Vol. 4    Issue 01   16 - 31 May 2009
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
The Holy Quran A Pictorial Gallery
Muslim Minorities in Non-Islamic Milieus
Virtual Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture

Indian Society at the Threshold of the 21st Century: Challenges and Prospects

Professor A. R. Momin

India is the seventh largest nation in the world in terms of area and the world’s second most populous country—with a population of 1.17 billion--where 15.7 per cent of the global population lives. Some of the most ancient racial groups of mankind and some of the oldest languages are to be found in India. All the major world religions as well as many of the most primitive, animistic beliefs and rituals are found here. While Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism originated in the Indian subcontinent, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism have had a long presence in the region. One of the oldest Jewish communities, the Bene Israel, has been living in India since the first century AD. Christianity reached the Indian subcontinent in the first century of the common era. One of the oldest Christian communities in the world—the Syrian Christians—is to be found in the Indian state of Kerala. The Syrian Christians still sing their hymns in Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. Muslim traders, scholars and saints began arriving in India in the 7th century AD.

Diversity is the most conspicuous feature of Indian society. Perhaps no region in the world can equal with India in respect of the scale and magnitude of cultural diversity. This diversity is reflected in the racial and ethnic composition of the population, in the multiplicity of languages and dialects, in the enormous heterogeneity of religious beliefs and practices, and in the great variations in social institutions and cultural patterns and in customs and traditions.

The People of India project, which sought to map out the country’s social and cultural landscape, highlighted its incredible diversity in respect of social organisation, cultural patterns and languages. There are as many as 2795 communities with about 80,000 segments and surnames. There are as many as 325 community-specific languages and dialects which belong to five language families and are written in 25 scripts. Eighteen languages are officially recognised and listed in the constitution of India.

In terms of religious composition, about 80 per cent of India’s population is Hindu. Muslims constitute 13.4 per cent of the population, Christians 2.3 per cent, Sikhs 1.9 per cent, Buddhists 0.8 per cent and Jains 0.4 per cent. Diversity is conspicuously reflected in the fold of Hinduism as well, which represents an amalgam of distinct beliefs, rituals, cults and ceremonies. Hindu society is fundamentally segmentary and hierarchical, with the Brahmans at the top of the ladder, constituting about 3.5 per cent of the population. The majority of Hindus belong to the lower castes, including Dalits or the Untouchables, who constitute about 16 per cent of the population, Other Backward Castes (who are about 30 per cent of the population) and tribal and nomadic communities, who constitute about 8 per cent of the population. A notable feature of Indian society is the remarkable continuity between the past and the present. This continuity, which is characterised by enormous diversity, is reflected in kinship organisation, religious beliefs and rituals, food habits and dress patterns.

The Caste System

The caste system is an integral, inseparable part of Hindu ethos, ideology and social structure. It is a closed, hierarchical ascription-based system of social stratification. It is characterised by five distinctive features.

(1) Hierarchy: Broadly, the caste system is based on a four-fold hierarchical division of society. At the top of the ladder are the Brahmans (who are traditionally concerned with religious scholarship and priestcraft), followed by the Kshatriya (who comprise kings and soldiers who are supposed to protect society and sponsor religious rituals), followed by the Vaishyas (who are agriculturists, cattle herders and traders), followed by the Shudras (who are supposed to serve the three higher castes). The first three varnas or castes are called twice-born because their male members undergo an initiatory rebirth. Only the members of the twice-born castes—and only males--are traditionally entitled to study the Vedas or the sacred scriptures of Hinduism and to the performance of Vedic ritual on certain occasions.

A distinction is drawn between varna or the overarching hierarchical system of caste which is distributed across Hindu society, and jati, which refers to small-level caste units in the local setting. The jati is the real unit of the caste system. The caste system is segmentary in the sense that all castes are internally differentiated and divided into smaller units or sub-castes. There is a certain correspondence between caste and class in India in the sense that the poorer sections of society generally belong to the lower castes.

(2) Birth: Caste is an ascriptive status group, whose membership is determined by birth. One is born into a caste.

