Today, India’s one hundred richest people own assets equivalent to one-fourth of its celebrated GDP.  In a nation of 1.2 billion, more than 800 million people live on less than Rs20 a day.  Giant corporations virtually own and run the country. Politicians and political parties have begun to function as subsidiary holdings of big business.
How has this affected traditional caste networks? Some argue that caste has insulated Indian society and prevented it from fragmenting and atomising like Western society did after the Industrial Revolution.  Others argue the opposite; they say that the unprecedented levels of urbanisation and the creation of a new work environment have shaken up the old order and rendered caste hierarchies irrelevant if not obsolete. Both claims deserve serious attention. Pardon the somewhat unliterary interlude that follows, but generalisations cannot replace facts.
A recent list of dollar billionaires published by Forbes magazine features 55 Indians.  The figures, naturally, are based on revealed wealth. Even among these dollar billionaires the distribution of wealth is a steep pyramid in which the cumulative wealth of the top 10 outstrips the 45 below them. Seven out of those top 10 are Vaishyas, all of them ceos of major corporations with business interests all over the world. Between them they own and operate ports, mines, oil fields, gas fields, shipping companies, pharmaceutical companies, telephone networks, petrochemical plants, aluminium plants, cellphone networks, television channels, fresh food outlets, high schools, film production companies, stem cell storage systems, electricity supply networks and Special Economic Zones. They are: Mukesh Ambani (Reliance Industries Limited), Lakshmi Mittal (Arcelor Mittal), Dilip Shanghvi (Sun Pharmaceuticals), the Ruia brothers (Ruia Group), K.M. Birla (Aditya Birla Group), Savitri Devi Jindal (O.P. Jindal Group), Gautam Adani (Adani Group), and Sunil Mittal (Bharti Airtel). Of the remaining 45, 19 are Vaishyas too. The rest are for the most part Parsis, Bohras and Khattris (all mercantile castes) and Brahmins. There are no Dalits or Adivasis in this list.
Apart from big business, Banias (Vaishyas) continue to have a firm hold on small trade in cities and on traditional rural moneylending across the country, which has millions of impoverished peasants and Adivasis, including those who live deep in the forests of Central India, caught in a spiralling debt trap. The tribal-dominated states in India’s Northeast—Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Assam—have, since ‘independence’, witnessed decades of insurgency, militarisation and bloodshed. Through all this, Marwari and Bania traders have settled there, kept a low profile, and consolidated their businesses. They now control almost all the economic activity in the region.
In the 1931 Census, which was the last to include caste as an aspect of the survey, Vaishyas accounted for 2.7 per cent of the population (while the untouchables accounted for 12.5 per cent).  Given their access to better healthcare and more secure futures for their children, the figure for Vaishyas is likely to have decreased rather than increased. Either way, their economic clout in the new economy is extraordinary. In big business and small, in agriculture as well as industry, caste and capitalism have blended into a disquieting, uniquely Indian alloy. Cronyism is built into the caste system.
Vaishyas control Indian business. What do the Brahmins—the bhudevas (gods on earth)—do? The 1931 Census puts their population at 6.4 per cent, but, like the Vaishyas and for similar reasons, that percentage too has probably declined. According to a survey by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), from having a disproportionately high number of representatives in Parliament, Brahmins have seen their numbers drop dramatically.  Does this mean Brahmins have become less influential?
According to Ambedkar, Brahmins, who were 3 per cent of the population in the Madras Presidency in 1948, held 37 per cent of the gazetted posts and 43 per cent of the non-gazetted posts in government jobs.  There is no longer a reliable way to keep track of these trends because after 1931 the Project of Unseeing set in. In the absence of information that ought to be available, we have to make do with what we can find. In a 1990 piece called ’Brahmin Power’, the writer Khushwant Singh said: “Brahmins form no more than 3.5 per cent of the population of our country...today they hold as much as 70 per cent of government jobs. I presume the figure refers only to gazetted posts. In the senior echelons of the civil service from the rank of deputy secretaries upward, out of 500 there are 310 Brahmins, i.e. 63 per cent; of the 26 state chief secretaries, 19 are Brahmins; of the 27 Governors and Lt Governors, 13 are Brahmins; of the 16 Supreme Court judges, 9 are Brahmins; of the 330 judges of high courts, 166 are Brahmins; of 140 ambassadors, 58 are Brahmins; of the total 3,300 IAS officers, 2,376 are Brahmins. They do equally well in electoral posts; of the 508 Lok Sabha members, 190 were Brahmins; of 244 in the Rajya Sabha, 89 are Brahmins. These statistics clearly prove this 3.5 per cent of Brahmin community of India holds between 36 per cent to 63 per cent of all the plum jobs available in the country. How this has come about I do not know. But I can scarcely believe that it is entirely due to the Brahmin’s higher IQ.”  The statistics Khushwant Singh cites may be flawed, but are unlikely to be drastically flawed. They are a quarter of a century old now. Some new census-based information would help, but is unlikely to be forthcoming.
