Monocolumn: Caste – Gone But Not Forgotten

For the first time in 80 years, Indians are being asked which caste they belong to. For all of India’s aspirations of modernity and globalisation, the ancient practice of categorising people into strict social rankings continues.


Monocolumn is Monocle’s daily bulletin of news and opinion. Catch up with previous editions here.

Monocolumn- Caste – Gone But Not Forgotten

As census counting gets under way, the divisive issue of caste has again been thrust into India’s political cauldron. For the first time in 80 years, Indians are being asked which caste they belong to. For all of India’s aspirations of modernity and globalisation, the ancient practice of categorising people into strict social rankings continues.

Traditionally, caste decreed everything about a person’s life – job, marriage, home, salary – but in recent decades affirmative action policies have allowed some members of lower castes to ascend to higher socio-economic groups. But in many sections of society caste walls remain intact. There are four main castes, classifying people as scholars, warriors, merchants or peasants, but thousands of sub-castes.

And vitally, while the system is banned under the Indian Constitution, caste divisions run deep, particularly in rural areas, and politicians still rely heavily on so-called vote banks organised along caste lines to win seats. Consequently, caste is never far from social policy.

Proponents of the idea to include the caste question in the census – slated for publication next year – insist it will allow the government to gather information about the caste structure of the country and better tailor policies for those at the bottom of the pyramid. They say policies – such as quotas for lower castes in universities and government jobs – are currently based on data that is decades old, or even a stab in the dark.

Others say it’s difficult to believe Indian politicians aren’t merely trying to perpetuate the caste system to further their own electoral interests. If caste data is collected they say politicians will use it to try and win votes along caste lines.
”If you don’t have data on caste, then it becomes less and less important in social policy,” says Parth Shah, president of New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Civil Society.

However it’s hard to dismiss the issue. News of honour killings, or a village ruling committee insisting a newly eloped couple divorce because of caste conflict, are in the news regularly.
Lately, headlines have been dominated by the case of Nirupama Pathak, a 22-year-old journalist who was allegedly killed by her traditional mother for falling in love with a man from a lower caste. Pathak, a sub editor for a major Delhi business newspaper, was caught between two worlds: the feudal patriarchy of her small-town roots, and the relative anonymity afforded to her by life in the city.

Indeed, it’s the rapid urbanisation of India that many hope will sound the death knell of the caste system – a McKinsey & Company report released last month found India is likely to experience a seismic move towards overwhelming urbanisation in coming decades. “Awareness of caste is concentrated in villages,” says Shah. “You can’t tell a person’s caste by looking at them, you have to know their ancestry, their lineage. “How many people in cities know their neighbours’ family backgrounds?”

It’s the fashion world that created the concept of the flagship store, spaces where brands can showcase their ideas in purist perfection. Not just places to shop, these stores embody how designers and marketing chiefs want their brands to be seen. They also generate good PR.
Given all these upsides it’s surprising that it has taken brands from other sectors so long to adopt the idea, but now they are catching on – especially in Berlin. In January chocolate brand Ritter Sport opened its flagship in the fashionable Mitte neighbourhood, opposite the celebrated restaurant Borchardt. Inside, the walls are covered with the company’s distinctive square bars in their coloured wrappers – something no regular retailer could, or would, do for the firm given the enormous amount of shelf space this requires. With its interactive chocolate museum the store is designed to appeal to both children and their parents.
Then in May the city saw the arrival on fancy Linienstrasse of a dedicated store for the highbrow German book publisher Suhrkamp. Showroom and shelves are all white, focusing shoppers’ attention on the special-edition books whose colourful spines, when properly arranged, create the impression of a rainbow. Here, for the first time, the effect can be savoured at its best.
Though this store is a pop-up that’s supposed to close at the end of July, the publisher doesn’t rule out keeping it going and even opening more. “It’s a huge success. We reach a different kind of customer, younger and more urban,” says Suhrkamp spokesperson Anna Reinsch. One reason is that events such as readings by authors take place here. And this is what adds another dimension to flagship stores: you cannot only present products to perfection but must also build a world of experiences around them, bringing customers closer to your brand. If done well, it’s a marketer’s dream.
This is something Nivea wants to pull off. It’s opening a chain of Nivea Houses around the world. So far there’s Hamburg, Dubai and Berlin where the shop is on the main shopping artery of Unter den Linden. Fans of the brand can attend make-up workshops, have a manicure or eat a fresh salad. When you see how carefully they present their products, you wonder why the brand’s owners would ever want to see them sold anywhere else. And that’s why you can expect to see more brands choosing the flagship shopping experience to show the world who they really think they are and why you should love their chocolate bars and creams even more than you do now.
Markus Albers is Monocle’s Berlin corresponden

Contributed by Aarti Betigeri, a regular contributor to Monocle

Monocolumn is Monocle’s daily bulletin of news and opinion. Click here to read more, or here to subscribe to the monthly magazine.

image by BabyDinosaur

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