(3) Endogamy: A caste is basically an endogamous unit. One marries not only within one’s varna but, more importantly, into one’s jati. Within the caste system, there are complex rules which prescribe who one can marry. In the north, for example, there are rules about exogamous patrilineal clans (gotras) whereby one is not permitted to marry someone whose gotra is the same over five or seven generations. In some exceptional cases, a man from a higher caste may marry a woman from a slightly lower caste, but not the other way round.

(4) Hereditary occupation: There is a well-defined connection between castes and occupations, which are ranked in a hierarchy and determined by one’s birth in a given caste. In traditional Indian society nearly all occupations are caste-specific. There are, for example, well-defined occupational or caste-based groups of carpenters, washermen, cobblers, potters, goldsmiths, sweepers, etc. Traditionally, it is rare for a person to take up the occupation of a caste other than his own.

(5) Ideological sanction: The caste system is sanctioned by Hindu scriptures and legitimised in terms of the doctrines of karma and dharma. According to the doctrine of karma or retribution, one is born into a high caste because he is believed to have dome good actions in his previous birth. Similarly, one is born into a low caste because of bad deeds in his previous life. Dharma means that which is right or moral. A man who accepts the caste system and the rules of his caste is living according to his dharma, while a man who questions them is violating his dharma. If he observes the rules of dharma, he will be born in his next life in a higher caste.

The ideological sanction of the caste system, which is ingrained in the individual’s consciousness through socialisation and religion, produces an attitude of resignation and fatalism and is reflected in the passive acceptance of their subordination and humiliation on the part of the lower castes. The phenomenon provides a validation of the perceptive observation of the American sociologist W. I. Thomas, which is generally known as the definition of the situation or the self-fulfilling prophecy, which says: If people define situations as real, they have real consequences for them.

(6) Purity and Pollution: The concept of purity and pollution is fundamental to the caste system. It defines and governs every type of inter-caste relation. Contact of any kind—touching or dining, for example—with a member of the lower castes will pollute a high-caste person. Food cooked by a member of the lower castes is not accepted by the higher castes because it is considered impure and polluting. Social and inter-personal interaction between members of higher and lower castes (such as inviting a person to dinner or friendship) is peripheral and rare.

The prohibition on contact with lower castes is traditionally reflected in the pattern of spatial segregation of castes in the village. The houses of people belonging to different castes form clusters that are separated from each other. Public spaces (such as wells and temples) are commonly identified as belonging to different castes. Earlier, the lower castes, especially the Untouchables, were prevented from using common wells and temples in the village and even today such restrictions are not uncommon.

In earlier times, lower castes were prevented from taking over the customs and habits of higher castes, which was often enforced by caste councils. In Kerala, for example, until 1865, only Brahmans could cover their bodies above the waist, and even the women of lower castes were not allowed to cover their breasts.

In the villages, where nearly 70 per cent of India’s population lives, the economy and division of labour, local-level political organisation, the social organisation of space and locality and the kinship and marriage system are closely intertwined with the caste system. Caste councils effectively control the behaviour of the members of castes and punished aberrant practices, often through ostracism. Caste continues to remain a significant part of an individual’s personal and social identity in a real sense, especially in the villages and small towns.

The Scheduled Castes

No account of the caste system can be adequate without a discussion of the extremely marginalised and deprived section of Indian society, known as the Untouchables or Dalits or Scheduled Castes. They have been outside the fold of the varna system and the object of extreme stigmatization and humiliation during the past three millennia. They have been historically associated with occupations that were considered polluting, such as leatherwork, removal of dead animals, cleaning latrines and scavenging. They were commonly isolated and segregated from mainstream society and led a ghettoized existence. They could not enter the premises of a temple or school nor draw water from the village well. Their plight was quite similar to that of blacks under South Africa’s apartheid system.

The Dalits comprise an overwhelming majority of landless agricultural labourers in rural India and are among the poorest and most vulnerable sections of Indian society. In many villages across the country, a Dalit postman does not dare to ride a bicycle through the upper caste sections of the village if he did so he would be beaten up by them.

