On Caste, Reservation & Arranged Marriages In India.

Any effort to remove one without the other is an exercise in futility.

‘That which is acquired by birth but can’t be cast off by death, that is caste.’

This ancient Sanskrit verse perfectly encapsulates the reality of ‘jati’ (caste) in India. In the country’s socio-economic landscape, an individual’s caste identity is everlasting, all-pervading, unchangeable and eternally the same. Unlike in the west, the second name (surname) in India is not merely an indicator of familial heritage. It’s so much more than that. It not only overshadows the first name, but more often than not, even the individual himself. From skin-colour to education, from professions to sexuality, it makes its presence felt very sharply in the ever-expanding list of stereotypes that form part of the Indian consciousness. The key notion of caste even went beyond the strict framework of Hinduism, in which it originated, to influence the social structures of other religious groups like Muslims too.

Originally starting out as a way to classify groups according to their occupations, the caste system slowly evolved as a hierarchical system for distribution of social rewards & burdens. This caste hierarchy was developed on the notions of pollution and purity. The upper castes like Sharma (in the North) & Nair (in Kerala) were considered pure and were forbidden from engaging in marriage, meals and religious worship with lower castes and dalits (outcastes). For a long time, this caste hierarchy was somewhat flexible and certain castes moved up and down depending upon material circumstances. However, Brahmins were never dethroned from their position at the top and this stands true even today.

Things took a turn for the worse when the British began the process of colonizing India. In an effort to govern the country efficiently, the British administrators began by trying to understand the complexities of caste. The 1901 Census under the direction of Herbert Risley was particularly important as it sought to collect information on the social hierarchy of caste — i.e., the social order of precedence in particular regions, as to the position of each caste in the rank order. This was an epochal moment in the history of modern India.

This kind of direct attempt to count caste and to officially record caste status changed the institution itself. Before this, caste existed only as an abstract idea that guided social customs. But by publishing an official account of the hierarchy, caste identity was made concrete and made known to everyone. This made people more self-conscious than ever before. The lower caste leaders began asserting themselves in the political, economic spheres long dominated by the upper cases. But they soon realized, centuries of discrimination had crippled their ability to compete with the higher-ups in the hierarchy. In order to mitigate the evils of casteism and provide a level-playing field, positive discrimination a.k.a Reservation was born. Reservation involves certain measures like reserving access to seats in the various legislatures, to government jobs, and to enrollment in higher educational institutions to historically disadvantaged groups.

Perhaps no other public policy tool has captured the collective consciousness of a nation’s people as much as Reservation in India. From the ballrooms of five star hotels to chai shops on the streets, from students to CEOs, everyone has a strong opinion on it. While some support it, others not so much.

This is because every Indian citizen, from the moment he is born and till he dies, is significantly affected by it. He is either in the reservation quota or he is outside of it.

It was the British who first introduced the concept of Reservation in India through the Indian Councils Act,1909 and the Government of India Act, 1919. Initially restricted to the Muslim community, it was later expanded to include Christians, Sikhs, Anglo-Americans, Depressed classes (lower caste Hindus) etc. Reservation was an instrument used by the colonial administrators to divide the Indian Independence movement. It created several loyalist groups for the British and was used as a counterweight against the Indian National Congress (INC).

Things changed, for better or worse, when Indian attained independence in 1947. The new Constitution of India came into force in 1950 and one of it’s primary objectives was to promote social, economic and political equality in the highly unequal Indian society. By appointing Dr. B R Ambedkar as the chairman of the drafting committee, a man qualified for the job but born of the low caste, the makers of the Constitution took the first step towards promoting justice.

However in the original Constitution, religious minorities like the Muslims and Christians were stripped of the benefits of Reservation and it was restricted to only Scheduled Castes (the untouchables or dalits) and the Scheduled Tribes (the adivasis), both subsets of the Hindu tradition.

In the 1970s, other backward castes, who neither belonged to the reserved castes (the SCs & the STs) nor the upper castes (Brahmins, Kshatriyas), began political activism to secure reservation quota for themselves. In 1979, Mandal Commission was appointed to look into grievances of the backward castes. It recommended that members of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) be granted reservations to 27 per cent of jobs under the Central government and public sector undertakings (and later in IITs, IIMs etc). This was finally implemented by the government in 1990. Though riots took place all over the country, the Supreme Court gave it’s nod.

Today, reservation stands at a grand total of 49%, divided between STs (8%), SCs (15%) and OBCs (27%). Their share in India’s population is 8.6%, 16.6% and 41% respectively. While the SCs & STs have reservation quotas with respect to their populations, the OBCs claim that, they are getting the short end of the stick as their quotas do not match their population numbers. They have repeatedly asked the political parties to bring in legislation to circumvent the quota limit of 50% set by the Supreme Court.

