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Social Stratification


Social Stratification in Bangladesh has its deep roots in the past and is more deeply associated with religion and culture than with economy as it has been in the western societies. However, although the dynamics of religion largely shaped the contours of its development, the relevance of economic and political factors is vitally important, particularly for the more recent period. The Hindu society in Bengal was built along the caste lines although the widely known four-fold classification brahman, ksatriya, vaisya and sudra did not emerge in the classical manner. The two middle castes, Ksatriya and Vaisya, were not visible in the way they were in other parts of India. In Bengal the main caste division was between the Brahmans and the non-Brahmans. The latter category was the admixture of different sub-castes that emerged through unregulated interactions of different castes. The Brahmans occupied the highest position of the social ladder.'

Traditionally, the non-Brahman sub-castes were broadly divided into three hierarchical categories: superior admixture, medium admixture and inferior admixture. The first category included twenty sub-castes, including karan or kayastha (writer), ambastha or baidya (traditional physician), tanti (weavers), ugra (warrior) and others. The second category included twelve sub-castes like swarnakar (goldsmith), dhibor (fishermen) etc. And the last category included nine sub-castes like chandal (persons cremating corpses), chamar (cobblers) and others. Members of the last category were the untouchables.

Some British colonial administrators first pointed out that the Muslim social stratification in Bengal was patterned after the Hindu Caste System. It is mainly because, conversion to Islam in Bengal took place in the line of castes. The lower caste converts carried their former with them and their social status seldom improved after conversion. The alien Muslim ruling classes identified the low caste converts with their former social status. However, it remained a matter of debate how far the basic principles of caste system (purity/pollution, commensality, endogamy, or hereditary occupation) had influenced the Muslim social stratification pattern. What was a caste of a convert before became jat after conversion. Caste (barna) and jat carried the same meaning from social point of view. James Wise identified eighty such castes or social groups among the Muslims in the late nineteenth century, while Gait found only three. The latter noticed the clustering of social strata. The three broad clusters included Ashraf or higher class Muslims, Ajlaf or lower class Muslims, and Arzal or the degraded classes. The first cluster consisted of Sayed, Sheikh, Pathan and Mughal, while the next two incorporated as many as fifty occupational castes.

It was noted that endogamy or intra-caste marriage was followed among Muslims. The presence of higher caste Muslims in Bengal was much less significant than what it was in the northern and south India. Social hierarchy among Muslims of Bengal was less pronounced. Some believed that the majority of the Bengal Muslims were the converts from the lower caste Hindus; hence steep hierarchy could not emerge among them. One important consequence of the less rigidity of Muslim stratification pattern was the opportunity for mobility among the castes. It was possible for a lower caste Muslim to move into the higher position. Such mobility was largely propelled by the accumulation of wealth.

The flexibility of Muslim social stratification derived its dynamics from a different ideological pattern known as sharafati. It alluded to the so-called noble background of a person. It was more to do with one's pedigree than any deep religious ideology like Hindu caste system. According to Hindu religious myth, the four castes originated from the four different parts of Brahman, the supreme lord. It was also imagined that the Brahman caste originated from the head, while the Sudra, the lowest caste from the feet. On the contrary, islam did not offer any such interpretation on the origin of caste, which does not exist in Islam theoretically. As a result, mobility in Muslim stratification could have been possible particularly owing to the fact that one could manouvre the history of pedigree.

Agrarian structure played the most important role from an earlier period in the making of social stratification what gradually assumed the present status. The bulk of the population lived in the countryside with a small urban counterpart. Those living in the countryside primarily derived subsistence from agriculture, and therefore, one cannot ignore the social relationship grown out of agrarian structure. zamindars or the revenue collectors were the most powerful class in the agrarian structure since the pre-colonial time in Bengal and the new colonial land policy of 1793 did not disturb the basic equilibrium. There was change of hands in land ownership but the class did not disappear. Below the class of zamindar there was a vast peasant cultivating class. Subsequent land policy in the colonial period, particularly the sub-infeudation (madhyasvatvas or pattanidari) created intermediate rent collecting interests resulting in the emergence of numerous agrarian layers, known as Jotedar, Gantidar, Howladar, or Talukdar, or Bhuiyan, etc. The cumulative effect of introducing different land tenures was the emergence of a highly stratified society based on land rights. Higher the land right and land control higher was the social status of the tenureholder.