The caste system has not been entirely static even in earlier times. There was a measure of internal mobility in the system. This was mediated through what an eminent Indian sociologist M. N. Srinivas has described as Sanskritization. Since early times there has been a tendency on the part of lower castes to adopt the customs, rituals and lifestyle of the higher castes in order to move up in the social hierarchy. In this process, those customs and practices which were considered lowly and polluting, such as alcohol consumption and animal sacrifice, were given up by the lower castes.

Frequently, in many villages, one particular caste becomes dominant on account of its numerical strength, ownership of land and political clout. Across much of India, the dominant castes are traditionally landholding castes, like the Rajputs and Jats in the north. Sanskritization often entailed the adoption of the customs and lifestyle of the dominant castes.

Caste-like divisions exist among Muslims, Christians and Sikhs in India. Despite Islam’s emphasis on equality and egalitarianism, Indian Muslims are generally divided into endogamous groups, which are ranked in a hierarchical order. Similar divisions exist among Christians, especially in the south. There are, for example, Brahman Christians who prefer to marry only within the group. In Kerala there are different churches and cemeteries belonging to the same Christian denomination for different castes. Dalit Christians in the south, who were converted from amongst the lowest castes complain that they are treated as untouchables by the upper-caste Christians.

The constitution

The constitution of India, adopted in January 1950, sought to establish a democratic political system with universal adult sufferage, including sufferage for women, and equal rights for all irrespective of the distinctions of caste, class, gender and creed. The constitution grants to all citizens of the country fundamental rights and civil liberties, including equality, justice and freedom from discrimination on grounds of race, caste, sex or place of birth and equality of opportunity in public appointments. The constitution specifically abolishes untouchability. Article 29 of the constitution protects the rights of citizens to conserve their distinctive cultures, languages and identities. The constitution endorses a system of legal pluralism whereby it guarantees to all citizens of the country not only wide-ranging individual rights but also community-specific cultural, religious and linguistic rights. It recognises the rights of religious and linguistic minorities in the country to maintain their family laws, religious schools and welfare institutions. The constitution espouses a federal system of democratic governance and administration.

Secularism is very much embedded in the country’s constitutional philosophy. The constitution lays down that the conduct of state shall be governed by the principle of secularism, that state action must be determined by fairness, non-partisanship and impartiality. The principle of secularism, which is defined as a matter of state policy, stipulates that the state shall treat all religions in the country with equal respect, that it shall not privilege one religion or community over others, that it shall provide equal opportunities to the followers of all religions.

The constitution of India espouses affirmative action or positive discrimination for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in order to uplift them from centuries-old deprivation. This is sought to be done through the reservation of seats in the Parliament and state legislatures and in publicly-funded educational institutions and posts in government services. The constitution also mentions affirmative action for the other backward classes, but neither defines them nor provides specific provisions for them. However, since 1950, several state governments have adopted measures for the reservation of seats and jobs for the OBCs.

India’s double burden

The issues of poverty, inequality, deprivation, illiteracy and caste in India are closely intertwined. When the country became independent in 1947, it was confronted with a double burden: the colonial legacy and wide-ranging inequalities and poverty. The military conquest of India by the British colonisers in the 19th century was combined with economic conquest. From the start of the 18th century to the end of colonial rule, Britain went from being an importer of Indian textiles and garments to a significant exporter to India. By the middle of the 19th century, British mechanised mills displaced millions of handloom weavers. Britain also imposed trade restrictions on India’s textile exports to Britain. In short, Britain pursued an aggressive industrial policy to undermine India’s predominance in the textile trade. The infrastructure was built mainly to exploit the country’s raw materials, such as cotton, for British mills. It would be grossly unfair to say that colonial rule over the country was an unmitigated disaster but it can be said that, on balance, its baneful consequence outweighed its beneficial impact.

From the time of the establishment of India as a democratic republic in 1950, there has been a conspicuous dissonance between the constitutional goals of equality and justice and the social reality of inequality, deprivation and exclusion. This was vividly brought out by Dr B. R. Ambedkar, who chaired the committee that was tasked with drafting India’s constitution, in 1950:

    On the 26th of January 1950, we are going to enter a life of contradictions. In politics we will have equality and in social and economic life we will have inequality. In politics we will be recognising the principle of one man one vote and one vote one value. In our social and economic life, we shall, by reason of our social and economic structure, continue to deny the principle of one man one value. How long shall we continue to live this life of contradictions? How long shall we continue to deny equality in our social and economic life?

