‘CASTE’ and ‘Class economy’ are two different terms, with interrelated effects. Since the birth of our economy caste and class have played a major role. Classes are lesser in number than castes; castes are said to be related to occupation whereas for class it is not mandatory; castes create more hurdles in a society whereas social-class is only economy based.
The caste system is social stratification based on ascription, the birth determines social position in four distinct ways – occupation-marriage within caste -social life is restricted to “own kind”-belief systems are often tied to religious dogma. The caste system is typical in agrarian society and is outlawed in India, but still exists class systems which includes social stratification based on both birth and individual achievement. Social mobility of people with education and skills blurs class distinction.
The “village studies model” of Indian anthropology enabled a shift of focus from caste and the caste system towards other and larger structures such as class, religion, and violence. But it is noteworthy that debates on class formation in India have long been dominated by economists, historians, Marxists, development sociologists, and some political scientists.
The class and caste are no longer absolutely correlated: economic differentiation has affected almost every caste. This internal differentiation of castes has meant that virtually all castes, regardless of their rank in the ritual hierarchy, have members in different class positions (agricultural labour, small and middle peasantry, capitalist farmers). It has also meant that whereas capitalist farmers are the least differentiated in terms of caste (being mostly from the upper castes), both class and caste in India articulate with a process that has increasingly become a key form of collective action for groups seeking to shape relations with the state and the market in their own perceived interests.
Caste is the most contentious issue that has fascinated and divided scholars who have wished to study this system of stratified social hierarchy in India. These are basically the part of debate on the transformation of Indian society under the impact of colonialism and its administrative mechanisms, some argue for the continuities of pre-colonial social-structures including caste. Other stress the basic qualitative changes introduced by the colonial rules.
Class societies are characterised by the horizontal division of society into strata. In Marxist terms, classes are defined by their differential access to the means of production. The dominant classes appropriate the surplus produced by other classes through their control of means of production and thus exploit their labour. The actual configuration of social classes varies from one society to another. The rise and growth of Indian social classes war organically linked to the basic structure of colonialism and bore the imprint of that association.
Caste and class point towards inequality and hierarchy. In both the cases, however, the principle of organisation differs. The core features of caste are endogamy or marriage within caste, occupational differentiation and hereditary specialisation of occupations, notion of pollution and a ritual hierarchy in which Brahmins are generally at the top. Classes, on the other hand, broadly refer to economic basis of ownership or non-ownership relation to the means of production. But how does caste and class correlate to each other? Classes are sub-divided in terms of types of ownership and control of economic resources and the type of services contributed to the process of production.
Caste and class resemble each other in certain respects and differ in other. Castes constitute the status group or communities that can be defined in terms of ownership of property, occupation and style of life. Social honour in closely linked to ritual values in this closed system. Class positions also tend to be associated with social honour; however, they are defined more in terms of ownership or non-ownership of means of production. The classes are much more open and have scope of individual upward social mobility. In caste system, only an entire segment can move upward, and hence the mobility is much slower.
Although there is a considerable divergence between the hierarchy of caste and that of class, the top and bottom segments of class system are largely subsumed under the caste structure. The upper caste own means of production (land in rural areas) and act as rentiers. The land less agrarian proletarian coincides with the lower castes or dalits who provides labour services for the rentier upper caste people as well as rich prosperous farmers of intermediate level. At the intermediate level, articulation of class identities is more complex. The process of differentiation of communities dis-locates class relations from the caste structure. If caste and class show a fair degree of overlap at the top and bottom level in some cases appear almost co-terminus, the picture is quiet ambiguous at the intermediate level of caste hierarchy. Similarly the process of modernisation especially urbanisation, acquisition of education and new skills act as the forces of dislocation that puncture the forces of social inertia and modify caste rigidity.