Debate grows over caste question in India's huge census
Anuj Chopra, Foreign Correspondent
Last Updated: May 22. 2010 12:43AM UAE / May 21. 2010 8:43PM GMT
Kamaleswar Dauka, a census worker, writes a number on a hut in
Ramsingh Chapori village in Assam last month as part of the national
count. Anupam Nath / AP
PUNE // "What is your caste?" For a vast number of Indians, the answer
to this seemingly innocuous question dictates some of their most vital
decisions, including who they marry, what education and jobs they get
and who they vote into parliament.
But the last time Indians were asked to enumerate their caste in a
census was nearly eight decades ago, when the country was still under
British rule. The practice was discontinued following independence
after India's constitution outlawed caste-based discrimination.
Now, the Indian government is reviving the colonial practice for its
15th decennial population count, which began on April 1. The call to
include caste has sparked vitriolic debate about how this ancient
legacy is still deeply entrenched in post-independence India.
Parliament has yet to vote on the plan, but it is widely expected to
"The caste-based census was last conducted in the year 1931 and the
practice should have continued in the post-independence period also,
but that did not happen," said Pranab Mukherjee, the country's finance
minister, earlier this month to Indian media. "Now, the government has
taken an initiative in this regard."
The Hindu caste system, a hereditary system which divides people into
endogamous social classes, is nearly as ancient as Indian scriptures.
Those at the lower rungs of this hierarchical social pyramid have for
centuries lived in conditions of extreme poverty and great social
The indignities of caste-based violence and discrimination persist
even today, despite India's rapid modernisation and meteoric economic
Political parties backing the caste-based census justify a head count
along caste lines to gather empirical data about those at the bottom
of the heap in order to formulate affirmative action policies aimed at
ensuring their speedy uplift.
"Caste is a reality of Indian society, thought it is a bitter
reality," said Sharad Yadav, the president of Janata Dal (United), a
political party that has been vociferously campaigning for the caste
count to be implemented. "To annihilate it, we have to understand it
in its entirety and make an all-out assault on it."
Some question the feasibility of carrying out a caste-based census.
India comprises a huge number of castes and sub-castes and aggregating
them across thousands of Indian villages may well be too complex for
the census officials to handle.
P Chidambaram, India's home minister, has also raised concerns over
the lack of sociological sensitivity among officials to probe people
about their castes and sub-castes.
But technical difficulties aside, the move has also sparked debate
about the social ramifications of a caste count. Many observers,
especially in India's urban centres where the educated elite often
willingly shun their caste identity, view it as a regressive policy
that would only perpetuate the caste divide.
"The decision to, in principle, enumerate caste in the census is a
monumental travesty," said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the president of the
New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. "At one stroke, it
trivialises all that modern India stood for, and condemns it to the
tyranny of an insidious kind of identity politics.
"[It] is nothing but a raw assertion of power wearing the garb of
social justice … and a politics of bad faith being projected as a
concern for the poor."
But others say such concerns are unfounded.
"Enumeration of race in the US has not made US politics racist, [and
so] it is unlikely that the enumeration of caste would push the
country into the prison of caste," said Yogendra Yadav, a senior
fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing
"In any case, the way to transcend caste is not to close our eyes to
it, but to look at it very closely, identify and neutralise its
relationship with disadvantage and discrimination."
Collating data about the demographic numbers, educational data and
economic conditions of lower castes, Mr Yadav contends, would help
"evidence-based formulation and monitoring of policies of social
The census would specifically collate data about a long marginalised
section called Other Backward Classes (OBCs), which comprises an
estimated 3,743 caste groups. According to one estimate, they make up
approximately 36 per cent of the population.
In rural India, only 24 out of every 1,000 males in the OBC category
graduate from secondary school, according to a 2006 survey by the
National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO). That figure is 59 for
upper castes. Whereas in urban areas, 226 out of every 1,000 upper
caste males reach graduation, compared to only 89 OBCs.
The government's latest move has received tacit approval from most
political parties, even those in the opposition, as OBCs are a
sizeable voting block. Political leaders, especially those stridently
lobbying for a caste-based census, are known to have built up their
parties in some states primarily on the basis of caste identity.
Far from helping OBCs asend the social ladder, some observers say, the
data from the census could be used by various castes as a political
instrument to jockey for more reservations in government jobs and
educational institutions, and this could lead to animosity between
Caste clashes erupted last month in Hissar in the northern state of
Haryana after an upper-caste man who threw his shoe at a menacing dog
accidentally hit a lower-caste Dalit man. Nearly a dozen houses were
torched, and people were burned alive in attacks against both lower
and upper caste communities.
Enumeration of caste could ignite similar tensions elsewhere, further
dividing an already fissured society, analysts say.
At a private symposium on caste politics held in New Delhi last week,
attended by some independent politicians and journalists, a new
movement to counter the census was launched: My jaati Hindustani (My
caste is Indian). It hopes to motivate citizens to enumerate a new
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