The dominant story about the ‘caste system’

You say: “If ‘caste’ or ‘jati’ has the same status as alumni associations and similar social groups, with their varying practices, it seems we are prepared to say that ‘jati’ has no special place in the Indian society in the same way that my alumni association has no special status in Indian society.” This sentence is the problematic one.

1. First of all, it does not follow (either empirically or logically) that if Jati is a social group much like alumini associations, trades unions, etc it has no special status in Indian society. That depends upon the role, function and the nature of such social groups and these are issues for empirical investigation. For instance, the “old boys” network” in Britian (comprising of aluminis from public schools and Oxbridge students) apparently plays a very important role in the British society. In certain circles of power in India, alumminis from private schools (like the Doon school, Lawrence school) and colleges like St. Stephens have built sophisticated networks that function like service clubs. In this sense, one cannot claim that alumini networks, by virtue of their composition, do not have a special status in a society. This is an empirical question. Your alumini association might indeed have no special place; that does not preclude some other alumini association from having an important place. (Similarly, by virtue of the fact that some particular trade union does not have a special status in Indian society, it is not possible to make claims about whether trades unions have a special status or not.)

2. Secondly, all of us routinely distinguish between a domain of study and several approaches or theories used to study the domain. (If ‘gravitational force’ is the domain of study, we have had a number of theories that have studied this domain.) In our case too, we need to keep this in mind: jati is the domain of study and there are theories in the market place that claim that the ‘system of caste’ is synonymous with the social structure of India. Denying this set of theories does not entail denying either the existence of jati’s or the presence of a social structure in India.

3. Thirdly, just because people deny the Aristotelean theory about falling bodies, they are not committed to deny the experience that unsupported bodies (on earth) fall downwards. By denying one set of theories about the caste system (or even all of them), I am not committed to deny any experience, whether they are horror stories or stories of oppression or whatever else. Furthermore, I am not even denying that jati practices cover many things: from commensality to marriages. These are issues for further empirical (which are these practices and where) and theoretical (what role do these practices play in sustaining and reproducing a social structure) investigation.

All I am committed to is the following claim: the dominant western story about ‘the caste system’ is false, if taken as an explanation of the Indian society.