India's 2010 census considers taboo question: What's your caste?

India abolished caste divisions decades ago, and now uses quotas to help bottom-caste members get jobs and education. Updating caste data in the 2010 census could help refine the quotas, but critics see it as a regressive step.

By , Correspondent

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    A 2010 census officer takes details of a family in Hyderabad, India, May 11. India began a yearlong census of its billion-plus population on April 1, in which it hopes to update its caste data.
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Soma Maiti did not think that her caste was a big deal until she fell in love.

The Brahmin – a member of the caste at the top of Hinduism’s vast hierarchy – had always had friends from lower castes. Like most modern, urban Indians, she considered herself largely blind to the ancient system that for millenniums determined position in life in India.

But when the charity worker from West Bengal told her parents she wanted to marry a low-caste man, they were appalled. “They immediately tried to get me married to someone they regarded as eligible simply because he was a Brahmin,” says Maiti, who married the man of her choice and endured five years of silence from her family.

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In an acknowledgment of the role caste continues to play in Indians’ lives, the government is considering including caste in its once-a-decade census. If it does, it will be the first time Indians will be asked their caste since 1931, when the country was ruled by the British.

The proposal has whipped up a storm of controversy, with critics of the plan arguing that including caste in the census will reinforce an unjust and divisive system that India’s Constitution sought to banish 60 years ago. Indeed, after winning independence in 1947, India’s political leaders erased caste from official forms and records.

The Congress Party, which formed independent India’s first government and has led the country for much of its subsequent history, has repeatedly resisted calls to include caste in the census in recent years.

Its change of heart is probably prompted in part by political considerations. The calls have come from a number of regional caste-based parties that have sprung up in the last two decades, using caste inequality to mobilize voters. As head of a coalition government, without a majority, Congress needs the support of smaller parties such as these to push through important legislation in the coming months.

Benefits for bottom castes

But many also believe that a nationwide caste count is necessary to bring greater social justice.

This is largely because India reserves a percentage of government jobs and places in universities for low castes. The Constitution, drawn up in 1950, set in place quotas for Dalits, the group formerly known as untouchables that languishes at the bottom of the caste heap. In 1990, the government extended some reservations to a group of castes a little higher up the pecking order, but also marginalized, known as Other Backward Castes (OBCs).

The problem is, without up-to-date figures, quota allocations are made on the basis of data from the census of 1931 – by any reckoning out of date.

“How can you have reservations when you don’t know how many lower castes there are?” asks Mahesh Rangarajan, a historian at Delhi University. “Including caste in the census is an important step forward.”

A social stain

Critics of the plan argue that India is becoming less caste-conscious and that bringing caste back into the census is a regressive step.

Economic development has had a more transformative effect on social hierarchies than more than six decades of reservations. As millions of Indians have migrated to urban areas in search of work, they have exchanged the rigid social groupings of villages for the relative anonymity of cities, and swapped inherited trades for jobs in which family background is largely insignificant.

Caste nonetheless remains an inescapable part of Indian life. Marriage ads, listed by caste and subcaste, fill the classified sections of weekend newspapers. Brahmins, the loftiest caste, still dominate many professions. No Dalits feature in India’s new billionaire lists.

Caste feeling manifests itself in more sinister ways, too. Police believe that the recent murder of a young journalist, engaged to a man from a lower caste, was one of a growing number of “honor killings” in which families avenge inter-caste marriages.

Discrimination is most evident, however, in the routine wretchedness of the lives of Dalits who remain India’s poorest and least educated people.

“Caste is very much alive – why pretend otherwise?” says Aditi Phadnis, political editor of the Business Standard, a leading daily newspaper.

Countless subcastes

She, like many, however, points out that there will be huge practical obstacles if the government does decide to include caste in the census.

India has four main caste groups but innumerable subcastes – some put the figure as high as 30,000 – and it is unclear how their differences should be tabulated.

If people think certain castes come with benefits, they could be more likely to lie. And if, as seems likely, India will be found to have more low castes than is currently assumed, it will face a flood of requests to increase the number of reservations available to them.

Already, the government is battling campaigns from non-OBC castes, Muslims, and Hindu converts to Christianity to be included in reservation lists. As more jobs are created in the business sector, another campaign to extend quotas to jobs in the private sector is gaining momentum.

Many commentators point out that India needs better jobs and services for its poorest people instead of handouts based on their inherited status.

“At one stroke,” wrote commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the plan in the Indian Express newspaper, “it trivializes all that modern India has stood for and condemns it to the tyranny of an insidious kind of identity politics.”

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