India’s Caste Count Dilemma (Page 3 of 4)

In trying to reach a decision, Manmohan Singh on May 27 launched a ‘Group of Minsters,’ headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, after the Union Cabinet failed to reach a consensus. But during its first meeting on June 30, the group remained almost evenly divided between supporters and opponents. In an effort to break the deadlock, the group has decided to seek out the opinions of every political party, each of which has four weeks to respond.

D. Shyam Babu, senior fellow at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies, thinks this dithering stems from a refusal to accept reality. ‘You can’t wish it (caste system) away. Our elections are based on caste, our politics is based on caste and there’s so much happening around caste,’ he says. ‘Doesn’t it make sense then to have access to legitimate data?’

It’s hard to see how any consensus between the two sides will be found. Despite the fact that Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley—two senior BJP lawmakers—spoke in favour of the caste-based census in both houses of parliament, the party’s parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), strongly criticised the plan in a recent article in its in-house magazine, Organiser.

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In the article, a senior RSS functionary said an Indian should have only one identity, that of citizenship. It said: ‘The counting of castes in the ongoing census will weaken the efforts of social harmony and Rashtriya Ekatmata (national integration)…it will also ruin the dream of creating a casteless society as was emancipated by many great personalities.’

Babu says he’s baffled as to why the inclusion of such data should be controversial. ‘Why are we so defensive about caste,’ he asks. ‘The absence of this data (in the census) hasn’t negated the prevalence of caste in our society, nor will its presence perpetuate the system.’

And prevalent it is. Sonalde Desai, a senior fellow at India’s National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), points to a mass of anecdotal evidence that caste continues to dominate social organization in India. ‘If we look at any newspaper in India today and see the marriage announcements, most of the ads refer to the caste of the bride and the groom,’ Desai says.

The India Human Development Survey conducted by NCAER and the University of Maryland found that only 5 percent of women married outside their caste, Desai says, while about 14 percent of households belong to caste associations—far more than the 5 percent who belong to any union for example. ‘It would be hard to say that caste is not a significant dimension of Indian social life,’ Desai says.

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