India’s Caste Count Dilemma
Image Credit: Steve Evans

India’s Caste Count Dilemma


Priyabhanshu Ranjan had no idea how wrong he’d be when he casually dismissed it as ‘trivial.’ Priyabhanshu, a 23-year-old Delhi-based journalist, was in love with Nirupama Pathak, another journalist at a leading business daily. The two had met while both students at New Delhi’s Indian Institute of Mass Communications, one of the country’s best-known journalism schools.

Like young couples everywhere, they talked of marriage and a life together, and despite their relationship getting their families’ backs up a little, they were confident their ‘well-educated’ and ‘cultured’ parents would eventually come around.

But on April 29, Nirupama was found dead at her home in Jhumritilaya, Jharkhand. Although her family cried suicide, her mother was arrested and is the main suspect in the murder case. Her alleged motive? Trying to protect the family’s honour.

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The problem was that although both hail from small-town, middle class families in eastern India, Priyabhanshu and Nirupama were separated by caste. She was a Brahmin, the priestly caste at the top of India’s deeply entrenched, centuries-old Varna system. Ranjan, meanwhile, was a Kayastha and so two rungs lower. For Nirupama’s family, it was a social divide that couldn’t be bridged.

‘I come from a state which is deeply caste conscious. But I never thought it would impact my life so brutally,’ says Priyabhanshu. ‘We knew this was a hurdle, but I’d just tell Nirupama we were journalists who can’t get bogged down by these trivial issues. “With time, things will be fine, I’d assure her.”’

Priyabhanshu’s case is by no means unique. Last month saw a number of so-called honour killings in Delhi, including a case in which three members of the same family—a 26-year-old man, his wife and her cousin—were brutally killed by the wife’s brothers and his friends because she had eloped to get married outside her caste. In nearby Sonepat town, a woman and her two sons killed two of her granddaughters because she believed they were having an illicit affair with a male relative.

These grisly episodes have coincided with an uneasy debate taking place in Indian political circles over the issue of caste.

India is in the middle of collecting population statistics for its decadal census, the results of which will be announced next year. It’s a mammoth exercise that will cover 1.2 billion people. Several political parties have demanded the inclusion of caste data, arguing that it’s critical the country has updated information on caste demographics, especially as the positive discrimination ‘reservations’ policy is based on this information. Supporters have also said the information will be useful in aiding efficient distribution in government schemes aimed at traditionally downtrodden castes.

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