Why is caste identity in India both fluid and static?


05:23 AM

The question Why is caste identity in India both fluid and static?" was asked in the Mains 2023 GS Paper 1.  Let us look at the model answer to this question. 

Answer: Caste identity involves the positioning of one's caste group within a social hierarchy. Caste identity in India is complex and characterised by its dual nature of being both fluid and static. On the one hand, there is evidence of social mobility and caste change, while on the other hand, caste-based discrimination and inequality persist.

Factors responsible for fluidity in caste identity

  • Education and urbanisation: Education and urbanisation have led to social mobility and a change in caste identity, loosening of traditional caste ties.
    • For example, the enrolment of SC students in higher education has increased to 58.95 Lakh from 46.06 Lakh in 2014-15. (AISHE Survey 2020-21)
  • Sanskritisation: Through the process of Sanskritization, lower-caste groups have adopted the rituals, customs, and lifestyles of upper-caste groups in order to improve their social status.
  • Inter-caste marriages: There is an increasing trend in inter-caste marriages. According to the India Human Development Survey, the percentage of intercaste marriages increased from 5% to 6% between 1970 and 2012.
  • Division of labour: Over the years, there has been an increase in occupational shifts in the lives of the people. Now, one can excel in one’s career in any stream without the need for caste identity.
  • Government policies: Policies such as reservations in education and government jobs have helped to improve the lives of lower-caste people and have made it easier for them to move up the social ladder.
  • Religious conversions: Post-independence, many lower-class people have converted to Buddhism and Christianity in order to circumvent the restrictions posed by the prevalent caste system.

Factors responsible for static elements in caste identity

  • Endogamy: Despite some mobility, endogamy (marriage within one's caste) remains a prevalent social norm in many Indian communities. As data from the India Human Development Survey (IHDS) shows, just over 5% of urban Indian marriages are outside of caste.
  • Caste-based discrimination: Caste-based discrimination is still prevalent in Indian society. Thus making it difficult for lower-caste people to access education, employment, and other opportunities. As per the NCRB report, atrocities/crimes against Scheduled Castes have increased by 1.2% in 2021 over 2020.
  • Occupational identities: In many areas, occupations are still primarily based on caste. According to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment around 97% of people involved in manual scavenging who were surveyed, belonged to the Scheduled Castes.
  • Social stigma: Discrimination and prejudice against certain castes persist, even in urban areas. The deep-rooted biases and stereotypes associated with caste can limit opportunities and social interactions for individuals from marginalised communities.
  • Caste-based political mobilisation: Caste-based political parties and identity politics continue to shape Indian politics. Many times, this has resulted in the demands for reservation based on castes. For example, Jats in Haryana and Patidars in Gujarat are demanding caste-based reservations.

Caste identity in India is a complex interplay of historical legacies, socio-economic factors, and cultural norms. While there is evidence of fluidity and change in caste identities, deeply ingrained social norms, political interests, and discrimination still contribute to the static aspects of caste identity.