Saturday, May 18, 2024

A ‘casteless’ society: an aspiration or a myth to cover up privilege?

Despite attempts to create an egalitarian and modern society, the caste system remains a prominent feature of Indian society. Historically, castes, which are often associated with certain occupations, were arranged in a hierarchy, with some castes considered superior to others and thus accorded more power and privileges than others. This system of social stratification and power relations has been a major problem in India as it has led to discrimination and inequality for those belonging to lower castes.

The idea of a ‘casteless’ society

The word ‘casteless’, simply refers to ‘an individual who does not have a caste or is an outcaste’. Yet, its implications and manifestations as a social concept run much deeper. The term ‘casteless’ refers to the ‘absence of caste’ in society. It advocates for a society free of caste-based discrimination and oppression. It aims to create an inclusive society that provides equal opportunity for every individual regardless of inheritance and birth.

In a ‘casteless’ society, people from different backgrounds would be treated with dignity and respect. People would interact and work together freely, without caste-based discrimination or prejudices and everyone would have access to quality education, healthcare, and job opportunities irrespective of their caste or social status. Here a person’s worth and success would be solely judged based on their abilities, character, and hard work rather than their social position

The idea of such a casteless society has been a goal that many, including social reformists, have aspired to achieve. However, the reality is that the caste system remains deeply ingrained in our society with roots that extend back thousands of years.

Is being casteless a myth?

The term ‘casteless’, as a sociological concept was popularised by M. N. Srinivas, an Indian sociologist who has written immensely about caste, sanskritisation and social stratification. Srinivas in his book Caste in Modern India argues that caste is a complex social structure that has adapted and changed throughout history but remains a powerful force in modern Indian society. One of Srinivas’s key arguments is that the notion of being “casteless” is a myth in the Indian context. He explains that even though some people may claim to be casteless or advocate for a casteless society, they are often still influenced by caste in various ways.

For instance, many media houses, universities and corporate organisations are filled with people belonging to upper castes, especially in higher positions. Despite many claims to be casteless, employers belonging to upper castes tend to prefer hiring people of their own castes than people from the so-called lower castes.

The reality of caste

The concept of castelessness is a response to the discriminatory practices of the caste system. Yet, Indian sociologist Satish Deshpande, in his article “Caste and Castelessness: Towards a Biography of the ‘General Category”, argues that only upper castes are enabled to think of themselves as “casteless,” while the under-privileged lower castes are often restricted to their caste identities.

The ideology of castelessness has successfully interpellated upper-caste subjects, enabling them to see their caste identities as incidental or irrelevant to their claims. However, it is presumptive because, in actuality, they do not have to give up their caste identities. They would automatically be presumed to be casteless if they did not explicitly invoke their caste. Therefore, they can retain their power and privilege while appearing to be casteless. Glimpses of caste pride among upper castes are witnessed in the caste surnames they carry, in their insistence to marry within their castes as well as through the caste associations and clubs they create. Caste identity and pride can be so deeply ingrained in an individual’s upbringing and socialisation, that they may not even realize the extent to which it affects their thoughts and actions.

Upper-caste individuals are often able to attain better education and employment opportunities due to their sociocultural and economic privileges. It enables them to be seen as individuals who have achieved success through their hard work and merit while hiding the caste identity that helped them achieve it. On the other hand, lower caste individuals often face discrimination and barriers while accessing education and employment opportunities due to their caste identity. Moreover, in most cases, their caste identity overwrites all other identities, and thus, despite hard work, society may not grant them equal opportunities. This forces them to rely on their caste identity as a means of asserting their rights and claiming social and economic opportunities. As the Chief Justice of India, D. Y. Chandrachud said at the B.R. Ambedkar Memorial Lecture, “Castelessness is a privilege that only the upper caste can afford because their caste privilege has already translated into social, political and economic capital”.

Claims of castelessness, among the upper castes, thus seem like attempts to resist affirmative action policies that aim to redress historical injustices and promote social and economic equality for lower castes. Upper caste individuals claim the need for a casteless society by superficially arguing against reservation policies on claims that it encourages certain castes to identify primarily with their caste identity, rather than as citizens of a unified nation, and that it works against meritocracy.

In making claims of castelessness, dominant caste individuals seem to be oblivious to the caste-based discrimination and inequality that still prevails in society. For many lower-caste individuals, reservation policies have provided a pathway to education and employment opportunities that they might not have otherwise had.

Therefore, castelessness is now viewed as a new disguise for caste power and privilege, while at the same time it is also an aspiration for people subject to caste-based discrimination.

Dr. Ambedkar’s vision

Dr. Ambedkar acknowledged that caste was deeply entrenched in Indian society and that it would require significant effort to uproot it. Education, according to him, was key to annihilating caste. Education could empower individuals socially, economically and politically. It could help them escape the cycle of poverty and oppression through economic independence. It could also help them to be more politically represented, giving them a voice in the democratic process to advocate for their rights. Economic and political freedom would help them in challenging the existing social order and breaking down barriers that had been erected to maintain caste-based discrimination.

According to him, another important step towards creating a casteless society was inter-caste marriages. He argued that marriage was a means of reproducing caste privileges and maintaining the existing social order. Inter-caste marriage could break down caste barriers, as individuals born through such marriages cannot be associated with a single caste, challenging the traditional notion of caste purity. He believed that inter-caste marriages would help to create a sense of unity and shared identity, which would be necessary to achieve a casteless society.

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