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Ever changing social landscape


Time tills society like a plough. 
Time turns everyone’s world upside down on a regular basis.    

Change is the only constant in life.


This has always been so from the beginning of time.  However, most of us see history as “static” and presume “rapid change” to be a recent phenomena.  From reading history, what I can see is that change is more frequent and life changing than people presume.  This is especially true when people are examining Indian history.  Most researchers and anthropologists presume that for millenniums Indian society has been static and stuck in rigid format due to its caste system.  Most westerners presume that low caste Hindus have been oppressed by upper castes for centuries.  They assume that this was perpetual and can only remedied through western education and democracy.  Having not studied Indian history, or society in sufficient detail, they do not know how fluid the caste system is.


History shows us that life is rarely steady.  People, communities, countries, continents go through amazing changes all the time, decade after decade and generation after generation.  Natural disasters, wars, political changes, economic upheavals impact everyone.  Indian society has always been in a flux of movement and change.  This was exacerbated by disasters - natural and man-made.



Wealth, position, prestige, friends and relatives are accumulated studiously by people over time.  All this can be destroyed in the course of a single war.  Often the mighty are humbled and the lowly are raised to highest position as direct result of wars.  Wars have always been great levellers of society.  Wars allowed new recruits to show their talent and rise to the highest level.  For example, converted slaves whose ethnicity, caste or previous creeds were no longer important, became governors and rulers of various Sultanate period kingdoms in medieval India.  Even recently, during the rise of Maraths, Gayakwads (cattle herder) rose up the ranks and carved out a kingdom of Baroda for themselves. 


Even now, wars occur with alarming regularity.  Several countries in Africa, Middle East and Asia are still suffering from wars in the 21st century.  Businesses, farms and jobs are lost within weeks and people are sent scurrying across the globe, often carrying little more than a bag of essential items.  



New ideas, new discoveries, new manufacturing techniques all change the way society is ordered.  Indian society is no different in that.  New rulers and new rules have changed the landlords across the Indian subcontinent.  New group of people get to be the bosses and a whole new social order is established.  During the East India Company rule, this made massive social changes in Bengal.  South Indian landscape also changed as English became the new lingua franca and those who knew Sanskrit, Persian, Farsi, Urdu etc were no longer favoured by the brave new world of 19th Century.


At the turn of the 20th century, Asians in East Africa worked hard to raise themselves from coolies to millionaires.  It took several generation of hard work and saving every penny to achieve this miracle.  Yet, in the 1970s, all this was stolen from them and Asians across East Africa had to flee with little more than clothes on their back.  Political and social change forced Indians to abandon houses, businesses and dreams and start from scratch again in UK, USA, Canada and India.



Economic changes have seen Indians moving from their home states to various parts of Southeast-Asia, Middle East, Africa, West Indies, Europe and America.  Indian entrepreneurs have risen from dirt villages to lead global corporate.  This is not a new phenomenon.  Indian traders and businessmen have been quoted in histories of Greece, Egypt and Roman empires.  These traders came from every strata of Indian society and from every part of the vast subcontinent.  Change in consumer demands have led to opening new manufacturing centres, outsourcing outfits and even call centres. 


Amabnis, Mittals, Tatas, Birlas and many others have come up in the last few decades, taking advantage of new economic realities of the modern age.



Political changes have always favoured those who are astute enough to move with the times.  Political changes often see favourites for former rulers being reduced to absolute poverty and former unknown players becoming ministers.  Politics does not respect caste, class or creed.  It is a dog-eat-dog world where only self survival matters.  It is a universal fact that everytime a new ruler comes to power, fortunes of many people change.  For example, at the time of Indian Independence, kings and princes became ordinary citizens.  Over night, revolutionaries became ministers and power brokers. 


Nehrus were businessmen but as a result of political acumen, they have provided three generation of priministers to India.  Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mayavati etc were officially classified as backward caste and they have become fabulously rich within a matter of a few decades by becoming miniters, chief mininsters and heads of political parties.  Elections often upset the apple-cart of political order and new people come to the top.  In a democratically country like India, the elected leaders come from all castes and creeds of India.  In 2014, an illiterate son of a tea seller rose to become the PM of India !



Disasters – natural and man made have always impacted society.  Before the advent of insurance companies, a major disaster could leave a family destitute.  Famine, fire, flood, earthquake were the usual culprits for destroying years of steady accumulation of wealth, land-holdings and can easily splitting up families (Bollywood uses this very conveniently for its film plots).  Caste and class aside, disasters have proved to be a massive agent for change. 


Disasters provide opportunities for new batch of entrepreneurs to come up in the world.  They also allowed people to move from one part of India to another, looking for new opportunities and new life.  Often, those who were financially strapped or debt ridden took advantage of disasters to escape their woes and make a fresh start elsewhere. 



During the advent of Islam and Christianity in India, people converted to the faith of the new invaders to improve their social and economic situation in the fast changing world.  Many at the bottom rung of society were actively targeted for conversion, offering them job, housing, education and preferential treatment under the law.  Those that changed, found a new type of social divide in Islamic and Christian world.



A lot of western historians and anthropologists presume Indian caste system is ossified and rigid.  Being western educated, they presume caste to equal class and presume the low caste are low class, ie financially deprived.  In India, caste is not the same as class and often the high class are poorer than those of the lower caste.  Brahmins considered intellectual as their capital.  Kshatrias considered valour as their capital.  Merchants considered material wealth as their capital.  Shudras considered their skills as their capital.  Only in the western world all things are weighed in terms of cold cash.   And that is why they can’t appreciate the complexity of the caste system.


In India, various castes have come to rule on a regular basis.  Often, kingdoms side by side were ruled by different castes.  For example, in the time of the Mahabharata, Kshatriay, Brahmin, Suta and Shudra rulers ruled side by side.  During the Mughal rule, Muslim, tribal and Kshatriya kings ruled side by side.  Even in the Martha confederacy, Peshwas were Brahmin, some of the generals who became rulers, were tribal folk and farmers as well as descendents of seasoned soldiers and warriors.  Once in the position of power, they inter-married and cooperated as any pragmatic people would.  Rulers of Panjab married princesses of Gujarat and Kings of Manipur in the East married Rajasthanis princesses from the west.  Even recently, last Shahi king of Nepal was married to a princess from Central India.  India's independence movement had people from across caste spectrum unite to free India from British rule.  Amongst these, a lawyer born in the low caste was asked to write the constitution of India by fellow lawyers who were born as brahmins, bania and farmers.  


India and its history is too complex to be examined or judged by western models.  Ever changing social landscape of India is something most anthropologists have not explored in sufficient detail and certainly not using Indian models.  I do hope future researchers will use Indian models to examine history of Indian society.


© Bhagwat   

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