Author: BEN DOHERTY, CHANDIGARH, INDIA
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
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.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."
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