Caste As Social Capital By Prof. R. Vaidyanathan


Every time I hear – Caste is bad, it is the curse of India. I wondered why this motherhood statement for something that is ancient and probably worked for the longest time. During my travels, I also discovered clusters of handicraft-based industries or small-scale industries where the business was predominantly with one community and sometimes the workers belonged to another community. They work with a perfectly balanced interdependence. So, can it be a Social Capital instead?

Caste as Social Capital by Prof R Vaidyanathan

Every community in their closed circles think they are the best community in the world. I also thought so about the Agarwal community that I am born into, for is it not that most of the businesses belong to us. A sense of calculation comes naturally to us. When I married into a Brahmin family, I could see the stark difference in the thought process. Well, there will be another time and space to discuss that. This was my reason to pick up a book that looks at caste as capital and not as a liability or a curse bestowed upon us.

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My biggest learning right at the beginning of the book was that the last caste-based demographic data was collected in the 1931 census. Mandal Commission reservations in the 1990s were done on the basis of the same census. I was a part of the student’s community that fought Mandal commission recommendations and after years I felt cheated even more.

Later in the book, I learned how the classification that we now think is natural to us is a gift of the British. They could not understand the thousands of Jatis mentioned in the census data and decided to assign their own categories. They not just shrunk the categories drastically. But they also introduced a hierarchy that was dynamic and temporal. They made it fixed for the times to come. Well, it may have been laziness or the sheer enormity of the task that made them do this. But it is still hurting us.

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Caste Tag

Another thing that wondered about right from the Mandal Commission days was why do some communities lobby to get a backward caste tag. Isn’t it what they are against – being backward? I was happy to read about at least one instance in this book where people asked to be taken out of the list of backward class or caste. More power to them.

The first half of the book has a lot of data on the industry. Especially on MSME and the unorganized sector, where the caste matters more than the organized sector. This reminded me of all the Gol Gappa or Pani Puri stalls across South India. They all come from smaller regions in eastern UP. Often a small cluster in UP serves the street food in a city down south. I am not sure if they are a part of any statistic.

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I learned Swami Vivekanand’s quote on Caste where he said he realizes the relevance of caste as an age-old tradition with experience of eons. I hope we also realize that something that has worked for so long can not just be bad. Just because some outsiders could not figure out the intricacies of it.

I must add a personal experience here. At an art event where a Dalit artist was exhibiting and presenting, he kept saying he was not allowed at the village temple of Brahmins. In my extensive travels across India, I have never seen a ‘Brahmin Only’ temple and no one has ever asked me my caste before stepping in. They ask that only when some ritual has to be done. So, I asked him about his village and he was reluctant to talk about it and just said UP. I then asked him if his community also has a temple in the village? He said, yes. I asked if you allow Brahmins or outsiders in that temple. He had no answer, but then lightly said – They won’t come to our temples. That is where lies a big answer.

Every community had its own temples with their family deities and they were kind of private spaces. Today we assume all temples to be public spaces where everyone must be allowed.

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The author explains Caste as Social Capital in the context of business and economic clusters, entrepreneurship, and politics. He talks about Vaishyavisation of the country where everyone wants to be a business person.

Overall, Caste as Social Capital is a very interesting book to read. With only 150 odd pages, full of data tables, it is a quick book to read. I think this might be the beginning of a lot of research that needs to go into this space.

If caste puzzles you or intrigues you, do read it.

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