A caste is a social category whose members are assigned a permanent status within a given social hierarchy and whose contacts are restricted accordingly.
It is the most rigid and clearly graded type of social stratification. It has also often been referred to as the extreme form of closed class system.
Sharply contrasted with the caste system, the open class system ran be placed at the opposite end of a continuum. A social class has been defined as an abstract category of persons arranged in levels according to the social status they possess. There are no firm lines dividing one category from another.
A social class consists of a number of individuals who share similar status often ascribed at birth but capable of being altered. Class, therefore, does not consist of organised closed groups defined by law or religion as does caste, nor are the various strata in the system as rigid and easily identifiable.
The following table summarizes a comparison between the class and caste system of society.
Both caste and class symbolize two types of stratifications of rural society.
There are two approaches:
Marxists analyse stratification of rural India in terms of modes of production and relations of production. Marxists say that there are many variables but the most important variable is the mode of production. Non-Marxists or Weberians feel that stratification takes place because of three variables.
1. Wealth is defined as ability to produce or inherit properties.
2. Prestige refers to honour and style of life.
3. Power means the ability to control over others.
When all these three things are considered, the individuals are accordingly categorized.
The stratification system Involve any quality which means a group of persons may get more power/prestige/wealth or all the three in combination. Many studies have been conducted on the basis of Marxist analysis.
They have given emphasis on:
(i) Ownership of land
(ii) Types of peasants (i.e. landowners, petty landholders, landless labours)
(iii) Types of technology which is used at the time of production,
(iv) Labour class.
(v) Amount of surplus at the time of production.
Supporters of Non-Marxist approach consider class, status and power as the basis of social stratification of rural India.
Andre Beteille has conducted a study on caste, class and power. K.L Sharma has conducted a study on changing rural stratification system.
In rural India, people are generally identified according to their caste. In South India, village is given priority in identifying a person.
Iravati Karve observed that an Indian is identified mainly through three variables/areas:
In Indian village, northern or southern, caste has a very important role in giving identification to the individual.
Y. Singh analyses caste from two perspectives:
(i) Caste as a cultural phenomenon.
(ii) Caste as a structural phenomenon.
Caste as a Cultural Phenomenon:
Caste is associated with an autonomous form of cultural system or world view.
The basis of cultural system is:
(a) Institutionalized inequality.
(b) Closed social mobility.
(c) Simple Division of Labour (assignment of occupation).
(d) Ritualistic reciprocity (dependence on other caste categories for some rituals or customs).
(e) Importance of purity and pollution.
Caste as a Structural Phenomenon:
The structural aspect of caste is stressed by functionalists who express structural and functional analysis of the caste system.
The basis of structural analysis is:
(a) A system of social organisation.
(b) An institutionalized system of Interaction among hierarchically ranked hereditary group. This type of Interaction is expressed in the area of marriage/occupation/ economic division of labour/enforcement of cultural norms and values by caste bodies/performance of rituals based on principles of purity and pollution.
The structural properties of caste like endogamy, caste, occupation and hierarchy have a direct linkage with social stratification. The cultural aspects, on the other hand, are value loaded. While analysing rural stratification, it is observed that it has some specific features like co-operation among caste groups, following rules of endogamy and exogamy, occupational inter-dependency, caste association etc.
Ghanshyam Saha has conducted a study on caste sentiments, class formation and dominance in Gujarat and found that caste plays an important role In the field of politics, particularly at the time of voting during elections. Bihar has also similar experiences. It is confirmed from different studies that the village community is going to be divided into high caste and low caste due to reservation policy.
M.N. Srinivas has analysed the new form of Caste as the “20th Century Avatar.”
In relation to class and caste, there are two schools of thought:
(i) Caste is breaking down and class is taking its place.
(ii) Caste and class are not opposite to one another rather class comes within the caste system. For example – Brahmin is a caste and within Brahmins we find rich Brahmins and poor Brahmins.
Andre Beteille in his article “Class Structure in an Agrarian Society” argues that some of the castes In rural society, particularly in West Bengal (where he had conducted his study) are moving towards the formation of class but the procedure of movement is clear.
