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Classes and Communities

In the Indian context, classes and communities do not form interchangeable categories. Caste, a defining feature of the community in India, has been a vital socio-economic institution since historical times. But it is Indian politics, especially since post-independence, that has been shaped by competing communities and the ascendancy "acquired" by certain communities over the other. However, as this article suggests, the two categories are not wholly disparate; rather it is the middle class that has been largely responsible for spearheading the interests of their respective communities. A potent tool in this ascendancy has been the issue of "reservations".

Special articles

Classes and Communities

In the Indian context, classes and communities do not form interchangeable categories. Caste, a defining feature of the community in India, has been a vital socio-economic institution since historical times. But it is Indian politics, especially since post-independence, that has been shaped by competing communities and the ascendancy “acquired” by certain communities over the other. However, as this article suggests, the two categories are not wholly disparate; rather it is the middle class that has been largely responsible for spearheading the interests of their respective communities. A potent tool in this ascendancy has been the issue of “reservations”.


Tribute to an Economist

t is a great honour to be invited to deliver the first A K Dasgupta Memorial Lecture instituted by the Bengal Economic Association. I did not know A K Dasgupta in my early years at the Delhi School of Economics, although his name was a byword among the economists there: K N Raj, Khaleeq Naqvi and, of course, Amartya Sen.

When I first met A K Dasgupta in person I was taken by surprise. His manner was very different from that of the academic grandees of his generation. He was not a difficult person to get to know for a young academic not quite sure of his standing in the profession.

Two aspects of his personality have left an indelible impression on me. The first was his natural curiosity: he had the natural curiosity of a child. We all start in life with a great deal of natural curiosity but lose much of it as we settle into the routines of academic life. A K Dasgupta kept his till the end, and that is what made him special. The second notable aspect of his personality, related to the first, was his natural inclination to enter into an intellectual discussion on a plane of complete equality, without any consideration of the other person’s professional standing.

I have chosen the subject of this evening’s lecture, “Classes and Communities”, with some hesitation and after a great deal of deliberation. I did not wish to present myself to you in the borrowed plumes of an economist but to speak on a subject that is central to my own discipline. It has some relevance to current affairs, but that is not the only reason why I chose it; I chose it because it is also of some conceptual and theoretical interest.

Social Morphology

Every society has a structure which gives it a distinctive identity in comparison with other societies. The structure of society has been compared with other structures, such as those of animal organisms and geological formations. Such comparisons become misleading when they fail to give sufficient attention to the fluid and amorphous nature of social structures and the reflexive quality of human action through which the structures of society are continuously negotiated and redefined. But to stress only the freedom and flexibility of human action at the expense of social constraint would be to deny what is distinctive of each particular society and to disregard the sociological legacy of both Marx and Durkheim.

The primary object of the sociologist’s attention is neither the individual nor the nation, but what lies in between. These are the institutions, associations and networks of interpersonal relations that link individuals to each other and to the more inclusive society. Today I would like to focus attention on classes and communities as social formations that stand between the individual and the nation. They have received a great deal of attention from students of society and politics, but social and political theorists differ greatly in the relative importance they assign to the one or the other as a subject of enquiry and analysis.

Even though they may be closely related in their actual operation, classes and communities are analytically distinct social categories. A class is a segment of society that is defined primarily by property, wealth, occupation, income and education. Classes are differentiated from each other by the economic attributes of the individuals and households that are their members. A community as discussed here derives its identity from the fact that its members, irrespective of their economic standing, share a common language, a common religion or the sense of a common ancestry. The communities that will be discussed here are communities of birth. The village is in some sense a community and has often been discussed as such, but communities defined solely by territory or locality will not be discussed here.

Persons who belong to the same class, for instance, the middle class or the working class, may belong to a variety of communities of birth. No major social class is fully homogeneous in terms of language, religion, sect, caste or tribe. This is generally the case in all large-scale societies and particularly so in contemporary India. Conversely, no major community of birth, whether based on language, religion or caste consists of only one single class to the exclusion of all the others, although the different communities of birth tend to be unequally represented, sometimes markedly so, in the various social classes. The empirical association between class and community, no matter how close in a particular case, should not be taken to be intrinsic or immutable.

