Caste and blurred boundaries between public and private roles?

Dagrun Kyte Gjøstein, India områdestudier, IKOS, UiO

A Bairvas couple (source:

Does caste really matter much in India today? Isn’t India becoming a modern democracy where caste-based discrimination is illegal?  True, in cities Indians frequently interact with people in various situations without knowing each other’s caste background. Yet, the majority of Indians still live in rural areas, where people do know which caste groups their fellow villagers come from. Here, at least, caste and kinship are still fundamental for the social organisation. As the case-story presented under illustrates, persons’ inherited caste position influence how they play out their role in their public positions as government employees in local communities.

Contested accounts of caste relations

The summer of 2010 I lived five months in Chotipur[1], a small village in rural Rajasthan in North India. Chotipur had a majority 100 households—of high caste Brahmins. The village’s minority of 24 households included 10 households of Bairvas, or so-called dalits or “untouchables” of the caste system. The Bairvas had an official status as a Scheduled Caste (SC). Living here, I quickly realised how significant caste were in most aspects of the village’s sociality, especially for the social relations between individuals and families.  It was also salient in how the differently positioned villagers presented themselves and their village to me.

Laksmi Bairva was a married woman in her early twenties living in Chotipur. She and her mother-in-law, Tanupa Bariva, told me about Lakshmi’s encounters with various government employees in the village, when she was seeking to obtain oral contraceptive pills. It is part of these government employees’ official job descriptions to offer contraceptives and family planning counselling for all villagers. Their account progressed into general remarks about the inter-caste relations of the village, which was similar to the accounts and accusations also other Bairvas gave of the Brahmins. The Anganwadi-centre was the government preschool centre. The centre offers warm lunch for the children below school age, and additional services and public schemes of nutrition and reproductive health for women and adolescent girls.

Lakshmi: “I went to the Anganwadi-centre, but the manager refused to give me [oral contraceptive pills].  Then I asked the ASHA[2] [a community health worker] ‘if you have any precaution for family planning, so give us, we don’t want another child now’. She said she had no time for us then, but to come talk to her later.  I went to the ASHA three times, but she said that she had no time for me”

Tabupa added:  “The Anganwadi staff, the ASHA, they all are Brahmins—they do not give us anything of essence. Nobody consider us good, because we are SC. (…) In our village, SC persons do not get such jobs. In the place of the current [Brahmin] ASHA, my eldest daughter-in-law applied because the vacant ASHA post was favoured for SC categories. But in our village people say they don’t take water from our hands because we are SC. Therefore my daughter-in-law was not posted for this job. Though, many of our relatives have jobs outside of their village and they tell us that in their office all persons, whether they belong to SC or General  castes, meet, sit together and eat and also share their lunch. Nobody talks about caste. But in villages there are too much cast-bound relations. But it is our mistake also, since we do not complain about them”

The positions of the staff at the Anganwadi centre, and the outreach community health worker position as the village ASHA are government postings. Also, they are usually selected to work in the same village as they live in, and thus have multiple public and private (kinship- caste- etc.) role relations towards all other villagers. In their public role, though these are lower-level positions, giving only little pay, and modest authority, they nonetheless represents the (local) state.  Worth remarking is also that both the Anganwadi-staff  and the ASHAs  are formally selected by the local village councils (the Panchyats). They are thus supposedly selected through a democratic public process. The dalit women here implied that the current  Brahmin ASHA was selected over the dalit applicant because of her status as untouchable, despite the official selection guidelines actually favouring SC applicants due to the governments caste-based reservation system for disadvantaged groups. The dalit woman seemed to believe that elsewhere, in public offices, in larger cities, caste does not matter much. However, as caste does still matter a lot in villages, the role that a person plays out as a government employee is often not independent from the person’s inherited caste position.

Tanupa Bairva further explained that all teachers at the village school were Brahmins. The school cook, also Brahmin, gave smaller portions of lunch to the Bairva children. The cook at the Anganwadi was worse, she only gave food to the children she knew, the Brahmins, any leftover food she rather took home. The staff at the Anganwadi would not wash the used plates of the Bairva children. Tanupa remarked:“No, they have no respect for us, when we go to the preschool centre, they will tell us to sit outside on the ground. None of the Brahmins respects us. We don’t have any importance to them, that’s why we can’t send our children there.”

