On Caste Privilege

By Namit Arora | Aug 2010 | Comments

Castes2An early goal of British imperialists in India was to create a class of local elites in their own image. They would be, wrote Thomas Macaulay, ‘interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.’ An elite class did emerge, not surprisingly from the socially dominant upper-caste Hindus of urban India.

As early as 1873, the social reformer Jotirao Phule had criticized the early colonial model of ‘high class education’ for creating a ‘virtual monopoly of all higher offices … by the Brahmins.’[1] These elites, chin-deep in caste identities, saw themselves as innately superior to other Indians, mirroring the class- and race-based prejudices of the British. No wonder they got along so well. In fact, the Orientalists, armed with new theories about the origins of Sanskrit and the influx of light-skinned people into the Subcontinent, saw these caste elites as their long separated Aryan brethren. The latter, only too glad with this association, soon emerged as native informants and collaborators in interpreting ‘Indian’ society and culture, and in shaping a historiography that selectively glorified its past and framed it as largely ‘tolerant’, ‘spiritual’, and ‘nonviolent’, except when rudely disrupted by Muslim invaders. 

Later, when these elites opposed the British, they used the same language of political rights and liberalism that the Europeans preached at home but didn’t practice in their colonies. It was this class, led by Anglicized lawyers and bureaucrats, that succeeded the British. In the first Indian parliament in 1952, Brahmins, who comprise less than 5 percent of the population, cornered almost 25 percent of the directly elected seats; altogether the upper castes, about 20 percent of the population, claimed over 85 percent of the seats.[2]

In a representative democracy, the idea of ‘representation’ implies that an upper-caste Hindu man can fairly represent the interests of the lower castes, minorities, and women. But one can persuasively argue that this did not happen in the early decades of the Indian republic. Deep disparities along caste lines remained; religious minorities grew alienated and even declined socioeconomically; women remained marginal as before. India was effectively a democracy of the few, by the few, for the few.

Since the 1970s, India has seen the rise of caste-based politics. Built on the idea that only a member of your own (or proximate) caste can represent your interests, its primary driver was the failure of upper-caste politicians to represent the lower castes, and the latter realizing the power of their vote. Votes began fragmenting along caste lines, not the least because—besides being central to one’s social identity—caste shaped one’s share of opportunity, deprivation, and discrimination in life.

When the lower castes began mobilizing and putting up their own candidates, the elites grew anxious and began decrying the rise of caste-based politics and ‘vote banks’. ‘So regressive!’ they complained, ‘a betrayal of the spirit and ideals of democracy!’ But of course, with hardly an egalitarian bone in their bodies, they had played a rigged game all along, starting with language itself. ‘Vote banks’ were others, created by the new ‘caste-based parties’; the elites didn’t see the upper castes as a ‘vote bank’ even when they largely voted for upper caste parties like Congress and BJP. Above all, their anxiety came from a visceral fear—fear of the ‘impure’ masses, fear of losing their privileges, fear of being overrun by the boors. In no area is this anxiety more evident than in the debate on caste-based affirmative action, aka reservations, in public sector jobs and college admissions.

Writing in The Wretched of the Earth (1961), Franz Fanon lamented ‘the unpreparedness of the elite, the lack of practical ties between them and the masses, their apathy, and, yes, their cowardice at the crucial moment in the struggle.’ These elites, he wrote, ‘simultaneously resisted the insidious agenda of colonialism and paved the way for the emergence of the current struggles.’

Fanon had in mind the post-colonial elites of North Africa, but his remark is no less apt for the Indians. India needed a real program of socioeconomic justice—via, say, land reform, universal education, and fighting caste discrimination. What legislation the elites did pass they didn’t push far enough. Instead, they consolidated their domination over politics, the economy, education, cultural institutions, and the media—for instance, the richest 10 percent monopolize more land now than in 1951.[3] Having done quite well for itself, self-congratulation has come easy to this class. In an attempt to restore some balance, this insider, dear reader, will now relate to you its benightedness.


