15 February 2011

Caste Affiliations among Hindus and non-Hindus, and Poverty in Four States of India: An Empirical Analysis

{ This is a condensed version of the paper published earlier in Demography India, vol 34, No.1,  2005 }

K Srinivasan* and Padma Srinivasan**

Caste affiliation has been a major factor in the social organization of the Indian society. It is an ascription variable given to a person at the time of his/her birth and he/she carries the insignia throughout his/her life. The caste stratification of the Indian society has led to gross ill-treatment of the lower castes (all “Jathis” included under “ sudras”) by the upper castes and their exclusion from many aspects of the Indian socio-cultural and political life. This has stirred a number of social reformers in the country to protest against the caste system and demand for the treatment of all human beings as equal, and to promote the lower castes through a number of social and political measures. However, despite many reformers in the Indian soil relentlessly working to rid the Indian society of the caste system, this system seems to be surviving, and has transcended across religious groups and getting strengthened by the political forces.

Since caste is a distinguishing feature of a Hindu religion, or social structure, one would normally expect that when a person gets converted to other religions, especially Islam and Christianity, there is no longer an affiliation or identification with a particular caste in the individual’s and the household’s frame of reference. Surprisingly, in reality, this is not found to be the situation. The caste continues to be a strong identification factor for the individuals and their family members even after conversions to other religions, and the caste label may continue to tag on them for long time after conversion.

It is interesting thus to explore through an empirical analysis of the data available on religion and caste at the household level, the extent to which this caste affiliation is present even among Muslims and Christians, and to what broad category of castes they state their affiliations. In addition, we look at the socioeconomic differences across the specific castes within each of the broad categories among Hindus, considering that religious conversions have mostly been motivated by the desire for the underprivileged social groups to rise in the social ladder and economically improve their lot. The availability of data on religious affiliation and both broad and specific caste affiliations at the household level in the National Family Health Survey-2 conducted during 1998-1999 on about 90,000 representative samples of households in the country by the International Institute for Population Sciences facilitated this study.

The present paper examines to what extent Hindus as well as non-Hindus associate themselves with a caste group. Second, it examines differences in socioeconomic levels among various castes among Hindus as well as non-Hindus. Third, whereas in most earlier studies, including the one by Srinivasan and Mohanty (2004), caste has been classified broadly into three or four groups such as SC, ST, OBC, and all other castes (OC), in the present paper, we have been able to look at the specific caste of the individual within the broader classification. This overrides the assumptions made in the earlier literature that the specific castes within each of the broad classification (i.e. SC, ST or OBC) are relatively homogenous with regards to their socioeconomic or demographic status. Such a detailed analyses of the caste has been made possible by the availability of data on the specific castes in large samples from the different states in India.

Discussions and Conclusion from the Study

The present study examined the caste distributions among Hindus, Muslims, and Christians in Tamil Nadu. UP, West Bengal and Bihar, using large state-representative samples. These states are considered to be socio-politically different, with long histories of social movements aimed at eradicating caste practices and social and economic differences among castes.

What is most significant to note from this analysis is that among the Muslims half of the sample households in West Bengal, two-thirds in Uttar Pradesh, and almost all in Bihar and Tamil Nadu have reported caste affiliations.

Among Christians, one in five in Bihar, 40% in West Bengal, 57% in Uttar Pradesh and almost all in Tamil Nadu have reported caste affiliations. It is really surprising that in the state of Tamil Nadu which pioneered the movement for a caste-less society in the 1920’s with the formation of a strong Dravidian party piloting a strong anti-Brahmin movement in the state as symbolic of destruction of the caste system and promoting inter caste marriages for over seven decades, the caste stratification remains the highest not only among the Hindus but also among the Muslims and Christians in the state. This requires further research.

The study also examined both the broad caste categories such as SC, ST, OBC and OC, which are commonly used in demography and sociology studies when assessing the progress in the demographic and social changes, and also specific castes within each of the broad caste categories in the view that the castes within the broad categories are not homogenous in the socioeconomic conditions. The study looked at the deprivation levels of households as well as the educational attainment of the heads of household among the specific castes within the broader grouping.

Several key findings emerged from the present study:  In terms of proportions of households deprived (wherein the households do not have even the basic essentials), overall, the highest percentages of deprivation was found in the Bihar sample, with 46.7% of the sample considered deprived and only 19.6% well above deprived. In the remaining three states, the percentage of deprived was 22-23%, whereas those considered well above deprived ranged from 34% of the sample in UP to 46% in West Bengal.

