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Andre Beteille’s Dream World: Caste Today

By Gail Omvedt

20 March, 2012

A recent article by Andre Beteille, “India's destiny not caste in stone” argues that caste in fact is dying down, that it lives on mostly in consciousness, and that this is a result of the manipulations of the media during elections. The piece shows that elite social scientists are living in a dream world of their own making. Beteille’s article has the two major faults of lacking evidence and lacking theory. In addition it shows a basic muddle and a refusal to carry thorough some minimal requirements of debate, such as, for example, clarity of writing. For instance, I confess I have found it had to understand an early sentence, “They [who believe that caste is an ineradicable feature of Indian society] also believe that to ignore those divisions or to draw attention to other divisions such as those of income, education and occupation is to turn our backs on the ground reality.” Is he saying that all who want to see caste as a materially existing social structure refuse to deal with other [materially existing] social structures? In any event, since Betelle does not put gender in his little list of “divisions” it seems that it also exists primarily in consciousness.

The themes are familiar. Tremendous changes have taken place since independence. His assessment of this starts with reference to the “ritual opposition of purity and pollution, which was the cornerstone of the hierarchical structure of caste” and, among these begins with “commensality or inter-dining.” This is a perverted use of Louis Dumont. Why begin with inter-dining? Evidence for its persistence and extent is simply that anyone who goes to a village, a region or a city can give some assessment of its variation. However the professor does not consider this kind of informal, hands-on survey to be scientific.

Let us go on to the more important issues of inter-marriage and the association between caste and occupation. That they are more important, I should add, has to do with the theory of what is more fundamental to caste as a system, which Beteille does not even try to deal with.

Regarding intermarriage, where is the evidence that it is on the increase? Here we can be more precise, at least in the sense of giving the beginnings of a numerical estimate. I will give just one village example, which is one more than Beteille gives.

I live in Kasegaon, a “village” (legally; it has a gram panchayat) of about 15,000 population on the Pune-Bengaluru road about 3 hours south of Pune. It is thus a small agricultural town, and as even sociologists are aware, in small towns everyone knows everyone else, and talks about them. How many inter-caste marriages are there? I myself know about one; others in my family know more. My husband Bharat says about 30 such marriages have taken place in his memory, which dates back 50 years ago for clear social issues; of these about 20 couples are living in Kasegaon today. My brother-in-law Jayant and mother-law Indumati confirm this estimate, and can give exact names for most of the couples. What does this amount to? A little more than one tenth of one percent! (if we take 20 and 15,000 as the the basis, since the 2011 data have not yet been published, we get 0.00133%). My mother-in-law Indumati has herself presided over four inter-caste and one Hindu-Muslim marriage, but these were of people from outside Kasegaon.

Of course Kasegaon is not typical of Indian villages; there is no “typical” village. Kasegaon is more sophisticated, more urban, than most and probably in a region famous for its progressive social tradition. There may be a larger percentage of inter-caste marriages in the cities, but it is not likely. The reason we have to extrapolate from such examples results from the total lack of information about caste whether in the census or NSS type surveys.

Additionally, all villages in India have caste-based localities, and most of the regions and areas of cities can be identified with specific castes or religious groups. Even resettled villages of project evictees cannot do away with caste-wise wards. For example, caste discrimination in housing projects in the case of the tsunami and the flood affected in northern Karnataka has been well documented in the media.

If we do decide to look at economic issues, then what about caste and occupation? Here Beteille admits, “There continues to be a general association between caste and occupation to the extent that the lowest castes are largely concentrated in the menial and low-paying jobs whereas the higher castes tend to be in the best-paid and most esteemed ones.” I am puzzled here again about his theoretical capacity. Wouldn’t any extent of such an association mean that caste is a material reality to that extent? We can be much more specific about the economics of caste. For instance, economist Ashwini Deshpande has assembled existing data in a recent book The Grammar of Caste: Economic Discrimination in Contemporary India, Oxford University Press, July 2011. Surely this was published not too long ago for Professor Beteille to have read; many of my friends have already snatched up the book, my own copy disappearing in this way. (For a more recent lay estimate of how the caste hierarchy works in economic terms, see Bharat Patankar, “Caste and Exploitation,” http://seekingbegumpura.wordpress.com/2012/02/10/caste-and-exploitation/)

Beteille writes, “Rapid economic growth and the expansion of the middle class are accompanied by new opportunities for individual mobility which further loosens the association between caste and occupation.” Such sweeping statements without any attempt to show evidence show not only a lack of scholarship but also a disdain for the people affected by the caste hierarchy.

Beteille wants to claim that the primary existence of caste today is in consciousness and derives from the agency of people engaged in politics and the media. This agency seems to exist in a vacuum and the consciousness it derives from determines material reality rather than vice versa. Is this pure idealism or a new epistemology based on magic powers of those controlling the media? Come on, professor. Consciousness and agency may have a complicated relationships to material structures but they are certainly not disassociated and are not primary. It is good social science, I think, to reject any assertion that consciousness has no role of its own, but it is certainly not good social science to argue that in spite of some material reality, about which no evidence is given, the role of consciousness and agency is primarily.

There is nothing new in the argument that the use of caste “vote banks” by politicians is the decisive factor in keeping alive whatever is left of the caste system. We can hear it all the time from those who want to protect their own place in the hierarchy. Beteille’s new take on this theme is to link politics with the media through the assertion that the media keeps caste in people’s consciousness by featuring it during elections; and as a result politicians pay attention to it and presumably act on it, thus reinforcing caste. Here the one truth in this otherwise illogical and nonempirical article is that “for the country as a whole the election season never comes to an end.”

However: compared to the political arena, the media is more highly controlled by the “upper” castes, ie those coming from the traditionally higher three varnas. Most people in the media do not want to talk or write about or depict caste unless they feel there is popular interest in it and they will gain something; and when they do talk or write about it they do so in a distorted way. And politicians are much less enchanted by and affected by the media than the general population since they simply cannot afford to take the media as a depiction of reality; they understand what it is trying to do. Every politician knows.

Beteille’s conclusion is, “Private television channels have created a whole world in which their anchors and the experts who are regularly at their disposal vie with each other to bring out the significance of the ‘caste factor,’ meaning the rivalries and alliances among castes, sub-castes and groups of castes by commentators who, for the most part, have little understanding of, or interest in, long-term trends of change in the country. These discussions create the illusion that caste is an unalterable feature of Indian society. It will be a pity if we allow what goes on in the media to reinforce the consciousness of caste and to persuade us that caste is India's destiny.” This is an amazing statement.

As for us, we do not think that “caste is India’s destiny.” Rather we think the annihilation of caste is India’s destiny and want to help those who want to destroy it. We doubt if Professor Beteille wants this or wants to do anything that is necessary to achieve a caste-free society. We think he prefers to live in the dream world he has made rather than engage with the majority of the people of India.

Dr. Gail Omvedt recently retired as Chair Professor of the Dr. Ambedkar Chair for Social Change and Development, IGNOU, and is currently an independent researcher and writer.


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