Social life in India is marked by subordination of individual to the group. This is not to say that Indian society knows ‘anything of individuals’ but the claims of group often prevail of claim of an individual . Family, being a universal social group, is a good candidate for comparison and contrast. An Indian family makes its claims most vigorously at the time when education and marriage of children are being arranged. Such claims legitimize themselves by a value-system based on customs. Customs justify themselves by asserting their antiquity over anything else. If a group makes its claim on individual and expect from him a moral obligation to be loyal to it, then in return it offers patronage and a sense of security. Majority of Indians who feel safe and secure only in some ‘group’ or extended kinship develop a deep urge to be identified with a group : Jats, Brahmins, Tamils, Gujrati, IITians, IIMians etc. I do not wish to comment on identities based on language or religion for they are universal but I wish to point out those groups which are unique to South Asia namely Caste and its modern avatars.
It has been pointed out that intelligentsia tends to neglect social customs and ‘habits of heart’ which students of societies are obsessed with. We find these ‘habit of hearts’ and social customs most important and defining feature of a society. I was struck by more by similarities than differences between rural and urban India. Coming from a rural Western Uttar Pradesh where people are segregated according to their castes in villages, it was surprising to see that people are segregated according to ‘class’ ; in cities government has its own HIG, MIG and LIG residential areas where people are segregated according to their class. In villages, a high value is placed over areas where high-caste people in live. In my first encounter with city people, my classmates put similar values on ‘posh-areas’. They can be seen enquiring about such areas whenever they visit another city. It would not be a great exaggeration to suggest that educated and uneducated Indians do not differ from each other in very fundamental way. Nonetheless, educated Indians tends to be self-consciously virtuous to an unusual degree. They are much more successful at hiding those customs and habits which they have come to regard as backward, feudal or embarrassing.
Caste is an institute which still governs life of Indians, educated and uneducated alike. This is not to say that changes have not occurred in Indian society. Indians, who live in villages and towns, are realistic and vocal about castes. They don’t feel any embarrassment talking about about it. But ‘educated’ Indians in cities and towns suffer from a certain kind of myopia about their own society. They are very sensitive to the question of caste. Any conversation on caste with them will reveal a some amount of embarrassment and a great deal of ignorance. Any debate on caste, unlike most of the debates in India, generates less heat but it lends itself very easily to polemic.
Most Indians, among whom I roam, consider caste an unmixed evil and wish it out of existence. I am not suggesting that it is a good thing. Most of them like to think that caste does not exists in their society or at least their personal affairs are not governed by it. When prodded somewhat, they would concede that it still exists in many if not most part of India but they themselves have nothing to do with it. These days they are more explicit about these feelings and many of them subscribe to two-nation theory : everything embarrassing and backward belong to Bharat; anything modern and forward looking belongs to India of whose they are the torch-bearer. When pointed out that inter-caste marriages in their own ‘Indian societies’ are still very rare (though increasing), they can not explain it in a straight-forward way. Also their friend circle rarely have people from different categories. It is all too natural for a human being to sweep under the carpet those customs which embarrasses him and not speak of it. Moreover if tormented long enough about caste, they might even accuse one of having a morbid or obscurantist temperament, if not a medieval mentality.
No student of Indian society can avoid the question of caste. It was and still is of fundamental value which governs Indian society. Caste provides many clues which enables us to understand Indian society in better ways. It is not just an organization which ranks people high and low, it is also a system of values which gives a ideological justification for prevent hierarchies. Indian intellectuals have had a mixed record in predicting the role of caste and analyzing its nature . Marxists denied caste its place in Indian society and they denied it categorically that caste plays any important role in Indian society. For them class was of utmost importance and caste was mere a byproduct of class-struggle. On the other hand, many free-wheeling intellectuals these days like to assert that Indian preoccupation with caste has seen little or no change .
It is not the existence of caste but its longevity which has surprised many social anthropologists. Caste is perhaps the most ingenious social invention ever devised by man to keep social hierarchy in place. For this reason (and novelty attached to it), it has been studied by anthropologists world over and a large body of comparative literature has been produced. Various definitions and theories about its origin and evolution have been proposed and debated. If one can find his way out of this vast literature on caste, it can improve our understanding of our society. Max Weber thought that it was the ‘concern for status’ which was at the center of the obsession with the caste. For him, caste was a status group. Late Prof. Louis Dumont, who was the leading European authority on kinship, found root of caste in religion (‘Holism’ as he called it) and he criticized Weber for attaching caste with status too much. Also, a racial theory has been proposed that caste was a product of two groups – immigrants and natives – coming in close encounter with each other. The immigrants Aryans tried to protect the purity of their blood by intermarriage (notice the voluntarism) , therefore endogamous closed groups. These groups were called castes. This theory has a great appeal to modern mentality but it does not explain the longevity of caste.