According to the CSDS study, 47 per cent of all Supreme Court chief justices between 1950 and 2000 were Brahmins. During the same period, 40 per cent of the associate justices in the high courts and lower courts were Brahmin. The Backward Classes Commission, in a 2007 report, said that 37.17 per cent of the Indian bureaucracy was made up of Brahmins. Most of them occupied the top posts.
Brahmins have also traditionally dominated the media. Here too, what Ambedkar said in 1945 still has resonance: “The Untouchables have no Press. The Congress Press is closed to them and is determined not to give them the slightest publicity. They cannot have their own Press and for obvious reasons. No paper can survive without advertisement revenue. Advertisement revenue can come only from business and in India all business, both high and small, is attached to the Congress and will not favour any non-Congress organisation. The staff of the Associated Press in India, which is the main news distributing agency in India, is entirely drawn from the Madras Brahmins—indeed the whole of the Press in India is in their hands—and they, for well-known reasons, are entirely pro-Congress and will not allow any news hostile to the Congress to get publicity. These are reasons beyond the control of the Untouchables.” 
In 2006, the CSDS did a survey on the social profile of New Delhi’s media elite. Of the 315 key decision-makers surveyed from 37 Delhi-based Hindi and English publications and television channels, almost 90 per cent of the decision-makers in the English language print media and 79 per cent in television were found to be ‘upper caste’. Of them, 49 per cent were Brahmins. Not one of the 315 was a Dalit or an Adivasi; only 4 per cent belonged to castes designated as Shudra, and 3 per cent were Muslim (who make up 13.4 per cent of the population).
That’s the journalists and the ‘media personalities’. Who owns the big media houses they work for? Of the four most important English national dailies, three are owned by Vaishyas, one by a Brahmin family concern. The Times Group (Bennett, Coleman & Co Ltd), the largest mass media company in India, whose holdings include The Times of India and the 24-hour news channel Times Now, is owned by the Jain family (Banias). The Hindustan Times is owned by the Bhartiyas, who are Marwari Banias; The Indian Express by the Goenkas, also Marwari Banias; The Hindu is owned by a Brahmin family concern; the Dainik Jagran Hindi daily, the largest selling newspaper in India with a circulation of 55 million, is owned by the Gupta family, Banias from Kanpur. Dainik Bhaskar, among the most influential Hindi dailies with a circulation of 17.5 million, is owned by Agarwals, Banias again. Reliance Industries Ltd (owned by Mukesh Ambani, a Gujarati Bania) has controlling shares in 27 major national and regional TV channels. The Zee TV network, one of the largest national TV news and entertainment networks, is owned by Subhash Chandra, also a Bania. In southern India, caste manifests itself somewhat differently. For example, the Eenadu Group—which owns newspapers, the largest film city in the world and a dozen TV channels, among other things—is headed by Ramoji Rao of the Kamma peasant caste of Andhra Pradesh, which bucks the trend of Brahmin-Bania ownership of Big Media. Another major media house, the Sun TV group, is owned by the Marans, who are designated as a ‘backward’ caste, but are politically powerful today.
1. See the 20 November 2009 UNI report, “India’s 100 richest are 25 pc of GDP”. http://ibnlive.in.com/news/indias-100-richest-are-25-pc-of-gdp-forbes/105548-7.html?utm_source=ref_article. Accessed 8 September 2013.