Among Hindus, Muslims, and Christians in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the Christians tend to fare much better economically than either Hindus or Muslims. The difference between Hindus and Muslims is also less striking in these two states. In Tamil Nadu, however, the Hindus in general fare less well economically when compared to Muslims and Christians. By contrast, in West Bengal the Hindus fare better economically compared to the other two religious categories.

In all four states, the educational attainment of the head of households tended to be higher among Christians than among Hindus and Muslims. With exception of Tamil Nadu, the mean years of schooling of the heads of households was the lowest among Muslims than Hindus and Christians. However, it must be borne in mind that, in addition to the age of the head of household, other factors, such as the income of the household that might explain variations in the educational attainment have not been taken into consideration when assessing the differences across religions.

The second key finding is that there is some indication that caste affiliation among non-Hindus might be associated with the economic benefits attached with being a member of particular caste. At least in Uttar Pradesh, where there is a sizable sample of Muslims who report being non-affiliated with caste or tribe, it is evident that as socioeconomic status of households increases, there is a tendency to disassociate with caste or tribe. Unfortunately, this assumption cannot be tested among Muslims and Christians elsewhere because of the negligible samples of households from these communites that are non-affiliated with caste or tribe.

The third key finding is that there is considerable difference in social and economic conditions across SC, ST, OBC and OC categories in all four states. When assessing the overall picture of these caste categories in terms of their proportions of deprived households, it seems that the OC category fares better than SC, ST, and OBC categories in all the states, with exception of West Bengal, where the difference between the OC category and the OBC category is less obvious. Overall, the SC and ST categories tend to have higher proportions of deprived households in their communities, and the difference between the two categories tends to be less conspicuous. These findings appear to be consistent with the general view that SCc, STs, and OBCs are socioeconomically backward and therefore need subsidies and welfare assistance to push up their social and economic status.

The most salient finding however from the present study is that there is considerable variation among specific castes within the SC, ST, OBC and OC categories. While some castes under the SC, ST, or OBC categories fare poorly socioecnomically, there are others that fare equally or even better than those castes that are considered as forward and fall under the OC category. Stated differently, not all castes that fall under the OC category fare well, and some are likely to have socioeconomic conditions that are on par with those of the castes belonging to OBC or SC category.

For example, in West Bengal, the “Khatriyas” who are defined as forward caste (OC) have derpivation levels that are much higher (37%) than the levels found among castes such as “Tanti,” “Teli,” “Kurmi,” “Gope,” and “Napit” that fall under the backward caste (OBC) category and also higher than the levels found among castes such as “Shunri saha,” “Chamra,’ and “Nomoshudra” that fall under the scheduled caste (SC) category. Similarly, the mean school years of the heads of households for castes such as “Khatriya,” “Mahishya,” and “Vaishnav,” that fall under the forward caste category in West Bengal, is lower than the mean school years for castes such as “Barujibi,” and “Napit” that fall under the OBC category and caste such as “Shunri saha” that fall under the SC category.

These finding suggest that caste classifications, which have social and economic policy ramifications, may not have resulted in social and economic benefits accruing to the communities that are most in need of social and economic assistance. The original purpose of declaring castes as either forward or backward was to ensure that those communities classified as backward could improve their socioeconomic status through various upliftment schemes and raise their conditions on par with other forward communities. However, the present study finds large disparities in the socioeconomic conditions among these castes within each of the broad caste classification, suggesting that not all communitiess have benefited from social and economic welfare policies, and that equally many castes that have been classified as forward and ineligible for subsidies have not attained high socioeconomic conditions as originally thought to have.

If the demographic, social, and economic indicators at the national level have to be improved, the policies meant for improving the social and economic conditions at the micro-level need to be better formulated and implemented. The provisions of various subsidies and welfare assistance needs to be more carefully targeted at those communities with real needs, rather than directing them to broad groups falling under the pruview of “backwardness” and providing assistance to all the communities in this group irrespective of whether or not a community is really in need of such assistance.

*Emeritus Professor, IIPS, Mumbai
**Post-doctoral Fellow, University Of Nijmegen, The Netherlands

Please contact http://www.iasp.ac.in/Demography_India.html for information on obtaining a copy of the full paper.

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