India's caste system: Outlawed, but still omnipresent

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Story highlights

  • India's long-outlawed system of social tiers is built into the national psyche
  • Laws that aim to minimize the effects of caste are often protested
  • Recent deadly protests in northern India have their basis in 'affirmative action' programs

Ravi Agrawal is CNN's New Delhi bureau chief. The following analysis is an updated version of a piece on the enduring legacy of caste in India, written by Agrawal in August 2015.

New Delhi (CNN)Growing up in India, I remember our middle school civics teacher telling us clearly: caste discrimination was a thing of the past.

And yet, not really.
Yes, the system that forced so-called "untouchables" to clean public toilets was outlawed; yes, the importance of one's caste was eroding as India grew more middle class, especially in the big cities. But we all knew that caste clung to us all. It was everywhere.
    In many cases, it was broadcast in our surnames. Political parties were created to cater to castes. Marriages and business alliances were plotted to further them. Castes stuck together.
    CNN New Delhi bureau chief Ravi Agrawal
    And then there was the national quota system. Since India's lower castes had been systematically disadvantaged for so long, the state created a special quota of government jobs and university seats that would be reserved for the former lower castes. Think of it as affirmative action, mandated by the constitution.
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    By 1990, the quota rose to about 49%, and it applied to groups that were classified as "Other Backward Classes," "Scheduled Castes," and "Scheduled Tribes." The move to reserve seats for them at universities and government jobs was seen as a way to give these groups more opportunities at social mobility.
    By and large, the Indian system of quotas has endured and been appreciated. In middle school civics, this type of affirmative action was explained as a bedrock of India's democracy, a way of reversing unjust systems of the past.

    Resentment

    But there are small pockets of groups who resent the system.
    A student with a backward caste certificate can get into a top university more easily than a peer without that certificate -- the grade required for admission is usually significantly lower. The rule often spurs frustration in India's intensely competitive schools.
    The same goes for plum government jobs. "Why should a quota exist?" ask some of those who are fighting for only half of all available jobs.
    What is often forgotten in those moments of frustration is that the people for whom these quotas exist represent some two thirds of India's population.
    Their argument has often been that they need a larger quota, not a smaller one. They say they have few other routes to social mobility, especially given how disadvantaged they have been for decades on literacy, education, health care, and opportunities.
    Outbreaks of violent protests have raked into an ugly spotlight the views of those people who are dissatisfied with affirmative action.
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    The most recent violence began with a group called the Jats, a fairly well-off community of farmers and traders in the northern Indian state of Haryana.
    CNN spoke to some of the protesters, and they expressed frustration over the quota system: "Why is it harder for us to get into universities, to get jobs?" they asked.
    And so they protested. But the protests turned deadly, with at least 16 killed in clashes with the police as the Jats set fire to buildings, damaged water canals, and blocked highways.
    The Jats' protests mirror a similar set of protests last August by a group called the Patels, in Gujarat. The Patels were agitating for the removal of the quota system. Hundreds of thousands hit the streets to vent their anger in days of demonstrations that made international news.

    The importance of land

    The irony of the Patel and Jat clashes is that both groups are relatively wealthy, and the dominant castes in their respective states.
    Haryana's Jats are known as land owners with political clout. Gujarat's Patels are also farmers and landowners, and are seen as being enterprising and entrepreneurial -- many have started successful businesses. Others still have migrated to South Africa, Britain, and the United States. Patels own and run hundreds of small motels across the United States -- they're jokingly referred to as "potels."
    Despite their relative wealth, the grievances of communities like the Patels and Jats are not imagined. Many struggle for jobs and advancement. Many worry about the dwindling influence of land owners.
    Vipul Mudgal points out in an essay in The Wire that India's land owners are far less influential than they used to be. Mudgal cites government data to show that the average land holding in 1960 used to be 2.63 acres; by 2003 it had dropped to 1.06 acres.
    That fall has likely worsened since. In short, India has gotten more populous, more urban, less dependent on agriculture and more dependent on services -- and its formerly wealthy land owners are facing a rapid loss in status.
    Writing about the Patel movement in August, the social scientist Christopher Jaffrelot described in The Indian Express how a fast-changing India has been difficult for rural Indians.
    "There is always some substance in mass movements," he wrote. "Patels may well be victims of the neo-middle class syndrome. Those who have not yet arrived, who are part of this aspiring class, and find it difficult to achieve their goals because jobs are scarce, education is expensive, buying a car is hard."
    The Jats say they are working on a deal with the government. But there is no doubt they will not be the last example of caste politics in a fast-changing India.