Caste consciousness and the sociology of public culture in India


In his book Mistaken Modernity Dipankar Gupta has an essay presenting a sociological explanation for the unclean public spaces in India. The apparent dirt in the public environs is something everyone comments on. Everyone notices it. Many attempts to clean up have been made both by the state and by the individuals. But the general habit of dirtying up the outside-the-home-environs seems to defeat all efforts to clean up our environment. Surprisingly, in our society with regards to inside-the-home, the general habit is the opposite of this: there is an excessive concern to clean the house.

This attitude finds itself expressed in public parks, tourist centres, bus and railway stations, hospitals, roads, and even cinema halls. Spitting and urinating in the public, littering the place with polythene bags and pieces of paper, tossing cigarette buts or food crumbs onto the road are all too common to shock us. You can rarely find a public utility place – hospital or a bus-stand – which is not spattered with the colours of pan or gutka.

Is this so because we are a dirty tribe? Such a characterisation can fall into the essentialist trap because what can explain a habit common in our society though across any recognisable commonality of social practice? Dipankar Gupta in fact gives exactly such an explanation by invoking that which is common across the country and that which inculcates a certain attitude to cleanliness in us. He contends that this has to do with caste consciousness. Gupta argues that the attitude to cleanliness in our society is related to caste. He points out that the idea of there being castes to clean up the toilets and the gutters meant that cleaning the public place is an inferior job meant, in the caste conscious mind, for the ‘lower caste’. This attitude leaves the responsibility of keeping the public places clean on the ‘cleansing castes’. In short, Dipankar Gupta, much more clearly and persuasively than my summary can do here, argues that the Indian middle class does not consider it their responsibility to keep their environs clean as they take it for granted (a) that it would lower their status to do so and (b) that it is someone else’s job (the cleaning castes).
This argument is very convincing. It also leads me to think that we should be able to find explanations for several of our social evils in this manner. Ambedkar in his “Annihilation of Caste” does a similar sociological analysis: he points out that the reason why there is so much political disunion is to do with the caste feelings in this society.

I think it is important that we conduct such a sociological theorisation explaining social phenomena with respect to caste because otherwise these tendencies will be seen as natural. For example, through the analysis of caste consciousness in the society we must try to find the reasons for such general habits as:

i. easily accepting inferior quality in any work

ii. easily resorting to destruction of public property

iii. failure of our education system, even in private sector institutions

iv. extreme disregard for environment in every endeavour

v. extreme disregard for public hygiene and health in manufacturing sector

vi. extreme disregard for public convenience or safety in our town planning

vii. etc.

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