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India’s Society and Social Relations. November 3, 2008. Main questions. How diverse is India? Is it diversity or inequality? What is the caste system? Does it still exist? What is the relationship between different religious communities in India?

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India’s Society and Social Relations

November 3, 2008


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Main questions

  • How diverse is India? Is it diversity or inequality?

  • What is the caste system? Does it still exist?

  • What is the relationship between different religious communities in India?

  • What is the meaning of secularism in India?


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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?


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India’s society: some basic facts

  • 1. 3 billion people

  • 8 different religious groups. 82% Hindus,13% Muslims

  • Hindus have a hierarchical social organization, known as caste

  • 122 recognized languages; many other dialects

  • 672 million voters, 230 parties


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Basic economic facts

  • 70% survive on agrarian incomes

  • 80% live in under $2 a day

  • 42 million live in slums

  • 2 million are homeless

  • 90 million are marginal workers


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The tradition of caste

Brahmin

(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)


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Traditional role of caste

  • prevent social mobility

  • ensure a supply of manual workers

  • prevent social equality


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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


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Who was Ambedkar?

  • BHIMRAO RAMJI AMBEDKAR (1891-1956)

  • Born into a Dalit family

  • By virtue of his brilliance became a Barrister at Law

  • 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)


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Ambedkar’s views on caste

  • He disproved both dominant theses on caste

  • 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


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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


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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

What happened at Independence


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ST and OBC

  • Another category of Scheduled Tribes were also recognized by the constitution. These are primarily indigenous communities known as Adivasis

  • 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.


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SC, ST, OBC

  • Scheduled Castes (SC) 16.8%

  • Scheduled Castes (ST) 8%

  • Other Backward Classes 27% (or more)

    Even with conservative estimates, it appears that more than 50% of India’s population suffers systematic disadvantage and depravation


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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 destiny.

  •  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.

  • From ambedkar.org


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Quotes from Ambedkar (2)

  • 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.

    from ambedkar.org


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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.

from ambedkar.org


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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 Pakistan)

  • The community was left with a rather sharp divide between its upper classes and its lower classes


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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 %


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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.


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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?


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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?


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Solutions?

  • 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


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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


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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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