Chapter 12: Caste and diversity in India
Insights into the Indian caste system, in its changing manifestations from the ancient through the colonial to the contemporary, come primarily from the vast pool of research that has been undertaken by sociologists, historians, political scientists – almost all social scientists except economists. Faced with analyzing persistent underdevelopment in India, the primary focus of economic research on inequality and poverty had been on the overall trends. However, inter-group disparity has now come to the fore in shaping the contours of research on inequality to gain deeper insights into the pattern of stratification. Inter-group disparity in India is multifaceted: religion, region/language, gender and class are all very important descriptors of inter-group disparity. I focus on caste because of the enduring relevance of caste categories in contemporary India, and due to the presence of caste-based affirmative action policies enshrined in the constitution of independent India. Also, while caste is conventionally associated with Hinduism, all major religions in India exhibit features of caste divisions. Caste in English translates into two distinct concepts – the varna and the jati. Briefly, the varna system divided the ancient Hindu society into initially four, later five, distinct varna (castes) that are mutually exclusive, hereditary, endogamous and occupation specific: Brahmins (priests and teachers), Kshatriya (warriors and royalty), Vaisya (traders, merchants, moneylenders) and Sudras (those engaged in menial, lowly jobs), which later split into those doing the most despicable menial jobs, the Ati Sudra or the former ‘untouchables’.
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