B4 Social Classes in India

Topics of interest for CSE:

  1. Agrarian class structure.
  2. Middle classes in India.
  3. Industrial class structure.


The conventional belief about Indian society was that it was based on caste rather than class. This was the perspective given by Weber and had many followers but since Marxists believe that all societies except primitive communism are based on class they concluded that caste was a class based stratification in itself.

With the introduction of reforms in post-independence India such as land redistribution, green revolution, etc. Indian agriculture has undergone a capitalistic transformation. Thus, we can easily say that the present agrarian society is class based even if it was not so earlier.

Many sociologists have tried to identify a distinct agrarian class structure in India and due to India’s immense diversity each of them has been only partially or spatially correct.

AR Desai considered that during colonial times three distinct ACs were present:

  • Upper class. The big absentee landlords.
  • Middle class. Sub-landlords, and sub-sub-landlords.
  • Lower class. Agricultural labourers and marginal farmers.

Also a similar methodology was utilised by the NSS in its surveys in 1954 and 1970. These surveys showed that the middle classes had not benefitted from land reforms.

Andre Beteille in keeping with his Weberian standpoint said that ACs should be studied from both cultural and diffusive standpoints. He said that ACS should be studied in terms of ownership, control, and use of land. He thus classified owners into multiple types:

  • Absentee landlords who consider land solely as a source of income.
  • Traditional landlords who consider land as a source of pride, status symbol, etc.
  • Enterprising landlords who live in villages, organise productive activities, use cost benefit analysis, modern techniques, etc. in order to maximise profitability.
  • Compulsive landlords who may be leasing land out of situational constraints.
  • Cultural landlords like Brahmins who are not supposed to till the land because of ritual constraints.

These can be further subdivided on the basis of the quantum of land owned by them.

Likewise, he says that users of land can also be divided among:

  • Only agricultural labourers.
  • Tenant and wage labourers.
  • Marginal farmers.

Beteille says that due to the multitude of interest of the ACs in India, a polarised mobilisation in ACS has not been visible in contemporary times. He concludes that:

  • ACS in India exhibits regional variation.
  • ACS is dynamic and complex, thus, can’t be studied in its entirety.
  • AC relations are subjected to change due to government policies and dynamism of interest in land and agricultural produce.

Daniel Thorner suggested a 3 fold division based on land ownership and labour:

  • Maalik or landowner who relies solely on hired labour.
  • Kisan who relies primarily on family labour but can also hire during peak season.
  • Mazdoor or landless labourer.

Thorner was one of the first to apply the Marxist approach to ACS in India. He was criticised for not noting that manual labour was considered demeaning in traditional India. Thus, a Brahmin who did not have the means would still hire labour to plough his fields.

Utsa Patnaik, another Marxist, proposed a slightly modified version Thorner’s study:

  • Landlords on one extreme. Rely on mechanized means and exclusively on hired labour. Less than 1% of the population but make up 11% of the landholding.
  • Peasants in the middle who can be classified into 3 types: (Rich Pesants + Middle Peasants make up 15% of the families with 75% of the landholding)
    • Rich peasants. Rely on hired labour, may add family labour in peak season.
    • Middle peasants. Rely on family labour, sometimes even hire themselves out.
    • Poor peasants. Land unsustainable for needs. Depend on labour earnings.
  • Landless labourers on the other extreme. Only source of earning is through manual labour. Make up about 25-30% of rural households.

Djurfeldt & Lindberg in their study showed that exploitation of rural society is occurring because of control over capital by mercantilists and traders living in urban areas. They expanded the concept of landed capital as given by Utsa Patnaik, thus giving two other forms of capital circulating in rural Indian society:

  • Commercial capital. Due to poor infra in rural areas, people with excess cash swoop in and set up commercial enterprises which can easily out man-oeuvre farmers.
  • Usurious capital. With ever increasing input costs usury comes to play havoc as well.

They say that the ruling class in the countryside are the landlords, big farmers, merchants, and moneylenders. The rural proletariat is made up of marginal farmers and landless labourers with the middle peasantry being on neither side.

Feminist sociologist like Vina Mazumdar and Utsa Patnaik, have also laid stress on taking gender based exploitation as the source of struggle. They say that gender dialectics precede class dialectics in understanding ACS. They also raise concerns about feminisation of agriculture and poverty.

Globalisation has contributed to the intensification of commercial agriculture and allied activities in the green revolution areas exposing the farmers to the global market as well as leading to widening of the wealth gap. Increasing commercialisation has led to decline in subsistence production and increased cash crop farming. Now with rising mechanisation of agriculture, women are being pushed out of agricultural labour force as well.

ACS in India is manifestation of growing discontent between haves and have nots. It was perceived that top down measures such as land reforms, IRDP, GR, etc. would rectify colonial blunders but these measures have led to underdevelopment and growing disparities in regional development. The study of ACS in India is a testimony to the contradictions and change that India is undergoing from colonial days to present times.


