Capitalism, Caste and the Struggle for Social Transformation in India

Surajit Mazumdar


regional variations, the system of division of society into a hierarchy of
castes can be found in virtually all regions of India. Associated with it are
some of the most extreme and bestial forms of social oppression imaginable. The
struggle for a progressive transformation of Indian society has always had to
confront this reality of caste in two different senses – one relating to its
future and the other to its present.

simpler or easier challenge posed by its existence is of clarifying what a
progressive transformation must mean for the institution of caste. No ambiguity
can exist here that the annihilation of caste, its total and complete
eradication, must be integral to the process of transformation and one of its key
objectives and outcomes. What is crucial to recognize here is that caste as an
institution is inherently about maintaining unequal social relationships and
therefore cannot be a private affair of individuals in a way that religious
faith could potentially be. Since prejudice and oppression are inseparably tied
up with it, caste is fundamentally incompatible with an egalitarian society – a
Brahmin and a Dalit cannot be truly equal if they remain a Brahmin and a Dalit.
It follows that the elimination of all caste oppression is also in the ultimate
analysis the obliteration of all caste identities rather than the achievement
of parity across castes.

Even if
its ultimate destination is clearly defined as necessarily including the abolition
of caste, that is clearly not the point of departure for the struggle for
social transformation. The political movements that would make such a
transformation possible instead have to develop within a society in whose
social, political and economic life caste clearly plays a very important role. The
more difficult challenge always has been to understand why and how caste plays
this role in Indian capitalism and what therefore are the requirements of
building an effective struggle for social change.  

Capitalism in India and Caste

To begin
with one may note that while it is true that the caste-system has been around
for thousands of years and its essential design is oriented towards the maintaining
of a status quo, it is not that Indian society and the system of caste have
been completely immune to the process of historical movement. Such changes have
been also been visible in the last couple of hundred years since the advent of
British rule in India, and even since independence. These changes should not be
exaggerated but it cannot altogether be denied that there are several
indications of a process of undermining of caste. The links between caste and
occupation, economic status and class for instance have been weakened though of
course not eliminated. Caste discrimination and oppression while existing on a
significant scale do not enjoy legal sanction as they did in the past. The assertion
against caste oppression is much greater and the effects of these on Indian
politics and the language of politics are visible. Even outrightly casteist
political tendencies (like the anti-reservation movement) have to couch their
real intent in an anti-caste rhetoric. Moreover, some particularly violent
expressions of caste oppression themselves are responses to the weakening hold
of caste. At the level of inter-personal relations too the caste barrier is
being breached in many places, again often inviting violent reactions.

processes of change indicated above, and such instances can be multiplied, can
be traced back to a combination of related causal factors – the disruptive
effects on traditional Indian society of British colonial rule; the development
of capitalism in India and the emergence of new social classes; the growth of a
national movement and other progressive political movements; and the subsequent
process of capitalist development under a system of parliamentary democracy. Does
this then mean that the further development of capitalism will steadily erode
the caste system and therefore an acceleration of that development – and
particularly that under a neo-liberal dispensation – is to be welcomed, as some
sections within the Dalit movement seem to think? Are capitalist development
and the survival of caste really fundamentally antithetical to each other?  

It is
worthwhile at this point to recall the limits to the ‘undermining’ of caste that
has happened and set it against the time span over which it has occurred. Seen
this way, it is the extreme slowness of the pace of this change which is
striking.  For most of its victims, how
significant has really been their liberation so far from caste oppression? If
the quantum of change thus far has been so limited, clearly the caste-system
has already shown a great capacity to coexist with a process of capitalist
development. An immediate conclusion that can be reasonably derived from this
is that even if capitalist development in India only carries within itself
forces undermining caste – the annihilation of caste through such a spontaneous
process would be realizable only in the very distant future. For today’s
struggles, therefore, speculation about such a prospect may have no practical
relevance except to serve as a rationalization of inaction.

is the reality at present and the meaningful question to ask in such a
situation is – does prolonging its lifespan offer better prospects for a
quicker liberation from caste oppression than a struggle against capitalism?
Moreover, if capitalism itself involves exploitation and oppression– whether or
not the mechanisms of these involve caste – is it even capable of offering any
real liberation to the overwhelming majority of those who are the victims of
caste oppression? The answer to both these questions must be no. The observed slowness
of the process of undermining of caste is not a simple reflection of the
inherent durability of the institution – it in fact has an intimate
relationship with Indian capitalist development.