I stress the distinction between classes and communities at the outset because the term “class” tends to be used loosely, not to say promiscuously, in discussions of inequality and conflict in


contemporary India. Two communities cannot be treated as distinct classes simply because there are disparities of average economic standing among their members, no matter how wide those disparities. This tends to be commonly done with regard to the socially and economically backward castes and communities, and also some religious minorities.

The common tendency in India to conflate caste with class has been a source of much confusion. Castes are communities of birth and, as such, different in their constitution and operation from classes. Membership in a caste is by birth, and a person does not change his caste by changing his income, occupation or employment status. Every major caste contains members who belong to a variety of social classes. It is common knowledge that the leaders of the backward castes and communities do not belong to the same social class as the majority of the persons whose interests they seek to represent.

The practice of conflating caste with class, or of using the term “class” to refer to socially disadvantaged communities goes back to colonial times, and it has been continued in the Constitution of India. Part XVI of the Constitution is entitled ‘Special Provisions Relating to certain Classes’ but most of its articles in fact relate to the scheduled castes, the scheduled tribes and the Anglo-Indian community. This practice, though fully defensible from the legal (or the constitutional) point of view, has nevertheless been a source of confusion in discussions relating to caste and class as social categories in contemporary India.

The Class Approach

What should we mean by “class”? There is a vast literature on the subject in the social sciences, and the description and analysis of classes played a central role in the development of sociology, particularly in its formative years. It will not be possible or appropriate on this occasion to try to summarise all that has been written on the subject.

The study of class has attracted some of the finest minds among social and political theorists although they have had deep disagreements about its nature and significance. Not all students of society and history assign the same significance to class, and enthusiasm for the class approach to society has waxed and waned over time. While differences over the definition of class continue to exist, the subject is today less acutely divisive than it was at the height of the cold war. Approaches to the study of class have changed in part due to worldwide changes in social and political reality.

Marxists everywhere have regarded class and class conflict as starting points for the study of society and history. Among those who have assigned pre-eminence to class analysis the Marxists have been the most consistent and unwavering. Their approach has in fact been often described as the “class approach” to the study of society and history. It is not that they have not noted the presence of other divisions in society, such as those based on race, religion and language, but they have treated those divisions as subordinate to the divisions of class. Sometimes when they have found the divisions of language, religion or caste to be salient or obdurate, they have sought to argue that they are in fact class divisions in disguise.

Theory and Practice

The Marxian concept of class is linked not only to a particular social theory but also to a particular political practice; the theory and the practice are designed to move in step with one another. The theory brings together structure, contradiction and change within a single framework of enquiry and analysis. According to it every society has a structure, and its division into classes is the basic feature of that structure. The structure in turn has inherent contradictions that are expressed in the conflict of classes; class conflict is the most fundamental form of social conflict and overshadows all other forms of it, including conflicts between communities. Finally, the contradictions inherent in society lead to its transformation from one type to another, the main motive force for change being provided by the conflict of classes.

As is well known, Marx assigned primacy to the system of production in his theory of society, and those who base themselves on his work are inclined to do likewise. For them, classes are generated by the system of production based on private property, of which some are owners and others are not. Capitalists and landowners are both owners of the means of production and thus stand in roughly the same position in relation to workers who are not. In the Marxian conception, it is property, and not occupation and income, least of all language, religion or caste, that is the defining feature of class.

Class is first and foremost about differences in objective material conditions, but it is not only about those conditions. Differences in objective conditions are accompanied by a growing consciousness of those differences. It is here that the social theory and the political practice come together in the Marxian approach to class. Objective conditions and consciousness of those conditions undergo continuous changes, and changes in the one stimulate changes in the other. A class exists only in an embryonic form where there is no consciousness of class; it is a class in itself but not yet a class for itself. The consciousness of class exists initially only in a diffuse form. It is the political process that gives it a focus by defining its interest and its identity in opposition to some other class. The political process cannot make a class out of just any social category but only out of one that has particular objective characteristics defined in a certain way.

How many classes are there? In the Marxian scheme, while there may be several classes in a society, there are two and only two basic classes which stand in a relation of opposition to each other: as I have pointed out, the Marxian theory of classes is a theory of contradiction and conflict. A dichotomous scheme of classes is the one best suited to a theory in which the relations between classes are inherently antagonistic. The Marxian theory has always had problems with the middle or intermediate classes, and the expansion of the middle class or intermediate strata was a major embarrassment to it in the 20th century.

