In India, no job unless you belong to a particular cultural group?


So, in order to get some kinds of jobs (and not the fanciest ones), you must belong to a particular caste, often the lowest one? And quotas? It looks like affirmative action gone haywire.

How is the caste system enforced? Can you change castes, and if so, how?

I find it interesting that, rather than wanting to outlaw the entire system and make non-discrimination into law, they want to perpetuate the system but make it work for them as individuals.

Here’s Wikipedia’s take.

The Indian government has outlawed legal discrimination by caste. However, it realizes that certain people outside the caste system…Dalits, and certain tribal groups, still suffer discrimination and disadvantage. So, it set up programs to benefit members of disadvantaged groups.

The caste system in modern India is overall weaker and more flexible than it was in some earlier periods of India’s history. However, among many people the tradition of strict caste observance still persists.

A caste (Sanskrit jati) is an endogamous group, meaning that its members may marry only members of the same group. Yes, jatis are usually associated with hereditary occupations or professions, along with other caste-specific characteristics like what kinds of food are permitted to them, how high up in the social hierarchy they are, etc.

Traditionally, a low-status jati maintained its hold on its hereditary occupation because no member of a higher-status jati would want to do it. It’s easy to see how that works in the case of very low-status tasks like cleaning latrines and sewers, sweeping streets, etc. It’s less obvious why certain other occupations (e.g., potters, basket-weavers, oil-pressers) were assigned a low social status.

But all jatis were reinforced by the very cliqueish nature of the caste system. A jati was a sort of cross between an extended family, an old-boys club, and a neighborhood. You simply didn’t walk into the neighborhood of a different jati and ask for membership. And if you had the temerity to set up for yourself as an outside competitor at the same occupation, not only would your own jati members be horrified that you were violating the dharma of your own people, but the members of the other jati would strongly resent your “muscling in”.

Compliance with caste norms was enforced by strong social cohesion and family disapproval, and in extreme cases by “outcasteing”. If you did something that too blatantly violated the conventions of your jati, the other members of your jati would just shun you completely. These were the people you’d grown up with, the people you were related to, the people whose work and families and customs and clothing were the only life you’d ever known, and all of a sudden you had no place among them any more, and no place anywhere else in Indian society either. The threat of being “outcaste” was a powerful incentive for conformity.

That’s not to say that there weren’t many instances of families successfully changing their caste in Indian society. The usual strategy was to move to a distant area and claim a different (generally, higher) caste background. Sometimes groups outside the caste system were enfolded into caste society through a particular occupational function, and then a particular jati status or jati-origin legend was assigned to them. (E.g., members of some non-caste tribal groups in western India served as guards and soldiers for Hindu rulers and consequently grew to be accepted as members of the “Rajputs”, a group of high-status ruler/warrior castes.)

How does the influx of “new” jobs like Computer network administration affect the system? Are they fitted into existing classifications, or left in a sort of cultural limbo?

Well, it depends. On the one hand, high-tech-type jobs that generally require higher education are sometimes rather “caste-flexible” because of affirmative-action efforts in schooling. State-funded education has something of a mixing effect on castes, and many educated people repudiate the caste system, so there are a number of people with low-caste origins who make it into the middle class through the high-tech education and training system.

On the other hand, there is still a powerful tendency for members of the high-status castes (especially members of the top-ranked Brahmana or “Brahmin” class, which traditionally included the priestly and scholarly jatis) to focus on educational achievement and high-status jobs, sort of as their intellectual birthright.

On the third hand, commerce is traditionally the province of jatis in the Vaisya class, so they tend to be very well represented in new commercial fields such as high-tech. (Among the four classes or varnas, Vaisyas are third in status after the Brahmanas and the ruler/warrior Ksatriyas; the lowest is the laboring class of Sudras.)

Some random examples of highly successful Indian IT figures:

  • Sunil Mittal, director of Bharti Mittal Group. Member of the Mittal subcaste of the Agrawals or Aggarwals, traditionally part of the Vaisya (trading) class.

  • N. R. Narayana Murthy, founder of Infosys. Member of a high-status Brahmana jati, thus near the top of the traditional caste pecking order.

  • Shiv Nadar, CEO of HCL Technologies. Member of the non-Brahmana Nadar community which is generally regarded as one of the “OBCs”, i.e., “Other Backward Classes”, low-status groups such as tribals and dalits (“untouchables”) and some Sudra jatis.

And let’s not even get into the strong IT presence of members of non-Hindu groups like the Parsis and the Sikhs and the Jains, okay? Really, it’s pretty mixed, although if I had to bet I’d bet that the Hindu Brahmanas and Vaisyas form the bulk of the workforce in this field.