Say Hello to India’s Newest and Fastest-Growing Caste

Sometime around 2012 or ’13, my daughters stopped speaking in Konkani, our mother tongue. It isn’t entirely clear what provoked it; perhaps it was a teacher at their Mumbai school encouraging students to speak more English at home. Or perhaps it was something else. It doesn’t matter.

What did matter was that our home became an almost exclusively English-speaking household, with the occasional sporadic Konkani conversation. We were not alone. Clustered throughout the affluent sections of urban India are many families such as ours, speaking predominantly English and not the tongues they grew up speaking in.

Some of these families, or at least parents in these English-speaking households do make an attempt to speak their mother tongue as much as they speak in English. But even in these bilingual households, English still dominates. It takes an effort for the kids to speak in the Indian tongues, beyond a few simple phrases. English on the other hand comes naturally to them; the larger vocabulary they possess in English helping them express complex thoughts and propositions far easily.

I have been looking for a term, an acronym or a phrase that describes these families who speak English predominantly at home. These constitute an influential demographic, or rather a psychographic, in India — affluent, urban, highly educated, usually in intercaste or inter-religious unions. I propose to call them Indo-Anglians[1].

Indo-Anglians

Unlike Anglo-Indians, the original English-speaking community in India, who were Christians, Indo-Anglians comprise all religions, though Hindus dominate. Indo-Anglians are also a highly urban lot; concentrated in the top 7 large cities of India (Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai, Pune, Hyderabad and Kolkata) with a smattering across the smaller towns in the hills and in Goa.

Within these cities, they are clustered in certain pockets: Gurgaon, and parts of South Delhi, South Bombay and Western Suburbs from Bandra to Andheri, Indiranagar, Koramangala and gated communities in Bangalore’s Outer Ring Road — Sarjapur, Koregaon Park — Kalyaninagar in Pune, Gachibowli and HiTech City in Hyderabad etc. They fall well within the top 1% of India economically, and have a consumption basket that is comparable to their middle class counterparts abroad. Their kids go to International schools and have ‘first-world yoga names’ such as Aryan, Kabir, Kyra, Shanaya, Tia etc[2].

I estimate the number of Indo-Anglian households (HHs hereafter) in India at about 400,000. This is of course a guesstimate. No previous studies exist; the closest we come to any official data is the 2001 census which says 226,000 Indians speak English as their first language. I have shared my reasoning behind the estimate of 400,000 HHs (households) in the endnotes[3].

These 400,000 Indo-Anglian HHs account for ~1.5m people (400,000 * 3.5, as family sizes are smaller in these HHs). This is about 1% or so of the 130–140m that claims to speak English as a second language in India — who I refer to as the English Comfortables (ECs), and about ~5% of the 25–30m for whom I reckon English is a primary language, whom I term English First (EFs)[4].

The below graphic should make this clear.

IAs = Indo-Anglians / EFs = English Firsts / ECs = English Comfortables

A majority of these Indo-Anglian HHs have emerged over the past decade, such as in my case. And over the next 5–7 years, we are likely to see a spike, perhaps even a doubling in these numbers as well, on the back of growing westernization, demand for English education and more critically, rising intercaste or intercommunity marriages, the single biggest cause of Indo-Anglian HHs (when parents have different mother tongues the child usually ends up speaking English). The rapid emergence and continuing growth of Indo-Anglian HHs has important implications for society, business and governance. Let us traverse through these.

Society

A considerable proportion of Indo-Anglians HHs see marriages between members of different communities (and castes). Basis anecdata I would hazard that a majority of the Indo-Anglian marriages are between the traditional upper castes. But they also have members from ‘dominant’ / upwardly mobile but historically lower castes, e.g., Yadavs. Once accepted into the Indo-Anglian fold, members fold their traditional caste identity into Indo-Anglian culture. Caste is rarely discussed amongst Indo-Anglians (IAs) and few caste or religious conventions are followed.

Let us take vegetarianism, a core caste precept for most Brahmins and all Banias. There are a substantial number of IAs (Indo-Anglians) who are vegetarian, but they are not opposed to marrying a partner who eats meat, or even beef. They are also not opposed to the partner cooking meat at home or ordering it in. It is also unlikely that different vessels are used for non-vegetarian cooking at their home. In fact in one such household, I have even seen the vegetarian partner occasionally digging into the gravy, avoiding the meat. The concept of ritual pollution, manifested in separate utensils for vegetarian and non-veg food, rarely holds for such Indo-Anglian HHs. Vegetarianism is a moral choice for IAs and not a religious norm.

This leads me to think of two distinct ways to look at IAs. One is to see them as casteless, or even as example of a ‘post-caste’ community, where the traditional caste identity is subsumed under the new Indo-Anglian identity. The alternate approach, which I prefer, is to look at them as a distinct ‘caste’ parallel to the upper castes, with its own unique cultural norms and practices. The key criteria for caste inclusion and endogamy being advanced English language skills (and the confidence that comes with it).

