Friday 29 April 2016

The Hindu Caste System – India’s Safety Valve?

The Hindu Caste System – India’s Safety Valve?

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 29 April, 2016

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

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Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.


Caste is one of the most infamous aspects of Hinduism. The caste system of Hinduism segregates people into hierarchies that are defined by birth and which are impossible for one to get out of. Innumerable injustices have been carried out over millennia on the basis of caste discrimination by people who belong to castes considered superior to others. Even today, cases of extreme injustice keep appearing regularly in the newspapers.

However, on careful examination, one has to wonder if these divisions have not resulted in a safer situation in India relative to what could have been. In what follows, I explain why I think caste discrimination may have had an unintended positive consequence for India.

Religious Intolerance Worldwide

Religious intolerance has led to the persecution of minorities in countries worldwide. This has been going on for millennia. Let us take a look at just some of these:

·       Wars between Christians and Muslims, Slavs, Jews, and Pagans in the Crusades for centuries
o   5000 Jews were killed in the People’s Crusade in 3 months in 1096
o   10000 Muslims were killed when Jerusalem was taken by the Crusaders in 1099
o   6000 Pagans were killed in the Battle of St. Matthew’s Day, which was fought to convert the pagans of Livonia (present-day Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia)
o   Many more examples of unprovoked aggression in the name of religion during the Crusades
o   About 2000 Jews expelled
o   Forced conversion of 100,000 Jews and forced expulsion of 100,000 Jews
o   Removal of 500,000 Muslims from Spain and eradication of Islam
o   Tens of thousands of Catholic Irish massacred by Cromwell’s forces at the battles of Drogheda, Wexford, Waterford, Limerick, and Galway
o   Expulsion of large numbers of Catholics from Ireland to work as indentured labourers in the West Indies
o   Hundreds of thousands of Catholic Irish killed by a forced famine caused by the destruction of their food stocks
o   The banning of the Catholic faith and the execution of any Catholic priests found
o   Approximately 50,000 Native Americans were forcibly evicted from their homes in the 1830s by an act of the American Congress authorizing military force to do so. Thousands of them died in forced marches in winter without food and adequate clothing in what has been called the Trail of Tears. This act arose from racial hatred of the Native Americans
o   130,000 Muslims living in Slavonia in Croatia ethnically cleansed and exiled to Bosnia and Herzegovina
o   Almost 300,000 Crimean Tatars expelled by the Russians from their homes
o   Expulsion of 1.5 million Bulgarian Muslims after the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78
·       The killing of ethnic Armenian Christians in the Ottoman Empire
o   The genocide of up to 1.5 million Armenian Christians of the Orthodox Faith by the Ottomans in Armenia
·       The Chinese policy towards Tibet, from the days of the Kuomintang to modern Communist China – a policy based on religious intolerance towards the Buddhist Tibetans
o   Up to 1.2 million Tibetans killed by Chinese governments
o   Six million Jews, comprising two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe, and including 1.5 million children, murdered in cold blood
o   Over 250,000 Tamil citizens killed in a 25-year long civil war
o   The state has sanctioned the genocide of more than a million Muslims
o   Forced name changes for the entire ethnic Turkish population of Bulgaria (about 900,000 people) and their replacement by Christian names as part of a “rebirth” process
o   Banning the use of the Turkish language
o   Banning the use of Turkish ethnic dress
o   Closure of all mosques
o   Mass expulsions of those who did not comply to Turkey (about 360,000 Bulgarian Turks)
o   More than 100,000 citizens of Bhutan of Nepalese descent were expelled from Bhutan between 1992 and 1996
o   The ethnic cleansing of more than 2000 Bosnian Muslims in the Lasva Valley genocide from May 1992 to April 1993
o   The Prijedor Massacre of 1992, in which over 5000 Bosnians and Croats were massacred
o   The Visegrad Massacre of 1992, in which around 3000 Bosnian Muslims were killed by Serbs

o   Many more incidents…

·        This is just a partial list, and highlights how dangerous life can be for religious minorities in any country.

India has, for the most part, been spared of this kind of violence (I will discuss the exceptions in what follows), in spite of its status as a nation with the largest Hindu population in the world – a religion with a dominant majority (80%). 

Going by the kind of violence that religious minorities in so many countries have faced, one would not be wrong in thinking that India might have become a theocratic Hindu state a long time ago following an orgy of violence that eliminated, ethnically cleansed, or forcibly converted its minority religions. 

But this has not happened. Why?

Triggers for Religious Pogroms Worldwide

The cases of extreme religious discrimination mentioned above all had potent triggers. The enmity between the Jews and Christians goes back to the Christian Bible, where Jews are held responsible for the execution of Jesus. But many other conflicts have much more recent triggers. Consider the Bosnian Civil War as an example.