Polarisation of Classes

Marx was well aware that in his own time there were classes other than the two main ones on which he sought to focus attention, viz, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, linked together, like Siamese twins, from birth. In Revolution and Counterrevolution in Germany, Raymond Aron (1964:43) pointed out that Marx enumerated a set of eight distinct classes; in Class Struggles in France Aron also listed eight classes, but it was a somewhat different set of eight. In an attempt at a systematic treatment of the subject, the Soviet Marxist Nikolai Bukharin (1969: 282-84) sought to distinguish between different types of classes. These are, according to him, (i) the basic classes, (ii) intermediate classes, (iii) transition classes; (iv) mixed class types; and

(v) déclassé groups. In a dynamic conception of society it is the basic classes that count and they are two in number, although each might at a given point of time have more than one component part.

The Marxian concept of class took shape in a particular historical context in western Europe in the 19th century. It was designed to account specifically for the divisions in society being created and accentuated by a new mode of production. But it looked beyond the context of 19th century capitalist society into the past as well as the future. With changes in capitalism, the concept of class, or at least its application to the analysis of society, has undergone changes. One of the major developments in the Marxian approach to class took place through the extension of the concept in the 20th century by Lenin and others from industrial to agrarian societies.

The first major attempt to apply the Marxian method of class analysis to a predominantly agrarian society was made by Lenin. His work, The Development of Capitalism in Russia [Lenin 1956], first published in 1899, became the reference point for the study of the agrarian class structure for Marxists everywhere [Béteille 2007]. The categories introduced by him to capture the Russian experience, such as landlords, rich peasants, middle peasants, poor peasants and agricultural workers, came to be used in class analysis in many countries. Lenin’s scheme was applied with appropriate modifications to China, and Mao Zedong’s observations on social classes in the countryside guided theory and practice among Marxists both within and outside China.

As sociologists and social anthropologists began to undertake studies of agrarian societies in Asia, Africa and Latin America, they paid increasing attention to the divisions based on the ownership, control and use of land [Béteille 1974; Stavenhagen 1975]. In Latin America, particularly where the plantation system was expanding, there was often a wide gulf between a small class of large landowners and a mass of wage labourers. It was not difficult to find evidence to show that small peasants were being pushed into the class of sharecroppers and wage labourers, much as Lenin had shown for Russia at the end of the 19th century. But, as Chayanov was to show later, the evidence used by Lenin could be interpreted in more than one way [Shanin 1971]; and the evidence from other countries often pointed in other directions.

In India as evidence began to be collected on the ground by sociologists and anthropologists, it became clear that the social divisions arising from the ownership, control and use of land were complex, variable and fluid, and that one could not demonstrate a uniform trend of change. What Bukharin called “intermediate classes” and “mixed class types” were common and widespread rather than exceptional and rare. There is the additional complexity arising from the co-existence of the divisions of class and those of caste which might either reinforce or cut across each other.

The agrarian class structure in India is part of a larger social structure which includes class divisions of other kinds. Today the agrarian and industrial economies have become intertwined to a far greater extent than before, and the balance between agricultural and industrial occupations is undergoing continuous and, in some places, rapid change. When a peasant loses his land he does not necessarily become an agricultural labourer. He may secure a toehold in a transport or construction business and in course of time set up a small repair shop or act as an agent in the marketing of rural produce. If there is evidence of polarisation, there is also evidence of differentiation of economic roles in the rural as well as the urban sector. But the increasing complexity and fluidity of class divisions in a changing society does not mean that economic inequalities or conflicts arising from them are disappearing, or even declining.

Changes in industrial technology and organisation took place throughout the second half of the 19th century and into the first half of the 20th. Those changes had social consequences that were often different from the ones anticipated by the founders of class analysis. For much of the 20th century industrial societies were divided into two types, the “capitalist” type prevalent in the US and western Europe and the “socialist” type characteristic of the USSR and eastern Europe [Aron 1964]. The disintegration of the Soviet system towards the close of the 20th century witnessed further changes. Economic inequality and social conflict did not disappear but they acquired different forms in the different types of industrial society.

