Census casts net wide as India wrestles with past
August 27, 2011
For MP Kanaujia, there is no escaping caste. It defines him, and has
laid out his life's path. His caste is his profession, his name and,
more broadly, his station in life.
Dhobi is a washer of clothes in Hindi. Kanaujia - the name itself is
his subcaste - is of the dhobi caste, one who washes. And that is what
he does, day-in day-out from his ramshackle humpy at the end of a row
of modest government apartments in the northern Indian city of
''My caste is who I am, we don't speak often about it, because
everybody knows,'' he said.
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But it's relevant for the men who've come to visit today. For the
first time in 80 years, India is undertaking the herculean task of a
To most Hindus, caste - a complex hereditary social hierarchy that
involves four main orders [varnas] and thousands of sub-castes [jatis]
- is the foundation of religious and social identity.
But independent India has never before asked its citizens to which
caste they identify. The last time such a survey was undertaken was in
1931, when the British raj decided to count and label every subject.
Formally, the caste system has been abandoned under the Indian
constitution but governments recognise it exists still. Since
independence, efforts have been made to level the playing field for
the downtrodden castes, particularly the lowest strata, known then as
untouchables, now more commonly called dalits. Affirmative action
programs reserve university places, government jobs, even seats in
parliament for so-called backward castes.
So Kanaujia is happy to nominate his. ''I think it's a good idea. My
daughter has just finished her schooling and if this census helps with
the quotas for backwards castes, there might be more places for her to
complete more education,'' he said.
Kanaujia has lived in his single-room lean-to, made from scavenged
pieces of wood and a roof of tarpaulin held down by stones for 25
years, washing and ironing each day with his wife. ''I would like her
[my daughter] to get a good government job,'' he says, pointing to the
brick houses up the street. ''I want my daughter to have more
For millennia ''old India'' has been stratified along caste lines. It
determined the clothes people wore, the food they ate [and with whom],
the jobs they could do, and who they could marry. Many, especially
rural Indians, still identify with their caste name: it ties them to a
place and to a community.
But ''new India'' rails against such fatalist labels. Critics say a
caste census will only entrench the social divisions the country is
trying desperately to dissolve.
''I am troubled at making caste the central point of all public
policies because this will damage the real fight in the society
between the haves and have-nots, the rich and poor, irrespective of
their religion and caste identities,'' the retired chief justice of
the Delhi High Court and prime ministerial adviser Rajindar Sachar
Many of India's urban elite reject the idea of being tied to caste. To
the middle class and those aspiring to it, education, career and
address are the new social yardsticks.
It is in the cities - Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore - where people are most
expected to exercise their right not to nominate a caste.
Caste may be controversial - a just-released Bollywood movie,
Aarakshan, or Reservation, which deals with the issue of quotas has
been banned in three states - but to pretend it no longer matters is
to ignore the realities of thousands of years of socialisation, and
deeply ingrained mores.
Matrimonial ads in Sunday newspapers are still listed by caste -
Aggarwal seeks Aggarwal - and to marry out of one's caste is still a
scandalous offence in many families.
The government, reluctantly forced into the survey by backward class
MPs, say that if benefits are to be handed out on the basis of caste,
the country needs to know how many of each there are. Up to 49.5 per
cent of government jobs and university places are quarantined for
members of India's scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other
backward classes. But the 2011 caste census will also be a measure of
India's burgeoning, but uneven, economic development.
About 455 million people live on less than $1.25 a day. Half the
world's hungry live in this country. The government wants a firm
figure on just how many of its citizens live below the poverty line.
Every household is asked for a range of economic data, from work and
income details, to how many rooms the house has, it has an
air-conditioner, a mobile phone, a car or a washing machine. It also
notes house building materials and access to electricity and to
The task of counting every single person in India - about 1218 million
in last year's population census - is a mammoth undertaking. More than
2 million ''enumerators'' will spend three months finding every family
in the country. The cost will top 35 billion rupees ($725 million).
But the debate over caste is a wrestle between old India and new. In
the rural villages caste still dominates. But a street in Chandigarh's
Sector 7C demonstrates how urbanisation has worn down ancient
convention. At four consecutive houses live families of differing
castes, from the highest, Brahmins, to dalits. Reshmi is a chamar, a
dalit caste. Her neighbours are Brahmins. Despite her family's status,
her husband has a government job.
''Some people might not want to say their caste, they think there is
no more caste in India, but everybody knows it, and the government
should help the lower castes with education and jobs, to make a better
life for themselves.
''Everybody knows our caste by what we eat and what we wear. I am
proud to say to my caste, I have nothing to hide.''
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