I just came across this interesting blog post on the Harvard International Review. The writer, Jason Lakin, discusses some recent caste uprisings in New Delhi. It appears that a caste called the Gujjars has been squatting on the New Delhi-Mumbai railway, disrupting train services, to bring attention to their cause. A serious irony comes into play when we look into what the Gujjars want. Lakin writes:
The Gujjars are classified as “backwards,” or what are poetically known as OBCs (“other backward castes”). This doesn’t give them as many job opportunities as being classified as “scheduled tribes” (ST) would, so they have been demanding a reclassification. Curiously, the Gujjars are actually demanding that they move down the traditional caste hierarchy in order to be able to access better opportunities. Other low caste groups don’t want their categories to get too crowded, so they have resisted. The state government doesn’t like the idea of having to provide benefits to a group that never had them, so they have resisted. The result has been bloody conflict in the streets.
The caste system is an incredibly complex vast social network of kinships and identities based on employment. I lived with a very low caste called the Jagas in a village in Rajasthan for a month. I am not sure if they were classified OBC or ST. The villagers would ask me what caste I am. I would usually say that we do not have caste in America, but we have something called class, which is not that much different. As I traveled around with one of the Jaga members, we would meet other Jagas and they would open their home to us. I realized that the caste acts as a support system for their members all over that local area. Towards the end of my time there I would tell Jagas that I was also a Jaga and they loved it.
Lakin ends his post by stating that:
India is a fast-changing economy and society, but the salience of caste has not necessarily decreased in recent years. In some ways and in some places, it seems to have actually increased. This is in part because of the overaweing presence of the state in India today, even after liberalization. It is in part because economic growth does not necessarily lead to the elimination of traditional identities, as modernization theory predicted, or as the conventional wisdom suggests. While Delhi itself may not be the most caste-centric place in India, peripheral caste-based conflict can easily permeate city limits, as it did last week, reminding the country’s elite that “modern” India is not suddenly unmoored from the past.
The United States has recently begun to eye India as a key strategic partner and a counter-weight to China. If India and the United States are going to work together, both countries need to understand something about the domestic political pressures facing elites when they sit down to bargain internationally. Most Americans don’t have a clue how the caste system works in India. It’s not too late to start reading up.
Lakin has good insights. His statement that economic growth does not eliminate traditional identities is interesting. However, I have a feeling that these castes have experienced very little of the economic growth in India. I still see enormous inequalities in India and a huge percentage of the population is still incredibly poor. Something that just occurred to me is the comparison of the caste to the labor union. There might be something to this.