Monday, August 29, 2011

[ZESTCaste] India divided as caste census begins

India divided as caste census begins
Ben Doherty, Chandigarh
August 27, 2011

Rajinder Singh Negi, left, and Vikas Hooda, right, interview washerman
M. P. Kanaujia as part of a controversial caste census. Photo: Kate

For M. P. Kanaujia, there is no escaping caste. It defines him, and
has laid out his life's path.

Kanaujia - the name itself is his subcaste - is of the dhobi or
washerperson caste, and that is what he does, day in and day out, from
his ramshackle humpy at the end of a row of modest government
apartments in the northern Indian city of Chandigarh. ''My caste is
who I am,'' he says. ''We don't speak often about it, because
everybody knows.''

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
caste census.
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The washerman Mp Kanaujia of the Dhobi caste irons clothes after
taking part in the caste census. Click for more photos
Indian caste census

The washerman Mp Kanaujia of the Dhobi caste irons clothes after
taking part in the caste census. Photo: Kate Geraghty

The washerman Mp Kanaujia of the Dhobi caste irons clothes after
taking part in the caste census.
The Grisb Chandra Bamrara family of the Brahmin caste in front of
their home in the north Indian city of Chandgrah.
Reshmi from the Chamav caste holds her census receipt after being
interviewed by one of the census teams in Chandgarh.
Vimla Devi is interviewed at her home in Chandgrah by data entry
operator Aman Preet Singh, centre, and enumerator Arun Kumar.
Asha Thakar of the Rajpur caste, left, is interviewed outside her
home in Chandgrah by enumerator Arun Kumar, centre, and data entry
operator Aman Preet Singh.
Ramdashi Kaur from the Scheduled Sikh caste is interviewed at her
front door in Chandgrah.
Census data entry operator Vikas Hooda, left, in Chandgarh with
washerwoman Premshila.
Rajinder Singh Negil left, and Vikas Hooda gather census data in Chandgarh.
Aman Preet Singh, left, and Arun Kumar gather census data in Chandgarh.
The census acknowledgement slip.

To most Indian Hindus, caste - a complex hereditary social hierarchy
that involves four main orders (varnas) and thousands of subcastes
(jatis) - is the foundation of religious and social identity.

But independent India has never asked its citizens with which caste
they identify. The last time such a survey was undertaken was in 1931,
under the British Raj. British administrators created a list, or
schedule, of the lowest castes.

Formally, the caste system has been abandoned under the Indian
constitution, but governments recognise that it persists. Since
independence, efforts have been made to level the playing field for
India's downtrodden castes, particularly the lowest strata, known then
as untouchables, now more commonly called Dalits.

Affirmative action programs reserve university places, government jobs
and even seats in Parliament for so-called scheduled or backwards
castes. This means that Mr 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.''

''Old India'' has, for millennia, been stratified along caste lines.
Caste determined the clothes people wore, the food they ate (and with
whom), the jobs they could do and who they could marry. But ''New
India'' rails against such fatalist labels. Critics argue a caste
census will only entrench the social divisions the country needs to

''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 … irrespective of their religion and
caste identities,'' Rajindar Sachar, a retired chief justice of the
Delhi High Court, wrote recently. Many of India's urban elite reject
the idea of being tied to caste. But to pretend that it no longer
exists or matters is to ignore the realities of deeply ingrained

Newspaper matrimonial ads are still listed by caste, and to marry out
of one's caste is still a scandalous offence to many.

The government, reluctantly forced into the survey by backward caste
MPs, now argues if benefits are to be handed out on a caste basis,
they need to know how many of each there are.

But the 2011 caste census will also be a measure of India's burgeoning
but uneven economic development.

Every household will be asked for a range of economic data, from work
and income details to how many rooms their house has, if it has
electricity and running water and if they own an airconditioner, a
mobile phone, a car or a washing machine.

In the villages, caste still dominates. But city streets demonstrate
how urbanisation has worn down ancient convention. In Chandigarh,
Reshmi is a Chamar, a Dalit caste. Her neighbours are Brahmins, the
highest caste. Despite her family's status, Reshmi's husband has a
government job. Their house is, fundamentally, no different to that
next door. But she adds: ''Everybody knows our caste by what we eat
and what we wear. I am proud to say my caste, I have nothing to

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