Walk into a relatively nice neighborhood in, say, Ahmedabad, Pune, or Jaipur, perhaps one of the burgeoning gated communities of flats owned by professionals, public sector officials, and businessmen. This demographic will usually speak English, represent under 10 percent of the population but command far greater power in public life. Notice that nearly all mailboxes have upper-caste names. The average man here might profess to be modern and secular, but don’t be fooled. His is an incipient modernity, without deep roots—more about clothes, gadgets, nuclear family, educating girls, and fewer food taboos. His idea of the individual, each with an equal human dignity, is terribly weak. Nor does he subscribe to the dignity of labor. Indeed, he would recoil at the idea of inviting his sweeper to sit on his sofa to have a chai and samosa as a fellow human. Worse, he would never have wondered why none among his servants, maids, and sweepers share his last name, or what role his caste played in getting him where he is today. What prevents such ideas from crossing his mind is a deeply internalized hierarchy—and therefore entitlement—evident in the way he makes demands on those in his employ, and the deference he expects from them and their kind.

In this social class, middle-aged members might casually observe, ‘I saw no casteism while growing up.’ Of course, it’s harder to see such things from above—which is part of their caste privilege—analogous to the legions of men who internalize their sexism so well they don’t notice it at all. This is also the class that’s prone to reminisce the ‘unity’ and ‘harmony’ of the olden days. Now it feels cheated by reservations. Not surprisingly, a good many champion the ‘merit-only’ line (implying that only test scores should be considered) and love to claim ‘caste blindness’ by asserting that their caste is ‘Indian’. This ‘caste-blind’ stance has wide currency with those who somehow see it as totally fair and impartial. But in a caste-ridden society, such willful blindness to social pathologies only perpetuates them and does nothing to enhance social mobility. No wonder this class also largely opposed the 2011 caste census meant to assess the continuing socioeconomic disadvantage of caste.

Explain the premise of positive discrimination and see eyes roll. ‘We don’t treat them badly anymore,’ one aunty told me, ‘what are they agitating about?’ Mention the benefits of diversity and question narrow ideas of ‘merit’, only to see hateful fear mongering spew out. ‘Oye, what if a scheddu civil engineer built a bridge that collapsed?’ (‘Scheddu’ is a derogatory reduction of Scheduled Caste, the administrative term for Dalits, formerly ‘untouchables’.) ‘What if a scheddu doctor killed a patient?’ The instinct is to associate low-caste with congenital stupidity. It doesn’t occur to them that the beneficiaries of reservation have to pass the same coursework and training as all others. Besides, they have no empirical data on how many fallen bridges were built by scheddus, nor do they know that Dalit children routinely die due to discriminatory practices by ‘merit’ doctors.[4] What, if not prejudice, makes them assume that scheddus build bridges that fall, rather than corrupt upper-caste engineers who steal public funds and use inferior materials? Nor do they hesitate in sending their own under-performing kids to engineering and medical colleges where admission is based solely on ‘capitation fee’—on money, not ‘merit’—as well as to obscure colleges in the former Soviet block countries cashing-in on the obsession this class has for ‘foreign degrees’.

Awed by the pop culture that trickles down from the West, this class knows little about the rest of India, nor has anything but disdain for its tribal and folk music, dance, and theater.[5] Of much greater concern is India’s image in the West, the health of the IT sector, new consumer goods, the peril from Pakistan, emulating China. Utterly materialistic in its values, it equates education with technical training, success with money, and sneers at the arts, social sciences, and the humanities. Its increasingly chauvinistic nationalism is built on an insecure pride in Hinduism. Members of this class may feel irked by Dalits decamping to Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, but they know ‘the problem’ Dalits have: their problem is one of underdevelopment, to be fixed by more aggressive ‘inclusive development’. Pieties and slogans aside, the members of this class make absolutely no demands on themselves. They never look at the mirror and see that they are squarely at the heart of ‘the problem’.