What is important to us here is not the definitions and their comparisons but how caste is perceived by common folks. It has been said that caste initially meant ‘division of labour’ and I can not say how many Indians like to see it that way. In many of theories proposed by apologetic Indians about the nature of caste, acceptance of it is believed to be voluntary : that people accepted their inferior status by choice and it was not forced by laws or ideologies, religious or secular. It sounds strange to me, though not wholly unconvincing, that that indeed was the case. For I do not know any large civilization like ours in which a large section of people accepted a ‘inferior brand’ by choice without showing any sign of discomfort.
Another view of caste (rather a definition of it) was proposed by Ms. Irawati Karve. Mrs. Karve classified Indian society as made up of ‘real groups’. These groups which entered the system at a given time was recognizable by its customs and the physical characteristics of its members. Perhaps this is not how our ancestors saw castes but this is closer to how we see them. Our ancestors build a theory based on purity and pollution to justify the caste based on hierarchy. Brahmins were the proponent of this theory and they thought of themselves the purest one. They took great care not to pollute themselves by coming in the touch with polluting castes. Not only certain groups were polluting, there were works which were considered ritually defiling and to engage in those works were to loose one’s caste which was equivalent to civil death. Much of the Indian contempt toward manual work has its root in it.
There were elaborated rules on exchange of ‘roti and beti’ (food and daughter). One can take daughter of a lower-caste family in marriage but can not give one to them; and one can give food to the lower castes but could not accept it from them. These practices were very elaborate and widespread in the past. Practice of unaccountability is not as severe these days even in villages where it has been replaced by atrocities against dalits to some extent. However, practices related to marriage have not changed much, especially when one arranges marriage of his daughters. In matters related to marriages, the obsession with purity ran really deep. The upper middle class section of society which saw themselves as socially-forward those days used to marry their daughters before the onset of puberty (in a state of being pure) and those who delayed the marriage of their daughters beyond puberty invited a great deal of castigation and reprimand. Those who consider themselves socially-forward these days do just the opposite. Interestingly, the age of marriage of girls was one of criteria which Mandal commission used to describe social backwardness. How can one say nothing has changed in this country when something which was morally-backward to our grandmothers and mothers has become a symbol of social forwardness to our sisters and daughters?
My intention in this post to find similarities between castes and certain groups or rather ‘brands’ (as they are often called) with which some people in this country voluntarily attach to themselves. And I wish to put one of such brands called IITian under sociological enquiry. Other similar brands are students of IIM, Indian Administrative Service, and officers in armed forces. I’ll restrict myself to IITian for I have been living among them for many years now.
When I joined IIT Bombay in 2007 for post-graduation studies, at the time of orientation enough hints were given by Head of the Department those days that he considers UGs superior to PGs. These beliefs may not be acknowledged by all professors but those who took their undergraduate degrees from IITs are most likely to have one. For when they proudly claim to be IITians, they are not claiming to be a heir of some intellectual tradition. They simply don’t have one. They want to assert something which is widely acknowledged : the superiority attach to this symbol called IITian. If there is no superiority attached to a symbol, a upwardly socially mobile Indian would not be fascinated by it. It was amusing to be introduced to hierarchy on the campus on the very first day by HOD (He took his B.Tech. from this IIT) which was known to us anyway. Those days I saw IITias more of a faction than a ‘brand’. It is a form of pseudo-kinship which Indian usually make wherever they go. The reason is perhaps more psychological than social. An Indian finds very hard to be himself and he loves to be surrounded by ‘his’ people : a sort of pseudo family. He feel safe and secure only among his kinsmen. They have a kinship based on the name of the institutes for given their size they could no longer find enough people belonging to any other shared identity. As the size of IIT Bombay is increasing, so is the numbers of other ‘real groups’ : Bengali, Marathi, Malayalam and other such groups are easily noticeable and are actively promoting themselves though they have not yet taken the center stage as they do in many other universities. The shared identity called IITian trumps them all.
It was a logo on their t-shirt which caught my attention. if I remember correctly it claimed that they are ‘branded for life’. More I thought about it, more I became obsessed with the idea that it may be some form of a caste. For caste also brands an individual for life. The brand called ‘IITian’ is different from brand like ‘engineer’. This is a subscription-based brand for one has to do some engineering to keep his subscription active. On the other hand, the brand IITian like a caste, does not depend on subscription. Even if they don’t do any engineering or technological work, they can still wear it proudly. Like Brahmins who do not study classical text or Chamars who do not do any leather-work anymore are still seen as Brahmins and Chamars.
