Caste and Caste Based Sectarianism in India

4th Mar 2020 by Simon Mabon

Caste and Caste Based Sectarianism in India

Anderson Jeremiah, Lancaster University

The ancient Indian cultural practice of caste system forms the backbone of Hindu social order. It maps on to the geographical diversity of language, culture and religion, most importantly constructing a distinct system of repressive social stratification in the subcontinent. The concept of ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hinduism’ itself is highly contested because it cannot be perceived in the same order as other ‘World Religions’. As an academic construct, Hinduism rather refers to a wide variety of theology, mythology, cultic practices and philosophies spread across India. Hinduism signifies the disparate religious practices across the Indian subcontinent. As the complexity of defining Hinduism illustrates, there could be differing opinions on the historicity of caste system. Interestingly the term caste is Portuguese in origin derived from Latin castus (chaste, the unadulterated, pure breed) and became part of common usage during the Portuguese colonial rule. 

Caste, as an expression was used to designate the complex social system, as it did not fit into the early classifications of the European anthropologists and the designation became consolidated during the British colonial rule of Indian subcontinent. The practice of caste system can be found across South Asian countries, not restricted to the Hindu communities alone but permeating every other religious community in the region, as part of the cultural fabric of the subcontinent.    


Caste, Varna and Jati


Over the years the understanding of caste system has evolved and become synonymous with the varna system and also considered identical with various other social classifications in Indian society. The term ‘caste’ needs to be used with caution as it carries several meaning and modern understanding, as the system of social stratification tends to be very complicated. One of the ideological sources of the caste social structure can be found in Hindu Dharma as outlined in Manusmriti or Laws of Manu, the law code of Manu. Various studies point to the fact that there is a possible merger of two social structures, the varna(colour/vocation) class divisions and the jati (birth) divisions. There are further divisions on the basis of purity and pollution,primarily at the religious ritual level and but has significant social consequences in the form of untouchability as well as occupational relations. Varna literally means colour and is not a social group, but a classificatory unit that can be used for people as well as gods, animals, plants, or other things. 

Varna system of classification stems from the vedic period (Rig Veda) and was primarily a prescription outlining the obligations of every individual. Within the Hindu society,owing to its religious origin, it is perceived that the varna system facilitates a sense of order among people and prevents the society from disintegrating into chaos. In reference to society, it is essentially an order of birth class, varnasramadharma, and a division of social functions, but not a caste system, as we understand it today. Even more, the Varna system was perceived as a social system based on qualities (guna) and actions (karma), depending upon the nature of an individual. 

However, the varna system as articulated in the Manusmiriti followed the principles of calcification on the basis of duty, character and birth. There are four different levels in the varna system: Brahman (Priest and teacher), Kshatriya (Warrior and Landowners), Vaishya (Merchants and businessmen), Shudra (Agriculturalists and labourers). According to Rig Veda (Purushasukta) the cosmic creation of humanity from the sacrifice of Adi Purusha (eternal being) came in this order, the Brahman was born from the mouth, Kshatriya from the shoulders, Vaisya from the thighs and Shudra from the feet. However it must be born in mind that varna system was not a closed sytem, which it later became. Within each of these categories are the actual jatis, within which people are born, marry, and die. Jati derives its root from the word jan (to be born), which is partially synonymous with varna. Jati as a social classificatory unit had an independent presence other than varna. It has many meanings: descent, birth, race, family, genre, species, type, clan, state, and nation. It is more commonly used as subcastes by social scientist.  

Unlike varna system, jait calcification is by birth and a closed structural system. The varna system has been in use for more than two millennia and bound to interpretations and misinterpretations, albeit being strongly held even today. However, in the vedic Hindu system, punctuated by jati classifications, the Untouchables are the Outcastes, the avarnas, literally outside the varna system. This exclusion of avarnas are primarily due to the nature of their traditionally prescribed professions, which involved polluted things, making them polluted people and pollutants in turn. So, as mentioned earlier, caste system is a catchall term that attempts to capture the complex socio-religious stratifications and practices in the Indian subcontinent.  

The caste system has far reaching impact and consequences in Indian society, much along the lines of a sectarian identity. It not only dictates the structure of cultural values but also becomes an effective channel for the distribution of power and wealth, effectively along the caste hierarchy. This social stratification and exclusion of outcaste is ordained, pursued, and perpetuated by dominant religio-political and socio-cultural forces, often with violent consequences. According to national crime statistics, the number of caste-based crimes has increased 25 percent since 2010, reaching nearly 41,000 cases in 2016, the last year on record. It is important to note that the observance of caste practice, as a sectarian identity is enforced through religious adherence, social violence and community exclusion.