Middle classes were an original idea put forward by Weber. Traditional feudal society was divided into nobility and peasants, with the advent of capitalism a middle strata slowly emerged, made up of merchants & skilled artisans. Over time the MC came to include petty bourgeoisie and white collar workers.

BB Mishra- Growth of MC followed from the conditions developed under British:

  • Rule of law - property was private for the first time.
  • Liberalisation of trade with inland duties being abolished.
  • Modern secular education being promoted by the state.
  • Rural MC emerged due to land settlements by the British.
  • Pax Britannica and infrastructure development lead to further proliferation of MCs.

DL Seth looks into the history of MC in India from three distinct time periods:

  • Early 19 th century. MC came primarily from upper castes and were driven by secular, progressive, and reformative ideology. They were the ones who started initiatives for the abolition of sati, child marriage, and education for women.
  • Late 19 th century. MC came from diverse backgrounds, having benefited from colonial policy of hiring Indians to lower posts in the bureaucracy. They were lawyers, police officers, school teachers, small traders, etc. This was the group that motivated the peasants and industrial workers and initiated the nationalist movement in India.
  • Post-independence. Emergence of an expanded MC from even more diverse backgrounds. GR in North gave rise to rich and middle farmers, cooperatives movement in West gave impetus to the growth of political leadership, self-respect movement in the South led to consolidation of lower castes who now began gaining social mobility in greater numbers than ever before.

The rise of MC speaks about the decline in poverty, reduced dependence on govt. subsidy, and an assertive citizenry which shows the consolidation of the spirit of democracy in India.

Gurcharan Das & APJ Abdul Kalam indicated their vision for an ever growing and hungrier MC. Said that In a globalised world MC holds the potential to propel India to greater heights.

Andre Beteille remarking on a survey by the Institute of Economic Growth (which said in 1981 that by 2020 MC would be 80% of Indian population) said that economists have highly romanticised the MC without looking into the diversity of structural composition.

  • Upper MC. Top ranking administrators, established politicians, big executives in corporations, etc. Determine the destiny of their organisation and life course of the people at large.
  • Middle MC. Professors, technocrats, bankers, petty traders, etc. They don’t initiate revolution in search of social transformation. Generally status quo-ist, they follow family centric lives.
  • Lower MC. Supervisory staff, school teachers, clerical staff in government, etc. They are more concerned about upward mobility than a proletarian revolution.

Andre Beteille holds that rise of MC can never explain the decline of poverty. MC is a house divided.

Consequences of the rise of MC can be stated as:

  • Stabilization of democracy with centrist politics.
  • Secularization of world view.
  • Growth of consumerism leading to economic modernisation.
  • Growth of existential crisis leading to religious revivalism.
  • Increasing demands on the state.


  • Kornhauser says that different industrial classes face different challenges and they have the necessary expertise to get out of these challenges in an organised manner.
  • Top executives don’t face alienation as they have decision making power and are under tremendous work load.
  • On the other side supervisory class and un/semi/skilled workers are subject to higher degrees of alienation due to their powerlessness and lack of job security.He concludes that alienation is a sectoral class experience.

Ralf Dahrendorf says that the specialised nature of jobs in an industrial society did not lead to development of common class identity among workers. Decomposition of capital & labor.

Morris D. Morris. Two views regarding the behaviour of the Indian industrial labour:

  • Labour being short in supply, employers have to scramble for their workforce and make all sorts of concessions which weakens their hold on the workers.
    • Workers frequently returned to villages to which they were very attached.
  • Surplus of labour available in villages for urban employment. Because of easy availability, the employers abused workers unmercifully.
    • Since working conditions in the factories were intolerable, the labour was forced to go back to their villages.

In both views it was held that workers retained their rural links which limited the supply of labour for industrial development. Thus, proletarian type of behaviour did not develop. Resulted in high rates of absenteeism, low labour turnover, and slow growth of trade unions.

According to Morris, four other features were also visible:

  • The employment of women and children in industries was very limited.
  • Though it is argued that industry is caste blind because no single caste can provide an adequate supply of labour and because employers are not interested in caste. Yet workers often did not permit the employers to employ untouchable castes.
  • A large num­ber of workers were those who had no significant claim to land.
  • Workers employed were not necessarily from the same district in which the industry was located but were recruited from different districts as well as neighbouring states.

NOTE: with the rise of contractual labour, caste & village affiliations have began cropping up in industrial recruitments too. Contractors engaged (due to rigid labour laws) for supplying labour often finds it easier to gather young men of the same caste/village in large numbers.

M Holmstrom has said that workers do not share all interests; rather they share only a few interests. He has also said that it is necessary to draw a class line between the organised and the unorganised sector indus­trial workers.

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