The trouble in the Balkans that led to the Bosnian civil war of 1992 can be traced back to Muslim invasions of the region and wars in the middle ages involving Christians and Muslims. Yugoslavia was a former colony of the Ottoman Empire, and so contained both Christian and Muslim populations that were well-mixed. One of the key historical events leading to the inflammation of tensions in Kosovo, for example, is the fact that Kosovo was the site of a major war between the Ottomans and the Serbs, which resulted in Serbia becoming part of the Ottoman Empire – the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. As a result, religious tensions were always quite high in this region. However, with the rise of Josip Broz Tito at the end of World War II, anyone trying to cause religious trouble was put down with an iron hand. But after his death in 1990, the floodgates opened, leading to the division of the country and genocide.

Compared to this, India has plenty of historical baggage that could be the basis of a lot of bad blood between Hindus and Muslims. From the 11th century onwards, large parts of India were conquered, looted, and ruled by foreign rulers of the Islamic faith. Hindus lived as second-hand citizens in the country in which they were a majority; they had to endure forced conversions; their temples were destroyed and mosques built over the ruins of their temples; and they had to pay a discriminatory, religion-based tax to their Muslim rulers. For 300 years, most of India was ruled by the Islamic Mughal Empire. Some of these are disputed by certain scholars, but these are generally accepted as having happened in the popular narrative, whatever their historicity. There is, thus, plenty of fuel to throw into a raging inferno of incendiary claims whereby a few million Muslims can be killed and the rest forced to leave India.

However, this has not happened. This is not to suggest that Hindu-Muslim violence has not happened in India or is not a routine occurrence. Violent incidents happen, but their scale is relatively small. One notable “large” incident was the partition of British India into an India and a Pakistan – but this was a very emotive issue that forced people to leave their land and possessions behind to migrate to another place almost as penniless beggars – a time and place of extreme personal hardship, where emotions naturally ran high. This is by far the most significant incident of religious violence in the Indian subcontinent, leading to the speculated deaths of two million people. But apart from this event which was for the most part forced by a violent partition of the land, most other religious riots cause deaths at most in the tens or hundreds, with very few touching a toll of thousands. For example, the most well-known incident of religious violence in recent years is the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat, in which about 2000 people were estimated to have died. Deaths resulting from religious violence in India are only about 0.01 per 100,000, as compared to a world average of 7.9.

So why is religious violence in India so low?

It is very tempting to suggest that this is because Hinduism is a very tolerant religion. There is some truth to this because of Hinduism's (quite exceptional) attitude that God exists in many forms and that there are many paths to God, all equally valid - quite unlike the "my way or the highway" attitude of Christianity or Islam, both of which believe that salvation is obtained only by belief in the specific God of their religion and by acceptance of their specific doctrines.

But this is not the only reason, as I explain below.

One important aspect of all the cases of religious discrimination worldwide, mentioned above, is that the oppressing group saw itself as largely homogeneous. For instance, Irish Protestants see themselves as largely a monolithic group when compared with the Irish Catholics. Shias and Sunnis see themselves as largely monolithic and oppress the other when one is in a majority in a state. Neither of them recognize the Ahmadiyyas, another sect in Islam, as Muslims at all. During the Crusades, all Christians banded together as working for a common cause against the Arabs who controlled Jerusalem. The Spanish who expelled the Jews and Muslims from Spain towards the end of the 15th century saw themselves as a monolithic Catholic state and saw the Jews and the Muslims as the “other.” The Buddhists who persecuted the Hindus in Sri Lanka, whatever minor divisions they might have had within themselves, saw themselves as one against the “other” of the Hindus; the same can be said of the Buddhists in Myanmar who discriminated against the Rohingya Muslims. Similarly, in all the historic injustices towards the Jews over the centuries, including those by the Nazis, they were seen as the “other” by a largely united Christian majority.

The Lack of Homogeneity Among Hindus

But Hindus, by and large, do not see themselves as a monolithic block. And the reason for this is the infamous caste system. Not only do the four major categories of castes – known as the “varnas” – the Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants), and Shudras (labourers), plus the fifth category of outcastes or untouchables – known variously as panchamas, oppressed castes, depressed castes, ati-Shudras (archaic terms), or Dalits (modern term) – not traditionally mix with each other socially, but even within a given varna, different jatis (castes) generally don’t mix socially in traditional environments.

Hindu society, as Ambedkar famously said, is a collection of castes. The Hindu cares only for his or her fellow-caste person; other Hindus do not mean anything to him/her. While things have changed a lot at a microscopic level since Ambedkar wrote about Hindu society, his observations are still true at the larger level. The one aspect of social mixture in which this is most obvious is marriage. Hindus still marry, by and large, within their caste. Urbanization and the presence of more women in the working force has changed this to some extent, but the majority of marriages, even today in Hindu society, are “arranged” by the parents based on caste compatibility.