The outcastes and Dalits  


The significant aspect emerging from the discussions on the caste system is that a large section of people is left outside of the caste system and designated as ‘untouchables’. The outcastes were marginalised and pushed to the peripheries of Indian society. They were socially obligated to take up menial jobs, such as manual scavenging and burying the dead. They were also expected to clean after themselves, in order for them not to pollute anyone else. At one stage they even have to carry an earthen pot around their neck to spit, as they were not allowed spit in public places. Against this background, in the last two centuries various Self-Respect movements under leaders like Joythirao Pule and B.R. Ambedkar mobilised the outcaste communities to rename themselves as ‘Dalits’, instead of being called ‘untouchables’ or ‘harijans’. ‘Harijan’ was a term coined by Gandhi, meaning ‘children of God’ referring to the children of temple prostitutes. 

As an affirmative term ‘Dalit’, means ‘broken’, ‘split-open’ and ‘oppressed’, which captures their wretchedness of life. Significantly, it must be born in mind that Dalit, as an expression is not a caste label. Rather Dalit is a symbol of change, mobilisation and progress.  The term ‘Dalit’ is also an overarching and rallying term to represent more than 450 ‘Untouchable’ communities in India. While it may initially seem counterintuitive to appropriate such bleak terminology, it did and does continue to raise awareness and to potentially empower those living in such a repressive social system.  The distinction and classification based on caste and occupation continues even today in most aspect of Indian society. Dalits continue to be the most disadvantaged community in the country. They are backward in education, employment, social wellbeing and even the most exploited in the unorganised labour market. Dalit living conditions are synonymous with dehumanisation and degradation.  

According to the 2011 India census, the Dalit population constitutes about 16.6% of the total Indian population, i.e. 201.4 million people experience different kinds of discrimination in their life every day. Majority of Dalits make a living by working as daily labourers and landless agricultural workers in the unorganised sectors of Indian economy, resulting in extreme poverty. Further, Dalit communities are the most violated, both, physically and psychologically within the Indian society. Dalits are considered ritually impure and physically polluting in the religious realm, which has serious implications for socio-cultural relations. Dalits in general are not allowed to enter many Hindu temples, nor are they permitted to eat in or even enter the houses of the non-Dalits. 

It must be noted that caste based discrimination in India is prohibited under the constitution article 15 and 17. The official position of the constitution clearly states that there cannot be any discrimination by the state or a citizen on the grounds of caste. It goes further by abolishing caste based untouchability and even making such practice a punishable offence under the law.  The constitutional prohibition on caste based discrimination and untouchability remains, but the social practice of caste identity continues to be relevant across the country.


Spatial mapping Caste  


In the Indian society caste hierarchy does not exist only in the mind but crucially mapped on to the geographical location. Spatial representation or geographical locatedness in Indian communities has a direct impact on an individual’s conception of self-identity. This social reality is nowhere obvious than in rural villages. The spatial nature of a village in India is structured with a centre and a margin framework. The centre of a village is occupied by the so-called high caste, and the farther you move from the centre, the lower your caste status is. Those who live in the margin would be the lowest of the caste calcification. Crucially, the outcaste and untouchables will be outside this margin/periphery, literally living outside the village, due to their polluted status. People belonging to different caste groups internalise their physical location, which in turn determines their social stature and identity. 

The demarcations existing within a village define the nature and status of its inhabitants. Settlements for different caste and outcaste communities are well demarcated from each other, avoiding physical interaction between individuals and possible cross-pollution. In other words, the physical location, whether one lives in the Cherie (the Untouchable settlement, also known as the basti or colony) or in the Oor (the high Caste village, gaon), determines who that person is and what his or her status is in the village. Even within the cherie, if a person’s house is situated on a particular side of the main street, it is clear as to whether that household is Christian or Hindu; if the house happens to be near the church building or the Hindu temple it has its own understood status within that groups ranking system. 


Each Caste group is obliged to respect their prescribed boundaries and abide by the rules laid down by the local high caste community, who often turn out to be the landowners, therefore control the local economy. The very idea of the cherie represents the physical alienation, exclusion and isolation of the Untouchable communities from the hub of village life. The location of the cherie and its dependence on the Oor (village) contributes to their self-understanding. It is vital to note that spatial caste boundaries are the means through which social norms and identities are reproduced. 