I’m a graduate of the elite Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) system. At a recent dinner party, a Brahmin friend and a hostel mate at IIT Kharagpur, criticized reservations on the grounds that they are socially divisive and instigate disharmony. I had to laugh. Isn’t the caste system all about social division, using graded notions of superior and inferior blood? Caste identities have been strong for ages; even today over 90 percent marry their own. If caste now also shapes political consciousness, it’s because, in part, its members share the experience of discrimination and inherited disadvantage. If the decibels have gone up, it’s because the lower castes no longer tolerate the oppressive ‘harmony’ of the past. They want a piece of the pie, and they are seeking it via the ballot box. In another country, with the kind of inequities India has, the masses might have resorted to violent revolution long ago. They didn’t do so in India primarily because the caste system has also prevented unity for a common cause.

Why pursue reservations, my friend argued, when urbanization, capitalism, and industrial development are doing far better at defeating the inequities of caste. This is true up to a point, and a myth beyond. Caste has been updated and restructured by—and in some ways, attenuated by—capitalism, industrialism, urbanization, the Internet, and mass communication. It’s true that cities offer greater anonymity and diverse jobs unrelated to traditional caste occupations, thereby weakening many, including some of the worst, forms of rural casteism. An office-going Brahmin is unlikely to worry about being polluted if he brushes against a Dalit in a crowded bus, or object to eating out lest a Dalit prepared the meal. But even as many old caste abuses have vanished or weakened in the face of urbanization, others have arisen or evolved into malignant forms. The so-called free markets of neoliberalism, scholar Gopal Guru has argued, have ‘perpetuated casteism in new forms, making dalits participate in the perpetuation of casteism,’[6] even as neoliberalism has also created a few Dalit millionaires, who are then selectively cited to tout its ‘success’.

In other words, capitalist industrialization is a turbulent force working upon the caste system, but it is not in itself a socially progressive force. Introduced in a society like India, with its entrenched inequities, capital and industry build on preexisting social privileges, discrimination, and kinship networks.[7] Furthermore, in an economic system that sanctions unbridled competition, groups with long-standing advantages of wealth and knowledge will continue to be its disproportionate gainers, increasing disparity along caste lines. Indeed, whatever political power the elites have lost to ‘caste parties’ in recent decades, they’ve more than made up for in economic power—which is now their backdoor entrée to political clout and control of the national agenda.

As many historians of caste have noted, caste in the urban milieu has morphed to behave more like an ethnic community, whose members not only harbor notions of ‘ethnic’ distinctiveness but also a strong consciousness of rank vs. other caste communities. This continuing lack of egalitarianism then poisons urban civic life. It impacts hiring decisions; access to rental housing, health care, and public services; response from law enforcement; judicial verdicts; etc.[8] According to a 2012 study, ‘caste still remains a real axis of urban residential segregation in India’s seven largest metro cites, [finding] residential segregation by caste to be sizeably larger than the level of segregation by socio-economic status. Caste has historically shaped the organisation of residential space, especially at the village level, and it appears to continue to do so in contemporary urban India.’[9]

In our age of economic liberalization, even the Indian private sector oozes discrimination from all its pores. A recent and extensive study, Blocked by Caste, decisively dispels the belief that the private sector is mostly caste-blind and hires based on ‘merit’.[10] It shows that equally qualified Dalit and Muslim résumés are much less likely to get selected than upper-caste ones, and exposes other ‘hidden nuances of caste prejudice in the language of globalisation that contemporary India speaks.’[11] In The Grammar of Caste: Economic Discrimination in Contemporary India, economist Ashwini Deshpande ‘uses rich empirical data to uncover how contemporary, formal, urban sector labour markets reflect a deep awareness of caste, religious, gender, and class cleavages.’ She ‘argues that discrimination is neither a relic of the past nor is it confined to rural areas, but is very much a modern, formal sector phenomenon’. Even things like upper-caste food taboos—and the feelings of nausea and disgust they provoke—adversely impact employment opportunities for even relatively privileged-class Ashraf Muslims in urban India.[12] The obvious question such studies raise is: why shouldn’t affirmative action be part of the strategy for equalizing opportunity in the private sector? Another implication of such entrenched discrimination in public life is that even the beneficiaries of reservation can travel only so far. (See an excellent survey of the reservations debate by Jayati Ghosh. [13])