2. A Reuters report (10 August 2007) based on “Conditions of Work and Promotions of Livelihoods in the Unorganised Sector” by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector said: “Seventy-seven per cent of Indians—about 836 million people—live on less than half a dollar a day in one of the world’s hottest economies.” http://in.reuters.com/article/ 2007/08/10/idINIndia- 28923020070810. Accessed 26 August 2013.
3. S. Gurumurthy, co-convenor of the Hindu right-wing Swadeshi Jagaran Manch, talks of how caste and capitalism can coexist: “Caste is a very strong bond. While individuals are related by families, castes link the families. Castes transcended the local limits and networked the people across [sic]. This has prevented the disturbance that industrialism caused to neighbourhood societies in the West, resulting in unbridled individualism and acute atomization.” He goes on to argue that the caste system “has in modern times engaged the market in economics and democracy in politics to reinvent itself. It has become a great source of entrepreneurship.” See “Is Caste an Economic Development Vehicle?”, The Hindu, 19 January 2009. http://www.hindu.com/2009/01/ 19/stories/2009011955440900. htm. Accessed 26 August 2013.
4. See “Forbes: India’s billionaire wealth much above country’s fiscal deficit”, The Indian Express, 5 March 2013. http://www.indianexpress.com/ news/forbes-indias- billionaire-wealth-much-above- countrys-fiscal-deficit/ 1083500/#sthash.KabcY8BJ.dpuf. Accessed 26 August 2013.
5. J.H. Hutton 1935.
6. David Hardiman 1996, 15.
7. See “Brahmins in India”, Outlook, 4 June 2007. http://www.outlookindia.com/ article.aspx?234783. Accessed 5 September 2013. Despite the decline, the LokSabha in 2007 had fifty Brahmin MPs—9.17 per cent of the total strength of the House. The data given by Outlook is based on four surveys conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, between 2004 and 2007.
8. Babasaheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches,Vol. 9, 207.
9. See Singh 1990. Singh’s figures are based on information provided by one of his readers.
10. BAWS 9, 200.
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
How does Ms. Roy classify government emplyees by caste? Based on their names?
What about a civil servant by the name of Ramanan Venkatakrishnan? And another by the name of Sudipta Bannerjee.
Ms. Roy would say "of course, both are Brahmins." But these men are both athiests. As are their parents. Both are married to non-hindus (one of those non-hindu is a not an Indian). Both have siblings that have married into OBC (Tamil) or Muslim (Bengali).
Are these two Brahmins? They might have been born into Brahmin families some generations back. They have no affiliation with caste or religion. Are they still Brahmins? Should we count those two jobs as being held by Brahmins?
Just as it is wrong to tell a man that his caste is determined at birth, is it not wrong to tell a man "you've got a Brahmin sounding name, therefore you are a Brahmin and therefore you add to the stranglehold of Brahmins on the bureaucarcy; whether you believe in castes or practice any religion not is irrelevant."
When is a man free of caste? When he says he has no caste should we continue to claim that he is a Brahmin (or a Harijan)?
Arundhati Roy, the Not-So-Reluctant Renegade:
(SIDDHARTHA DEB: NYTimes Magazine)
"More daring than her attacks on India’s occupation of Kashmir, the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or crony capitalism. This time, she had taken on Mahatma Gandhi.
"She’d been asked by a small Indian press, Navayana, to write an introduction to a new edition of “The Annihilation of Caste.” Written in 1936 by B. R. Ambedkar, the progressive leader who drafted the Indian Constitution and converted to Buddhism, the essay is perhaps the most famous modern-day attack on India’s caste system. It includes a rebuke of Gandhi, who wanted to abolish untouchability but not caste. Ambedkar saw the entire caste system as morally wrong and undemocratic. Reading Ambedkar’s and Gandhi’s arguments with each other, Roy became increasingly dismayed with what she saw as Gandhi’s regressive position. Her small introductory essay grew larger in her mind, “almost a little book in itself.” It would not pull its punches when it came to Gandhi and therefore would likely prove controversial. Even Ambedkar ran into difficulties. His views were considered so provocative that he was forced to self-publish. The more she spoke of it, the more mired in complications this last commitment of hers seemed."
Of the lot mentioned, Adani symbolises the 'political caste' amongst big business, which can get rich double quicker than the rest.
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