Ronald Reagan famously said, ‘Nothing lasts longer than a temporary government program.’

The Constitution makers in 1950 envisaged that, reservation would be discontinued after a period of 10 years, by which time it would have served the purpose of empowering the marginalized sections. It’s overall objective was to make itself irrelevant by providing equality of opportunity to every Indian citizen. They even made a provision to this effect. But subsequent governments, either due to vote bank politics or for genuine reasons, have extended the provision time and again and now, it has become a permanent feature of the the Indian society.

This can be partly explained by considering how reservation has evolved over the years. From merely being a tool to mitigate some of the evils of the caste system, it has now been turned into a political instrument by opportunistic leaders. It helps them to consolidate, existing and emerging support groups to acquire political power.

In a strange twist, in recent times, even those castes/classes which were not traditionally considered backward, have undertaken popular agitations to be included in the reservation quota. Also, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgement, has allowed for reservations in promotions in public sector employment. Some politicians have called for quotas in private sector too. But not everyone in India is enthusiastic about the Reservation and it’s impact on the society.

Reservation has left some significant sections of the population, displeased. Many students and job seekers, belonging to non-reserved categories, complain that they miss out on seats in top educational institutes & public sector employment because the qualifying criteria is set higher for them when compared to those from the reserved quota. Many, often blame the inefficiency of bureaucracy and sub-standard quality of public educational institutes on the intake of less-qualified candidates through reservation. Also among the 51% that is outside the quota system, Hindu upper castes, Muslims, Jains, Christians, Parsis, Sikhs & Buddhists, there are many families that suffer from financial and social problems that are similar to that of lower castes. However, they do not get quotas to fall back on, which leads to backward discrimination.

Even the political arena, the OBCs, SCs & STs, due to their sheer numbers, have disproportionately larger political power. Also, the non-reserved group is divided along religious lines, which prevents them from putting up a united front in politics against the lower castes.

Now the question remains as to how did the upper castes perpetuate their dominance in the Indian society in spite of such shortcomings? Why did they accept reservation for the lower castes? And how do still hold so much economic and social power?

The answer lies in the institution of arranged marriage. Originally it emerged as a mechanism to limit women’s hypergamy (the action of marrying a person of a superior class) that would have left a large section of the male population without a sexual partner. Mind you, polygamy was widely practiced by the nobility. This would have quickly destabilized the social fabric and lead to frequent and violent revolutions against the ruling classes. Thus, many marriages were arranged even before the boy and the girl reached puberty.

By ensuring marriages took place within one’s own or similar castes, upper castes prevented the lower castes from accessing wealth, power and knowledge that they had conserved for centuries. Though there were exceptions, by and large, the smooth functioning of caste apparatus was facilitated with arranged marriages acting as the lubricant.

An important component of an arranged marriage is dowry. It refers to all the gifts given by the bride’s family to the groom’s family, essentially a wealth transfer from former to the latter. Thus when both the families belong to the same caste, wealth leakages do not take place and it provides an incentive to the upper caste parents to ensure their children go through the arranged marriage route.

It should be noted that neither arranged marriages nor dowry are exclusive to only the upper sections of the society. Most, if not all, castes follow them. In India, castes exist on a spectrum and every caste has groups, above and below it. Even among the dalits (untouchables), marital relationships are allowed either with equal or above castes. Lower castes are thus, progressively excluded from rising up the socioeconomic ladder through the medium of arranged marriages. Thus, reservation represents their only option to achieve social mobility and for upper castes, arranged marriages represents their only option to limit changes in the social hierarchy.

Indian society is less individualistic than it’s Western counterparts and group identity is an important aspect of one’s life in the subcontinent. Even the Constitution makes an attempt to promotes a balance between the individual and the group. While social institutions like the arranged marriage and public policy tools like reservation place an emphasis on the community over the person, they also provide commensurate benefits to the individuals. Without reservation, it would be nearly impossible for someone from the lower castes to improve his socioeconomic status. On the other hand, arranged marriages provide the necessary stability and security since both the bride and the groom are accustomed to similar cultures and ways of living.

Even though, there is a growing trend towards young adults abandoning traditional arranged marriages and opting for love marriages, arranged marriages are going nowhere in the foreseeable feature. The same holds true for reservation too. No matter how fluently it’s critics write newspaper and scholarly articles, Reservation is here to stay. Both, reservation & arranged marriages, have an organic relationship with each other and caste forms the eternal link between the two.

But you are not satisfied, if a person tells you that he is a Hindu. You feel bound to inquire into his caste. Why? Because so essential is caste in the case of a Hindu, that without knowing it you do not feel sure what sort of a being he is. — Dr. B. R. Ambedkar.