Caste Sectarianism: competition, ideology and politics 


As indicated earlier caste system consolidated itself through private property in India. Although the high caste community constitutes a small percentage of the Indian population, they control the majority of the wealth and resources. Until recently it was even illegal for Dalits to own land. The caste based Indian society is sustained through inheritance of private property and privileges preserved through birth status. This social reality is evident among the rich and powerful, who are mostly from high caste communities. It had significant impact on how civil service, social organisations and the government itself were run in the country, mirroring caste-based hierarchy. In this context in order to redress the inequality experienced by the outcaste and disenfranchised communities, the government introduced reservation policy (Mandal Commission) that would benefit the socially and economically backward communities. The fact that majority of the poor and backward communities happen to be low caste communities is a reflection on how the higher caste communities disproportionally control the wealth of the country. On the other hand, the introduction of reservation policy was an open acknowledgement of the fallout of caste based discrimination and wealth making that resulted in large sections of the society pushed to the margins. It also signals the desperate need to restructure the disabilities imposed by millennia of oppression. But reservation had another interesting twist, it generated competition between different caste communities, vying for the limited resources and benefits from the government. The complicated reservation policy that ensured positive discrimination to help the underprivileged communities was restricted to Hindus. If any low caste and Dalit communities have changed their religion they are not included in this policy. Therefore, particularly Dalits from Christian and Muslim background are excluded from the benefits of reservation policies.    


Caste Sectarianism in Neo-liberal Urban India


In spite of the rapid changes overtaking Indian socio-cultural landscape, be it economic advancement or technological revolution, the role of caste in everyday life of an Indian remains largely unchanged. The pervasive and adaptable nature of caste system is such that it becomes an indispensable social template for Indians to conduct their life. Social commensality is strictly marked and controlled by caste adherence. Key life stages are governed by caste belonging, i.e marriages are always seen as affirming the caste belonging and allowing interaction between two caste groups. Modernity may have challenged its reach but caste system remains relevant for the grassroots. Observing this it could be argued that the development of modernity in India has certainly shaped how caste system functions, but crucially it has made the need to assert it more vehemently. So it is interesting to note that the discourse about caste is not about its disappearance but its resilience. 

The current veracity of caste is due to its fluid and dynamic nature as well its integral necessity in the field of socio-economic, ritual and politics in India. The possibility of social mobility accessible under caste patronage and reservation policies makes reasserting caste identities inevitable. However the harsh reality of exclusion and discrimination endured by Dalits in the organised and unorganised labour sector remains. The rapid technological advancement has only resulted in reinforcing traditional boundaries, furthering fractures and deepening fissures along caste lines. Caste has found a new role within the Neo-liberal economy. According to the 2011-12 NSSO statistics, the share of wage labourers among SCs was 63%. This is significantly higher than the values for other social groups. These figures were 44% for Other Backward Classes (OBCs), 42% for upper castes and 46% for the rest. Even among wage labourers, SCs have a much greater share of casual wage workers, which signifies higher job insecurity and poor earnings. The share of casual wage labour was 47 percent for SCs compared with one third for OBC/higher caste /rest, and all India average. In fact, of the total casual labourers in the country, about 32 percent are SC, which is double their population share of 16 percent. 

Over the years the caste mechanism has evolved in adapting to the significant social changes, accommodating political initiatives and subverting economic policies to serve its purpose. Although in the rapid urbanisation of Indian context, untouchability might seem out of place, but it has found interesting ways to manifest itself. Caste system may have had its roots in the ancient Vedic scriptures or sociological practices, but its relevance and potency in shaping contemporary socio-cultural moorings has not diminished. Instead, the Indian populace continue to find new purpose and value in identifying and utilising caste identities. The tenacity of caste system is such that, it becomes indispensable even among urban geography. 

According to 2011 census, Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes collectively form only 11.25% of the population of the six biggest cities, New Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad and Bengaluru, much below the share of SCs and STs in the country’s population at 25.6%. Hence, urban space is mostly occupied by upper caste communities. However, there are clear clustering of SC/ST population in six major cities. Caste belonging also significantly manifest in the residential areas within an urban landscape. Interestingly according recent ordinal survey’s in the six major cities in India, majority of people belonging to SC and ST do end up in clusters of dwellings that has distinct caste character. Many of the Dalit communities, who migrate from rural communities to cities, find space only in sprawling slums within the cities. These early observations suggest that there is certainly caste-based segregation taking shape in urban India.   




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Jacobsen, Knut A. (2015). Routledge handbook of contemporary India. Milton: Taylor and Francis.

Sathianathan Clarke, Dalits and Christianity, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998

Vaid, D. (2014). Caste in contemporary India: Flexibility and persistence. the Annual Review of Sociology.


Anderson Jeremiah is Lecturer in Religious Studies at Lancaster University. He holds a PhD degree from New College, the University of Edinburgh and is an ordained Anglican Priest. Anderson's research primarily centres on the study of contemporary Christianity and the socio-cultural implications of the shift of Christianity to the global south. His areas of academic expertise include Christian Theology in Asia, Postcolonial Approaches to Theology, AEconomics and Liberation Theology, Encounter between Christianity and other Religions, Inter-Faith Understanding, Religious fundamentalism and Politics, Religious Pluralism, Politics and Society in India.