India’s Society and
Social Relations
November 1, 2010
Main questions
• How diverse is India? Is it diversity or
• What is the caste system? Does it still
• What is the relationship between different
religious communities in India?
• What is the meaning of secularism in
Deeper questions
• Is India a democracy? How much
inequality can a democracy tolerate and
still remain a democracy?
• How does India’s social fabric compare
with the US and Canada?
India’s society:
some basic facts
• 1. 3 billion people
• 8 different religious groups. 82%
Hindus,14% Muslims
• Hindus have a hierarchical social
organization, known as caste
• 122 recognized languages; many other
• 672 million voters, 230 parties
Basic economic facts
70% survive on agrarian incomes
93% work in the informal sector
80% live in under $2 a day
42 million live in slums
2 million are homeless
90 million are marginal workers
The tradition of caste
(producers of knowledge, particularly theology and
interpretation of religious texts
Khsatriya (ruling classes/ political elites/warriors)
Vaishya (business classes)
Sudra (manual and menial labourers)
Untouchables, now called Dalits (the downtrodden)
Traditional role of caste
• prevent social mobility
• ensure a supply of manual workers
• prevent social equality
Caste in colonial India
• Fairly strong reformist movements started with respect to
the question of untouchability
• British referred to them as “depressed classes”
• Gandhi popularised the issue of untouchability by calling
them Harijans (the children of God). He argued for the
end to untouchability
• B.R Ambedkar argued for the end to caste altogether
(and if necessary, end to Bramhinical Hinduism) . Read
his seminal essay Annihilation of Caste
Who was Ambedkar?
• Born into a Dalit family
• By virtue of his brilliance became a Barrister at
• Was the first Law Minister of Independent India;
drafted the constitution; major disagreements
with Congress leaders, Nehru and Gandhi
• Converted to Buddhism in 1956 (along with
thousands of other Dalits)
Ambedkar’s theses on caste
• He disproved both dominant theses on caste
• The Laws of Manu
• The orthodox thesis that Sudras were born out
of the feet of ‘God’
• The modern thesis that they were non-Aryan
indigenous peoples inferior to the other three
castes who were of Aryan descent
• He argues that they are of the same ethnicity
and the Sudras were pushed to a lower status
because of their growing power and conflict
Ambedkar’s philosophy
His two main thesis were:
• The issue is not only to accept inequality and
end discrimination, but to establish political and
social structures which are premised on the
fundamental equality of all
• Justice can not be given from above (i.e. those
who are privileged). It has to be secured by
those who were victims of injustice
What happened at Independence
• The constitution was drafted by Dr.
Babasaheb Ambedkar.
• It became illegal to discriminate on the
basis of caste or religion
• Untouchability was abolished by law
• Untouchables came to be categorized as
Scheduled Castes
More faces of discrimination
ST and OBC
• Another category of Scheduled Tribes were also
recognized by the constitution. These are
primarily indigenous communities known as
• A third category called the Other Backward
Classes (OBC) – communities listed by the
government who have suffered systematic
patterns of disadvantage but are not included in
the Scheduled Castes or Tribes. They can be in
any religion.
• Scheduled Castes (SC)
• Scheduled Castes (ST)
• Other Backward Classes 27% (or more)
Even with conservative estimates, it appears
that more than 50% of India’s population
suffers systematic disadvantage and
Quotes from Ambedkar (1)
– It is mischievously propagated by Hindu
scriptures that by serving the upper
classes the Shudras achieve salvation.
Untouchability is another appellation of
slavery. No race can be raised by
destroying its self-respect. So if you
really want to uplift the Untouchables,
you must treat them in the social order
as free citizens, free to carve out their
– From
Quotes from Ambedkar (2)
What you have lost others have gained. Your
humiliations are a matter of pride with others.
You are made to suffer wants, privations and
humiliations not because it was pre-ordained
by the sins committed in your previous birth,
but because of the overpowering tyranny and
treachery of those who are above you. You
have no lands because others have usurped
them; you have no posts because others have
monopolised them. Do not believe in fate;
believe in your strength.
Quotes from Ambedkar (3)
• Caste cannot be abolished by inter caste
dinners or stray instances of inter caste
marriages. Caste is a state of mind. It is a
disease of mind. The teachings of the
Hindu religion are the root cause of this
disease. We practice casteism and we
observe Untouchability because we are
enjoined to do so by the Hindu religion. A
bitter thing cannot be made sweet. The
taste of anything can be changed. But
poison cannot be changed into nectar.
Ambedkar on the Constitution
On the 26th January 1950, we are going to enter into a life of
contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and
economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be
recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one
value. In our social and economic life, we shall by reason of our
social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one
man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of
contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our
social and economic life? If we continue to deny it for long, we will
do so only by putting our political democracy in peril. We must
remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment else those
who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of democracy
which this Constituent Assembly has so laboriously built up.
Inequality across religion
• The British left a highly communalized
polity, scarred by the partition
• In India, the Muslim community found itself
depleted of its middle class (who left for
• The community was left with a rather
sharp divide between its upper classes
and its lower classes
Situation of Muslims (1)
• The literacy rate among Muslims is substantially
below the national average (59% as opposed to
65%). Only 3.4 per cent of the Muslim population
obtains graduate degrees
• In the elite civil services, comprised of the Indian
Administrative Service (IAS), the Indian Foreign
Service (IFS) and the Indian Police Service
(IPS), Muslim representation was at 3 %, 1.8 %
and 4 %
Situation of Muslims (2)
• Muslims have the second highest levels of poverty with
31 % below the poverty line. Incidence of poverty among
urban Muslims is the highest (31%), followed closely by
SC/ST categories 36.4%.
• Worker Population Ratio for Muslim women are the least
from among all communities, more so in urban areas;
the participation of Muslims in regular jobs in urban
areas is quite limited compared to even the traditionally
disadvantaged SCs/STs.
• Other Backward Classes (OBCs) constitute 40.7 per
cent of the total Muslim population. In the total OBC
population, Muslim OBCs have a share of 15.7 per cent.
Structural Inequality
• Caste and religion-based inequality in
India are structural, i.e. they arise from
underlying social, political and economic
structures (rather than factors such as
lower access to education or jobs).
How did India try to address them?
Addressing Inequality
• Secularism: non-discrimination and
separation of state and religion (i.e. state
has no official religion
• Affirmative action (called reservation in
India): creating quotas for admission to
educational institutions and
Did they work?
• Secular democracy fulfilled a very
important role but generated
contradictions: it did not reduce the
structural inequality between different
religious communities, particularly Muslims
• Rise of communal politics and
fundamentalist politics
Dalit Muslims
• Muslims got some protection for language,
separate educational institutions, freedom
of religion etc. but not affirmative action
• The Dalit Muslim movement claims that
80% of India’s Muslims gained nothing
from these changes. They demand
affirmative action based on religion and
socio-economic situation
Politics of Affirmative action
• Affirmative action resulted in some progress of
individuals but has done little to change the
social location of disadvantaged groups
• Upper castes and classes have reacted strongly
against these reservations
• At present major social conflict exists over
whether SC/ST/OBC should have reserved
seats in elite institutions (such as the top
engineering, business and medical schools).
The fear is that this may lead to admission of
students with less merit and destroy the
credibility of these institutions

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