So, when we speak of the Caste System in India and its relevance today, we need to venture into a brief account of its cultural and religious significance. Classical Hinduism (dated between 4th century B.C. and 4th century A.D.) consolidated the authority of Vedic Scriptures, the Brahmans (or priests), and the class system. Despite the rise of the more socially inclusive religious movements of Buddhism, the Upanishads, and the Bhakti Movements, the path of action of Hinduism maintained a strong influence in Indian civilization.
Within Hindu religion, the class system is ordained by Dharma, the unchanging, eternal order upon which one measures right or wrong – in light of the Dharma, action has moral consequences in terms of Karma, what one tries to align with the order of Dharma. The class system arises as a manifestation of the Dharma, according to Hindu religion – in this sense, due to reincarnation, one’s Karma can land one to a particular class based upon how one has aligned their morality with the Dharma. Thus, the body of humanity is split into the Mouth (Brahman, priests), the Arms (warriors, government administrators), the Thighs (merchants), and the Feet (servants) – not to mention that there are Outcasts according to the Dharma’s order.
In brief, the religiously ordained social order of Hindu religion resulted in discrimination. Let us now arrive at the injunction of the 19th and the 20th centuries. The English commonwealth colonized India, one of its consequences being the institution of the Caste System. The British regime furthered rigid caste organization as a central mechanism of administration in India. Between 1860 and 1920, the British segregated Indian’s by caste, granting administrative jobs and senior appointments only to the upper castes. Social unrest during 1920’s led to a change in this policy. From the 1950’s onwards, the colonial administration began a policy of affirmative action by reserving a certain percentage of government jobs for the lower castes – this has been known as the Caste Quotas.
India has arrived at stratification by the constant deployment of power of the Brahman and the upper castes over millennia. Thus, power, as restriction, regulation, and prohibition, acts as the principle through which the people of India become subjected into the subject relevant to the Caste System ordained by Dharma (or secularly, the Brahman). The power and authority of the path of action of Hindu religion has produced and reproduced culturally intelligible identities to which the people of India are subjected; whether it is by the orders of Brahman, the government authorities, or the practice and recognition of the path of action, people in India are placed in this context. Thus, the Caste Quotas can be interpreted as an attempt to address the structures of inequality formed by the deployment of power.
However, as of recent, the Caste Quotas have been put under questioning by a 22-year-old named Hardik Patel. India’s attempt at affirmative action has resulted in “reserving nearly half of government jobs and public college slots for those who come from disadvantaged castes or tribes” (New York Times). Given the history of India, as we have just surveyed, this could be seen as remarkable; however, we must remember that the Caste Quotas have been brought about based on caste, and while it could be considered a revolutionary attempt, it only furthers the caste divide in Indian society by its being based on the very notion of caste – there is no pure discursive break.
“Because caste was such a powerful source of self-identification, it proved to be a useful tool of political mobilisation in India's electoral democracy: when an Indian casts his vote, he too often votes his caste. Granting sops to various castes proved a major vote-catcher for India's politicians” (BBC).
Having talked about caste, power, and subjection, I shall finish up with a few remarks in regards to shift. It appears to be that India, over history, produced discrimination based on caste; in trying to resolve that, it appealed to the same power and authority that produced discrimination – namely, caste. The shift in the power dynamics seems to occur in the production of the Caste Quotas, thus producing another layer of discrimination playing a role in Indian society while, at the same time, having the traditional discrimination still remain prevalent.