Occupation and Education

Inequalities in the ownership and control of property and wealth continue to be important, and they cannot be ignored where class is concerned. Even where the private ownership of land and capital was abolished, as in the USSR, inequalities remained in the control of the instruments of production. But while Marx had correctly appreciated the significance of property, he failed to grasp the emerging significance of occupation, education and income as bases of differentiation and inequality. He believed that the differentiation and gradation of occupations would decline with the growing polarisation between the owners of capital and land and the owners merely of labour power. In this he was largely mistaken.

The polarisation thesis, or the thesis of increasing antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, which was the fulcrum of the Marxian approach to class, appeared to be increasingly at odds with the reality of industrial societies as they moved from the 19th to the 20th century. Each of the two “basic” classes, capitalists and workers, became internally more and not less differentiated. This has been described as the “decomposition of capital” and the “decomposition of labour” [Dahrendorf 1959]. Changes have taken place in the very conceptions of capital and of labour or work.

Capitalist development failed to drive out small businesses and enterprises or owners of small amounts of capital operating largely with household labour. Even in the most advanced industrial societies individuals with some enterprise and a little bit of capital have shown remarkable capacity for survival and success. Individuals might move in and out of small ventures and the ventures themselves may go through ups and downs, but the more-or-less independent small-scale operator continues to survive and sometimes even to take advantage of market expansion and technological change. In countries such as India, liberalisation and privatisation have no doubt hurt some individuals with secure employment, but they have also created new opportunities for others with drive and initiative but with little prospect of paid employment. There has been much downward mobility but there has also been as much if not more upward mobility, and upward mobility subverts the polarisation thesis.

Differentiation and Stratification

Not only do the “owners of capital” continue to be highly differentiated, but the status of “employee” encompasses such an enormous range of positions that already a hundred years ago the phrase “the owners merely of labour-power” had begun to lose its meaning. Technological and organisational changes since Marx’s time have led to the continuous emergence of new occupations. These occupations are not only highly differentiated, they are also elaborately ranked, although the differentiation and ranking are in a constant flux [Erikson and Goldthorpe 1992]. The marketing manager, the ambassador, the bank clerk, the postman and the municipal sweeper derive their identities less from the structure of property than from the systems of education and occupation. They may all be employees of one kind or another, but their social situations are very different.

Attention shifted in the course of the 20th century, at least among the majority of sociologists, from the opposition between proletariat and bourgeoisie to the distinction between working class and middle class. The latter distinction appeared to be a salient feature of industrial societies and societies affected by industrialisation throughout the world. It was acknowledged even in the USSR, although there the term “intelligentsia” was used in place of the middle class, and officially the intelligentsia were designated as a stratum in contrast with the workers who were regarded as a class (Béteille 1989); today, of course, the term “middle class”, or its equivalent in the language of the country, is used freely in Russia and elsewhere in eastern Europe.

The shift in attention to the distinction between the working class and the middle class was accompanied by a displacement of property and wealth in the definition of class by income, occupation and education. Till 50 years ago the distinction made by western sociologists between the working class and the middle class was based largely on the distinction between manual and non-manual occupations. A similar distinction was adopted in the USSR: there the distinction between the workers and the intelligentsia rested on the distinction between “manual” and “mental” work. The Soviet terminology drew attention to an important criterion of distinction among classes, and that is education. The distinction between employees who needed some formal education and those who did not lost some of its significance as schooling became universal in the advanced industrial societies.

Many sociologists have pointed out that rapid changes in technology and the organisation of work together with open access to schooling have blurred the distinction between the working class and the middle class. Where rates of individual mobility are high the distinction becomes even more difficult to sustain. This has led to a shift of attention from class to stratification. All would agree that inequalities exist and may sometimes be on the increase but some would point out that it is now very difficult in the advanced industrial societies to identify social classes, each with a clear sense of its own distinct and separate identity.

A major sticking-point in the study of class has been the dogmatic adherence to one or another definition of it. As I have pointed out, changes in technology and the organisation of work have made it untenable to define classes solely by the three factors of production of classical political economy, viz, land, labour and capital. If class is a matter of perception and not just objective material circumstance, we cannot ignore the inequalities and conflicts associated with differences of occupation, education and income. It would be contrary to common usage to ignore those differences while talking about class.