Agrarian society during the colonial time also witnessed the emergence of a rich peasant class who happened to occupy an important position in social stratification. At least one specific development created the pre-condition for the emergence of rich/proto-capitalist peasants: the market integration of Bengal agriculture with the global economy particularly with the onset of indigo and jute cultivation. The rich peasant class enjoyed the economic wealth and power in rural society. On the other hand, agrarian society during colonial time also passed through the process of proletarianisation/ pauperisation with the consequent emergence of landless class. While different land tenure measures influenced the class composition of the agrarian structure and in turn social stratification, the growing capitalisation facilitated the emergence of agricultural wage workers. The social stratification pattern that emerged during the colonial time comprised the superior landed class, landed intermediaries with several layers, rich peasants/ proto-capitalists, poor peasants/ sharecroppers, and agricultural working class coming from the landless and marginal peasants.

With the introduction of British rule important changes took place in urban social stratification. A pristine bhadralok or gentlemen class consisted of educated professionals (lawyers, teachers, doctors, engineers, service holders and others) emerged in urban Bengal reaping the benefits from the new educational and occupational opportunities. On the other hand, the size of the newly emerged business class was small and characteristically not comparable with the bourgeois counterpart of the West. Earlier, the social status enjoyed by the traders or banians was lower than the higher caste like the Brahmans and it changed during the colonial time. Business class also became educated and thus got higher status. Landed aristocracy became the frontrunners among the bhadralok. In terms of lifestyle and values they presented unique characteristics. In the arenas of art, culture and politics their roles were prominent.

One of the significant developments immediately after the partition of the subcontinent was the abolition of zamindari land system in Bangladesh. Since historically most zamindars came from the Hindu community, their migration to India after partition created a sort of vacuum in social structure. The Muslim traditional wealthy class linked to agriculture came to occupy that vacuum, although it was a fact that their size was small. The same period also witnessed the strengthening of the process of emergence of a rich peasant/agraricultural capitalist class owing to the introduction of agricultural modernisation in the early 1950s and they became strong contenders for the upper echelon of social stratification. Another important class that emerged was the educated Muslim middle class who also mastered sufficient status in society and came to be known as Muslim bhadralok just before and following the partition.

What drew one's attention at this point was the shifting premise of social stratification. Determination of status through descent line gradually lost its importance altogether. Despite agricultural capitalisation and limited industrialisation, the process of capitalist development during the Pakistan period was not strong enough to produce a differentiated society. The dependent capitalism always hindered the emergence of a capitalist social order noticed in the industrial West comprising bourgeoisie, white collars, and blue collars. Instead, the comprador bourgeoisie, surrogate middle class, and lumpen proletariat occupied the social space in urban areas.

Traditional institutions like lineage or gushti continued to function during Bangladesh period. One cannot, however, ignore the difference between rural and urban stratification pattern in this regard. Rural social stratification has been fashioned after the status of the economic classes. Wealth is the important determinant of social status. Land ownership is an important variable for wealth. There are other manifestations of social status. For example, service holders, teachers and professionals in many areas enjoy higher social status as the member of the educated class. Nevertheless, material wealth overrides other elements in determining social status. A person may hold a reputed lineage but if he is not wealthy he can not command sufficient status in rural society.

The following agrarian classes and groups constituted the rural society with hierarchical status and prestige: capitalist farmers, rich peasants, middle peasants, marginal peasants and the landless.'

The effect of 'pauperisation', the process that results in the emergence of landless households without adequate employment, is found quite significant in rural Bangladesh. In rural stratification there are other traditional groups such as kamars (blacksmiths), swarnakars (goldsmiths), sweepers, tantis (weavers), kalus (oil pressers, and others who enjoy minimum status. The roles of some of these groups are now taken over by the professional producers. For example, edible oil comes from the mill.