colonialism nor the capitalism that emerged from that background in India
involved the complete destruction of the old economic order to whose
functioning caste was central, in particular in the agrarian structure. Instead,
adjustment with and gradual modification of that structure have characterized
capitalist development in India – neither the colonial rulers nor the
capitalist class which emerged in India therefore ever frontally challenged the
institution of caste. In the economic domain the twin consequences of these
have been the sustenance of pre-capitalist economic relationships and the
limited opportunities of escape from it through class, occupational and
location mobility. Both of these consequences, which are epitomized by the fact
that India remains still largely rural and agrarian, have played their part in
imparting durability to the institution of caste even in the era of capitalist

The story
of capitalism’s relationship with caste, however, does not necessarily end with
its incomplete destruction of an older order. 
Caste has survived in India for thousands of years before capitalism
because exploitation was preserved through the transformations that occurred
during this period. Every social formation that emerged found in the caste
system an institution not only suitable but also exceptionally effective for
the purpose maintaining its system of exploitation. Indeed, this survival has had
a self-reinforcing character as it has also been one of the ways in which caste
and caste consciousness have come to be so deeply embedded in Indian society. To
assume that capitalism is an exception to this feature of Indian history and
makes no use of caste to sustain itself amounts to deriving an illegitimate
conclusion from the fact that capitalism’s mechanism of exploitation is reliant
on economic coercion. This reliance does not mean that exploitation through extra-economic
or social coercion cannot co-exist with economic coercion within capitalism –
one has to only think of the role slavery and colonial extraction of surplus
have played in the history of capitalism to appreciate this. It does not also
mean that social coercion cannot play a complementary role to economic coercion
even in the specifically capitalist process of exploitation. Caste, in more
ways than one, can facilitate strengthening of the capitalist control over the
labour process and the disciplining of workers. Caste plays an important role
not only in creating wage differentials but also the lowering of the socially
acceptable floor to the wage-level. It is also not always the case that in the
marketplace the logic of profit and selling of commodities challenges existing
social values – it can and often does reinforce social conservatism as is
visible, for example, in advertising. In India, caste ties and networks in fact
also play their part in determining the composition of the capitalist class and
its sustenance. Let alone challenge the institution in the larger domain of
society, it cannot even be said about Indian capitalists that as a rule they
have themselves been able to shed their caste outlook. What can be said instead
is that caste and caste consciousness have been effectively used to maintain
and strengthen capitalist command over the state in a context of parliamentary

survival of the institution of caste and its associated consciousness in India
today may not thus be simply as entrenched relics of the past – this survival
has not been despite but also because of capitalist development. This
development as it has concretely occurred in India has combined the operation
of tendencies undermining caste with those reinforcing it. This may make for complexity
in the way it operates. This complexity cannot hide the fact that caste matters
in India but it can render invisible its relationship with capitalism, creating
the illusion that caste operates autonomously of capitalism. Once their
relationship is recognized, however, the ability of capitalism to liberate
Indian society from the scourge of caste and its stagnationist effects must be
seriously doubted. Capitalsism’s most significant historical contribution towards
that end may instead lie in it creating the conditions for a struggle within it
which could take India beyond capitalism and exploitation and destroy the
foundations of caste.

Even the
fullest exploitation of the possibilities of undermining caste within the
limits of capitalism is contingent on the development of the struggle against
capitalism. This does not of course mean that the issue of caste oppression
must wait for capitalism to be eliminated, an understanding which in terms of
its practical consequences is no different from that of waiting for capitalism
to end caste. On the contrary, without a relentless struggle against caste discrimination
and oppression being integral to it and and even achieving some advance, the
transition from capitalism cannot be achieved. The undermining of caste
prejudice and division within them, and their unity in the struggle against
caste oppression, are both the premises as well the results of the development
of the struggle for liberation from  all
forms of discrimination, oppression and exploitation experienced by different
sections of Indian society under the specific conditions of Indian capitalism.  

