The basic unit of the caste system, jati are regional endogamous groups of families traditionally associated with definite occupations, or possessing of a distinct corporate identity. This definition highlights the many features of the caste system; that it is reproduced through endogamy, and especially through the control of female sexuality, and secondly that jati have regional significance. This is to say that one has diverse jati spread throughout the subcontinent. There are a number of suggestions as to the root for the term jati. Some suggest a Sanskritic etymological origin, to signify birth. The Persian alternative, zat, or rank, offers a sharper insight into the operation of the caste system and the place of jati within it. This is to say, that all jati in a region are hierarchically ranked.
Central to this hierarchy is the dominant caste, a jati that owns the most land in a village, or has accumulated substantial political power, and is numerically preponderant in the village, allowing it a patron-client relationship with most other jati in the village. If the pattern is repeated through the region, this particular jati gains the status of a regionally dominant caste. Contrary to assumptions about the fixed nature of caste, there is fluidity in the caste system because every jati seeks to improve its location in the hierarchy. Strategies to effect such mobility included hypergamy, and restricting hypogamy, the accumulation of larger land-holdings and/or political power.
One of the ways in which this social mobility was classically secured was by claiming a ritual status in the varna system superior to that which the jati formerly enjoyed. Indeed, the most popular understanding of the caste system commences from the Chaturvarna (four varna) system of four ranking caste groups, the Brahmin, Kshatriya, Vaishya, and Shudra, ranked hierarchically in that order, who are known as savarna (sa = with, hence with varna) and the Jati who are outside the Chaturvarna order and are treated as untouchable. This is, however, a top-down vision of the caste order, that disproportionately privileges the brahmin. There are numerous locations in the subcontinent where jati that claim brahmin status are not in fact at the top of the caste structure. However, jati that are well entrenched in a brahmanical tradition are normally those with a high ritual status. In other words, varna is an ideological system that organizes jati into a Sanskritic conceptual scheme.
While the caste order is flexible and dynamic, what is fixed about the system is the affective relationships among jati characterized by the renowned Dalit thinker and intellectual, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, as an “ascending scale of reverence and a descending scale of contempt”. While this translates into the increasing reverence for those jati at the top of a regional pyramid of power, it translates not just to contempt, but increasing acts of violence and oppression as one descends the pyramid. The untouchables in every region, therefore, are often maintained in their state of material poverty, and emotional indignity through calibrated systems of humiliation, and when this does not work, brute violence. Caste, therefore, is more than an abstract system, but a visceral experience, it marks the body, and can be felt. It is for this reason that the term “dalit” (broken) has more recently been adopted to reference the untouchable castes.
Just as with other systems of social discrimination across the world, it is important to understand the caste system as an embodied system that negates the equality of human beings. After all, the word caste derives from the Portuguese word casta, testament to the fact that the early modern Portuguese in South Asia were able to draw on systems of social discrimination extant in contemporary Iberia. What makes caste particularly noxious, however, is that unlike other systems that seem to have made their peace with a universal logic that recognizes the human-ness of the individual, members of lower jati are invariably not effectively seen as human, or worthy of human respect.
While the practice of untouchability has been expressly outlawed by the Indian Constitution, the logics of untouchability are sanctified and given State backing through the operation of Indian nationalist discourses. Not only does Indian nationalism privilege upper-caste cultural forms as behavior for the ideal citizen, but all too often state power is built on the support of dominant castes in the region. This has at least two consequences, the first being the disparaging of dalit-bahujan ways of being. The second, that the violent suppression of dalit groups, the single way through which savarna power is maintained, is not systematically challenged.
Caste, in South Asia, is not restricted to groups that practice Hinduism, but finds expression in groups that practice other religions, including Christianity and Islam. Caste in these religious groups is the result not merely of the conversion of castes to other faiths, but is able to replicate itself because it draws from systems of social discrimination found in social systems present in Western Europe, Arabia and Iran, but also the result of the larger discourse within the subcontinent.
References and further readings:
Ambedkar, Bhimrao Ramji (2013), Annihilation of Caste: The Annotated Critical Edition. Edited by S. Anand. New Delhi: Navayana Publishing.
Deshpande, Satish (ed.) (2014), The Problem of Caste. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.
Jason Keith Fernandes is a researcher at the Centre for Research in Anthropology (CRIA) at the University Institute of Lisbon. He graduated in law from the National Law School of India, Bangalore (India), obtained a Master from the International Institute for the Sociology of Law, Oñate (Spain) and PhD in Anthropology from the University Institute of Lisbon.
Como citarFernandes, Jason Keith (2019), "Jati (Caste)", Dicionário Alice. Consultado a 16.10.21, em https://alice.ces.uc.pt/dictionary/?id=23838&pag=23918&id_lingua=1&entry=24628. ISBN: 978-989-8847-08-9