Friday, June 11, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Caste in doubt

The Indian census and caste
Caste in doubt
The perilous arithmetic of positive discrimination
Jun 10th 2010 | Delhi

Asking some uncomfortable questionsSIXTY years after India's
constitution banned caste discrimination, Hinduism's millennia-old
hierarchy retains a tight grip. Lonely-hearts ads in the newspapers
are classified by caste and sub-caste. Brahmins, at the top, dominate
many professions. There are still hundreds of "honour killings" by
which families avenge inter-caste marriages and liaisons. Caste
discrimination is still drearily evident in the wretched lives of
dalits, formerly "untouchables", who remain India's poorest and least
educated people. It is not surprising, then, that India is considering
the inclusion of caste in its ten-yearly census, the next of which is
due in 2011.

The proposal has caused a storm of controversy. India has not counted
caste in its census since 1931. Many argue that its inclusion would
buttress a system that independent India's first leaders railed
against. The Congress party, which led the independence struggle,
struck caste from government forms and has resisted calls for a
nationwide caste count.

However, now heading a coalition government, Congress needs the
support of smaller parties, including a number of caste-based groups
that have sprung up in recent years, to push through important
legislation. A system of affirmative action has given caste greater
potency. In 1990 "reservations" in government jobs and university
places for dalits were extended to a group of castes slightly
higher-up the pecking order, the "Other Backward Classes" (OBCs).
Reservations are based on data from the 1931 census. Caste politicians
are not alone in arguing that this makes a nonsense of the system.

Counting caste in the census, however, would be difficult, or even
impossible. Besides the four main varna, or castes, India has
uncounted thousands of sub-castes, few of which census officials will
recognise. More worryingly, the count would surely lead to a flood of
demands for more reservations; already, the government is battling
quota demands from non-OBC castes, Muslims and Christian converts from
Hinduism—and a call for reservations to be extended to India's private

Six decades of reservations have done little to better the lot of
low-caste Indians. But recent economic growth has been more
transformative. As millions have moved to urban areas in search of
work, they have left the rigid social groupings of their villages for
the relative anonymity of cities, and swapped hereditary trades for
jobs in which family background is largely immaterial. Many Indians
are becoming caste-blind, and marrying across caste lines. Anidhrudda,
a 30-year-old software engineer in Kolkata (Calcutta), says his
inter-caste marriage was no big deal. But even he concedes there are
limits. If he had married a dalit, he says, "my family would not have
been able to face society."

The Economist Newspaper | Asia


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