Indian Decade

Casting off Caste

India may be an emerging economic giant. But an outdated caste system holds it back.

As much as things change, they sadly also remain the same. Even as India takes confident strides on the global economic stage, painful, ugly chinks show up in the way we often conduct our lives. Take the recent tragic murder of 23-year-old journalist Nirupama Pathak, who was allegedly smothered to death by her mother for wanting to marry a fellow journalist who came from a low caste.

The Pathak family is from the upper Brahmin caste, and although based in a small town in eastern Jharkhand state, they seem resolutely middle class, valuing education, drive and ambition. One of Nirupama’s brothers is pursuing a doctorate and Nirupama herself studied journalism at the prestigious Indian Institute of Mass Communications. She was a subeditor at a leading business daily in Delhi.

That a family of a young, modern Indian girl like Nirupama’s should even be charged of murdering their own daughter to protect some fangled notions of ‘family pride’ boggles the mind. It’d be easy to disown these families, to label them as deviants. But instead we need to admit to ourselves these people exist and tell ourselves that we need to reform.

Unfortunately, caste continues to dominate our society and our polity. India is currently in the midst of collecting information for its15th census, in 2011. It’s undoubtedly a mammoth exercise by any standards, covering a sub continental landmass of nearly 1.2 billion people. At a review Cabinet meeting on the census earlier this week, central ministers debated over whether caste details should be part of the census data. Because it’s such a complex, layered issue, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has put off the decision, waiting to hear what each Cabinet minister has to say.