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7 Jun, 2010 01:34

Indian politicians trying to play ‘caste card’ in ballots

India is in the midst of counting its 1.2 billion people, which is the largest national census in the world. Also, for the first time since 1930s, officials may ask people which caste they belong to.

It is a move that has triggered an intense debate in the country, with the government yet to take a decision.

Prem Chand is a census taker in Patna in eastern India. Every 10 years he delves into the wealth, living conditions, and other personal details of people. But the most intimate question – “What is your caste?’’ – has so far been off limits, till now.

“The whole country is used to the idea of not mentioning one’s caste,” Chand stated. “Now if we start asking them again, “What is your caste?” is seems strange, and people will probably not want to answer or they will take offense. We census takers will have to bear the brunt of this.”

The caste system is a traditional social hierarchy based upon occupation and which caste one was born into. The lower castes, or untouchables, have for centuries been discriminated against.

The last time the members of each caste were counted was in 1931, when the country was still under British rule. The practice was discontinued after independent India outlawed caste-based discrimination.

But the reinstatement of the caste question is now being demanded by politicians, who want to use the census data as fodder for increasing caste quotas. They have seen their vote shares shrink in the past decade as voters have moved away from voting on the basis of caste to, instead, voting for development.

“This is the real India,” said Sharad Yadav, leader of Janata Dal political party. “Once the lower castes realize these are their real numbers and this where they stand, then they will get the strength to fight for their rights.

“On the one hand, these politicians say that we should remove the caste system, and on the other hand they are perpetuating it by asking people whether they belong to an upper caste or lower caste,” claimed resident Dr. Mamata Singh. “I am against the idea of a caste census.”

The government has not yet decided, but if caste is included, one of the main problems anticipated is people pretending to come from lower castes in an attempt to qualify for government benefits. Suman Kumar Jha feels this is something society could well do without.

“A census based on caste is a bad idea for the country,” he said. “It will deepen divisions within our society, and the danger is that it will split people along caste lines.”

Some of India’s politicians want to take India back 80 years for short-term political gains. But most people would prefer to focus on jobs and improving their economic status, instead of harping on which social strata they were born into.