Economic status of a rural household is found to be subject to mobility when examined over a long span of time. There are different forces what result in the changes of the economic condition of rural households. Many surplus producing rural households gradually turned into subsistence and later deficit households. On the other hand, many deficit households gradually became surplus ones. Market forces, demographic forces, inheritance laws, household splitting are some of the important factors causing such mobility.

The rural social stratification in Bangladesh has not always been reflected in the differences of lifestyles, customs, norms and languages of different classes. Common features in dresses or languages sometimes blur the differences manifested in social status. For example, lungi and shirt are the dresses worn by the rural people irrespective of economic differentiation, though the very poor often do not use shirts simply because they can not buy them. Social festivals and ceremonies like eid-ul fitr and eid-ul azha are marked by the spirit of community. The notion of samaj or community spirit in the countryside reduces the effect of social division. Patron-client relationship also to some extent establishes the relationship between the rich and the poor. Khandan or lineage status is also taken into account. For example, Chowdhury, Khandakar, Syed, etc. are known as aristocratic or khandani gushti. At the time of establishment of matrimonial relationship, the rich prefer the rich. The differences in social stratification are interpreted by the differences in material prosperity. Lavish living and extravagant expenses indicate one's wealth accompanied by status and power. However, upper strata are gradually becoming educated, and a social difference between the educated and non-educated is emerging. Gradually, a bhadralok class may also appear in the countryside with a distinct lifestyle based on modern education, etiquette and culture.

The urban social stratification is beset with important regional variation. While most district towns are still small and backward, a few are relatively advanced. Three cities, Dhaka, Chittagong and Khulna, incorporate large industrial and commercial units along with a vibrant service sector. Cosmopolitanism has come to shape the nature of social stratification of the community living in those large cities. Modern classes like corporate executives, civil bureaucrats, professionals, intellectuals, art workers, industrialists and businessmen emerged in the urban areas. A large labour force engaged in both formal and informal sectors also characterise the urban population. Wealth and education largely determine urban social status. The traditional factor like lineage background has reduced to a level of minimum significance. Urban lifestyles, dresses, etiquette etc vary along class lines as well as the recreational activities.

A survey conducted in the late 1980s revealed that the heads of 43.4% households of Dhaka city were salaried professionals working in government offices, corporations, banks and private firms and it also included teachers, doctors, lawyers and others. The class composed of large business, medium business and small business constituted 36.7% while low skill or no skill workers constituted 12.5%. Another 7.4% was found without any formal occupational involvement and they comprised housewives, students, unemployed and others. One can stratify the above four classes into two broad groups and assume that the former two are higher status groups and the latter two lower status groups. Business people command wealth and subsequently social status. There is a very close association between social status and power. The business people significantly control politics. However, all politically powerful people do not enjoy social status in the eyes of the common people. Educated people enjoy a fair social status despite the fact that they are not always rich. The person who can successfully combine wealth and education surpasses others in terms of enjoying social status. Artists in different branches of art also enjoy status. Social status enjoyed by the wealthy and the educated are not always very clearly distinguishable.

To some extent the underlying norm of a community comes to play a role in determining to whom they will assign more social status. It should not be ignored that wealth does not always ensure social status. For example, if a person is involved in some kind of activities stigmatised in the eyes of the society, his wealth matters a little in the determination of his social status. Recently, mastans (hooligans) emerged as a social category in both urban and rural areas. They command wealth and power but are looked down upon by the society.

There are differences in the lifestyles of the different groups of people living in big cities of Bangladesh. For example, the rich spend pastime in restaurants, clubs and shopping centres, while the middle class people watch television, visit parks and zoos or watch sports in stadiums, and the poor often go to cinema halls, take drugs, or drink country liquor. The rich and the middle wear relatively expensive urban fashionable dresses. They speak refined Bengali and English. Taking part by the middle class people in different performing arts has now become the symbol of status in urban society.

Despite the fact that slow industrialisation, illiteracy and poverty mark the socio-economic condition of Bangladesh society, processes are at work towards a rapid transition from traditional jat-pat to modern social structure based on education, wealth and achievements. [Monirul Islam Khan]