I am often asked by Western and non Indian people regarding the caste system. It trips me a lot trying to explain the complexity, necessity and current scenario given the history.
Here is an effort- The Indian /Hindu caste system was primarily an economic system to divide labor. In the original Manusmriti ,named by the King Manu- it was flexible.
A son of blue collar worker could become a warrior if he was brave etc.
A couple of centuries later – the top castes primarily the priests decided to make it rigid. No more social intermingling or marriage between castes, and no more migration of occupation regardless of merit.
This led to a lot of lower caste people leaving Hinduism to join religions like Islam ( post 1000 AD, Muslim Invasions and Mughal Rule) and Christianity ( post the arrival of English).
Post 1947 , many of “lower castes” preferred to remain within Hinduism but adopted Buddhism as their primary worship mechanism.Also India‘s leaders in the 1940′s , many of whom were educated in UK as lawyers ( including Mahatma Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose, Jawahar Lal Nehru) decided this system had weakened the nation state and divided the energies of India, besides being obviously inhumane and degrading.
The Constitution of India was shepharded in 1950 by an assembly led by Dr. B R Ambedkar , one of the very first educated lower castes ( also called Harijan , after Mahatma Gandhi’s name for them, literally Hari -Jan people of the Lord).That Cosntitution endures as India remains the finest example of a Democracy in the non Western world.
The Indian constitution established 7.5 % jobs reservation in Government jobs and educational institutes at a college and masters level only for lowest and most educationally backward castes ( hence called scheduled castes), 15 % jobs reservation in Government jobs only for tribal people ( hence called scheduled tribes). The provision is renewed every 10 years. Think of it as a constitutionallu bound affirmative action.
In 1990, another 27.5 % of jobs and educational seats were reserved for castes that were socially okay but educationally backward. This caused some riots, delays, political actions, but was finally implemented by 2007.
Opponents of the new affirmative action say that this is like doing two wrongs to make a right. Supporters say data proves that reservation has led to social advancement ( especially in the State of Tamil Nadu).Rollback of the new system is a political impossibilty thanks to unity among hitherto repressed classes.
As an upper caste Hindu ( embarassingly enough my caste is both a warrior and a kingly royal caste , which gives me zero benefit in 2010 AD)……..
In God we Trust..All others must bring Data.
Unfortunately, when it comes to politics the same data is either hidden, partially hidden, or interpreted in different ways especially with regards to projecting sampling error or decisions.
Phew…!! That was an analytical layman definition of the Indian Caste System over 2000 years.
Note- The Indian soldier caste is Kshatriyas not Kshatritas..