At the same time, we cannot keep differences of employment status, as between employer, employee and self-employed, out of the reckoning in talking about class. They too are a part of the objective reality as well as the perceptions of people. The problem arises because disparities due to occupation, income and education, and those due to employment status do not always match. Employees in senior administrative, managerial and professional occupations enjoy higher esteem and exercise more authority than most self-employed persons and many employers. As a result, both the reality of class differences and the consciousness of that reality are often blurred and hazy, and do not by themselves provide a secure basis for mobilising political support.

Communities of Birth

While classes, whether as proletariat and bourgeoisie or as working class and middle class, have failed to develop the kind of identity that some expected them to develop, communities of birth based on language, religion, sect, caste and tribe, have maintained, not to say strengthened, their identities in the face of rapid social change. This is a worldwide phenomenon although we witness it in a particularly marked form in contemporary India where even the ideological proponents of class politics have yielded increasingly to the politics of caste and community.

The term “identity politics” has come to be used to refer to the kind of politics in which collective identities such as those based on language, religion, sect, caste and tribe, assume preeminence in the political arena. As I have just indicated, identity politics is by no means unique to contemporary India but it has a kind of luxuriance in it that is rarely found in other countries. Whether at the time of elections, or in forming alliances in the legislatures or in and between political parties, the “caste equation” has to be kept continuously in mind, if not in all parts of the country, then in most parts of it. It is for this reason that every political pundit who appears on television has to become something of an amateur sociologist.

The pre-eminence of identity politics over class politics has created some discomfort for social theorists and particularly for those among them who advocate the unity of theory and practice. It is undoubtedly the case that social theory is better equipped to deal with classes than with communities. It has over the last 150 years developed a rich body of concepts, methods and techniques of analysis devoted to the subject of class. I have pointed to the many disagreements on the subject, but those disagreements have in the long run deepened and enriched social theory. By contrast, the study of communities has been largely empirical and descriptive, and contributed little to the development of social theory. The politics of caste and community, though real and palpable, has failed to secure the intellectual and moral legitimacy that class politics has had, at least in certain quarters, despite being divisive.

The ease with which the loyalties of caste and community can be used for mobilising political support is due to certain fundamental and enduring features of Indian social structure. Liberal intellectuals tend to attribute the resurgence of caste politics and communal politics to the machinations of unscrupulous politicians. Certainly, our politicians have much to answer for, but in using the loyalties of caste and community for securing political support, they only swim with the social current instead of providing new directions in public life.

Indian society has been since time immemorial a society of castes and communities rather than of individuals. The free association of individuals on the basis of common values or common interests tends to be thwarted by loyalties determined by birth in a particular caste or a particular community. Differences of economic situation or economic interest are often ignored where loyalty to caste or community is concerned.

Primacy of Groups

The subordination of the individual to the community has been commented upon by numerous observers from both within and outside the country. Writing on the eve of independence about India’s traditional social order, Nehru pointed to the fundamental importance of the institutions of village, caste and joint family, adding, “In all these three it is the group that counts: the individual has a secondary place” [Nehru 1961: 248]. The colonial administrators of British India were struck again and again by the great proliferation of tribes, castes and sects which they came to regard as the fundamental building blocks of Indian society. Each of these many communities maintained its identity and continuity through adherence to its distinctive custom and through the rule of endogamy or marriage within the community.

India has been described as “the land of the most inviolable organisation by birth” [Weber 1958: 3], and the division of its population into castes and communities has been widely and for long regarded as the defining feature of its social structure. British administrators began enumerating and classifying the different castes and communities among the people of India, and, in one form or another, the work continues till the present day. The Backward Classes Commission under B P Mandal listed as many as 3,743 castes and communities, and the monumental People of India project undertaken by the Anthropological Survey of India has since reiterated the importance of the division of Indian society into communities of various kinds.

Even for a country with its extent and population, the multiplicity of languages and religions present in India is remarkable. The Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India lists 18 languages as those officially recognised in the states and the union. These languages, with the exception of Sanskrit, are associated with distinct speech communities concentrated in, but not confined to, one or another region of the country. Apart from the major literary languages, there are numerous others, associated with much smaller speech communities, among the tribal population. The major religions of the world – Hinduism, Islam, Christianity and others – are all found in India and each of them is divided into a variety of sects and denominations.

