From Times Online May 10, 2010
India to conduct first record of nation's caste system since days of the Raj
India is poised to record the place occupied by each of its 960
million Hindus in the religion's controversial caste system for the
first time since the days of the Raj.
The country's mammoth ten-yearly national census began on April 1,
when it was hailed as the biggest attempt in history to count,
classify — and ultimately issue identity cards to — the citizens of a
Now, the census questionnaire is set to be rejigged after the
Government indicated that it will meet demands for the caste of every
Hindu to be documented too.
The caste system divides Hindus into four "varnas", a term that can be
translated as "colour", according to their birth. The priest Brahmins
at the top are followed by the warrior Kshatriyas; the merchant or
farmer Vaishyas and the artisan Sudras in that order.
Untouchables, or Dalits, fall beneath that hierarchy and in many parts
of India continue to perform the most disgusting and dangerous jobs.
The associated Jati system contains thousands of subgroups based on occupation.
The last time that the number of members of each caste was counted was
in 1931, in a census carried out by the British. Then, one of the main
problems was that people exaggerated their caste status in attempts to
garner social prestige.
Now, the opposite problem of "downward mobility" is anticipated as
people pretend to come from low castes in an attempt to qualify for
government benefits. "In earlier periods there was something to be
gained from climbing the caste ladder, now the opposite is true," said
Radhika Chopra of the Delhi School Of Economics.
The reinstatement of the caste question had been demanded by leaders
of the so-called "other backward castes", or OBCs, who hope to win new
economic and social assistance for their communities by proving that
they are struggling to benefit from India's economic renaissance.
OBCs are one step up from untouchables, who are currently counted in
the census and qualify for greater government benefits, such as
reserved jobs and university places.
Pranab Mukherjee, the Finance Minister, said last week that there
would be no "logistical problem" in adding a new question to a census
that is already gathering information from literacy levels to the
number of mobile phones in each household. The exercise will involve
2.5 million officials and 12,000 tonnes of paperwork printed in 18
languages and distributed from the Himalayas in the north to the
Andaman Islands in the south.
However, no other question gives rise to the same level of
apprehension as that of caste. Some observers fear that merely asking
it risks dividing society along caste lines and provoking violence.
The Times of India argued that there had been a good reason why caste
had never been a census issue before in Independent India: "The idea
was to move towards a casteless society".
John Henry Hutton, the Indian Civil Service officer who was Census
Commissioner of India in 1931, grappled with a similar dilemma. "It
has been alleged that the mere act of labelling persons as belonging
to a caste tends to perpetuate the system," he wrote. "It is just as
easy to argue ... that it is impossible to get rid of any institution
by ignoring its existence like a proverbial ostrich."
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