The Disintegration of Caste and Changing Concepts of Indian Ethnic Identity in Mauritius

Article excerpt

Most scholars (Mayer 1967; Benedict 1961; Jayawardena 1971) discussing the issue of caste among overseas Indians observe that the caste system as it functions in village India was never successfully established overseas. There castes do not form important social units, and intercaste relations are unimportant. One reason given for this is that the economic and political systems in the host societies where indentured Indian laborers were introduced had conditions that were not conducive to the maintenance of caste. The indenture pattern of emigration tended to weaken the social restrictions governed by caste. Caste was not an important principle of social organization in the plantations and all Indians were laborers (coolies) doing the same kind of work and sharing the same living conditions. Mayer (1967:3) writes:

Not only were ritual purity and occupational specialization dealt mortal blows by the circumstances of immigration and initial settlement, but the immigrants came from different localities in India and were unable to reform the small-scale organization on which caste-groups behaviour had been based.

The Indians in Mauritius do not deviate much from these conclusions and this article analyzes the external as well as internal factors which contributed to the gradual disintegration of caste among Hindu Mauritians. In doing so the emphasis is on factors which led to the disintegration of caste and transformed caste identity into Indian ethnic identity within a sociopolitical context of increased competition for political power and scarce resources. It is also an attempt to show how caste differences among overseas Indians came to be understood differently in terms of content and meaning. A particularly interesting phenomenon is the emergence and importance of caste (or socioreligious) associations as interest groups lobbying for political purposes. A similar development, but different in character, has been observed in India where caste associations appear as political pressure groups or lobbies, sometimes creating new alliances within a more competitive social order (Kothari 1970; Cohn 1987; Beteille 1991). Therefore, is it feasible to speak of caste taking on new dimensions and functions or should they no longer be considered castes at all? One position claims that the caste system and hierarchy of interrelated groups could not survive outside the cultural environment of Hindu India. Dumont (1980) went as far as to describe caste systems outside India, as in Nepal and Sri Lanka, as quasi-caste. Pocock (1957), writing about East African Indians, states that while there is no longer a hierarchy or a division of labor based on caste, castes persist by virtue of difference; that is, separation. Dumont (1980) questioned whether castes can be said to exist unless as parts of a system and Leach (1960) argued that castes are groups which exist not in isolation but as units in interdependence. Among the Hindus in Mauritius, there is no system of hierarchically ordered groups, but caste populations still exist as kinship groups, although the endogamous units have undergone considerable change. Both Mayer (1967) and Brown (1981) pointed out that the degrees of caste and varna endogamy and hypergamy indicate that there is still some degree of caste division along traditional lines. Brown (1981) re-examined data on endogamous marriages among Fiji Indians and found that as caste populations increase, so does the frequency of endogamy. Some named subcaste and caste populations exist due to endogamy, but the boundaries of the endogamous unit may change. Benedict (1961) and Kuper (1960) have made the important point that the linguistic-cultural population may become the endogamous unit. This process has taken place among the small communities of Telugus and Marathis, but to a lesser degree among the Tamils, who show greater internal differentiation partly due to the larger size of its community. In some cases there are indications that the varna category has replaced the caste as the endogamous unit. …