In a study of Calcutta published in the mid-1960s, N K Bose described the multiplicity of communities that made up the social structure of the city. A single residential district might contain several different castes of Bengali Hindus, Oriyas and Biharis from the adjacent states, Sikhs from the Punjab, Urdu-speaking Muslims, Bengali-speaking Muslims, Gujarati Baniyas and many others. They all participated in the common economic life of the city but maintained their distinct and separate identities. “Because there are not enough jobs to go around everyone clings as closely as possible to the occupation with which his ethnic group is identified and relies for economic support on those who speak his language, his co-religionists, on members of his own caste and on fellow immigrants from the village or district from which he has come” [Bose 1965: 102]. Alas, in India there are never enough jobs to go around!

A recent study of Belgaum city in south India has examined the complex pattern of divisions based on region, language, religion, sect and caste [Sabharwal 2006]. The city is in Karnataka but is close to its border with the state of Maharashtra, hence, in addition to the native Kannada-speakers, it has a significant population of Marathi-speakers who are jealous of their identity which they seek to assert politically and culturally. The population of the city is predominantly Hindu, but the Kannada-speakers are dominated by members of the lingayat sect whereas among the Marathi-speakers, the marathas constitute the dominant caste. Over and above these two blocs there is a significant minority of Muslims who speak a distinctive variant of the Urdu language.

I would like to make it clear that when I point to the persistence of collective identities, I do not ignore the fact that there are continuous changes in the social and economic practices of the members of the community with which they continue to identify despite the many new practices they adopt. There are Muslims who feel strongly about their Muslim identity even when they pay scant regard to the dietary and other observances said to be distinctive of the Muslims. I know Bengalis living outside Bengal who express great pride in the Bengali language and literature but do not speak the language much and are largely innocent of the literature.

Ethnicity and Politics

Although communities of birth are very conspicuous in India, they are by no means unique to it. In a landmark study of racial and ethnic groups, Glazer and Moynihan (1970) argued that the representation of the US as a melting pot of races and cultures did not correspond to the reality. Their study of the blacks, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians and Irish in New York city shows the resilience of collective identities in the face of rapid economic and social change. It is true that many elements of language and culture were lost by the groups that came into the new country in successive waves of migration. “But as the groups were transformed by influences in American society, stripped of their original attributes, they were recreated as something new, but still as identifiable groups” [Glazer and Moynihan 1970: 13]. By becoming American they did not cease to be Jewish or Italian or even Irish; and, of course, the black identity has remained visibly the same to a large extent.

It has been argued that ethnic identities in the US were sustained by the structure of urban politics in that country. Politics has certainly played a part in shoring up the identities based on language, religion and caste in contemporary India.

The seeds of identity politics were planted in India during the period of colonial rule, and they have come to bear fruit as democracy has taken hold in the country. The British adopted a policy of quotas in public institutions that encouraged the politics of religious minorities in the north and the non-brahmin movement in the south. It is not that divisions between Hindus and Muslims did not exist in the north, or between brahmins and non-brahmins in the south. But public policy gave a focus to these divisions and strengthened the process of identity formation or at least kept them from weakening. Once the claims of the broad divisions based on birth come to be acknowledged, the subdivisions within each division put forward their own claims.

The Congress Party, which stood for the unity of the nation and spearheaded the movement for its independence, viewed the moves for separate arrangements on the basis of religion and caste with misgiving. The British acted from a mixture of motives. Not all of them believed that India was a nation or ready to become one in the foreseeable future. Many of them took a protective, not to say a paternalistic, attitude towards the religious minorities and the backward communities and promoted their interests on humanitarian considerations. They were of course not blind to the opportunities for maintaining their authority in India through a policy of divide and rule.

The nationalist movement, which was a movement for unity and independence, culminated in the independence of India but also its partition along communal lines. The leaders of the newly independent country felt that the promoters of the policy of divide and rule had done their worst and that they were free from then onwards to rebuild their nation, or what remained of it after Partition, according to the principles they had espoused during the movement for freedom from colonial rule. The British may have thought that India was a nation of castes and communities, but they wanted to create a nation of citizens whose rights would not be constrained by race, caste, creed or gender.

In the Constituent Assembly, B R Ambedkar pressed strongly for the pre-eminence of the individual as citizen. He was not in favour of any kind of collectivism in the new constitutional order. There were those in the Constituent Assembly who wanted a larger place for the village community in the new scheme of things. Ambedkar opposed them strongly and said, “I am glad that the Draft Constitution has discarded the village and adopted the individual as its unit” [Constituent Assembly 1989: VII, 39].

