Social stratification has a special place in the study of Indian society. India has long been reckoned as the most stratified of all known societies in human history. The caste system with its myriad forms of superordination and subordination, its many customs and taboos, is perhaps the most responsible for conferring on India this dubious honour. But this is not all. Economically too, India is highly stratified. Miserable slums border expensive residential areas in city after city in India. The indescribable poverty of the very poor has even led to a review of the limits of physical endurance at pitifully low nutritional levels. This vast polarity notwithstanding, India is also a significant economic power with a sizeable bureaucracy and technically trained personnel. Add to this the diversity of linguistic groups that make up the Indian nation state and the fact of India being the most stratified society becomes near incontrovertible.
India is also a very self-conscious society. There are endless debates in India on what should be the path of development, and what internal arrangements of power and wealth, of cultural status and economic wherewithal, are best suited to propel the country into the modern, industrial epoch. As people, Indians have been deeply involved in moral and ethical questions regarding the caste system, cultural diversity and economic inequality – all central issues of social stratification. This is reflected in their Constitution which makes any discrimination based on caste, language, religion or creed illegal. Clearly, the founders of independent India had pondered deeply over the cardinal features of social stratification in our society.
Very often, when we talk of social stratification in India, we concentrate almost exclusively on the caste system. The uniqueness of this outstanding institution has captivated sociologists and anthropologists for generations. It would be hard to think of a sociologist working on India who has not written or commented extensively on it. Quite naturally, with all this literature, some of exceptional quality, discussions on the caste system tend to subsume the entire field of social stratification.