Members of IA HHs will happily marry members from non-IA HHs provided the potential partner speaks good English and can fit into IA circles. Seen in this light IAs are India’s newest and fastest growing caste;[5] and the only one where birth is not a necessary condition for inclusion. This is in my view hugely important, for this keeps the Indo-Anglian caste open to expansion from traditionally oppressed communities — OBCs, Dalits who have benefited from English education and exposure to westernized culture.

Are IAs religious? In the traditional sense, no. They are not frequenters of temples, nor do they perform religious ceremonies. That said, they are what I call ‘FabIndia religious’, following soft cultural traditions, dressing up on occasions etc. They do have spiritual needs though, for they are a far lonelier, stressed out, emotionally over-wrought community than most other Indian communities, due to their rootlessness, limited interaction with relations, and dependence on their careers to derive their identity.

To meet these needs they turn to new-age gurus of the likes of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar & Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, whose rise has paralled the emergence of IAs (and the English First segment), or even take to practices outside the Hindu fold such as Soka Gakkai. And as their numbers grow, we are likely to see more new age gurus and practices emerge to tap these affluent spiritual consumers.

Business

As the IA population grows, several businesses and sectors have emerged to tap their distended wallets, most notably the media (native to this segment, so I wont dwell much on it) and the education sector. The education sector is important as it both creates and is in turn fashioned by IAs. What is particularly interesting is the creation of a distinct education pathway for the children of IAs by Indian education entrepreneurs over the past decade or so.

Let me elaborate. New-age schools began across most cities in India in the ’90s promising a less stressful inquiry-oriented teaching method. Parents who had grown up on hypercompetitive rote-oriented learning and teaching styles were happy to acquiesce. The kids who emerged through the system were soft, well-rounded kids; not the battle-hardened tigers that their parents were. This was all fine when they were to go to US or UK for their undergraduate education. Those who stayed behind in India went to less competitive but still ‘prestigious’ institutions such as the National Law Schools, Srishti Design, Symbiosis, Manipal etc.

Over time the number of students from progressive schools increased, and even the law schools and other safe options such as Symbiosis became competitive. This has now led to the emergence of a new wave of Corporate-backed Universities[6] such as Shiv Nadar, OP Jindal, Munjal etc. Thus an entire alternative hypo-competitive education pathway has emerged to cater to the needs of IAs, stressing holistic learning, exposure to liberal arts and building a rounded personality. Admission is driven not by hard cut-offs or performance on entrance tests but via holistic assessments and intentionally fuzzy metrics.

Similar to the education and media sectors, other businesses too have emerged to tap these IA and English First (EFs hereafter) HHs. The most notable of these are organic / healthy food and cosmetics brands — think 24 Mantra, Forest Essentials, Kama Ayurveda, Raw Pressery, Epigamia, Paperboat etc. Restaurants are another category that is aiming hard for these segments — Starbucks, Social, Hoppipola etc. That said, brands which target themselves too sharply to this psychographic also run the risk of plateauing out in growth, given that this segment is only 25–30m large.

The rapid emergence of Organic food brands over the past few years such as 24 Mantra, Conscious Food, Pride of Cows etc is particularly interesting. These are really expensive products compared to their non-organic counterparts, but IA HHs are happy to pay the premium for the health benefits that they confer. In paying this premium, they are deviating from the traditional scrooge mindset of the Indian middle-class. One clear reason for this willingness to pay the premium is because these products are akin to ‘signal’ products. Usage or possession of cultural products signals status about yourself to the wider world, much the same way as driving a Tesla or Prius conveys something about yourself.

Indo-Anglians love signal products; as the usage and display of these products and brands helps bolster their identities. Their identities help them select products, and then those products in turn shape their identities. Some such brands that are important to Indo-Anglians include (in no order) — Apple, Netflix, FabIndia, Anokhi, Good Earth, Neemrana, Starbucks etc.

Governance

IAs or even the broader EFs (English Firsts) segment are not sizeable enough to influence elections; not even in cities or relevant constituencies where they are concentrated, such as Indiranagar or Bandra or DLF Phase V. I suppose time will make them relevant in some of these constituencies and one state (Goa, which I address below) over the next decade. That said they will still be inconsequential as far as legislative intervention is concerned. So how do they influence policy and politics?

Judicial approaches and activism via NGOs, policy intervention via thinktanks, influencing media coverage etc., are favourite routes for IAs + EFs to impact policy. The ceding of legislative space to judiciary which has happened in India is in that light desirable for the IAs / EFs, for that is how they are able to influence policy and decisions in India today. Judicial intervention has thus developed as a counterpoint to legislative power, even as IAs and EFs have retreated from legislative politics entirely. Another area from which IAs and EFs retreated is the IAS and other bureaucratic offices; but they continue to influence policy by entering through the ‘Professional’ route into influential policy-making bodies such as Niti Aayog, Atal Innovation Mission etc[7].

The only exception to IAs’ legislative irrelevance may be Goa. It has about 10,000 IA HHs as per my estimate (out of a population of 1.8m). Increasingly IAs from outside the state are investing in a second house in Goa, attracted by the westernized culture, popular restaurants and beaches, as well as the presence of other IAs. It is also emerging as a popular retirement destination. Over time — perhaps in two decades — I see Goa transforming into an IA stronghold. The only other state I have similar hopes of is Meghalaya, though its distance from the urban centres mean that it is unlikely that elite IAs will move there.