The view that in a secular democracy the relationship between the citizen and the state should not be mediated by caste and community was held by many in the early years of independence. It was articulated forcefully by the veteran Gandhian Kaka Kalelkar in the letter he wrote while forwarding the report of the first Backward Classes Commission of which he was the chairman. He wrote, “In a democracy, it is always the individual (not even the family) which is the unit. Democracy thrives best when, on the one hand we recognise and respect the personality of the individual and on the other we consider the well-being of the totality comprising the nation” [Government of India 1956: xiv]. He had gone so far as to say that “nothing should be allowed to organise itself between these two ends to the detriment of the freedom of the individual and the solidarity of the nation” (ibid: iv).

With the advantage of hindsight we can say that Kaka Kalelkar’s view of the prospects of democracy in India was utopian if not naïve. As often, Ambedkar had seen more deeply into the heart of the matter. He had said, “It is wrong for the majority to deny the existence of the minorities. It is equally wrong for the minorities to perpetuate themselves”, and added, “The moment the majority loses the habit of discriminating against the minority, the minorities can have no ground to exist. They will vanish” [Constituent Assembly 1989: 39]. Although he was speaking specifically of the religious minorities, his argument applies equally to the backward communities.

Identity politics did not disappear with the adoption of democracy, but was reinforced by it. By the time of the second general elections, held in 1957, there were signs of the return of caste to the public domain. In an address on the eve of the elections, M N Srinivas (1962: 15-41) argued that caste was being given a new lease of life by the electoral process. His arguments were treated lightly by both liberal and radical intellectuals at the time, and their author was dubbed as conservative and backwardlooking. Later events showed that Srinivas was right and that his critics had missed the signs of the future.

It is far from my intention to maintain that caste is becoming stronger in every respect. On the contrary, there is clear evidence of its declining influence in many significant areas of life. The ritual restrictions relating to purity and pollution, by which so much of the hierarchy of caste was sustained, are clearly in retreat, and it is highly unlikely that there will be a reversal of the trend of the last 100 years. Caste is still a very important factor in the arrangement of marriage, but the rules regulating marriage have become weaker and not stronger. Finally, the association between caste and occupation has loosened to a considerable degree. However, there is one domain in which caste continues to prevail, and that is the domain of politics.

Caste and Class

The fact that identity politics has come to prevail over class politics in the country as a whole and in most, though not all, parts of it should not lead to the conclusion that economic inequalities or disparities of wealth, occupation and income have ceased to exist or be significant. There are large and sometimes increasing economic inequalities between individuals, between households and between communities. The question is not whether economic inequalities are or are not important; it is about the manner in which they are structured and projected in the political arena.

Two things must be kept clearly in mind. Firstly, comparisons of average economic standing generally reveal disparities between different communities whether defined by religion or by caste; identity politics does not create the disparities out of nothing but merely brings them into political focus. Secondly, there are economic disparities not only between the different communities of birth but also within each one of them; it cannot be too strongly emphasised that whether we take the religious minorities or the backward castes, each of their major segments will be found to have individuals and households belonging to most if not all social classes. Identity politics succeeds where it underscores disparities between communities and obscures those within each one of them.

One of the principle concerns of democratic politics is with the distribution and redistribution of the benefits and burdens of society among its various constituent parts. Class politics from Marx to Lenin and Mao had a radical and a utopian orientation to the extent that its ultimate aim was the abolition of all social classes and the creation of a classless society. Identity politics is more pragmatic. It does not seek to abolish or even weaken the identity of any community whose interest it articulates, but only to bring about a more favourable redistribution within the existing social framework. It is far better adapted to the give and take of the democratic process.

Middle Class

A closer look at any of the major communities of birth and the manner in which it operates in the political system will reveal the importance of the middle class, and hence of class in general, in contemporary India. Those who articulate the interests of the community do not come from all social classes but predominantly from the middle class. The middle class plays the leading part in all liberal democracies which, presumably, is the reason why they are called “bourgeois” democracies, but its role becomes particularly conspicuous where it makes up only a very small component of the community whose cause it espouses.