So the “Hindu” sees himself first as a caste entity and then in the broader sense as a Hindu. As Ambedkar says in The Annihilation of Caste, “A Hindu’s public is his caste. His responsibility is only to his caste. His loyalty is restricted only to his caste. Virtue has become caste-ridden, and morality has become caste-bound. There is no sympathy for the deserving. There is no appreciation of the meritorious. There is no charity to the needy. Suffering as such calls for no response. There is charity, but it begins with the caste and ends with the caste. There is sympathy, but not for men of other castes.” The Hindu’s hatred for a non-Hindu, specifically a Muslim, is only marginally greater than his hatred for Hindus from other castes. 

Again, I am talking about real “social mixture.” Specifically, I want to focus on the arranged marriage. I myself was married through an arranged marriage, and since I belonged to the Brahmin Varna and the Iyer caste of Tamil Brahmins, my bride had to belong to the Tamil Iyer caste. Only in extreme situations (such as, say, I fell in love with a girl) would they have considered my marrying a Tamil Iyengar (another Brahmin caste) girl; and my marrying a non-Brahmin girl would be almost as distasteful to them as my marrying a Muslim.

This mutual hatred and distrust of the different Hindu castes has prevented them from engaging in large-scale, organized displays of bigotry and hatred against non-Hindus. Since Hinduism itself is quite loosely defined and contains deep divisions within, uniting together to oppress other minorities is a much lower probability event than, say, the Shias in Iran uniting to oppress non-Shias and non-Muslims, or the Sunni majority in Pakistan uniting to oppress non-Sunnis and non-Muslims. For, the Sunni, the Shia, or the Christian has a very clear idea of who he is – the “Hindu” has only a very vague idea of what makes him a Hindu.

How Caste-Based Division of Hindu Society Prevents Genocide

For every Hindu-Muslim riot in India, one could list half a dozen inter-caste violence incidents, whether between Kammas and Kapus, between Marathas and Mahars, between Vanniyars and Parayars, and so on. It should be pointed out that most inter-caste violence incidents in India have been of upper castes or “caste Hindus” (those belonging to the four castes) committing violence against the Dalits. These constitute an effective “safety valve” against Hindu-Muslim violence – one can only have so much anger, after all, and a lot of it goes away after you kill a few people. In effect, the Dalits form a sacrificial group that bears the brunt of the prejudice of the Hindus.

While the killing of Dalits is despicable and cannot be condoned, it cannot be denied that it probably prevents larger-scale Hindu violence against non-Hindu minorities, and that it is also much smaller in scale than the international pogroms that have been discussed earlier. One reason for this is that anti-Dalit violence is usually local and small in scale; it is usually related to local and specific hatreds between communities that may go back a long way. Anti-Muslim violence, on the other hand, can be easily generalized to a national scale and does not need specific triggers – one can easily inflame passions by talking about how India was ravaged by Muslim invasions, for instance, without going into specific details.

In addition, caste-based discrimination goes far beyond only violence. Inter-caste hatred is prevalent in all aspects of Indian society. Wherever there is a discretionary role, there is a high chance that caste will be the basis of discretion. Many employers (when they legally can) will prefer a person of their own caste rather than a person of a different caste. Many housing societies will not prefer to have members who belong to a caste they look down upon. These divisions ensure that Hindus are sufficiently divided among themselves to resist forming a united group with a single overriding identity.

So, despite Indian liberals’ deep misgivings about the caste system and the discrimination and cruelty it engenders, they should probably be grateful that Hinduism contains within itself the seeds of its disunity and, as a result, prevents Hindus from organizing themselves to the level of being able to orchestrate the scale of pogroms that other religions have done so spectacularly. That the most talked-about pogrom in recent times, the 2002 Gujarat Pogrom, only led to an estimated 2000 killed in a city (Ahmedabad) of more than 5.5 million people and containing more than 300,000 Muslims, and not tens of thousands dead, is evidence of the fact that Hindus do not act in a united way on issues of religion. Horrified as we should be that 2000 people might have been killed, we should be grateful for the caste-mediated fracturing of the Hindu population that prevented this death toll from being at least ten times greater.

It should be pointed out that, in recent years, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its political arm, the ruling party in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party, have tried very hard to unite Hindus over a common front motivated by hatred of Muslims and Dalits. It is a very worrying sign that a growing number of Indians are subscribing to this negative philosophy.

However, as long as Hindus continue to marry by looking at matrimonial columns that first and foremost advertise the caste and sub-caste of the individual, the bark of the Hindutva movement is worse than its bite.


I would like to thank my wife, Sandhya Srinivasan, for her constructive comments on this manuscript and her helpful suggestions. I would also like to thank Ganesh Prasad for helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this article.