If you think enumerating 300 million people is hard, imagine what it’s like to enumerate 1.2 billion people in a developing country. This is the task that India is currently trying to perform. While there isn’t much backlash over the act of participating in the census (which is a responsibility of civil service workers rather than people hired specifically to work as temporary employees of the census), there are some issues over how caste, the old school Indian class system, should be factored into this count. I’ve been reading about this issue for about a month now and discussing it with Indian friends. I was waiting for the right moment to mention it here, but now that the Associated Press has written about it, it seems to be the appropriate time:
NEW DELHI — Bollywood’s biggest star has an answer ready if census workers ask about his caste: “Indian.’’
“My father never believed in caste, and neither do any of us,’’ Amitabh Bachchan wrote in his obsessively followed blog.
Comments like Bachchan’s are common in modern India, which prides itself on how it has transcended some of its most rigid traditions — and those beliefs are being heard more often as the government debates whether the national census should delve into caste.
But Joseph D’Souza doesn’t believe such talk for a moment.
“There’s a lot of lip service to saying ‘I’m an Indian first,’ and ‘I don’t believe in caste,’ ’’ said D’Souza, a prominent campaigner for dalits, as India’s “untouchables’’ at the very bottom of the caste system are now known.
“When it comes to sharing power, to interaction, to sharing social status, low-caste Indians are very much marginalized,’’ he said, arguing the census could provide firm data about the vast divisions.
India’s census, being held in stages over the next year or so, delves into the wealth, living conditions, and other personal details of the country’s 1.2 billion people. But still undecided is one question — “What is your caste?’’ — that has infuriated much of India’s elite, energized caste-based political parties, and left in doubt millions of government jobs and university slots.
The debate has also made very clear that caste, the Hindu custom that for millennia has divided people in a strict social hierarchy based on their family’s traditional livelihood and ethnicity, remains a deeply sensitive subject. (more…)