Social Stratification in South Asian Society


The word ‘Caste’ is very common in almost all countries of the South Asia and India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bhutan have adopted this system traditionally. The caste system organises every society, social organisation and carries entire social fragments of one generation to another with mild changes. Over the centuries, Governments of the day have helped it adjust as per need to the changes of social life. 

In today’s perspective the caste system is totally illegal, unjustified and the opposite of natural justice. Hindus, Sikh and Buddhists even when converted obtain no relief as the converted is accommodated on the basis of their earlier strata.  A lower strata convert will be placed in the same position as earlier and not in an upper stratum of the newly converted society. In most cases, caste, status and position in society are determined by birth and all other identities-social economic and political are tied to them on the basis of the caste they belong to. As studies show the caste factor has far-reaching impacts on their overall position, wealth, education, representation in Government and administrative services. Despite recent policy-making and implementation by South Asian Governments rarely do 5 to 10 per cent changes appear in social life where people in general hardly accept the inter-change activities and all hopes depend solely on new generations. 

Effects of caste system

In today’s context, caste-based discrimination is a common issue of all countries of the world and more than 260 million people are bound to live their life in its sphere. The source is as old as the system itself, having a history of millennia with strict social norms and traditions. From all accounts, it’s a gross violation of basic human rights. People born into an ‘untouchables low caste remain tied to the customs and traditions of that caste. In comparison to other regions of the world, it is prevalent in South Asia but similarly affected communities are also found in some African countries and the Middle East. The caste system is based on the principle that each caste has a fixed hereditary occupation by birth separating each caste from another divides further into sub-castes.  In the case of Dalits, discrimination is prevalent in India and Nepal, but not in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In Pakistan a 6 per cent quota for Government jobs for minorities has been reinstated but not yet implemented, while in Sri Lanka the Government doesn’t accept caste discrimination. However, in contrast to India, in Sri Lanka and other countries, in Pakistan and Bangladesh the few Dalits belong to a religious minority and discrimination exists within the religions.  Likewise, caste discrimination is also prevalent among the Tamil-speaking parts of the population, especially in the tea plantations. In recent times, the Dalits have approached human rights organisations at local, regional and national level and are supported by them. The legacy of the caste system in South Asia is largely responsible for the poorer position of low caste people in all societies of the region.

Indian caste fragmentation

In India the caste system has been divided into four professional groups called Varna, a popular term, which denotes a bunch of castes in that category, numbering a dozen or above. Most populations in South Asian countries belong to Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh or Buddhist communities. In India, the Muslim Ashraf community is at the top which claims noble status as the original Muslims of South Asia because of their origin from Central Asian, Iranian and Arab ethnic groups.  While the second place is Ajlaf, considered to be of low born communities and understood to be converted from Hindu artisanal castes. At the bottom in caste hierarchy is the group converted from Dalit communities and termed as Arzal. In Sikh communities the Jat-Sikhs are at the top and next to them are the converts of Hindu trading community and considered in the middle, while the lower caste Hindus, who are called Mazhabi Sikhs, are at the lowest. In the case of Buddhism, it is on the verge of being casteless in India but In Sri Lanka and Nepal it too has its own caste hierarchy. In all countries of South Asia the caste system in recent decades and years due to urbanisation and education have normalised everyday interactions across caste groups. Research and data collected on the basis of prevailing practices show the prevalence despite favourable Government laws and punishment provisions.


Dr. Rajkumar Singh is presently Professor and Head, Department of Political Science and Dean of Social Sciences at B.N. Mandal University, Madhepura (Bihar), India. His 20 books published in addition to 900 articles in national and international journals and daily newspapers from 25 foreign countries.   

By Dr. Rajkumar Singh