P. Kolenda found in her study that, In Rural India, the importance of caste has decreased to a great extent. Instead of caste, the Importance of class is found.
She has conducted her study in Kanya Kumari. Categorically, Kolenda says that in Rural India middle class is emerging fast.
(i) Caste is replaced by class
(ii) Emergence of a new class i.e. the middle class.
Jan Breman has conducted his study in Bardoli areas of Surat district of Gujarat. He found that government policies are mainly responsible for widening the gap between the rich and the poor. For example: Green Revolution. Capitalist mode of production is mainly responsible for the emergence of class structure in Rural India. Breman and Kolenda both have the same opinion that class is emerging in Rural India.
S.M. Shah in his study on Rural class structure in Gujarat found that ownership of land is the main index of social stratification. The owner cultivation and the owner tenant cultivation are the only two classes who own the land. The rest are the Landless labourers and they form proletariat group. His findings say that land ownership along with educational qualification makes the gap wider In Rural India.
The concept of “dominant caste” (given by M. N. Srinivas) has lost its importance in rural India due to:
(i) The big landowners are migrating to urban and industrialised centres. They have taken new sources of income.
(ii) Ceiling legislations deprived them from the status of big landowners.
K.L. Sharma, in the above context, has given two conclusions:
(i) Abolition of feudal system has reduced the power of Jajmans.
(ii) The members of weaker sections have received new power from democratic institutions.
When a caste is transformed to a class, the caste-class conflict emerges in a particular social condition and we find caste wars. For example: In U.P. and Bihar etc. caste wars are very frequent. In Kerala also there is a mobilization of power which is based on both caste and class.
Iqbal Narain and P.C. Mathur have conducted their study on Rajputs of Rajasthan. Rajputs preferred to make alliance with Baniyas and Jains because of which the status and power of Brahmins was reduced. In the agricultural field or in connection to agrarian production also we find class system.
These classes are agricultural classes. In other words, landholdings have never been even in rural India. Differences in the size of land have created diverse agricultural classes in rural society.
A broad classification of agricultural classes are:
1. Big farmers
2. Small farmers
3. Marginal farmers
4. Landless labourers
Caste-class transformation is a very complex process.
Nexus is defined as a set of ties in connection to the basic structural and cultural changes.
1. Interdependency between both factors.
2. Contradictions and similarities.
3. Control of one group over the other.
Caste and class nexus implies observation of two as mutually inherent areas. Tension and contradiction between caste and class are not only recognizable but also bring their differential consequences on different castes and classes. This nexus between caste and class also implies going beyond caste and going beyond class in understanding social reality.
A group of sociologists give their view that Indian society can be best studied from a caste model. They justify their opinion by saying that caste is an over-reaching ideological system encompassing all aspects of social life of Hindus, in particular, and the other communities, in general. The problem, however, is the fact that caste system is very complicated and complex.
At the Lime of marriage, with all the rigid rules and regulations, a caste gives prime importance to the class. So the assumption is that class is taking the place of caste is incorrect. Both caste and class are inseparable parts of Indian social formation.
The sociologists who feel that recent changes are giving way to class than to caste have nothing but a misapprehension. This is because there are studies in which it is observed that castes are also equally important as class. If caste is getting weak in one aspect it also gets strengthened in other aspects simultaneously with certain additions.
In conclusion, we can sum up that both caste and class are inseparable and closely interlinked. Class like distinction within caste and caste life-style within the class are a part and parcel of the members of the society. Both caste and class are real, empirical, interactional and hierarchical.
One incorporates the other. Common class consciousness among the members of a caste is mainly due to their common economic deprivations.
In connection to caste-class nexus some conclusion can be drawn:
(i) The caste system functions as an extremely effective method of economic exploitation.
(ii) The caste hierarchy is linked with social hierarchy and it reflects ownership of land.
(iii) Caste determines a definite relation with the means of production.
(iv) B.R. Ambedkar rightly observed that the caste system not only divides labour or indicate division of labour but also divides the entire social structure.
So caste and class represent similar social reality but from varying perspectives.