As census counting gets under way, the divisive issue of caste has again been thrust into India’s political cauldron. For the first time in 80 years, Indians are being asked which caste they belong to. For all of India’s aspirations of modernity and globalisation, the ancient practice of categorising people into strict social rankings continues.
Traditionally, caste decreed everything about a person’s life – job, marriage, home, salary – but in recent decades affirmative action policies have allowed some members of lower castes to ascend to higher socio-economic groups. But in many sections of society caste walls remain intact. There are four main castes, classifying people as scholars, warriors, merchants or peasants, but thousands of sub-castes.
And vitally, while the system is banned under the Indian Constitution, caste divisions run deep, particularly in rural areas, and politicians still rely heavily on so-called vote banks organised along caste lines to win seats. Consequently, caste is never far from social policy.
Proponents of the idea to include the caste question in the census – slated for publication next year – insist it will allow the government to gather information about the caste structure of the country and better tailor policies for those at the bottom of the pyramid. They say policies – such as quotas for lower castes in universities and government jobs – are currently based on data that is decades old, or even a stab in the dark.
Others say it’s difficult to believe Indian politicians aren’t merely trying to perpetuate the caste system to further their own electoral interests. If caste data is collected they say politicians will use it to try and win votes along caste lines. ”If you don’t have data on caste, then it becomes less and less important in social policy,” says Parth Shah, president of New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Civil Society.
However it’s hard to dismiss the issue. News of honour killings, or a village ruling committee insisting a newly eloped couple divorce because of caste conflict, are in the news regularly. Lately, headlines have been dominated by the case of Nirupama Pathak, a 22-year-old journalist who was allegedly killed by her traditional mother for falling in love with a man from a lower caste. Pathak, a sub editor for a major Delhi business newspaper, was caught between two worlds: the feudal patriarchy of her small-town roots, and the relative anonymity afforded to her by life in the city.
Indeed, it’s the rapid urbanisation of India that many hope will sound the death knell of the caste system – a McKinsey & Company report released last month found India is likely to experience a seismic move towards overwhelming urbanisation in coming decades. “Awareness of caste is concentrated in villages,” says Shah. “You can’t tell a person’s caste by looking at them, you have to know their ancestry, their lineage. “How many people in cities know their neighbours’ family backgrounds?”