The orthodox Marxists, observe only two classes in Indian agriculture:
(1) the class of big landlords; and
(2) the class of agricultural labourers.
The other view is that today class differentiation in terms of agricultural labourers, poor peasants, middle peasants, rich peasants, landlords, etc., exists and has also existed in the past. The Marxist scholars consider relations between these classes as ‘capitalistic’, hence the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. System of class is a system that classifies a society in different groups that have nearly the same standing in the society. Such groupings can be on the basis of may different factors such as wealth, power, prestige, ancestry or birth, religion, and occupation. Every society has some system of social classes based on one or more of such factors.
The emergence of the new middle classes in India during the British period and more so after India’s independence does not support a simple two-class theory in regard to the Indian situation. The proletariat is propertyless but he does have a chance for embourgeoisiement.
The categorisation as ‘wage earners’ is a loose one, as it comprises those earning Rs. 200 to Rs. 2,000 per month. Thus, like the ‘haves’, the ‘have nots’ are also a heterogeneous lot. A large number of workers are not ‘organised’. Today, salaries and wages have gone up enormously, and particularly as a result of ‘globalisation’.
Further, the Indian state, being a ‘welfare state’, is the largest employer today. Can a democratic welfare state be as oppressive or exploitative as the monopoly capitalists could be? In India, only one-ninth of the total workers are organised through trade unions. Thus, like caste, class is also a complex phenomenon in Indian society. It overlaps with caste, occupation, factions and pressure groups.
Instead of the classes at the top and at the bottom of the class pyramid, the middle classes and the mixed classes have emerged as crucial phenomena in contemporary India. The emergence of an upper-middle class during the past decade and half has also set in a new trend of social mobility, particularly among the highly qualified people in the fields of science and technology.
The resurgence of caste, with its multiple facets, is a new phenomenon in the post-independence period. Those who have analysed class relations as a dominant causality, they explain caste and other cultural aspects in Indian society as a part of class analysis. Class alone is not a result of the new forces of change. Changes are in the traditional caste and class relations and not in caste alone paving the way to the emergence of class relations.
Thus, classes are found as a part of a system of social stratification in the same way as castes are rooted in Indian society. Class, class relations and class conflicts are not monolithic. There are objective criteria of class identification, and class is- also a concrete unit of interaction vis-a-vis other units.
Caste inheres numerous problems related to economic domination and subjugation, privileges and deprivations, and conspicuous waste and bare survival. Class relationships are treated as background assumptions in the treatment of caste and kinship in India. The jajmani system can be explained in terms of class relations and the mode of production. Division of labour and patron client relationships refer to the economic dimensions of the jajmani system.
Caste riots are frequent in areas where economic deprivations have been reported. The upper castes have waged a class war against Harijans. Dalits/Harijans have been attacked and murdered, their womenfolk raped and put to indignities by the upper caste landlord families.
The intermediate castes have ascended in the class hierarchy, but they are struggling against the upper castes socially and culturally. These castes have been benefited by land reforms and adult franchise more than other caste groups. The Brahmanas have lost their traditional dominance mainly because of the emergence of the numerically preponderant middle castes.
Caste system is a particular type of class system in which the social grouping is done on the basis of birth. The cast system generally refers to such system that exists in Indian subcontinent. It is worthwhile noting that the caste system in India was originally a system of prescribing codes of conduct of people to suit the requirements of their occupation. But as the occupation of people became hereditary the cast system focus changed from occupation to birth and heredity.
In general class system permits some flexibility to individuals to move from one class to another. However such flexibility is not available in any class system based on ancestry or birth. Thus cast system also does not permit any mobility to individuals to move from one class to another.
Generally a class system involves ranking of different groups in minds of people as superior and inferior. The caste system also involves such ranking of different castes. The class system can be informal or formal. The caste system of India is quite formal and well defined.
In village India, where nearly 74 percent of the population resides, caste and class affiliations overlap. According to anthropologist Miriam Sharma, “Large landholders who employ hired labour are overwhelmingly from the upper castes, while the agricultural workers themselves come from the ranks of the lowest — predominantly Untouchable — castes.” She also points out that household-labor-using proprietors come from the ranks of the middle agricultural castes. Distribution of other resources and access to political control follow the same pattern of caste-cum-class distinctions. Although this congruence is strong, there is a tendency for class formation to occur despite the importance of caste, especially in the cities, but also in rural areas.
The caste system is used as an effective method of economic exploitation. The dominant class (caste) also acquires political power and social prestige with which it further perpetuates and consolidates caste hierarchy. Thus, caste hierarchy reflects ownership of land, and economic hierarchy is closely linked with social hierarchy. Caste determines a definite relation to the means of production and subsistence, specially in rural areas. Caste riots reflect conflict of class interests. Ambedkar rightly observed that the caste system was not merely a division of labour, but also “a division of labourers”.
However, caste prevents labourers from becoming a class-by-itself, hence caste is an ideology. Caste has persisted as a religious and feudal ideology. However, today, the caste system is not strong because of disappearance of inter-caste relations. Castes are discrete groups, and hence segmentary entities. Depending upon a given situation, members of caste behave or do not behave like a caste group. Caste is no more an everyday life phenomenon.
Incongruities between caste, class and power are indicative of social mobility in the caste system. The corporate character of caste is under attack; the dominant castes do not enjoy hegemony of power. Sanskritisation, as a process of change, affects dominance of the upper castes, and creates an awareness among the lower castes about their rights. However, it has been noted that castes are not dominant; only families and individuals enjoy dominance and power. Corporate mobility (sanskritisation) is generally not feasible in economic and political spheres.
Mobility in the caste system, therefore, takes place at three levels:
(2) Family, and
Individual is present in both family and caste, and family is considered significant in caste, and both family and caste become sources of identity and support for individual. Intra-caste differentiation can be explained in terms of the status and honour of the members and the families of a given caste.
Castes function as interest groups because they strive for new patterns of distributive justice and equality. Caste associations, caste panchayats and caste-run magazines have strengthened caste ideology. Caste lobbies in parliament, state assemblies and in zila parishads, panchayat samitis and village panchayats have become a fact of today’s political life.
Elections have been fought very much on caste lines. Caste and politics have come to stay together. Caste is very much a source of power for its members. Corporateness has acquired new dimension. From ritual activities it has shifted to elections, jobs and employment opportunities.
However, castes have not become classes simply in economic or psychological terms.Caste continues to retain the ethos of the system in terms of organising intra-caste and inter-caste relations in certain spheres. Untouchability, pollution-purity, norms regarding dining, etc., have weakened, but expression of caste solidarity in social and political spheres has acquired a new character.