The Brahmins of Chotipur presented a very different picture to me. The Brahmins were conscious to present their village as integrated and that they had good inter-caste relations with the SCs. A common phrase was this: “Earlier the Bairvas made shoes [i.e. engaged in polluting leather work], but now-a-days many of them have government positions and as good education as the Brahmins”. The preschool manager assured me that they always treated all the children, of all castes, alike at the centre. Yet, when questioned directly, the Brahmins openly admitted they would never visit the house of the dalits or accept anything to eat or drink from “the hands of such people”. The preschool manager explained to me that it was a difference between how she related to the SCs at the centre and in her private life. To understand these social dynamics and the accusations from the Bairvas, some notes about caste are crucial.

Caste and “untouchability «

“The Indian caste system” is conceptualised as both an ideological principle of social organisation (cf.Dumont 1980), but also empirically as numerous locally diverse systems of social organisations and practices. How to best analyse and understand the origin of and the workings of the caste system, both historically and contemporary, remains debated (cf.Berreman 1971; Béteille 1990; Dumont 1980; Heierstad 2009; Khare 2006; Marriott 1976; Raheja 1988). I here give only a brief, general account. The Western word “caste” can refer to either the vernacular term varṇa or jāti. The jāti-system can beportrayed as a (or rather many regionally diverse) hierarchical system(s) of hereditary groups, separated from each other by division of labour—each group with its distinctive occupation—and  by endogamous marriage- and commensality- rules (cf.Heierstad 2009).

The varṇa–system refers to a portrayal of the caste system[3] as a socially stratified system that separates people in five large groups—each compromising innumerable  jāti-groups— the four varṇas and those who do not belong to any varṇa: referred to as “the untouchables” or dalits. The ranking of the hereditary status of the varṇas are graphically represented with reference to their point of bodily origin of the mythical, primordial man in ancient Sanskrit scriptures. The Brahmins (priests) who taught, rose from his the mouth. From his shoulders rose the Kshatriya (warriors/kings), who defended the land. From his thighs rose the Vaisna (merchants and farmers), who sustained the social body with farming and trade. And from his feet rose the Shudra (servants), who served under the other groups (Snodgrass 2004:261).  The varṇas are said to be ranked by relative ritual status ascribed by their hereditary occupations, along the axis of purity and pollution, with the Brahmins having the superior status as ritually most pure (Dumont 1980). Jātis with hereditary associations to the most polluted occupational specialties, such as sweeping and handling corpses, or animal flesh and skin, have the lowest status in this system, and are considered so impure that they are  “untouchable”.  Within this mode of though, a brief touch of an untouchable person, or contact with his or hers used utensils is believed to transfer (temporary) ritual pollution to a person of a higher ranked varṇa. Today discrimination against persons of so-called untouchable castes and practicing “untouchability” is a criminal offence. Still, people from these hereditary castes, especially in rural areas, are disadvantaged because of their caste (Snodgrass 2004:273).

On a practical social level inter-caste behaviour is intricately prescribed in relation to fear of transactions of pollution through substances and contact and norms of commensality. Thus, rules about who can marry each other, eat together, exchange raw and cooked food and visit each other’s houses and so on (cf.Marriott 1976; Mayer 1986). In Chotipur the other castes would not take cooked food or water from, visit the house of or go to the weddings of the Bairvas. The Brahmins invited all the castes to their wedding feasts, but the Bairvas were seated on a separate row to eat away from the others.  The Bairvas were not allowed to enter the village Hindu temples. Outside the temples, simple stone-statues representing the Gods were placed for them— “the untouchables” — to worship separately.

The dalit women’s remarks about the Brahmins refusing to accept water from them, as well as the accusations about the (Brahmin) government  workers at the school and preschool, and the frontline health worker, of ignoring them, not allowing them to enter the preschool, and refusing to wash the used utensils of their children, are thus implicit accusations that the Brahmins are practicing “untouchability”.

Blurred boundaries of  public and private roles

At the local level of a village, the boundaries between (private) person and (public) position are evidently blurred. Ruud (2004:315) points out that this has been a general problematic of democracy and governing since India’s independence. As independent India sought to establish itself, the state, with its institutions, mode of thought and mode of operation was funded on a “Western” and “modern” model and ideology. The “Western state model” seeks to separate position and person and to adhere to formal rule-bound governing, which was an alien governing form in South Asia, Ruud (2004:315) argues. The prevalent social norms of the society—largely rooted in the caste system, but also other cultural values (cf.Ramanujan 1990)—did not acknowledge that all people were equal or that position and person were separate entities. Thus, the  state’s system of values  was very different  from the system of values in the society the state sought to govern (Ruud 2004:315).