A balance sheet of India’s achievements

On the eve of independence, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of the country, in his famous and evocative speech, had made a solemn declaration.

    Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge……The achievement we celebrate today is but a stop, an opening of opportunity to the great triumphs and achievements that await us…..The task ahead includes the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity…..

It is pertinent to ask whether the nation has redeemed this pledge. India has done reasonably well in many areas: (1) Democracy: The most important achievement of the national leadership in the early decades of independence was the construction of a viable structure of the nation state. Democracy was not a gift of the colonial era, but was established in the wake of the nationalist movement. The country has sustained a fairly resilient and stable democratic system with regular general elections, a national Parliament, political parties, an independent judiciary and a free press. The democratic idea has penetrated the Indian political consciousness across the country. There is a growing realisation in the country that the only potent and legitimate source of winning power is through elections.

The parliamentary elections in India took place a couple of weeks ago, with 714 million eligible voters, 543 constituencies, 4,617 candidates representing some 300 political parties, 6.5 million staff and 1,368,43 tamper-proof electronic machines.

The democratic process in India is blighted by certain unfortunate factors. For one thing, voting behaviour continues to be determined by the narrow considerations of caste, religion, community and region. Money and muscle power play a very significant role in elections. Secondly, politics is being increasingly used as a means of making money and wielding power. A substantial proportion of politicians across the political spectrum have criminal backgrounds. Third, ideology and principles are being steadily eroded in politics and are being replaced by exigency and plain opportunism.

(2) Economic Development: The project of nation-building in the wake of independence was based on a combination of democracy, economic development and social justice. Economic reforms were initiated in 1991 by Dr Manmohan Singh, an eminent economist and the present Prime Minister. Economic liberalisation lowered trade barriers, boosted exports and made it easier or foreign firms to invest in the country. India became a hub of large-scale service sector exports in the new information technologies. The world-class Indian Institutes of Technology in seven cities produced a professionally competent breed of technocrats and engineers who subsequently filled the Silicon Valley and took leadership positions in Microsoft, McKinsey and Citigroup, investment firms and IT companies. The US President Barack Obama has appointed two Indian-Americans as the country’s Chief Technology Officer and Chief Information Officer. Indian professionals and entrepreneurs continue to harness the potential of globalisation in diverse ways. One of the most dynamic new export sectors is automotive components, which are now produced in India on a fairly large scale, then shipped to assembly lines all over the world.

India has some of the world’s best technology and management institutions and medical colleges and a substantial number of world-class hospitals, which are attracting an increasing number of ‘medical tourists’ from around the world. The country has one of the world’s largest scientific communities.

The Indian economy has grown at an impressive rate of 8.6 per cent in the last four years and forecasts for India’s real GDP growth rate over the coming two decades generally range between 6 and 9 per cent per year—the second highest in Asia. Real average household disposable income has roughly doubled since 1985. India is today the fourth largest economy in the world after the US, China and Japan. It is on the verge of overtaking Japan to become the third largest economy in the world. Projections by the McKinsey Global Institute suggest that if the country manages to maintain its current growth rate, income levels will almost triple over the next two decades and India will climb from its present position as the 12th largest global consumer market to become the world’s fifth-largest consumer market by 2025, surpassing the size of Germany’s consumer market.

The most striking development has taken place in telecommunications. Today there are more mobile phones in the country than landline phones, with 387 million subscribers and 10to12 million more being added each month.

According to World Bank data, India’s poverty levels have fallen from 37 per cent to 22 per cent over the past 15 years. The spectre of famine, which used to frequently haunt the country in the early years of independence, has been banished. Epidemics like plague, small pox, measles, whooping cough and cholera, which used to take a heavy toll of human life in the early decades of independence, have been brought under control. The infant mortality rate has been significantly reduced to 67 per 1000 compared to 146 in 1960 and 204 during 1911-1915, thanks to better maternal and child health programmes. Life expectancy at birth is now over 69 years, compared to 31 in 1947. India has achieved self-sufficiency in food grain and milk.