Once we acknowledge that communities of birth are generally, if not invariably, divided by class, it should not be difficult to see that the benefits of identity politics do not flow equally to all classes within the community. In India the policies typically advocated through identity politics, whether for education or for employment, have benefited the middle classes far more than other social classes, and one may go so far as to say that it is in the nature of identity politics for this to happen.

Gopa Sabharwal’s study (2006) of the politics of ethnicity in Belgaum city brings out the leading role of the middle class in each ethnic group. The interests of the ethnic group are not only articulated but also defined by the middle class members of the group. The rivalries between such groups are in large measure the rivalries of their respective middle classes. This also means that the politics of caste and community has played some part in the expansion of the middle class in India.

We cannot ignore the “class character” of identity politics whether we are dealing with religious minorities of backward castes. That character was in evidence and noted even before independence. A shrewd observer of the Backward Classes movement in Madras presidency, who was himself a non-brahmin, pointed out in 1939 that the movement was not about social justice but about conflicts of interest within the middle class. He observed, “The Non-Brahmin movement of Madras Presidency is no other than the movement of the later educated middle classes who happen to be Non-Brahmins against the earlier educated middle classes who happened to be Brahmins” [Krishna 1939: 155]. The politics of backwardness has become greatly enlarged in scope in independent India, and particularly during the last two or three decades.

The educated and salaried middle class was a very small fraction of the Indian population when the country became independent 60 years ago. Nevertheless, it had a very great influence in creating and sustaining the open and secular institutions which carried forward the modernisation of India. The middle class was not only small in size, it was also socially exclusive. Hindus belonging to a handful of upper castes predominated in it and the backward castes and religious minorities were disproportionately few in number, particularly in superior professional, managerial and administrative positions.

The educated middle class has grown substantially in size, first through the steady expansion of the public sector in the early decades of independence and, more recently, through the expansion of the private sector. It is now no longer a tiny section of the population but numbers in the tens or even hundreds of millions, depending on how we define it. It has not only grown in size but has also become socially more diverse. Its expansion and diversification has been the outcome of various economic, social and political forces.

The recent strife over numerical quotas in institutions of higher education has brought out the leading role of the middle class in articulating the interests of caste and community in the name of social justice. The proponents as well as the opponents of quotas, though divided by caste and community, both belong to the middle class, and in the case of the IITs and the IIMs, aspire for membership of the upper middle class. The opponents of quotas want the system to continue more or less as it is. The proponents want change, not so much in the structure of society as in the caste composition of university institutions without much heed to standards of teaching and research. One does not have to be an astrologer to predict that those who want change are going to win.

No force can halt the expansion of the middle class in India. As it expands, its social composition will change. It was socially too exclusive at the time of independence and, although changes are taking place in its composition, it still remains more exclusive than its counterparts in most other societies and certainly in all societies with its resources and its capacity for growth. What policies will be adopted to make the middle class socially more inclusive and what the cost of those policies will be only time can tell.

The greatest deficiency of the classical theory of classes was its neglect of the middle class. Marx’s magisterial definition of classes in the last unfinished chapter of Capital reads, “The owners merely of labour-power, owners of capital and landowners, whose respective sources of income are wages, profit and ground-rent, in other words, wage-labourers, capitalists and landowners, constitute the three big classes of modern society based on the capitalist mode of production” [Marx 1959: 885]. This scheme of classes had great relevance in 19th century England. It does not have the same relevance here today as we live in a greatly altered social environment.

The classical theory simplified the divisions of society and expected the emerging economic and political forces to carry the simplification forward. It focussed all its attention on capitalists and worker under Marx, and to these Lenin and Mao added the peasants. In all of this the middle class had little or no place. The revolutionary struggles between capitalists and workers, or between landowners and peasants, did not squeeze the middle class out. Instead, it expanded and became greatly differentiated not only in the countries that were the first to become industrialised but throughout the world. Today it is a significant part of the Indian population, and there are sharp conflicts of interest between its different fractions. But the middle class has not received the attention it deserves from social scientists in India. Radical intellectuals, like radical politicians, do not like too much attention to be paid to the class to which they belong.


[This is based on the text of the first A K Dasgupta Memorial Lecture delivered at the annual meeting of the Bengal Economic Association at Lady Brabourne College, Calcutta on 17 February 2007. I am grateful to the association and to Alakananda Patel for inviting me to deliver the lecture.]


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