Clearly, the dalits of Chotiopur expressed they felt that the village’s local government posted Brahmins, in the preschool, the school and health care, were discriminating them according to their (low) hereditary caste status while performing their public services. This discriminating behaviour was seemingly experienced from their perspective as a continuation of the former (now illegal) “untouchability” practices.  The Brahmins presented a very different picture, and refused any such accusations. They of course knew it was illegal to practice” untouchability” and claimed they did not, in their public roles at least. Contrary, the dalit minority expressed that the individuals in these positions did not separate their person and caste background when enacting in their public role. Rather, they experienced the actions of the Brahmins as practicing untouchability not only as private persons, but also in the role as public (state) representatives.  They interpreted the discrimination to be largely an effect of village life, considering that in such intimate communities the blurred boundaries between people’s personal and public position and roles seemed inescapable.  Nonetheless, such everyday experiences likely influenced the dalits of Chotipur’s notion of India as a democracy where all citizens supposedly are equals. People’s understanding of the state are largely shaped  through their experiences from encounters  with local state representatives (cf.Gupta 2006).

Caste evidently still flavours the social and political game of everyday village life in contemporary India.

Dagrun Kyte Gjøstein er BA student ved India områdestudier, IKOS, UiO. Innlegget er skrevet som del av emnet SAS1500 – India: utviklingsland og stormakt.

List of References

Berreman, Gerald D.

1971     The Brahmannical View of Caste. Contributions to Indian Sociology 5:16 -23.

Béteille, André

1990     Race, Caste and Gender. Man 25(3):489-504.

Dumont, Louis

1980     Homo hierarchicus: the caste system and its implications. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gjøstein, Dagrun Kyte

2012     Negotiating conflicting roles: Female community health workers in rural Rajasthan – A perspective on the Indian ASHA-programme Master Thesis, Social Anthropology, University of Oslo.

Gupta, Akhil

2006     Blurred Boundaries: The Discourse of Corruption, the Culture of Politics, and the Imagined State. In The Anthropology of the state : a reader A. Gupta and A. Sharma, eds. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.

Heierstad, Geir

2009     Images of Kumartuli Kumars – the image-makers of Kolkata. Volume no. 382. Oslo: Det humanistiske fakultet, Universitetet i Oslo.

Khare, R. S.

2006     Caste, hierarchy, and individualism: Indian critiques of Louis Dumont’s contributions. New Dehli: Oxford University Press.

Marriott, McKim

1976     Hindu Transactions: Diversity Without Dualism. In Transaction and meaning: directions in the anthropology of exchange and symbolic behavior. 1 edition. B. Kapferer, ed. Pp. 109 – 142. ASA Essays in Social Anthropology. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues.

Mayer, Adrian C.

1986     Caste and kinship in Central India: a village and its region. New Delhi: Universal Book Stall.

Raheja, Gloria Goodwin

1988     The poison in the gift: ritual, prestation, and the dominant caste in a north Indian village. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ramanujan, A. K.

1990     Is there an Indian way of thinking? An informal essay. In India through Hindu categories. M. Marriott, ed. Pp. 41 – 57. New Delhi: Sage.

Ruud, Arild Engelsen

2004     Nye stater søker feste, 1947-1980. In Indias historie med Pakistan og Bangladesh. A.E. Ruud, P.G. Price, and E. Mageli, eds. Pp. 312 – 370. Oslo: Cappelen akademisk forlag.

Snodgrass, Jeffrey G.

2004     The Centre Cannot Hold: Tales of Hierarchy and Poetic Composition from Modern Rajasthan. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 10(2):261-285.

[1] As part of the fieldwork for my Master’s project in social anthropology (see Gjøstein 2012).

[2] The “Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs)” are female village volunteer lay health workers, one selected in every village as part of a recent government programme (see Gjøstein (2012) for details).

[3] This perspective on caste is widely criticised for being the Brahmins’ or the higher castes’ ideological version (cf. Berreman 1971). Especially the order and basis of the ranking of the caste groups is contested.

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