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February 17, 1998


Issues '98/Dr D Sundaram

'The function of today's caste system has changed'

In the last fifty years, I do not see a change but a kind of continuity in our tradition. We have not remained traditional as such, but used our traditions for modern purposes. This is the most important sociological change that has taken place in our society.

Let me tell you something about political parties. Some of them use the structural associations or factors like the traditional caste system that exist in Indian society for their benefits. This is not done to perpetuate the traditional features of the caste system, but to use them for a functional purpose for a limited purpose. It has been wrongly said by many that caste is being perpetuated here. What actually happens is that caste is used as a structural entity to gather people as a social group.

It is the absence of other association like trade unions, consumer fora etc, that makes political parties use traditional caste systems to mobilise people. So it is not a case of good or bad; it is the only available alternative to political parties. But people mistakenly say that caste is being perpetuated by political parties. The function of today's caste system has changed though structurally it continues in the same way. It no longer maintains the traditional features of the caste system.

Caste is also used for achieving economic interests of the people. For example, people belonging to my caste might want a particular kind of economic benefit. Similarly, another caste also might expect the same kind of economic benefit. In order to achieve all this, I try to get representation in a political party. So functionally it is a non-caste orientation.

Indian society does not show a total U-turn in terms of change. Yes, there is a new evolutionary hierarchy that is emerging in society, which in one way is good. But it doesn't represent a radical shift from the traditional to the modern. It moves very slowly. Let me give you an example. Various social fora like women's fora are becoming powerful in today's society. When women assemble, no caste separates them. Then there already exists the film fans associations, which cut across caste lines. But they have not yet emerged as powerful alternatives to the traditional caste system. Yet, in the days to come, I foresee that active groups like youth clubs, civic associations, etc, which will have a greater say in decision-making.

Our inability to eradicate caste is not because we are tradition-bound. Our society's pluralistic nature and our culture's geographical distinctiveness result in people belonging to the same caste behaving differently in different places. Which society is not traditional? For example, we can say that wearing a tie is traditional now; table manners are traditional. The distinction between modernity and tradition is their functionality. Let us not give too much importance to its structural aspects. The Indian system is such that individual's interests are identified with those of the group to which he belongs. This does not mean that we are highly traditional.


Today's youth tend to be non-traditional and non-caste oriented. Their exposure to mass media compared to what was available to yesterday's youth make them think differently. As I always say in my classroom and outside, they take less time to know more. Not because of higher ability, but because of new communication technologies and gadgets. And they take less time to produce more; it is a challenge for them. This forces them to sideline the traditions of the caste system. I would say that the influence of the caste system is being replaced in the private, personal sphere, but not in the public arena.

To say that today's youth are cynical is a sweeping generalisation. In fact, today's youth spend more time competing for education and jobs. They are not indifferent to reality. As a teacher in contact with the youth, I see them well organised and rational in their thinking. There is a difference between the generations and their values. Recognising the differences, rather then rationalising them, is seen as cynicism.

The reservations system, and the disappointment and anger at politicians and the political system that does not deliver on its promises is being described as cynicism. I also share the same feelings, which is not cynicism but rational criticism. A Parliament has been constituted for five years, but the members have returned with some justification or the other. If the youth expresses displeasure, it may look like cynicism, but is constructive criticism in reality.

Development in the last 50 years

There is a difference between planning, legislating, and implementing programmes. Especially those meant for the weaker sections. The people now take the issue of implementation to the judiciary. This is being seen as judicial activism! It is actually a positive sign that people are taking the bureaucracy's failure to the judiciary.

The communal clashes which we have seen in the last 50 years does not mean that there is a revolt in the country against the system. When the means for bringing pressure are not effective, some groups try to refashion the means. But there is not much compatibility between the means and ends in these cases. These are termed as revolts; but there has not been a revolt in the country in the last 50 years. They are only pressure groups evolving socially, trying to bring the attention of those in government to issues.

Much of the people's power has been taken over by the State. What the people can do by themselves has also been taken over. It is time some form of civic organisation is built up. But otherwise, I think that in these 50 years, we have sustained our parliamentary democracy well, particularly the voters.

There is also a lot of constructive collectivism developing in our society, for example consumer groups, women's movement, etc. Legal teeth has been acquired by the consumer activists, and gender relations are now seen more as an issue of competition in the workplace. The Women's Commission is emerging. But the violent acts, which are far fewer in number and scope, happen to be more visible.

Changing role of the sexes

I am sure new gender relations will emerge in the days to come, both at home and the workplace. It is not a question of equality, but of relation. For instance, I would predict that by 2005, women will outnumber men in enrolling for higher education. Men may go in for forms of economic enterprise instead of further education. The family as an economic unit is changing.

There is not going to be change in roles; it will only be an exchange. For example, women have demonstrated that they can do what till today many believed only men could: they have become ruler, heads of departments, etc.

Interdependence of roles has to be there in society. What might have been a relationship of domination and submission is today one of mutual recognition. But there still is exclusion, which is practised subtly by organisations; women are excluded from certain opportunities or from competing with men. These are the areas where I see women will get organised and men themselves recognise.

Minorities in the Indian society

It is not the question of minorities or majorities, it is the question of representation in political institutions. The minorities are not well represented in decision-making. Here I must add, this is not confined to India alone, it is a worldwide phenomenon. Let me say one more thing. There are more clashes between different groups belonging to the same religion, that the clashes between different religious groups that we have in India. If access to development is made equal to both minorities are majorities, there will be less tension between these groups.

Uniform Civil Code

The Uniform Civil Code concerns the private affairs of people. These days, politicians tend to mix both private and public lives of people and that is the reason why we have chaos everywhere. When so much has till to be done in the public sphere, why should some political parties talk about the private affairs of people? It is unnecessary and needless.

What could have been done by people if they are developed and educated, political parties are trying to do by force. The State should try to do what it can do by itself and should not do what people can do by themselves. The Uniform Civil Code is one issue which the people can do themselves, if they are educated and developed enough. Mind you, the people can do it a little more efficiently than the State as it affects them directly.


In our country, economic backwardness is determined by social backwardness, which an unfortunate heritage that we have inherited. Reservations have to be seen as a means to achieve equality in society. We have to provide equality of opportunity. The reservation policy has excluded certain groups by giving priority to those who have been traditionally socially backward. Yet, those who have been forward have not lagged behind; so the reservation policy has not done any harm to them.

But the State or society has not ensured that this equality of opportunity has been matched by an equality of outcome. That is why there is still a craving demand for reservation and more reservation. If efforts had been made to combine equality of opportunity with equality of outcome, the backwards would themselves have demanded that they do not want reservations any more.

Religion and Politics

It is wrong to say that religion (or caste) is being dragged into politics. In the absence of other civic association, religious identities (same as in the case of caste identities) have been used by politicians for political socialisation, not for perpetuating a religious or caste identity. There is no danger to society. Sooner, rather than later, when other civic associations come into being, people will no longer bother which caste or religion they belong to. Let us not blame the political parties. The society is not yet prepared to incorporate other civic associations.

But I don't blame people in society either. Our society is evolutionary, and soon it will evolve into civic associations. I have seen that in the United States, church groups are used and not just for promoting church or religious interests but temporal ones also. Religious groups are like pincushions holding together a lot of pins, and political parties find it easy to socialise. Let us look at things positively, and be optimistic.

Dr D Sundaram, professor of sociology at the University of Madras, spoke to Shobha Warrier.

Issues '98

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