Understanding Caste and Class - Categories and Measurement
Geography and You|Issue 142 - 143, 2020
The caste has been a unique social institution in India. It has also emerged in a new form after the mandalisation of caste in the early 1990s resulting in the extension of reservation to Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in government jobs and also in admissions to colleges and universities. The relative size of population of various caste groups particularly of the OBCs is also a matter of debate. Census does not provide population data on OBCs, however, it is possible to assess it from nationally representative sample surveys. Further, the correspondence between caste categories and class has been a matter of debate. This paper presents an assessment of class within caste categories based on data from nationally representative sample surveys.
R B Bhagat
It is possible to assess the population size of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) from sources like National Family Health Survey (NFHS) and National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), as the Census does not provide such figures. Further, the correspondence between caste categories and class has been a matter of debate and this paper attempts to present an assessment of class within caste categories based on nationally representative sample surveys.

Caste Categories

There are numerous castes in India. G S Ghurye mentions that in “…each linguistic area there was about two hundred groups called castes with distinct names, birth in one of which, usually, determined the status in society of a given individual, which were divided into about two thousand smaller units—generally known as sub-castes fixing the limits of marriage and effective social life and making for specific cultural tradition” (Ghurye 1992). Caste is thus an endogamous group where status of an individual related to the group is determined by his or her birth. The fourfold classification of varna namely Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishyas and Shudras provided the traditional way of grouping the castes in terms of hierarchy with Brahmins at the top and Shudras at the bottom. One may also note that a large number of distinct castes may not be neatly accommodated in the four-fold varna scheme. Further, in the event of the mobility of the castes having acquired economic and political power makes the varna system irrelevant in the contemporary times (Srinivas 1992). K L Sharma also believes that there is no unilinear hierarchy of caste; in fact, today, multiple hierarchies characterise the Indian society (Sharma 2001). Castes are ‘discrete categories’, because they are no more related to each other organically, nor are they segmented entities. Although caste system may have lost its relevance in the contemporary times caste as an ethnic and identity group continues to persist even today.

In this sense, developing a classificatory scheme for castes is extremely problematic in the present times. However, if we combine the ritual and functional status, not in hierarchical sense, a scheme of classification, as presented in figure 1, could lend some meaningful insights.

The above classification of caste categories is neither followed for political and economic purposes nor is data available for these categories. In the past, various castes have been regrouped and classified by the Indian state more or less based on the traditional varna system. For example, in 1881 census, the Census Commissioner, W C Plowden decided to group the various castes into the five categories namely—Brahmans, Rajputs, Castes of Good Social Position, Inferior Castes and Non-Hindus or Aboriginal Castes (Cohn 1987). The 1921 census attempted to identify the depressed classes. However, the term of depressed classes did not find favour in 1931 census, and was replaced by a category called the exterior castes (Hutton 1933). In any case, it is important to note that such categorisations in the census was followed by the Scheduled Caste Order of 1936 that officially recognised the listing of castes in every province of India (Bandyopadhyay 1997). After Independence, with reference to the provisions of the Constitution two categories of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes were created followed by the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in order to extend the state benefits to them. Most of the OBCs are believed to be located in the middle and lower hierarchy of the caste system. Thus, we have the following categories of castes created through constitutional means

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