Sunday, August 28, 2011

Some articles about the Caste Census in India

They are currently conducting a caste census here in India. Here are a few articles from the "Sydney Morning Herald" about it:

Census casts net wide as India wrestles with past Ben Doherty
August 27, 2011

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

..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 Chandigarh.

''My caste is who I am, we don't speak often about it, because everybody knows,'' he said.

Advertisement: Story continues below 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.

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 opportunity.''

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 wrote.

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 running water.

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.''

This article was found at:

Census controversy shows caste politics still counts in India
May 15, 2010

Glory... Kumari Mayawati at a ceremony in New Delhi in 2007 in front of statues of herself and the Dalit heroes B.R. Ambedkar and Kanshi Ram. Photo: AFP

They were once pushed to the margins, condemned to the filthiest jobs. But for many Dalits - previously the Untouchables of the Hindu caste system - times have changed.

Perhaps no one symbolises this better than the ''Dalit Queen'', Kumari Mayawati, who has been Chief Minister of India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, for three years.

A hallmark of Mayawati's reign has been her passion for building statues to honour Dalit political leaders, herself included. The latest - a row of towering lower-caste heroes covered from head to toe in blue material and built at a cost of more than $80 million - stands on the banks of the River Yamuna at Noida, a booming high-tech business hub 20 kilometres south-east of New Delhi.

Advertisement: Story continues below It is estimated Mayawati has spent at least $300 million on monuments to Dalit leaders in Uttar Pradesh, an impoverished state of 180 million. There are about 20,000 statues of the great Dalit leader B. R. Ambedkar dotted across the state, most of them commissioned by Mayawati.

She rejects criticism of her statue-building frenzy, saying the statues are an inspiration for low-caste people who have been repressed and excluded from power for a millennium.

Badri Narayan Tiwari, a specialist in caste politics at the G. B. Pant Institute of Social Sciences, in Allahabad, says the statues are a strategy to build ''respect'' for Dalit caste identity through visuals and stories.

The influence of caste in India was underscored again last week when the Finance Minister, Pranab Mukherjee, announced the government would require Hindus to record their caste in the colossal 10-yearly national census now under way. The last time caste numbers were counted was in 1931, when the British ruled the subcontinent.

The governing Congress Party - which has resisted counting caste in the census for decades - has changed its position in an apparent effort to please the caste-based parties that now wield great influence in national and regional politics.

The success of Mayawati, who has risen to power in the Hindi heartland with the passionate support of Dalits, illustrates the importance caste has in modern Indian politics. Her main rival for power in Uttar Pradesh is a party that draws its support from a large and powerful caste called the Yadavs.

''Caste has been there in Indian politics for a very long time but it's becoming more explicit now,'' says a Delhi University political analyst, Mahesh Rangarajan.

Tiwari says government attempts to breakdown caste barriers have helped eradicate social disadvantage but, at the same time, reinforced the role of caste in politics.

''The Indian state, which is working to dilute the caste system, is also strengthening caste identity,'' he says.

Caste assigns Hindus a place in the social hierarchy based on hereditary groups originally formed around occupations. . The system has four broad groups or varnas: Brahmins (priests), Kshatriyas (warriors), Vaishyas (merchants and farmers) and Sudras (manual workers). Each caste stratum has a complex web of ''subcastes'' - about 6000 in all - that vary across regions.

The title Dalit describes a cluster of subcastes at the very bottom of the hierarchy. Mahatma Gandhi challenged the poor treatment of this group and called them ''Harijans'', children of God.

Discrimination on the basis of caste is banned by the Indian constitution and low castes benefit from social programs and affirmative action. This includes quotas for government jobs, university courses and even parliamentary seats.

Even so, caste prejudice remains pervasive despite rapid social and economic change. A recent study found that having a low-caste surname significantly reduced the chances of being called for a job interview.

The widespread aversion to inter-caste marriage is highlighted each Sunday, when newspapers carry pages of advertisements by parents seeking an appropriate spouse for their son or daughter. Most of these ''matrimonials'' are grouped by caste and subcaste and many make it clear that those lower in the hierarchy need not respond.

The decision to count caste in the census has triggered vigorous debate about the role of caste in politics and society.

Supporters argue a proper count will give reliable data on groups getting state benefits and help the government target affirmative action measures better. Modern estimates of caste numbers in India rely on the last official tally, now 80 years out of date.

However, critics warn the count could inflame social tensions and further entrench caste politics. It may also open a Pandora's box of political demands from powerful caste groups emboldened by official figures. The inclusion of the caste question in the census has been pushed by political leaders from the so-called ''other backward castes'', in the hope they can win more government benefits for their constituents.

''There are genuine apprehensions that this could lead to more agitation and conflict,'' says Rangarajan.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the president of the Centre for Policy Research, in Delhi, believes counting caste in the census trashes fundamental principles of Indian democracy and will make it more difficult to rid the country of ancient prejudices and hierarchies.

''At one stroke, it trivialises all that modern India has stood for,'' he wrote in the Indian Express, ''and condemns it to the tyranny of an insidious kind of identity politics.''

This article was found at:

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