India’s record in reducing social and economic inequalities since independence has been very disappointing. There are not only wide disparities of income and wealth but also inequalities relating to caste, gender and education. The task that Nehru had identified remains substantially unfulfilled.

Though there has been a significant decline in poverty from 60 per cent in 1981 to 42 per cent in 2005, a third of the global poor still live in India. Nearly 75% of the poor live in rural areas, most of them are daily wage earners and landless labourers. Although the economy has grown steadily over the past two decades, the growth has been uneven in respect of social groups, geographic regions and rural and urban areas. A large majority of the poor belong to the lower castes. In the past decade tens of thousands of farmers in five states have committed suicide due to repeated crop failures, high indebtedness, lack of credit facilities, the slump in food grain prices and absence of adequate social support in the rural areas.

Income disparities and the gap between the rich and the poor are steadily widening. The goal of equality of opportunity, enshrined in the constitution, remains a distant dream for millions of people. The fruits of development and progress are beyond the reach of large numbers of people in the country. According to World Bank estimates, income and consumption inequality increased from 27.7% in 1994 to 30.5% in rural areas and from 33.3% to 37.6% in urban areas in 2004. A recently released report by the UN and Asian Development Bank points out that India is lagging behind in eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, in achieving universal primary education, in promoting gender equality, in reducing maternal and infant mortality, and in combating malaria and other diseases.

India’s overall record in eliminating hunger and malnutrition is quite terrible. There is a dreadful prevalence of endemic hunger across much of the country. India does worse in this respect than even sub-Saharan Africa. According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the number of malnourished children is greater in India than in sub-Saharan Africa. Almost 46% of children under the age of three in the country are under-nourished, compared to 35% in sub-Saharan Africa. One out of every three malnourished children in the world is an Indian.

India has one of the highest infant mortality rates and one of the lowest life expectancy at birth. The high infant mortality rate in the country reflects the deplorable state of public health care system, poor quality of water, inadequate medical attention during pregnancy and at birth, poor post-natal care, and poor immunization and sanitation facilities. More than 58% of children aged 12-23 months are without immunization.

Caste in Modern India

The caste system has undergone significant changes since independence, but the change has been uneven. One positive change that has come about is that caste inequality can no longer be legitimately defended in public. The processes of migration, urbanisation and modernization have considerably weakened the system. In the cities the hierarchical structure of caste is evidently declining. Notions of purity and pollution have lost much of their salience and are now confined to the private, domestic domain. An indication of the declining influence of caste can be seen in the emerging middle class in India, which is predominantly urban-based and consists of highly educated professionals employed in both public and private sector organisations. This category is conspicuously diverse and differentiated in its social composition, especially in respect of caste, ethnicity, religion, community and region. Its composition is indicative of the relative decline of caste, ethnicity, religion and other primordial affiliations. Professional qualifications have been a significant source of social mobility and a great social leveller.

Attitudes towards caste are becoming less rigid and increasingly ambivalent. However, there is one area in which caste seems to be quite resilient: marital alliances. By and large, most marriages, even in large cities like Mumbai and Delhi, continue to take place within the confines of caste and community, although the traditional rigidity in the matter is now weakening. Another area in which something like a reinvention of caste is taking place is politics. Growing political consciousness across the country and electoral politics have led to an increasing mobilisation of groups on the basis of caste affiliation in large parts of the country. In the rural areas a variety of political leadership from amongst the peasantry and Dalits has emerged in recent years, which has posed a challenge to traditional caste equations and the balance of power.

Caste-based political mobilisation has been reinforced by the issue of reservations. In 1990, the issue of reservations took a dramatic turn when V. P. Singh, then prime minister, declared his government’s decision to implement the recommendations of the Mandal Commission, whereby 27% of jobs in central government services and public undertakings were reserved for the OBCs. This new quota was in addition to the 22.5% already reserved for SCs and STs. The total reserved quota for the backward castes amounted to nearly 50%. This policy was approved by the Supreme Court in 1992.