My friend, whose attitudes are fairly representative of my other friends from IIT, had never even noticed that of the nine students in our IIT hostel wing, five were Brahmins, or the fact that our IIT faculty too was almost entirely drawn from the twice-born castes. This lack of awareness is another form of caste privilege. In 2011, only 2 out of 427 faculty members at IIT Chennai were SC; IIT Mumbai had zero. In 2010, even in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, ‘regarded as a bastion of progressive social scientists and historians—only 3.29 per cent of the faculty [was] Dalit and 1.44 per cent Adivasi, while the quotas are meant to be 15 per cent and 7.5 per cent, respectively.’[14] Each year, both during and since our time at IIT, the SC/ST quota had gone largely unfilled for the incoming students. Even then, my friend had internalized a disproportionate sense of the ‘wrong’ of reservations eating away at the system.

Notably, he supported income- and gender-based reservations. A votary of a technocratic idea of ‘merit’, he was nevertheless willing to trade some ‘merit’ for other social goods, except when it came to caste. He saw the disability of poverty and gender, but minimized the disability of caste, refusing to see how common it is even in urban life, let alone in rural India, where most Indians live. I wondered if he had ever really pondered the sting of casteism, or what Indian society might look like from Dalit perspectives, urban and rural. He seemed to embody all the ignorance, doublethink, and moral myopia of the social class we both belonged to. I saw in him the same empathy deficit that I had been ashamed to discover within myself.


It is often said that caste is to India what race is to America. Yet, the attitudes of the dominant social class in the two countries couldn’t be more different (it is instructive to compare them without subscribing to a singular conception of modernity, and while acknowledging that much work is still needed on race relations in the United States). Since at least the 60s, debate on racial prejudice has been mainstream in America. Civic institutions began combating it as a social evil; whites confronted other whites in the public square;[15] Hollywood, the media, and the elites made it uncool; law enforcement cracked the whip on hate crimes (though problems continue, as evidenced by events such as in Ferguson); diversity and multiculturalism became priorities in academic and cultural institutions. White readers widely read black authors who write about their social milieus. Blacks are highly visible in popular culture, including sports, music, and films, and are fully integrated in the military. White majorities routinely elect black mayors, senators, and governors; a politician’s prospects can be destroyed by the merest racial slur (recall the ‘macaca’ incident?).

Not so in India. Prime Minister and leader of the BJP, Narendra Modi, when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2010, compared Dalits to ‘mentally retarded children’ who gain ‘spiritual experience’ from manual scavenging. The media shows little interest or insight into Dalit lives, nor hires lower-caste journalists.[16] Major atrocities against Dalits still go unreported. Law enforcement is often indifferent or worse: policemen refuse to file FIRs, collude with the criminals, and obstruct justice in the courts. Of the hundreds of judges appointed to the Supreme Court of India, only three have been Dalit.[17] There is no effective prosecution for discrimination in employment and housing, which is rampant.[18] A Dalit politician, however qualified, can’t get a majority of upper-caste votes even in South Mumbai. Even among those few elites who read books, how many have read a single novel or memoir by a Dalit? In what is perhaps the most diverse country in the world, there is no commitment to diversity in the elite institutions that decide what is worthy art, music, and literature, or what is the content of history textbooks. None of the eighteen chairs thus far of the Indian Council of Historical Research, which funds historical research in India, has been Dalit. Brahmanical thinking still pervades scholarship about the past, creatively defanging and co-opting dissidents into its fold, as with the Bhakti thinkers and poets of the medieval period.[19] In book after book of stories for children, both the protagonist and the implicit audience are elite and upper-caste.[20] Much the same is true of sitcoms, soap operas, and commercials on TV. Dalits are invisible from all popular culture that gets any airtime. The Indian army refuses to mirror the social composition of the Indian republic and has largely kept out Muslims from its ranks.[21] There is no comparable Indian counterpart of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Or a Dalit history month on public TV, or exhibits in museums, that seek to educate the upper-castes about a long and dark chapter of their past (and present). Unless a sizable proportion of elites, benumbed by privilege, open their eyes and learn to see both within and without, can there be much hope?



  1. Jotiba Phule, Slavery (Gulamgiri), 1873. The quoted text is from the book’s preface.

  2. Rajendra Vora, Suhas Palshikar, ‘Indian Democracy: Meanings and Practices’, Sage Publications, 2004, p 25 (OBCs got 10 percent, Muslims 2 percent).