Who belongs to this caste/brand? The undergraduate students of Indian Institute of Technology definitely do. And many postgraduates would love to have it, at least outside the campus where the value of such a tag is widely acknowledged. This process where a inferior caste mimics the social customs of superior caste to gain a high social status was called ‘Sanskritization’ by M. N. Srinivas [ Sankritization, Srinivas in ‘Social change in modern India’] . Various castes indeed changed their status from ST to OBC to other general categories. Many of them have successfully reverted back after quotas in jobs and educational institute were offered. Fully Sanskritized castes were in the processes of what is called by Srninivas ‘Westernization’. Both Sankritization and Westerisation are complex phenomenon and can be observed almost every section of Indian society. In our case, the UG are in the process of Westernisation (already Sanskraitzed) by chasing respective social symbols : foreign degrees and internships. The post-graduates are also actively engaged in the process of Westernisation but they are in the process of Sanskritization too; by mimicking the customs of U.G. When I joined in 2007, there was no social-custom of ‘profile reading’ among post-graduates (the tone and language used by them is comparatively extremely civilized). It has now become commonplace among them too. Therefore, it is safe to say that not only superiority of UG is asserted, it is also widely acknowledged if only implicitly.
Unlike castes, access to this brand is fixed not by birth but to success in a competitive examination called Joint Entrance Examination (JEE). Much they like to separate birth with merit, it is a known fact, to the discomfort to egalitarian world over, that merit if not intelligence and birth are closely related. Access to post-graduation in IITs is fixed by another competitive examination called Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE). These examinations tests abilities of menial mental manipulation but they are valued highly especially by those who fails in them. There is some confusion if post-graduate students can also claim this brand. My experience tells me that the undergraduates in IITs are at best half-hearted about sharing their ‘brand’ with post-graduates. The reason for it : a trait of caste named exclusivity. One professor in my department revealed something deeply psychological : the dual degree do not write M. Tech. on their resume, they write senior undergraduate (or something like that if my memory serves me wrong).
The ‘JEE crackers’, as they like to call themselves, consider themselves superior to ‘GATE crackers’ because of the fact that almost all those who writes GATE must have written JEE in their school days. This is largely true for cities and towns. Anyone who thinks of himself ‘smart enough’ and have access to at least a middle class family writes this examination. So if they were really as ‘intelligent’ or ‘smart’, this theory suggests, they could have been successful in JEE in the first place. Therefore they are inferior. This belief is so widespread that it is never questioned for one can ask if ‘intelligence’ is an innate quality and does not depend of mental exercises done daily than why so many of ‘JEE crackers’ can only go through in more than one attempts. What one can make out of the intelligence of those who failed in first attempt and got a really impressive score in the second or third attempt? I wonder if they ever told themselves that they are as intelligence now as they were before cracking any examination. Besides the claim of having a superior intellect is at best phony for it is coming from a group which is yet to produce their equivalent of Bose, Raman and Saha.
This modern Indian obsession with merit can be compared with the ancient Hindu obsession with purity. Both purity and intelligence are hard to define but none of it diminish their respective obsession. The Brahmins may not have produced a definite commentary on what purity really is — consistency and universality were never issues on which they lost any sleep — but they elaborated in great details many customs and practises by which purity can be violated. The modern times have similar attitude toward merit (which is confused with intellect). Like purity in our medieval or ancient order, merit is of supreme value to all competitive industrial society and it is natural that they love to measure it. There is still some doubt about the nature of merit and intelligence but as one American social scientist has put it, ‘Intelligence, like electricity, is easy to measure than to define’. So these societies with America leading the way go on measuring intelligence with vengeance.
‘Branded for life’ is minimum any caste promises. Granted that one’s place in IITs is not fixed by birth as it is with the caste. But the idea here is not to find a logical equivalent but to highlight many similarities. Being born in a particular type of family makes it easier to get access to these brands. One still needs to do some work and requires some luck but what about those whose life chances are severely restricted because they were born in the wrong type of family by the accident of birth? Just for the sake of argument, I would like to classify caste IITian as a twice-born or ‘dwijha’ castes. You are born in a middle class family which has enough material and intellectual capital. Such families want to secure the best possible education for their offspring. The first birth is this caste is when one is an ‘inspiring IITian’ and there are so many of them. The second birth in this caste happens when one cracks JEE after a year or two (or perhaps more) training in a coaching center : a sort of a ‘yagopaveet sanskar’. In middle class families, children are not only groomed from a very early age to join such elite-clubs they are also taught to value the status attached with it. And they must feel really fascinated by these brands which in due time become a part of their identity. Weather or not they do justice to the name of the institute they are so fascinated with, they take these identities to their graveyard with them. Any attack on this identity are not taken lightly.
