India – Class, Caste and Hierarchy

India is a vibrant and fascinating country and one that frequently pushes foreigners far outside of their comfort zone.

One of the aspects of Indian life that many foreigners find hard to get used to is the prevalence of hierarchy that affects every part of life in this intriguing country. Of course, India is not unique in using hierarchy to assign values and order, but for an outsider, the way it is done can result in a real culture shock. For Indians, it is the norm, and they will happily explain it, but to express any criticism is considered disrespectful. Therefore, it is well worth gaining some prior insight into class, caste and hierarchy in India.

Hierarchy in families

The hierarchical structure is first learned within the family unit. Men will ‘rank’ higher than women of similar ages, older relatives hold a higher position than younger members of the family, younger siblings hold a lower position than older ones and daughters-in-law come below the husband, senior in-laws and non in-law daughters.

The respect that a family member shows a higher-standing relative is characterised by language, specifically, the way family members are addressed. Members of the family are often not addressed by name, but by certain terms. For example, a wife may refer to her husband as ‘daddy’ or a similar term and a child will frequently address an elder as uncle or aunty even when they are not related.

Caste

When talking about hierarchy in India, one must include the social grouping referred to as ‘caste’.

Initially a Hindu creation, castes (or varnas) concerned groups who were given a ranking according to their social standing and occupation.

Originally, there were four Castes – Brahmins/priests, Kshatriyas/rulers, Vaishyas/merchants or farmers, and Shudras/artisans or servants.

Though originally a Hindu concept, the caste system was adopted across all of India and thousands more caste and sub-caste groups were established. The criteria for belonging to a particular caste group became diverse and could concern anything from name to skin colour.

The Abolition of the Caste System

Officially, the caste system was abolished in 1947, when India gained independence, but the reality is that the ideals and perceptions remain prevalent in Indian life today. The degree of prevalence tends to be dependent on the region of India. However, though the caste system is still very much alive, there have been vast improvements for the lower caste groups, who were previously at a significant disadvantage when it came to education and vocation. This is an especially welcome development for those who found themselves at the very bottom of the caste system – the Dalits.

Dalits were associated with ‘impure’ occupations, such as butchering or cleaning sewers. As such, they were considered to be ‘polluted’ and for anyone outside of Dalit status to interact with them was considered to be polluting to that individual. Accordingly, Dalits were extremely segregated, not being allowed into villages, temples or schools.

In modern India, thanks to the implementation of many laws and initiatives, the socio-economic status of much of its Dalit population has improved, though more so in urbanised areas. In 1997, India even elected its first Dalit president, K. R. Narayanan – a massive step forward for the Dalit population.

Class

Predictably, class in India is predicated upon caste. There are three main classes – forward, backward and Dalit. Accordingly, the higher classes correspond with the higher castes and generally have access to better and more numerous options than the other classes.

India’s class divide has long been characterised by a huge wealth divide between the upper and lower, with little in-between. However, the economic landscape is changing for India, and more and more people are beginning to occupy the ‘middle’. Great news for both the class and caste system, and indeed, India.

Business

Business relationships are also created and maintained with long-established hierarchies.

Indians assign a lot of value to pleasing their superiors within the work environment. Those in positions of authority are shown the utmost respect, never challenged (even if wrong) and are always obeyed. Treating everyone as an equal, as is common in the West, is not the norm in India.

Business culture in India is often said to be a ‘shame-based’ one. In the West, if an employee makes a mistake, it may well be talked about, explained and even learned from. In India, this is not the case. Mistakes are not to be made at any time and if one does occur, it is not to have any attention drawn to it, but rather it is to be downplayed and covered up as quickly as possible.

To those not accustomed to it, the hierarchical culture of India can present a view of the country that is old-fashioned and based almost solely on inequalities. However, it can be said that hierarchy is that which creates and maintains order in Indian society. Spending time in India, one begins to see where the hierarchy works well, such as within family units, and where it needs to be improved or altered, such as the rural Dalits and their status in society.

 

9 thoughts on “India – Class, Caste and Hierarchy

  1. Thanks for this overview. Just wondering if there is a clean relationship between caste and class and why the naming of the classes happened. Forward makes some sense, but how did the term ‘backward’ class get created and which castes were originally assigned to it? I’m quite fascinated by all of this, because many Indians will ask why our ‘true’ surname is (rather than Kumar) so that they can properly ‘bucket’ the family into some predefined stereotype. I guess the surnames are typically associated with castes….. I am not Indian, but married to an Indian and have been living in India for about 6 years now. Thanks for your insight.

    • Hi there,

      Thanks for the comment – you’ve brought up some extremely interesting points that are incredibly relevant for modern India (as I’m sure you know only too well).

      The so-called ‘backward’ classes (there are a few classifications) comprise the middle to lower caste members, but not the lowest, who fall in the Harijan/Dalit class.

      In the majority of cases, the relationship between caste and class is not what would be considered ‘clean’ (if I have your meaning of the word right). Though the two are certainly heavily-linked, there are more and more overlaps emerging as the economical and social status of lower castes continues to improve.

      It’s a dynamic situation, as is to be expected for a country that is developing and changing so quickly. The relationship between caste and class looks to become a less than straight-forward one.

      Hope that’s provided some of the information you were looking for. Would love to hear more about your experience in the fascinating country that is India!

      • Thank you. Yes, it helps. I still find it challenging to get a truly deep insight into news and events due to the prolific use of acronyms and terms for which I have only a superficial understanding. Sometimes I just turn off and don’t try to understand as it’s too much work. =)

        My experience here has been positive overall. I tried hard not to live in the ‘expat bubble’ though we are by no means living in a state of need. The longer I stay here, the more I fear I will become dependent upon the fundamental differences in lifestyle–those being of course domestic help and the freedom of spontaneity that comes with it as a working mother, as well as the more surprising sense of importance one is given here just by the nature of not being native. I have very mixed feelings about the latter, because it works for me and against me in different circumstances. I also find it a bit embarrassing at times because I am so undeserving of any ‘VIP’ status. That said, when I go back home and melt into the background of anonymity, I find myself missing the feeling of being ‘somebody’ in a group of strangers. Surprising, to say the least, given my personality.

        The things I miss the most about my life before India are linked to the these new addictions. Privacy is one. It is very hard to not be someone else’s gossip here. There are just too many people involved in ways I don’t even know. The other is independence. I am used to fending for myself in almost every way. I have resolved to ‘letting go’ on big issues, but it scares me at times. I often feel lost in a sea of unknowns. Examples would include everything from fighting back against injustice to getting a service provider to stand behind his/her work to simply being able to drive myself anywhere at anytime.

        The best thing about being here for me is family. I am fortunate to have an amazing support system of friends and family who accept me and embrace the differences. If I have learned one thing from living abroad, it’s that people are more alike than we are different. It is a guiding principle for me.

        Thanks for asking and for letting me vent…..=)

        • Thanks so much for that insight! What a thoroughly fascinating ‘vent’! It’s brilliant to get such a close, first-hand perspective and we’d really like to thank you for taking the time to share your experience with us. Maybe you should write a book!

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