As the horrendous acts of violence against Dalit women and men keep reminding us, caste remains a vast system of hierarchy and inequality but, as I will argue, it’s a system that learns and adapts to our brave new world – shedding its association with hereditary livelihood and learning new associations with politics and the state. It’s hard not to be cynical or angry about caste, but at the same time we have to understand why it’s been so robust.

Suppose you were to poll a hundred Indians – laypeople, academics, politicians, etc – what they thought caste was, chances are the answers you will get are of the following kind:

  1. It’s a universal system of hierarchy. Perhaps not expressed in this intellectual jargon, but nevertheless a system that places people on a ladder.
  2. It’s a hereditary system that dictates who you are, what you can do, whom you marry, what you eat, and where you live.
  3. In the modern era, it attaches itself to political life, access to the state, and a new regime of redistribution.

In all three assessments, the social dominates. Whether we look at how caste is represented in popular discourse, in academic debate, or in political contests, caste appears to live in a world of humans with a few objects serving as props to the human drama.

“Who dominates whom?”, “where did my caste come from?”, “who is winning and who is losing?”, “who gets the jobs?” (and why don’t I when I am so meritorious?): these are the controversies on the ground, in parliament, and in boardrooms.

It’s as if a theory of caste has become the perception of caste. There’s nothing wrong with theories; by their very nature, theories abstract from the messy details of the world in order to understand the relationships between a selective set of features. For example, if I am studying gravitation in the planetary system, I might idealise the sun and the planets as points with no extension. That idealisation, in turn, helps us understand the motion of the planets around the sun, which is the topic of interest.

In the same way, we can abstract out the physical and environmental features of the world from caste, leaving only humans who play games of domination and submission with each other. That social abstraction is powerful, for it helps us understand the structure of caste as a social system; it makes us ask important questions about how religious imagery (the famous head–trunk–feet of the mythical Purusa, for example) interacts with everyday reality. It also helps us understand how caste dynamics work: which jati is moving where and how that jati is negotiating power relations with other jatis on its way up or down.

The social analysis of caste (in all three arenas: street, academy, parliament) presupposes the social abstraction, which can be assumed to be a model of caste in equilibrium. “A system in equilibrium” is a thermodynamic concept that’s widely used in economics as well, to mean a system that isn’t influenced by the outside world and any changes it experiences are due to internal motions.

Therefore, caste in equilibrium would mean a world in which caste isn’t affected by influences from the outside and any changes in caste structure are due to internal adjustments. One step beyond equilibrium are slow, long term influences stemming from changes in the political economy and the relative value of resources to which a caste might have preferential access.

Here, we can continue to keep the theory, but add “outside forces” as a means of change. For example, Jats and Yadavs have risen relative to Rajputs because of the increasing value of land and the decreasing value of armed combat. As a result, landowning and farming castes have greater capacity to mobilise and bargain for power.

To take just one shift, let’s note that traditionally there was a military layer on top of the primarily agrarian economy such as in the Mughal Mansabdari system, where the Mansabdar was both the revenue collector and responsible for acquiring and maintaining a fixed number of soldiers. That situation favoured castes and tribes of a military background. From the British onward, revenue collection has been a civilian affair and ultimately responsible to a political class that has to be responsive to the demographics of India, where OBCs are 40+ per cent and all forward castes put together are less than 30 per cent.

Bigger problems arise with changes that are relatively far from equilibrium, where the outside world makes insistent demands on the caste system on an ongoing basis. For example, with the increasing influence of modernisation and the market economy, new livelihoods have come into being that didn’t exist two hundred years ago: truck drivers and WhatsApp influencers, for example, but also marketised versions of professions that have existed forever.

Almost every security guard in Bangalore is an Oriya man – typically lower caste. Many cooks in Bangalore are upper-caste Oriya men.

How do castes move into these new professions? Is that movement exclusive or do these new professions have room for multiple castes, even if they are arranged in an internal hierarchy?

It’s clear that these new livelihoods have loosened the formation of caste. Caste as an indicator of livelihood is much less secure than it used to be a hundred years ago; that’s certainly true of modern professions, which might be biased in favour of one caste over another, but don’t deny access to other castes by design.

It’s also increasingly true of traditional livelihoods. How do social relations change when migrants – potentially upper caste! – from other states perform farm labour traditionally done by lower castes? The same with politics. Mobilisation on the basis of caste has been enormously successful in what was imagined as a constitutional democracy composed of liberal individuals. Why so? Why has it been so easy for caste to move into this new cognitive niche? How did political and state identity become a central feature of caste so quickly?

Even the aspect of caste most resistant to change – endogamy – has changed more in the last hundred years than in the previous thousand. In this combination of conservatism and flexibility, caste is showing that it’s a learning system and not just a static system. The movement into new niches is not just an outcome of changes in the political economy: in pursuing new opportunities, castes create the material system that sustains them from that point onward.

In doing so, we see the beginnings of an important phenomenon: instead of caste disappearing as a result of modernity, it survives and even flourishes by becoming more flexible. The injustices don’t go away: Dalits who were prevented from eating from the same vessels as caste Hindus are now prevented from casting their franchise or bettering one’s career in the software industry. The adaptiveness of caste makes it a remarkably robust system of inequality.

We may want caste to be annihilated, but it may adapt to its new circumstances instead. The big no-no in my parents’ generation of Tamil Brahmins was intermarriage between Iyers and Iyengars. Today it’s common, even desirable for a community that’s spread all over the world – as a way of protecting Brahmin identity from non-Brahmins, of course. Caste is a cognitive system.

Excerpted with permission from Who Are We? An Enquiry Into the Indian Mind and How We Came to Be Who We Are, Rajesh Kasturirangan, Aleph Book Company.