Gurgaon is the only city where I think IAs could emerge as an influential voting block that can swing elections. In other metros, there will be pockets (equivalent to assembly or even parliamentary constituencies) such as Mumbai’s Western Suburbs or Powai, a Koramangala or Indiranagar in Bangalore etc., that will emerge in the future. Still given their ability to influence policy through non-legislative routes, IAs aren’t likely to lose any sleep over their inability to wield electoral clout.

Invisible Class

IAs are a paradox. They are both India’s most visible and yet invisible class. I use the latter phrase in the context of their emergence as a distinct category in Indian society, yet one which is not apparent to most. They get lumped amongst the elite and are commonly described as the English-speaking elite class. Yet, as we know not all the elite or affluent classes speak English. And there are many IAs who are not necessarily affluent in the strict sense of the term. Increasingly they are emerging as a cultural class or caste, with their own distinct and evolving set of preferences, behaviours, concerns and needs.

While IAs do not view themselves as a caste, they do fulfill the key condition for being considered a caste; restricting marriage to members of their caste. Only the criteria for entry into the caste is superior English speaking skills, and confidence to navigate IA circles. It helps that most members are from privileged (or savarna backgrounds) which lends that confidence. But there is no hard wall, and enough members of the IA caste today were from castes that are traditionally considered as lower castes. Once in the IA Caste, typically through an intercaste marriage[8], members subsume their traditional caste identities to the Indo-Anglian identity. They then become People Like Us.

IA identity is not entirely fixed or stable yet, but is evolving as the numbers of this community swell, which is happening rapidly. It will be fascinating to see how this community evolves, and shapes (and is shaped by) the transforming Indian Republic.

Also read

India’s New ‘English Only’ Generation — The New York Times

India Faces a Linguistic Truth: English Spoken Here — The New York Times

Endnotes

[1] Previous usage of the word ‘Indo-Anglian’ has been in the context of the term ‘Indo-Anglian literature’, describing Indian writing in English. This term is not as commonly used as before.

[2] from “The class of Kaira, Shyra and Shanaya in Bollywood” in Mint.

[3] I have arrived at the figure of 400,000 households The first proxy is educational choice, i.e., the demand for progressive school education, such as for International schools offering IB / IGCSE curriculum as well as new age / traditional elite ICSE / CBSE schools that charging over Rs 1 lac a year. My view is that 75–80% of HHs sending their kids to progressive schools are Indo-Anglians. The second proxy is Netflix’s paying subscriber base in India. Both estimates broadly corroborate with each other at about 400,000 Indo-Anglian HHs in India. I have enclosed detailed workings below.

Let us take Netflix first, as it is simpler. Netflix has 5m subscribers in India, with 6–8% of them paying. This works out to 300,000–400,000 paying subscribers. Data from Counterpoint Research — see link.

Progressive school education calculations are a bit more long-winded. I took Hyderabad as a base, and then projected the numbers to the nation. I took a representative school from Hyderabad (which we will leave unnamed) which has 1,300 students from ~800HHs (households), of whom about 90% or 700HHs speak predominantly English at home (estimated by School Management). Progressive schools have thus a 50% ratio of students to Indo-Anglian HHs (1,300 students à 700 HHs); I have estimated the total number of students in progressive schools in Hyderabad at 50,000 and hence 25,000 HHs.

Hyderabad with 5m population has 25,000 Indo-Anglian HHs. The projected numbers for other cities are as follows –

  1. Mumbai — population 20m — 125,000 HHs
  2. Delhi NCR — 20m — 100,000
  3. Kolkata — 15m — 25,000
  4. Bangalore — 8m — 50,000
  5. Chennai — 7m — 35,000
  6. Pune — 6m — 40,000
  7. Goa — 1m — 10,000
  8. Rest of India — 10,000

Thus, a total of 420,000 HHs across India i.e., ~400,000 HHs

[4] The 2001 Census found that 86m people speak English as a 2nd language. In my reconing, this number would have increased 1.5 times to about ~130m in 2017 (on the back of urbanization, growth in English language education etc.). These 130m range across fluency levels. A majority of these 130m are comfortable in English and will speak / write back fluently but are not English-first, i.e., thinking in English, and preferring to communicate and consume English content over others. It is hard to estimate the size of these English-first Indians, but I would reckon that it is about 20–25% of these ~130m, i.e., about 25–30m, about 2–2.5% of Indian population. This also ties in with the number of regular English newspaper readers in India, as per Indian Readership Survey 2017.

[5] It is noteworthy that Times of India’s matrimonial section has had a sub-category called Cosmopolitan, which is essentially the Indo-Anglian community by another name.

[6] See “We got into IIT / IIM but our kids won’t” — an older post by me.

[7]Niti Aayog to hire more professionals“, The Economic Times 9 November 2017

[8] Intercaste or even interreligious marriages mean a greater probability that the children of the union will speak English. This is given greater probability that the parents themselves speak English to each other and that the kid will go to an international school where there are others like him who speak English.