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Politics of Being Counted: Indian Census 2011

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on April 22, 2011 No Comment

india-census-2011The doorbell-which makes the sound of chirpy, chirruping birds-shrieked for my attention on a late Monday morning a few months ago. I was living in a suburb of New Delhi, India, collecting data for my dissertation. As I went to unlock the grill door, I saw a lady dressed in a dark salwar kameez with a white chunni standing outside. She smiled in a businesslike manner, and said-“I am from the 2011 Census.” Not having ever actually talked to an Indian Census agent in my life, I smiled broadly, and invited her in. She settled down on the edge of our sofa, and shuffled around what looked like a ream of forms on her lap. As she struggled to find the correct forms, she explained that she had come over to our house last summer, but the house was locked. I explained that my parents had been visiting the US at the time.

She began asking the first set of questions from the form, beginning with the information for the “head of the household,” i.e., my father. The name, sex, marital status, age at marriage, religion. disability (if any), mother tongue, other languages known (“upto [sic] two languages in order of proficiency excluding the mother tongue”)*, literacy status, and highest level of education, occupation, birthplace, place of last residence, time spent in commuting to place of work, reasons for migration from birthplace (if it occurred), among other things. There were specifics about my father I didn’t know, and I had to call him over. He started answering questions, and I waited for my turn. My mother, cooking a spinach and poppy seed dish, yelled out her answers from the kitchen. And then, the Census taker turned to me.

I gave her my full name, and we got to the marital status question. She stopped and looked a little surprised when she’d heard I’d only been married a few months. She looked around, and asked, “So, where is your husband?” “He’s in the States.” “He’s not here?” she asked, looking confused. “Why?” I explained I was “home” collecting dissertation data, and that he was back in school, doing coursework, and I had to stay on. She said, “Well, then, why are you participating in the Census? You don’t live here!” her voice began to rise a little. “No, no, I am only an international student there! This is my official residence! I am Indian, I don’t have residency in the US.” “But your husband is the same status-? “My husband’s American, no.” She could barely mask her confusion. “Then…but you are married, and if your husband’s American, you have to live in America, you have to live there eventually. You don’t live here.” I felt dismissed, not just because as an international student I am considered a member of a “floating” group in the U.S. (and elsewhere), but because of her assertion that where I would count would be determined by where my husband is. My father, recognizing that the conversation was making me uncomfortable, stepped in, saying: “No, she’s my daughter, this is her permanent residence, and she is a resident of India. She needs to be counted. She is Indian.” The lady-who still clearly could not see the point to all this-and probably confused about how to convey my “ambiguous” status in India via a form that was pretty “black and white” in its categories-filled out the rest of my form without further comment.

The episode still rankles, weeks after it took place. There are few things that hurt as much as to have to fight to be included-to be counted-in your own country.

*More about this in a later post.

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