The Caste System in India

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The Caste System in India
By : Justice Markandey Katju, Judge, Supreme Court of India

The caste system is one of the greatest social evils plaguing our country today. It is acting as a powerful social and political divisive force in our country at a time when it is absolutely essential for us to be united if we wish to face our nation’s challenges. It is a curse on our country which must be speedily eradicated if we wish to progress.

We may consider a few facts to realize how strongly caste is still entrenched in our society today. Our politics is largely governed by caste vote banks. When the time comes for selecting candidates for the elections a study is made of the numerical caste distribution in a constituency, because voters in most areas vote on caste basis.

What to say of the illiterate people, even the so called intellectuals tend to operate on caste lines. Thus, in the elections to many bar associations the lawyers tend to vote for the candidates of their caste.

Many castes want to be declared as O.B.C.s or Scheduled Castes, to get the benefits of reservation. Even some O.B.C.s strive to be declared as M.B.C.s (most backward castes) or Scheduled Castes.

Fake caste certificates have become rampant, as is often witnessed in our law courts, to get jobs or admissions in educational institutions. Marriages are still largely performed within one’s caste.

Violence often occurs between castes, as was noticed in the recent fight between students of different castes in a University in Chennai, while the policemen looked on as silent spectators.

Even Muslims, Christians and Sikhs often have castes, although their religions preach equality.

We can multiply these facts manifolds. Many books and articles have been written about the caste system in India, but a scientific study is still wanting. An attempt shall be made here to explain the origin, development and future of the caste system.

Origin of the Caste System

The origin of the caste system was in all probability racial. It is said that caste originated when a white race, the Aryans, coming from the North West, conquered the dark coloured races inhabiting India at that time, probably 5000 years ago or so.

Some persons deny that the Aryans came from outside India and assert that India was the original home of the Aryans (Aryavarta) from where a section of them migrated to Europe. It is difficult to accept this view because people migrate from uncomfortable areas to comfortable areas (see the article `Kalidas Ghalib Academy for Mutual Understanding’ in www.kgfindia.com). Why should anyone migrate from a comfortable country like India which has level and fertile land ideal for agriculture to a place like Afghanistan or Russia which is cold, mountaneous and therefore uncomfortable. Indian history bears out the view that almost all invasions/immigrations were from outside India (mainly from the North West and to a lesser extent from the North East) into India.

The caste system is called `Varna Vyavastha’ and the word `Varna’ in Sanskrit literally means colour of the skin. This also points at the racial origin of the caste system. Fair skin colour is usually preferred to darker skin even today, as is evident from matrimonial advertisements.

Subsequent Development of the Caste System

While the origin of the caste system appears to be racial (as mentioned above) it subsequently developed an altogether different basis according to the needs of the feudal society in India. In other words, the caste system, though originating in race, subsequently developed into the feudal, occupational division of labour in society. This needs to be explained in some detail.

In theory there were only four castes, Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras. This, however, was only a fiction. In reality there were (and still are) hundreds, if not thousands, of castes and sub-castes in India many of which do not fit into the 4 traditional castes...
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