May 19th, 2008

On May 16th we were fortunate to have Professor Dipankar Gupta of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) present a stimulating talk to us on the caste system in India. Caste, it is said, developed as an occupational social hierarchy. Roughly, priests were placed at the top, with rulers and warriors, farmers and traders, and servants and labors following in turn. Subsequently, caste developed into a system of oppression and exploitation based on metaphysical conceptions of heredity. Those at the bottom, “the untouchables,” are thought to be created of the basest substances, and it is thought that they should be treated as such. While caste has been a widely recognized social reality in India, the best explanatory model for the persistence of the caste system is still a contested matter. Many scholars have suggested that caste persists because those at the bottom of the caste system subjugate themselves, or, at least, play a part in their own subjugation. Prof. Gupta rejects this claim, insisting that no one in his extensive subject pool of untouchable Indians reports that he or she belongs to the lowest caste; none of them truly believes that their bones and flesh are created of the basest of materials. Rather, people of the lower castes attribute their position to (a) a past usurpation or (b) a fall from grace. Gupta argues that the hierarchy of caste is a social construction that has been reshuffled at various points in history. The Brahmins (i.e., priests) were not always on top; they fought/maneuvered their way to the top. Developing his position further, Gupta argues that, while the sanctioned institutions and policies of the caste system are only precariously alive, caste is “alive and kicking” as group identity. It is a sad fact that large numbers of modern-day Indians tend to choose their peers and spouses along caste lines.

It is important to note that Gupta wishes to move past caste and caste distinctions. Yet, he offers no “silver bullets.” This is a complex and deeply-ingrained problem that is not likely to go away quickly or easily. It will take time, careful thinking, and human effort.