It is then natural that they feel a need to preserve the value of their brand (purity of their caste). The reactions toward opening up more IITs among IITians consolidated my belief. They were concerned that opening up new IITs in otherwise mediocre educational system would devalue the brand IIT. It does not follow that IIT Gandhinagar will devalue IIT Bombay. And they were not concerned with IIT Bombay as such anyway. There concern is with the ‘brand/caste’ IITian. They are perhaps interested in the well-being of their institute and its reputation but they are also very interested in preserving their brand. There must not be a large numbers of IITians (even if all of them are undergraduates) else the exclusivity (purity of caste) will be compromised. Many of them do not like sharing it with post-graduates and suggests that IIT should be UG only. What sort of professor would like to teach in a college where he would spend his time only with UGs and with no research students, whether of not they have ‘sharp antennas’?
The obsession with hierarchy is fundamental to caste. The hierarchy does not lead itself automatically to authority. My right hand is superior to my left hand without having any authority over it. The outcome of hierarchy is the feeling of superiority and inferiority. It is not to say that these feelings are bad one. If there are no such feelings, no profession and individual will grow. But these feelings in our society are usually group based. No institute can function if it does not discriminate among individuals as superior or inferior for a certain kind of job. I find it irritating, to put is mildly, when I see obsession with groups based discrimination.
On Indian universities, departments are ranked superior or inferior according to a well established model of hierarchy. EE and CSE are superior to other departments for reason too obvious to all of us. It is a feature of a society which ‘hierarchicise’ everything : people and places, gods, festivals are heirachicised but also intellectual disciplines according to some of the most pettiest reasons. One can classify students on IIT Bombay campuses when one is inclined to classify according to a caste as following : B. Tech and D. D. are General Castes, M. Tech. are Other Backward Caste (OBC), and Ph.D. are Untouchables. And to stay here to pursue another degree is equivalent of loosing one’s caste for an inferior one. Who has heard of many Indian loosing their caste (even metaphorically) to some inferior one in a right state of mind?
The hierarchy of department is well established according to ranks of students joins them and remains fairly constant for every year a fixed section of merit lists which goes to certain department. The counseling for admission is farce and it is there because a modern university must have one. No student is really interested at the time of joining in knowing what he wants to do in his life for he is not raised this way : he is greatly stimulated and rarely inspired. And once he got the symbols he was fascinated with, his stimulation wears off. There is simply no pressure on him to excel anymore when his kinsmen do not put a premium on it. Parents impose their will on their children without any sense of guilt or concern for their status depends on the status of their children. This is natural in a society where individual do not have it place under the sun. Getting into jobs which does not do justice with their current status causes them a great agony. The status is not only attached to jobs but also to internships at certain places and to extra-curricular activities of certain type.
Among the highest Varna (The UGs), there are sub-castes. When there is no PG to compare their penises with, they turn to these sub-castes for comparison. They compare according to JEE Rank which correlate well with their department. Not only there are sub-castes according to departments, another ‘varna’ has come into being. This one is based on the type of JEE one has cracked. Old time IITians love to compare themselves on the nature of JEE. Their’s was superior to what these days IITians are cracking (A, B, C, D kind). They take pride in telling them and others that they have gone through much rigorous subjective examination than objective-questions based examination these days. Much has been said about the nature of questions. It is a pity that too little has been said if the new JEE or GATE has lost their discriminatory powers. It is very important for an institute to make sure that its examinations discriminate effectively among its residents : students (not only those who are inspiring to join but also those who have joined them) and staff alike. Some concerns was raised about the nature of questions asked in examinations is valid for no one can deny the falling level of sophistication of problems. The root-cause for continuing with objective-examination lies somewhere else. It is not entirely due to easy management of objective examination which has promoted A,B,C,D kind of examination. Objective examinations are, above everything else, least prone to invite the accusation of unfair evaluations. And it is very important in a society where anyone can accuse anyone out of habit.
The longevity of caste teaches us two things : the obsession with value system which justify hierarchy and promotes the concern for status as value. Where there is a hierarchy which is rarely questioned and widely recognized as a natural scheme of thing, one will find a great deal of similarity in it with classical caste system. Caste system in the past legitimize its hierarchy by the idea of pollution and purity. The ‘branded for life thingy’ discussed here as caste legitimize its hierarchy by the theory of merit and intelligence.
The early description of castes assumes its root in rituals and both Indians and Western student agreed on it. This belief is now on a shaky ground. For who can deny the irreversible decline in the ritualistic aspect of caste? But this decline did not result in similar decline in caste system. It is important to think of secular aspects of caste system which has not declined with time.
NOTE : Old version of this article was posted here. First 3 comments on this article was on
this version. I am not deleting these comments for their historical value.