A blast from the past: The New Caste System

Is caste a natural reaction to overpopulation?

Parent usually want to ensure the best prospects for their children and give them a leg up both in their social lives and their careers. In an environment where competition for resources becomes tight due to overpopulation or where the stakes are high, parents may naturally want to use all possible means to ensure that their children have a head start in the race.

My wife recently dragged me to one of the umpteen awards ceremonies that Bollywood indulges itself in these days. Rahul Khanna, s/o Vinod was the host. Hrithik Roshan s/o Rakesh got a prize, as did Saif Ali Khan s/o Sharmila, as did Karan Johar s/o Yash. Vivek Oberoi s/o Suresh and Shahid Kapoor s/o Pankaj did stage shows. Sanjay Dutt s/o Sunil was there, as were Abhishek Bachchan s/o Amitabh, Soha Ali Khan d/o Sharmila and Kareena Kapoor d/o Randhir. With due apologies to Shah Rukh Khan and Shilpa Shetty, it looked like the poor folks without big surnames had just become item numbers.

Not that many of these well-surnamed people are without talent – many of them undoubtedly are, and several more will undoubtedly be, at our expense. Given her parentage, Karishma d/o Randhir s/o Raj s/o Prithviraj Kapoor s/o Vishweshwar Diwan was able to make the transition from Prem Qaidi to Fiza. The question is whether she would have been given the start, the support and the number of chances to succeed if it were not for Daddy and Granddaddy and Greatgranddaddy. Abhishek Bachchan too will be a good actor one day.

So like royals and rich industrialists, Bollywood personalities inter-marry within their industry and produce offspring that continue the tradition.

It is similar in politics. Dayanidhi Maran s/o Murasoli has become a minister. Sachin Pilot s/o Rajesh, Jyotiraditya Scindia s/o Madhavrao, Akhilesh Yadav s/o Mulayam Singh and many others have joined the most famous son of them all Rahul Gandhi s/o Rajiv as young parliamentarians. They may undoubtedly become good politicians, but so can thousands of capable young men and women in their constituencies. In India, there is an unashamed tradition of asking for votes in the name of a famous parent, almost as a birthright. So much is this accepted in society that it recieves scarcely any criticism in the mainstream media (for that matter, in the Indian blogosphere). The question is whether these young worthies could ever have ended up in Parliament if their surnames were not political assets. Both a blue-blooded Scindia and a not-so-blue-blooded Yadav can continue in the family occupation.

So far, politicians have avoided the temptation to marry within the trade – probably because their biological clocks did not allow them. In the past, hardly any politicians were in parliament at a reproductable age, especially women. That may yet change in the next iteration.

The third area of national life – cricket – has been more immune to this trend. Rohan Gavaskar s/o Sunil is promising to end this immunity. But in cricket, success or failure is instant. Repeated failure is not easily tolerated in spite of the best efforts of the Indian cricket board. Things may change, but mercifully this is one area of national life where surnames do not repeat themselves like deja vu’s or repetitive nightmares.

Royals and business families are excluded from my analysis because they are not professionals in the strict sense of the word. Businesses are strictly private enterprises and for the shareholders to do as they see fit. If it is a publicly listed company, public shareholders should have a say. Even then, promoters and founders have a way of imposing their sons and daughters on the business. Infosys and Ranbaxy are two internationally competitive companies that have shunned this practice. If free-market competition is allowed to prevail, more companies will have no choice but to engage professional managers. Still, leadership of companies is largely a matter for the company and its shareholders.

In all these cases, parents attempt to keep the wealth or specialist knowledge or a brand name legacy within the family, providing their offspring with a head start in life. One can hardly fault them for this. But taken to its eventual end, this practice ends up creating a whole new caste system — one which keeps opportunities locked in, and which is extremely difficult to penetrate. I sometimes wonder whether India’s original caste system came into being for precisely the same reasons.

While India is trying to shake off the pervasive inequities created by the original caste system, is another one insidiously creeping up to take its place?

Disclaimer: I wish to inform my wife that in spite of having these thoughts and contrary to appearances I actually enjoyed the Bollywood show.

Tailpiece: The trend seems to have picked up (see Youth Curry & Sambhar Mafia) since this was first posted on June 3, 2004 as a guest post on Jivha’s blog. The Indian blogosphere has been unable to close the hole he Left. A conversation with MadMan left me with the impression that another of my guest posts caused Jivha to do what he did. Sorry!

5 thoughts on “A blast from the past: The New Caste System”

  1. It’s not the new but a very old caste system. This is what dalit activists have been saying: caste discrimination never stopped. Indians promote their own family clan in businesses; jobs in the private sector depend on your ‘network’ – a freind just got me a job at his uncle’s company. And after all this the upper caste middle class talks of “merit”. Rubbish. So now you know why reservations are needed? Even in the private sector? Reservations are nothing but equality of opportunity.

    See my case study of one profession, journalism, in Uttar Pradesh:

    My article on caste and the city:

    Dalit glamour:

    I admit some of my ideas have been influenced by Chandrabhan Prasad’s dalit diary.

    Also see the ZESTCaste list:

  2. Amongst the better posts I’ve read in a while – humourous, entertaining, socially and politically educative, perspective-changing on a subject that was there before our eyes all along and alas, all-too-true.

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