Any discussion of political or social significance of India is incomplete without the mention of the caste system. Caste is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as “an endogamous and hereditary social group limited to persons of the same rank, occupation, and economic position.” The word caste is derived from the Romance word of casta as seen in Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian which in addition to representing the same concept as English caste can mean ‘lineage’ or ‘race’. It comes from Romance casto, which can mean ‘pure’ or ‘chaste’ Casto in Latin means ‘chaste’, which is derived from castus, meaning ‘pure’, ‘cut off’ or ‘separated’.
The caste system in India is one of the most important social constructs that has seeped into every possible aspect of the country. Caste system divides society into closed and hereditary groups ranked by ritual status. Castes are hereditary groups because membership is decided by birth alone. They are thought to be closed because intermarriage between different castes are forbidden in the classical version. Castes derive their relative position in a hierarchical ranking based on the traditional religious notions of rituals of purity and pollution.
However, the most twisted appearance of the caste system is in India’s politics. Even the Indian Constitution upholds certain reservation privileges for SCs and STs (and after the Indra Sawhney case, for the OBCs too) which is a major reason for political wrath. In a democratic system like ours where there is a direct conflict between social justice and political abuse, the caste system and reservation policies whether they be in the nature of economic, social or educational empowerment, will be a major impediment in any kind of progress.
It is a verity that the caste system is so embedded in the rubric of Indian politics that endeavouring to eradicate it will only be futile. However, the concept of merit should not be compromised for the notion of distributive justice on the basis of caste. Caste is and probably will be an indelible part of the nation but it is most important to cast away the notions of caste and race from the politics of the country. It is only after this that India will be truly democratic.