Caste and Class among the Dalits

21 July 2016
Caste and Class among the Dalits
In conversation with D Shyam Babu on his latest book chapter

CPR faculty D Shyam Babu wrote a book chapter ‘Caste and Class among the Dalits’ in the recently published (Duke University Press, 2016) Dalit Studies edited by Ramnarayan S Rawat and K Satyanarayana.

In the interview below, he unpacks what ‘caste’ and ‘class’ among Dalits means, and why one must use both caste and class to understand India's social complexity.

You wrote a book chapter on 'Caste and Class among the Dalits.' What is it about?

Caste is at the core of people's identities in India. It not only categorises people into various castes but stratifies them into higher and lower, pure and impure. One is 'born' into a caste which is a cradle-to-grave matter, unlike religion that one can acquire or renounce.

Class is, on the other hand, an economic category associated with urban industrial society. While one's membership in a caste is preordained, one can choose one's class. Thus, class mobility is not impossible.

Since Dalits' low social and economic condition is attributed to their caste identity, scholars and policy makers focus on the need as well as the means to reducing the salience of Dalits' caste identity. Therefore, one way to understand how far the Dalits have moved away from discrimination and stigma is through an exploration of how far they have moved away from caste identity into classes.

This chapter is an attempt to find answers to a few questions on the topic, such as: Is class relevant in a caste-ridden society? Is caste reasserting itself or waning? Who determines one's class? It also delves into how public perceptions and media imagery feed on each other to perpetuate a negative image of Dalits.

Is 'class' an appropriate lens to understand the subject?

The answer is 'yes' and 'no.' For decades, scholars have taken diametrically opposite positions, where some dismissed caste, and others class as irrelevant. In fact, India's size and diversity make it impossible to give definitive answers to any questions on social issues. One can, for example, argue that class is not relevant by citing any number of caste conflicts, caste mobilisation, etc.

On the other hand, one can as well assert that caste is no longer important in India. The chapter cites the example of how, in 2007, Mayawati came to power in Uttar Pradesh. Her caste identity, of being a Dalit, did not come in her way. What's more, her party's electoral victory became possible thanks to the overwhelming support it received from Brahmins in the state.

Therefore, one must use both caste and class to understand India's social complexity.

Is caste reasserting itself?

Caste is changing fundamentally. But Dalits and other lower castes still suffer several disabilities due to their identity. Though caste retains its salience in people's preferences when it comes to elections or choosing a spouse, urbanisation is making caste practices increasingly difficult. One's caste status no longer guarantees one's standing in society. For example, unlike in the past, a poor Brahmin may not command much respect. Similarly, a well-off Dalit can at least escape active forms of discrimination that he was subjected to in the past.

Paradoxically, political mobilisation on caste lines has resulted in the re-emergence of caste, mostly by the middle and lower castes. For example, it has become a practice in many states for Dalits to suffix their caste to their names, implying a certain pride in their identity. The one thing that is clear is that the caste hierarchy one finds in textbooks is giving way to dominance based on access to resources and numerical strength.

What role does the government play in helping Dalits' journey from caste to class?

The constitution is based on the ideal to usher in a casteless society and the government implements, to realise the ideal, many programmes to help not just Dalits but many victims of caste. However, the intended beneficiaries need to brandish their caste or tribal identity to access benefits like reservations. In a sense, to avail economic benefits, people must admit to their social inferiority.

Where do we stand on the issue now?

Dalits are in a position to question their subordination and that is progress. It is also an ongoing process. However, we tested a hypothesis, which showed that atrocities are triggered in areas where Dalits are better-off, and not in areas where they are poor. Therefore, even though Dalits' challenge to their subordination can result in violence, one must not ignore its significance in social change.

The link to the book can be accessed here

The views shared belong to individual faculty and researchers and do not represent an institutional stance on the issue.