Medieval India witnessed the drastic change in Indian social order. Hereditary, closed social regrouping based on the professions became inevitable for the want of the survival. Onslaughts of the ever-changing socio-political conditions did continue till the rise of the British Raj. Entire populace suffered because of the raids of the warlords, may it be Hindu or Muslim, and freebooters in quest of recovering ransoms or ¼ part of the duties from the common people, if not paid by the local rulers. India saw most of the cities and villages fortified during this era to protect themselves from the constant raids. No part of the country experienced stability in post-Aurangzeb era, too. This further triggered financial debacles and thus caused, as an inevitable result, tightening of the caste ties as caste became an only shield that provided a sense of security while facing the tough situations in the times of anarchy.
Also the relations between the different castes were reconsolidated, hierarchy was redefined and strictly practiced. Even the strict rules about sharing food and drinks with other castes too came in the force. Society already had become mostly endogamous and child marriage had become a regular custom. In the times of continuous crisis, many social evils pop up. People become more orthodox and destiny-centric. This era saw the uprising of Vedic religion in the new form, taking reign of religious authority over Hindu’s in their hands, propagating Vedic doctrine in more corrupt form. In lack of the stability and in the quest of the survival people kept on contracting in the cocoon of the self-created defenses. This led to total disharmony and strife among the various castes.
We find many such caste dispute cases viciously fought in the Peshva and other rulers courts. It was a weak attempt to restore the sense of the lost dignity through maintaining minimal social and even religious rights those could be afforded by the system to restore or maintain the dignity. This way mentality of the people of all the castes became caste-centered, breaking the inherent sense of unity forever.
In short, during this period caste became a distinct group with own assigned status and internal code of the conduct and values. For livelihood, they had nothing else than the hereditary professions, though uncertain and mostly unable to feed them properly. For mental solace, they had some or other religious cult to follow. For the sense of security, they nourished their caste pride and caste unity.
The British had set their foot on the Indian soil to make profits through the trade. Most of the Indian natural resources had remained unexploited for a long period because of the socio-economic and political reasons. Indian economics already had become directionless and social situation chaotic.
The British were always fascinated as well intrigued with the Indian social system that they never had come across in other countries they ruled or traded with. The British scholars, especially ethnologists, perception about the caste system was marred by their class and race theories and they tried to connect the both, which ultimately led to the wrong policies that further severely harmed the overall social system.
“One of the main tools used in the British attempt to understand the Indian population was the census. Attempts were made as early as the beginning of the 19th century to estimate populations in various regions of the country but these, as earlier noted, were methodologically flawed and led to grossly erroneous conclusions. It was not until 1872 that a planned comprehensive census was attempted. This was done under the direction of Henry Beverely, Inspector General of Registration in Bengal. The primary purpose given for the taking of the census, that of governmental preparedness to deal with disaster situations, was both laudable and logical. However, the census went well beyond counting heads or even enquiring into sex ratios or general living conditions. Among the many questions were enquiries regarding nationality, race, tribe, religion and caste.” States Kevin Hobson in “Ethnographic Mapping and the Construction of the British Census in India.”
It was an attempt of the British to understand the people they were ruling on, however, it made a further division in the Indian society on the racial (ethnic) basis. It was a blunder, but most of the ethnologists prepared their surveys based on head measurements, classifying them in 6 different categories. The purity of Aryan blood, they thought, was preserved by the Brahmins of North India. This elevated the Brahmanical racial ego. Many castes too jumped ahead to prove or claim how they belonged to the Aryan race or higher social status in Vedic order to add to the social strife.
Since all the castes were classified in some or other racial or ethnic group, the caste stratification in a way became permanent. The intellectual abilities too were defined on this wrong hypothesis of ethnology. Purity of the blood was never ever was the foundation of the caste system, but gradually it too became a source of pride that helped elite classes to feel close to the ruling Britishers as they too were Aryan. To them, as Aryan Invasion Theory reached to the height of the popularity, non-elite masses were the one to whom they had enslaved in the ancient past. This was racial divide over religious and caste divide that gave a new dimension to the caste struggle.
The little bit mobility that previous system afforded thus got completely vanished. The British further classified the castes, useful for administration, army, petty services and the troublesome castes or tribes those possibly could rebel. Many such castes and tribes were declared criminal, treating them inhumanly and isolating them by imposing many sever restrictions on their lives.
This was another churning in the society. It again redefined the socio-political status’ of various castes. It forced many castes to change their internal rules while fundamentally transforming their previous status’. While these happenings were reshaping their mindsets, what was their temporal condition?
Wake of industrialization era did further damage to the local economy whatever of it was left. Britishers saw India as a supplier of the raw material and consumer of the finished goods, produced back home in their factories. India never ever was in a situation to learn from the West the modern technologies and deploy them for their own benefit. The traditional technologies by then had become mostly outdated. Many people shifted to the cities to work in factories as laborers. Many turned to the work hard for Railway tracks and other infrastructure work. Indian occupational businesses like weaving had suffered from the cheap textile imports. India became a mere exporter of raw materials. The export kept growing from 89 million dollars (1850) to 1178 million dollars by 1950 while export of the finished product was as good as nil.
British avoided to modernize traditional occupations with new technologies and management sciences. The education that they provided was to create the clerical workforce, not technical. “Even in the Bombay textile industry, where most of the capital was Indian, 28 per cent of the managerial and supervisory staff were British in 1925 (42 per cent in 1895) and the British component was even bigger in more complex industries.” States Angus Maddison in his “The Economic and Social Impact of Colonial Rule in India”.
This way Indian workforce never achieved an ability to learn the new technologies to compete and increase productivity. The independent village system thus could not get broken to give way to the people spread the wings in the modern atmosphere. Local economic conditions were further deteriorated with the shrinking, even local, market places. British never preferred to create industrial plants or development banks. They even never gave any preference to the local industries while allotting the contracts.
Though some social reforms were introduced by British law and indigenous social activists tried their best to eradicate caste system, the root cause, poverty, remained intact or rather worsened. The basic principles of the economics and its impact on the social order remained totally neglected even by the social reformers. Hence, it became almost impossible to break the caste ties in the new age too, as it did not reach to them. Social reformers never gave preference to promote technical education amongst Indian populace. By the time of independence large scale industries could employ less than 3% of the population whereas about 1.2 crore population was engaged in traditional occupational small scale industries and 16 crore people were only labors. Rest of the population sustained somehow on the agriculture.
The British prejudicial preferences towards the castes, their census’, choicy classifications did so much so harm to the caste system that even in the modern era, people remained stuck with the caste barriers. The people engaged in government jobs were from the so-called upper caste or risen to the upper caste who changed their tastes suitable to the British culture. But the populace that was far away from the main stream of the economy suffered heavily from the negligence as they never got encouragement to promote their products among the new elite class. This caused further divide in the society. At one hand the Indian finances were siphoned out abroad, making poor the poorer, making new investments impossible.
This was, in a way third setback to the Indian communities. They could not break the caste ties because they never got any economically liberal atmosphere since 11th century. The grave competition among themselves grew to the level that added to the caste base hatred. Even after independence the situation largely remained the same with no major economic reforms. It never occurred to the socialist mindsets that without economic reforms there hardly is any scope to the social reforms. The previous chapters on the caste system have shown in detail, how, from a very flexible occupational system gradually turned to the rigid and unjust caste system because of the drastic changes in the economic order of the country.
We also will see other aspects of the caste system in detail so that the myth of the birth-based caste may shatter and help us to solve the caste problem.