  3. Manpreet Sethi, ‘Land Reform in India: Issues and Challenges’, published in Promised land: competing visions of agrarian reform By Peter Rosset, Raj Patel, Michael Courville, Land Research Action Network, 2006.

  4. Sanghmitra S. Acharya, ‘Access to Health Care and Patterns of Discrimination: A Study of Dalit Children in Selected villages of Gujarat and Rajasthan’, 2010 (download).

  5. An example comes from Professor Subramanium, Chennai Academy of Music, who said the following during a classical music recital: ‘There is folk music and classical music. Carnatic music is scientificallv organized, folk music is not so ... people who are not properly trained just sing out of emotion, enthusiasm. Folk music can be sung by any child. Quacks! Carnatic is not like this, you need a talent.’ (source)

  6. Gopal Guru, Rise of the ‘Dalit Millionaire’, Economic & Political Weekly, December 15, 2012 vol xlviI no 50. Guru provides this example: “The state’s practice of outsourcing the management of urban governance or maintenance of sanitation has, in effect, created a set of “garbage managers”, contractors from within the dalit community. These new jobbers are said to be indulging in the worst kind of exploitation of ragpickers. Thus, globalisation has somehow led to the localisation of exploitation, which operates within the dalit community. Dalit ragpickers now have exploiters both from within and outside the community.”

  7. Amy Chua, ‘World on Fire’, a very good study of many Asian, African, and Latin American countries (not India but lessons apply) that shows how neoliberal economics can worsen ethnic strife. Here is a review.

  8. Such crippling negative discrimination can stymie most positive discrimination policies. But even for the blacks in the US, whose situation today is much better than that of Dalits, a ‘results gap’ continues to exist. This article by Orlando Patterson in the Nation explains why.

  9. Trina Vithayathil, Gayatri Singh, ‘Spaces of Discrimination: Residential Segregation in Indian Cities’, September 15, 2012, vol xlviI no 37, Economic & Political Weekly.

  10. Madhura Swaminathan, ‘Caste & the labour market’, The Hindu, Mar 9, 2010. Among older studies is one by MN Panini, who showed that during the 'permit raj' era, the private sector was far from caste neutral or ‘merit based’ and routinely tapped into its caste networks.

  11. Latha Jishnu, ‘The economics of caste inequity’, Business Standard, Dec 18, 2009.

  12. Sumeet Mhaskar, ‘Indian Muslims in a Global City: Socio-Political Effects on Economic Preferences in Contemporary Mumbai’, MMG Working Paper, 2013.

  13. Jayati Ghosh, ‘Case for Caste Based Quotas in Higher Education’, EPW, June 17, 2006.

  14. Arundhati Roy, “The Doctor and the Saint”, an introduction to BR Ambedkar’s Annihilation of Caste, Navayana, 2014, p 34.

  15. A terrific example here is Robert Jensen. See his writings on race and white privilege. 

  16. Siddharth Varadarajan, ‘Caste matters in the Indian media’, The Hindu, June 3, 2006.

  17. Sohail Hashmi, ‘Corruption has its Caste in the Judiciary: All India Confederation of SC/ST Organisations”, Kafila.org, 7 April, 2011.

  18. Seema Chishti, ‘Study shows NCR homeowners turn away Dalits and Muslims’, Indian Express, 16 June, 2015. ‘In both the methodologies, the home-seekers had the same credentials but for their names that indicated their caste and religion.’

  19. Gail Omvedt, ‘Seeking Begumpura: The Social Vision of Anticaste Intellectuals’, Navayana, 2008.

  20. Deeptha Achar and Deepa Sreenivas, ‘Storybooks for a Plural World’, Himal Southasian, May 2010. Here is another article from 2001 on the bias in many school textbooks in UP.

  21. Omar Khalidi, ‘Khaki and Ethnic Violence in India’, Three Essays Collective, 2009.

Image source: Mahabharata and the Caste System.

This essay first appeared on 3 Quarks Daily.

NB: The article above has been edited since its first appearance.

More writing by Namit Arora?


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