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Caste as Social Engineering

October 3, 2010

Desraj Kali in Himal Southasian:

The nature of caste in Punjab state is different from the rest of the India. For historical reasons, Punjab does not have ‘untouchability’ in the way that it was practiced in South India. Many put this down to the influence of Sikhism, an ostensibly egalitarian religion that in principle does not acknowledge caste boundaries. Centuries ago, invaders also contributed to breaking down the rigidity of the caste structure in this area, changing the character of the economy by putting artisans at the centre, and thus making untouchability impractical. This does not mean, of course, that caste is non-existent in Punjab; indeed, caste and casteism are both still integral part of Punjabi society. Now, however, it works on far finer levels.

Urbanisation, decreased dependence on the ‘upper’ castes, and detachment from caste associated with traditional professions – these have all contributed to further eroding the crudity of the caste system Punjab. Migration to other, developed countries has also been a significant contribution in this. Interestingly, the mental erosion of both the crudity and rigidity of caste are taking place simultaneously: ethnic identities have become stronger, and casteism has become increasingly invisible. More people, from more communities, today feel proud to show off their caste. Earlier, those from the ‘upper’ castes would display caste-related stickers on their vehicles (‘Proud to be Jat’, for instance); today, such stickers are likewise displayed by the ‘lower’ castes as well (‘Proud to be Chamar’). Likewise, songs about caste pride are no longer confined to the upper castes.

Yet at the same time, under the new economic policies of liberalisation, globalisation and privatisation, more people are being denied education and employment. [More]

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