations. It will also allow politicians to focus and raise developmental issues in the elections. Hence atlast it could be said, “For India to grow, casteism has to go”.
(The author is an engineering graduate and a civil aspirant)
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