Caste associations, especially in south India, have played a highly significant role in demanding reservations for particular castes. Reservations are being increasingly seen as the most potent mechanism for upward social and economic mobility. Politicians of all stripes have continually exploited the reservations policy for electoral gains. The term ‘Mandalisation’ has been coined to describe the way in which caste has become a potent factor in the political process throughout much of India. The issue of reservations has stirred up a huge controversy across the country and brought about a clear polarisation between the higher and lower castes, politicians, students and the intelligentsia.

Reservations have undoubtedly contributed to the economic and social empowerment of the lower castes, especially Dalits. However, the benefits of the policy have been uneven. While the powerful sections from amongst the lower castes have greatly benefited from the reservations, some of the extremely backward Dalit castes have gained little or nothing from the policy.

A fundamental problem with the policy of reservations is that positive discrimination in favour of backward castes contradicts the principle of individual equality by negating the equality of opportunity in education and employment. It is unfair to meritorious students who do not belong to the target groups. By radically lowering the bar of qualifications for backward castes, the policy has contributed to the dilution of academic standards even in highly specialised fields like medicine.

Human development deficit

A UNESCO report points out that throughout South Asia there is a huge disparity between impressive economic growth and dismal performance in respect of human development indicators.

Though Article 21 of the constitution makes free and compulsory education a fundamental right, this principle is yet to be translated into reality. More than a third of the country’s children do not attend school. The country’s literacy rate is about 65 per cent, lower than that of many developing countries. There are large inequalities in educational achievements between males and females, between urban and rural areas and between social groups. Nearly half of the female population in the country are illiterate.

South Asia has the highest incidence of annual maternal deaths in the world. The region’s high maternal mortality rates account for almost half of all maternal deaths worldwide. In South Asia, India has the largest number of annual maternal deaths.

Many other developing countries, including China, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, that were in a comparable position to India not long ago have surged ahead in respect of life expectancy, elementary education, health care and social security. Though the number of university-educated persons in India is six times more than in than China, China has made remarkable progress towards universal literacy.

Gender Inequality

The persistence of extraordinary high levels of gender inequality and female deprivation are among India’s most serious social failures. The constitution of India guarantees equality before the law and freedom from discrimination on the basis of sex. However, cultural traditions and social practices often impede the realisation of constitutional ideals.

Inequalities between women and men in economic and social opportunities and in health care remain quite large. Gender inequality is manifested at many levels, including survival inequality, unequal facilities, education, nutrition, ownership inequality, unequal sharing of household benefits and domestic violence. Mortality rates of females are unusually high. An important index of gender equality is the female-male ratio. The female-male ratio in India—93 girls for 100 boys--is one of the lowest in the world, compared with the corresponding ratio not only in Europe and North America but also in sub-Saharan Africa. There has been an extremely sharp decline in the female-male ratio of children in Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Gujarat. This is largely due to the abortion of female foetuses, even though it has been declared illegal. The number of females per 1,000 males in Haryana is 865, a level lower than that of any country in the world. On the other hand, it is 1,036 in Kerala, which is closer to the pattern of advanced industrial economies. Sex-selective abortions have been on the increase not only in India but also in China, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

There does not seem to be a necessary connection between economic growth and gender equality. This is borne out by the female-male ratio, which is an important indicator of gender equality, in different Indian states. The female-male ratio is very low in Punjab and Haryana, which are far ahead of all other states in per capita income.

The condition of widows, including child widows, continues to be pathetic in the rural areas. The sight and presence of widows are considered inauspicious and they are shunned by the wider society and taunted and humiliated by family members and kin. Women’s representation in public decision-making fora remains abysmally low. Since independence women have held less than 10 per cent of the seats in the Indian Parliament. Women’s representation in local-level decision-making bodies in the villages remains extremely low.

Things are undoubtedly changing for the better, but the process of change is extremely slow, lop-sided and tortuous. One of the reasons for this sorry state of affairs is the lack of a broad consensus across the political spectrum over national priorities. Indian politics continues to be mired in narrow electoral considerations and parochial compulsions. India can learn much from European nations in this regard.

Apart from the government, civil society organisations and grass roots movements are making a significant contribution to the empowerment of the marginalised sections of society through education and grass roots mobilisation. Lower caste movements in southern and western India have channelled political activism in the direction of forcefully demanding expansion of basic education, health care and social security.

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