Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Why caste still matters in India

INDIA’S general election will take place before May. The front-runner to be the next prime minister is Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party, currently chief minister of Gujarat. A former tea-seller, he has previously attacked leaders of the ruling Congress party as elitist, corrupt and out of touch. Now he is emphasising his humble caste origins. In a speech in January he said “high caste” Congress leaders were scared of taking on a rival from “a backward caste”. If Mr Modi does win, he would be the first prime minister drawn from the “other backward classes”, or OBC, group. He is not the only politician to see electoral advantage in bringing up the subject: caste still matters enormously to most Indians.

The country’s great, liberal constitution was supposed to end the millennia-old obsession with the idea that your place in life, including your occupation, is set at birth. It abolished “untouchability”—the practice whereby others in society exclude so-called untouchables, or Dalits, as polluting—which has now mostly disappeared from Indian society. Various laws forbid discrimination by caste. At the same time (it is somewhat contradictory) official schemes push “positive” discrimination by caste, reserving quotas of places in higher education, plus jobs in government, to help groups deemed backward or deprived. In turn, some politicians have excelled at appealing to voters by caste, promising them ever more goodies. For example Mayawati, formerly chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state (population: over 200m) and just possibly a future prime minister, leads a Dalit party. In another northern state, Bihar, parties jostle to build coalitions of caste groups. Everywhere voters can be swayed by the caste of candidates.

But don’t blame politicians alone. Strong social actors—such as leaders of “khap panchayats” (all-male, unelected village councils) or doughty family elders—do much more to keep caste-identity going. Consider marriages. In rural areas it can be fatal to disregard social rules and marry someone of a different, especially if lower caste. Haryana, a socially conservative state in north India, is notorious for frequent murders of young men and women who transgress. Even in town, caste is an important criterion when marriages are arranged. Look at matrimonial ads in any newspaper, or try registering for a dating site, and intricate details on caste and sub-caste are explicitly listed and sought (“Brahmin seeks Brahmin”, “Mahar looking for Mahar”) along with those on religion, education, qualifications, earning power and looks. Studies of such sites suggest that only a quarter of participants state that “caste is no bar”. Such attitudes also reflect the anxieties of parents, who are keen for children to marry within the same group, because marriages bring extended families intimately together.

As long as marriages are mostly within the same caste, therefore, don’t expect any law or public effort to wipe away the persistent obsession with it. That seems set to continue for a long time: a survey in 2005 found that only 11% of women in India had married outside their caste, for example. What is changing for the better, if too slowly, is the importance of caste in determining what jobs, wealth, education and other opportunities are available to an average person. No caste exists for a call-centre worker, computer programmer or English teacher, for example. The more of those jobs that are created, and the more people escape India’s repressive villages, the quicker progress can come. ‘The Economist’

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