Monday, May 31, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Census, consensus or caste aside? (Opinion)

Census, consensus or caste aside?
May 29th, 2010 -- Antara Dev Sen Share

As the government sets up a committee — a group of ministers, no less
— to debate the inclusion of caste in the 2011 Census, a young
minister has gone public with his passionate appeal to the youth
brigade in Parliament to oppose the caste Census. "We are people's
representatives mandated by them to practice politics in the realm of
development aimed to benefit them", wrote Ajay Maken, minister of
state for home in an open letter to the young MPs. "Let us implement
our mandate and lead, rather than being led by divisive agendas for
short-term political gain."
An excellent thought. Especially at a time when Indian politics is
brimming over with divisive agendas which have emptied out ideology
from our more ambitious political parties. Maken believes that "a
regression into the realm of caste being the political agenda for the
next decades" would be "detrimental for all parties with a
developmental agenda, as well as the country in general". Absolutely.
In fact one tends to agree with the basic sentiments expressed in
Maken's well-intentioned letter. There's just one problem.
It is based on a false premise. "If we were to accept the proposal to
accept caste as a parameter in the Census, we would, for at least the
next 10-20 years institutionalise caste rather than development as the
National Political Agenda", he writes. Hate to break this to you,
Ajay, but caste has already been institutionalised by every political
party — even the Communists, the most egalitarian of the lot. And
looking away won't dislodge it. There may be many ways to loosen the
stranglehold of caste on Indian politics, but pretending it isn't
there is not one of them.
"The last decade saw development and good governance, rather than
caste or community being mandated by people across elections in
different states", explains the enthusiastic young minister. Perhaps
he forgets that this decade also saw the most fervently caste-based
party, dalit diva Mayawati's Bahujan Samaj Party, scale unbelievable
heights. Or that the development agenda leaned heavily on reservations
and other caste-based sops. And that "good governance" led to the
murder of thousands of Muslims in Gujarat in a spectacular killing
spree, as thousands of dalits, backward castes and tribals continued
to be killed and maimed in the name of caste or religion and deprived
of their basic rights and freedoms around the country. And that this
"development and good governance" curiously coincided with the furious
rise of Naxalism, which feeds on lack of development and governance.
"As young conscience driven individuals we have served the people and
thrived politically on the all-inclusive development agenda", Ajay
Maken writes. "Even in politically surcharged times of Mandal and
Mandir politics we swore by and took people along this agenda of
development sans caste and community." Really? You did? Wouldn't have
By the way, who are these "young conscience-driven individuals" who
were so righteously active during the "Mandal and Mandir politics"?
Surely they would be somewhat long in the tooth by now if they have
been so diligently serving the people for 30 years? Besides, the young
MPs — from the Congress' gotra-loving Naveen Jindal to the Bharatiya
Janata Party's Muslim-hating Varun Gandhi — have not exactly been
championing liberal values and development. Maybe dear Ajay is
referring to the young-at-heart. Particularly in his grand old party,
the Congress.
In which case, what on earth is this letter about? Never mind.
Hopefully it would simply widen the debate on the caste Census, and
help us understand it better.
Right now, I am not quite sure why there is this huge hullabaloo over
the so-called caste Census. As far as I know, our Census already
records data on scheduled castes (SCs) and scheduled tribes (STs). It
may now add OBCs (other backward classes) to this. If you are not in
the SC, ST or OBC category you will not be affected. Chances are that
you won't get to say "My caste is Indian!" in an Amitabh Bachchan
baritone unless you come from an SC, ST or OBC family, and wish to
waive your access to the little extra push you are entitled to that
could even out the societal odds against you. And hold your horses,
proud brahmins and kshatriyas, no one is about to enumerate your
caste. This specific Census category is only about the deprived, those
who have been denied rights, freedoms, opportunities and dignity for
generations. And it is not drastically different from what is already
the norm in our Census. We will only get to know more about the OBC
population — the numbers, their economic, educational and other social
conditions — which will improve the delivery of development schemes
intended for them.
Clarity can never be the enemy of development. Since we expect to
tread the path of planned development and rectify social injustice
through development programmes for the backward castes, accurate data
on the beneficiaries would certainly help. Till now we have fallen
back on guesswork, extrapolating from the ancient data of the 1931
Census, when caste was last properly recorded. Development and good
governance come from real information, not arbitrary approximations.
Yet, one understands the ideological objection to a caste-recording
Census in a democracy that hoped to have eradicated caste decades ago.
One fears that such a move would encourage the politics of caste and
solemnise identity politics. But haven't we already done that? Our
elections are won as much on the logic of democracy as the logistics
of identity politics, including caste, gotra, religion and gender. Not
to mention money and muscle power. We can't wish these away. It would
be stunningly foolish to pretend that we don't pamper votebanks, that
we win on the strength of good governance, development and democratic
freedoms alone.
We can't run away from the hugely regressive mire of caste politics we
are rooted in. We need to turn back and look it in the eye, and do
whatever it takes to cut the tethers and shake off its hold on us.
But to accept a caste Census would be to admit to enormous failures.
The failure of our successive governments, of our energetic civil
society and of our democratic dreams. And admitting failure is always
a huge disincentive.
But once we overcome that block, take the caste bull by its horns, get
real facts and figures and examine them dispassionately from the point
of view of justice and freedom, we could perhaps free ourselves. And
finally become a nation truly dedicated to equality and justice.

Antara Dev Sen is editor of The Little Magazine.
She can be contacted at


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