The Question of Identity

The issue
of identity must be looked at in the above background. The formation of caste
identities is integral to the operation of the caste system. However, different
identities cannot be looked at symmetrically. There is an identity that is
imposed on some to mark them out as the ones to be oppressed and discriminated
against by others who assume a different identity. The former kind of identity
cannot be shed until the system of caste oppression ends – that is as long as
the latter kind of identity exists and operates. There is no question of a choice
here – no Dalit can escape from discrimination simply by declaring that he does
not believe in caste. The assertion of their identity by the oppressed is to an
extent, therefore, an inevitable part of the challenge to caste oppression and cannot
be equated with the assertion of dominant caste identity.

maintenance and assertion of dominant caste identity can have no place in a
progressive politics and must be fought tooth and nail. Under capitalist
conditions such assertion is not limited to that expressed by specific castes
in the local domain of the countryside. It also articulates itself at other and
larger levels including for instance at the national level as a shared identity
of the apparently caste-less ‘general category’. The basis for this lies in the
caste prejudice common to otherwise disparate upper caste groups whose members
have been able to use their historical advantages  to take disproportionate advantage of the
limited opportunities for economic and educational advance that capitalist
development in India has offered. This includes the fact that they are not subject
to the entry barriers that their own prejudice creates for others. The
discourse on ‘merit’ in the debate on reservations, virtually the only
mechanism that has served in a limited way to breach this monopoly, reflects
this prejudice. It denies its own existence and shifts the responsibility for
‘discrimination’ to reservations, though the logical premise of the view that
reservations discriminate against the ‘meritorious’ has to be a belief that
innate merit is distributed unequally across different castes. 

of their identity by the victims of caste oppression has a positive potential missing
in dominant caste assertion to the extent that it can contribute to creating
the conditions for the elimination of its own basis. However, given that the
annihilation of caste has to be dissolution of caste identities, is it not important
to also realize the inherent limits to the politics of identity in the struggle
against caste oppression and discrimination?? What is the fundamental change
that such a politics can achieve other than being a perpetual challenge to the
practical operation of caste prejudice in some contexts and enabling a few to
breach the barrier of caste privilege? Is that enough to eliminate the
prejudice and all the oppression and discrimination it implies? Given the
structure of caste hierarchy, where instead of a simple binary division into
oppressor and oppressed groups there are a number of layers and castes,
assertion of caste identity if pushed too far can surely even weaken the
struggle against oppression. It clearly has the capacity of disrupting the
forging of larger identities – not just class identity when these classes have
a multi-caste character but even of those oppressed through the caste system.
Moreover, identity assertion in the same social group can simultaneously
contain both elements – of asserting dominance as well challenging oppression. The
assertion of oppressed caste identity is also often a part and parcel of a
process of class and other social differentiations taking place within the same
caste or caste group – since the upward mobility of some implied in that
process simultaneously confronts barriers of caste privilege and prejudice. The
politics that appeals to a unified caste identity may in such circumstances
contribute to the overcoming of those barriers. That, however, does not serve
the interests of all who are so unified equally and can even cover the
emergence of contradictory interests within them.

To the
extent that capitalism in India has undermined caste, it has created some
opportunities for class and economic mobility even amongst members of oppressed
castes.  The nature of capitalism in
general and of Indian capitalism in particular being what they are – such
opportunities for joining the ranks of the relatively privileged, however, would
always remain limited in the aggregate. In addition the continuing survival and
reinforcing of caste also always places exceptional barriers in the path of
those from oppressed castes who might be in a position to take advantage of
these opportunities. The politics of oppressed caste identity thus has an
objective basis in the conditions of Indian capitalism, but with a dual
character. It can contribute to the development of the struggle against
capitalism which in the ultimate analysis is the necessity for the
comprehensive decimation of caste. It can also, however, be made to serve the
purpose of maintaining the status quo even when it challenges caste hierarchy,
by limiting and blunting the edge of a struggle founded on widespread
aspirations for an end to caste oppression. The view that neoliberalism is an
effective answer to caste is an idea of such a nature.


that has been said in this brief note is really new – it simply reiterates a
particular perspective that has emerged from the real experience of struggles.
It is naturally a contested perspective – one that has been challenged from
apparently exactly opposite standpoints. Ultimately, it is in history that the
debate between different perspectives will be eventually settled. Let us hope and
strive to ensure that such a settlement in the form of bringing to an end the
very long history of a despicable institution does not lie too far away in the

Surajit Mazumdar is a Professor of Economics in Jawaharlal Nehru University.