How Social Media is Impacting the Indian Caste System

The caste system of India, which is perhaps thousands of years old, seems to be losing its grip. But is it?

Go to most parts of the country and you will see, even today, people referring to themselves by their castes. In fact, in some ways, the caste system has actually strengthened in the last couple of decades with the introduction of the “Mandal Commission” recommendations, wherein there are now reservations in education institutions and government jobs for people from certain castes and tribes. The government’s justification is that, people from the backward castes are usually economically poorer as well. It’s a politically contentious issue, which nobody is ready to fight.

There has been opposition to this, but still, the Mandal Commission has changed India’s political and social structure. On the positive side, people from some castes and tribes at least have been empowered and have benefited financially as well, albeit at the cost of others.

India’s Caste System Today and the Rural-Urban Divide

One unique aspect about India’s caste system now is the rural-urban divide. With education, modernization and westernization, India’s caste system has generally weakened in recent times. But it’s still there, particularly in the rural and semi-urban areas. It is there in the cities as well, but still, people, particularly the youth, are often seen intermixing. Students are going to the same classes together. Many of them are not all that worried about the caste or tribe of their friends, unless of course it hurts them where it matters the most – admission to premium colleges, or universities, or employment. There are inter-caste marriages, though there is opposition too. However, most people in the country would still marry within their caste.

Things are changing in the villages as well, though slowly. People are sharing the same wells, which was almost unthinkable in most parts of the country even fifty years back. But on the other hand, there are inter-caste conflicts as well, particularly in the backward states of the country – Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Sometimes there are honor killings too, when a son or daughter marries out of caste. But the number of such incidents is going down with every year.

Impact of Social Media

Social media has had a huge impact in India. So much so that a lot of Indians are said to be completely addicted to it, and it’s affecting them negatively. India’s premier mental health organization NIMHANS (National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences) recently announced the opening of a “social media de-addiction clinic”.

But of course, there are many positive influences of social media as well. It’s not just a medium now to connect, but also a place to share news and even views. And in some ways, the popularity of social media in India is impacting the caste system as well – both positively and negatively.

Budaun Rape Case – Social Media’s Impact

Take for instance the recent rape of two minor girls from a backward caste close to the north Indian town of Budaun. The cops didn’t register a complaint. However the news spread like wildfire and was soon on social media. It went viral. Soon enough, every media house was there presenting live reports.

The government had to sit up and take notice. The cops were suspended. CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation), India’s highest investigating police agency, was asked to investigate. The Allahabad High Court decided to monitor the probe. Since then, there has been so much pressure on the state government that there is even talk that it might be dismissed by the President of India.

Social media has played a key role in this incident. Since the Budaun rape case, reports have been coming out of atrocities on people from lower castes from across the country. It’s now clear that these incidents have been happening for years.

This has shocked many urban Indians. Now rural news is being reported on Twitter, and retweeted around the country. The number of Facebook shares and likes has gone up remarkably. Social media is doing its bit to spread news quickly and build public opinion. This is putting real pressure on local administration and government to stop these appalling incidents.

India Turns to Social Media for Caste Action

But does this mean that there’s a strong anti-caste sentiment running through the country? The truth is that, India hasn’t reached there yet. It’s just that young people are not very comfortable now discussing caste in public. Many of them are retreating to social media to discuss and debate contentious issues.

PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action and Research) recently carried out research to find out how caste identities are reproduced on social media. Sunil Gangavane from the organization says the students in cities like Mumbai (Bombay) rarely talk about caste among themselves now. However when the same students are online they will seek out caste-related communities and discuss issues there.

Gaurav Mishra, a social media expert, agrees. He says that a lot of Indians identify with their castes even now, and like to form caste-based groups. In fact, PUKAR believes that social media is actually increasing caste activity in India, at least among the urban population. One reason for this could be that it provides a place where people can discuss such issues. This is perfect as young people are not comfortable doing it face-to-face.

A comScore report that was posted on revealed that there are hundreds of such communities on Facebook now, and many of them have high members too. More worrying still, the number of such communities is growing fast. And the internet reaches deep into rural areas, where the caste system is still more prevalent, this trend is likely to continue. This could prove extremely dangerous for India, as it has the potential to fuel some pretty deep, heartfelt emotions.



Niladri Bose is a Post Graduate in Mass Communication and former journalist. Niladri writes on economic issue, and also on social, political and Internet trends.