Friday, June 11, 2010

[ZESTCaste] The big deal about caste (Opinion)

Posted: Thu, Jun 10 2010. 9:38 PM IST

The big deal about caste

In a country where symbols and symbolism matter a great deal, the
census, a 'ritual of citizenship', should be indifferent to caste

Public Eye | Sunil Khilnani

Can more knowledge about our society, about the individuals and groups
who constitute it, be a bad thing?

I've been wondering about this lately, in the context of two
government initiatives to gather more knowledge about us Indians, as
caste groups and as individuals. Both of these information-gathering
exercises—the proposal for a "caste census", which has generated a
stormy argument, and the merely desultory discussion over the planned
Unique Identification number (UID) for every Indian—has implications
for our sense of what it is to be a citizen, and for the terms of the
social contract that holds us together as a nation.

These two debates raise a series of common questions: What do we need
to know about our society to make it a better one? What are the
dangers and costs to certain types of knowledge? And are we prepared
to shoulder these costs? The problem is that we've got worked up about
only one initiative, the caste census, when the other initiative is
the one that speaks more urgently to our future.

The counting of caste groups was first undertaken in a systematic and
exhaustive manner by the British, and gave statistical reality to the
operative motto of the empire: that India was so fractured by caste
that only the grip of imperial rule could keep it together.

Counting castes was a trial for the British census officers. Their
questioning elicited many thousands of self-descriptions, including
sub-castes, sects, lineages and jatis, which the census men pruned
down and ranked as "castes". To some of these castes, the British
awarded social and economic privileges, so that politics in the
colonial era revolved around caste groups petitioning the British for
preferential categorization.

Congregations: (top) Thousands of low-caste Hindus participating in
mass conversion to Buddhism in Mumbai in 2007. Rajesh Nirgude / AP;
and Rajeev Goswami after he set himself alight during the 1990
anti-Mandal Commission agitation. AFP

At independence, the Indian state decreed caste abolished. Although
the 1948 Census Act makes no mention of what categories should or
should not be enumerated, the 1951 Census broke with the colonial
census tradition and did not count individual castes. The exact
reasoning behind the decision remains a mystery of history—in part
because the relevant documents weren't transferred to the National
Archives, in yet another instance of our recent history disappearing
into ministerial dustbins. But census-makers no doubt wished to
reinforce the Constitution's abolition by fiat of caste, turning a
Nelson's eye to the existence of caste in the hope that it would
gradually fade out in favour of a common citizenship.

However, the counting of two social groups subject to particular
social and economic deprivation was continued. The scheduled castes,
those castes marked by the stigma of "untouchability", and the
scheduled tribes, outside the Hindu caste order altogether, were
enumerated and made the recipients of state policies of positive

Debate about reintroducing caste counts was reopened from the early
1980s, with the invention of new hold-all categories such as the Other
Backward Classes (OBC), designed to identify other castes subject to
systematic inequality, who therefore had a claim to benefit from
positive discrimination. The BP Mandal Commission repeatedly asked
governments to compile detailed figures on the OBC population, in
order to validate percentages set aside for quotas. But, although
legislation was enacted to expand the use of quotas to include OBCs,
no new figures at the national level were produced (today, the best
estimates put India's OBCs at around perhaps 45% of the population).
So we have a policy, but no clear sense of the people who are the
policy's target.

In the current debate over caste in the census, all parties agree that
they wish to see the abolition of caste; and all share a concern with
remedying the systemic inequalities of our society: with providing at
the very least equality of opportunity, "a level playing field" for
all (all agree too that Dalits and tribals should continue to benefit
from affirmative action policies). The differences turn on what they
judge to be the best means to get there.

There are three broad positions. Some thinkers are entirely opposed to
counting caste, and argue that we must move to more universalist
policies to address inequalities. According to this view, giving caste
groups the imprimatur of the census serves only to harden the
identities which are themselves opportunity traps. It does little to
bring disprivileged groups into the social and economic mainstream,
and reinforces political mobilization along caste lines; as such, it
fosters resentment and undermines any sense of common citizenship.

Others argue that the census must be used to produce a detailed caste
enumeration of the OBCs. Such data, they argue, will reveal that the
OBCs don't form a homogenous bloc subject to equal deprivation. Some
within this broad category—for example, those who own land—are doing
quite well, while others are clearly not. More data, it's plausibly
argued, will help to identify the genuine from the spurious claimants
to positive discrimination. This is a view that places positive
discrimination at the core of India's efforts to address
inequality—but asks that it be more precisely targeted.

Finally, still others are calling for a full caste census, arguing
that a complete count of all castes is the only non-discriminatory
form of caste enumeration. This view seeks to politicize all caste
categories and to disabuse those (upper castes) who believe themselves
somehow to be "casteless". Only by counting all caste groups can we
come to acknowledge the pervasive reality of caste. Merely to count
the lower castes is to perpetuate a discriminatory order. In this
view, "annihilating" caste—to use Ambedkar's verb—requires nothing
less than full-on confrontation between the upper and lower castes. It
is in the end only political struggle, not law, that can rid us of

I think there is force to the case for OBC enumeration. Given that we
already have extensive affirmative action policies, it seems essential
to have the basic empirical data to help us judge those policies'
effectiveness. How many people qualify for this affirmative action?
Who exactly is benefiting from such policies and who is getting left
behind? Without this information, it is impossible to assess and
improve our policies.

Some proponents of OBC enumeration hope to show that perhaps half of
those today classified in the OBC category are doing well enough not
to justify being recipients of positive discrimination. They see hard
data will be a basis on which to exclude those who are better off, and
to direct resources more precisely at the truly needy. However, I
wonder if this is a realistic reading of the nature of caste politics.

Is it credible that simply collecting the empirical data will be
sufficient to induce the better off OBC groups to renounce their
reserved benefits? It's far more likely that they will mobilize in
order to preserve their quotas; and they will certainly find political
entrepreneurs willing to defend their interests in return for votes.
We will have a more fragmented and more vicious mobilization of
politics along caste lines.

Second is the fact that the reserved sector to which the OBCs are
struggling to gain access is fast shrinking. Quotas apply to the
formal economy, and within that to the public sector; and to places in
higher education. The public sector employs around 20 million people;
there are around 10 million students pursuing higher education.
Positive discrimination in the form of quotas has diminishing
returns—and as such, it should be allowed to fade out naturally. But
the counting of OBC castes will generate pressure to extend
reservations into the private sector, when we ought to be thinking of
quite different policies to deal with inequalities.

Third, there is the matter of the social and political costs of
enshrining caste counts in the census. The census is, precisely, a
"ritual of citizenship": the one moment when the state and every
citizen encounter one another. Should we make this encounter one where
the majority of our citizenry have to account for themselves in caste
terms? Is that the message we want our state to convey: that it's
interested in our caste?

I think not. Rather, I think we need to collect empirical data on OBC
castes by means other than the census: by academic studies, special
commissions and reports. We may well lose something in accuracy and
authority. But I'd argue it's a necessary discount. As one of our few
tangible expressions of citizenship, the census needs to maintain—and
to be seen to maintain—an indifference to caste identities. In our
politics, it need hardly be said, symbols and symbolism matter.

The Census of India symbolizes a certain way of thinking about what
India is, what it is to be a citizen of this society and state. That
society and state recognize a range of diversities among its
members—and so the census rightly enumerates gender, language,
religion, place, occupation, education. These are self-descriptions
that make us who we are, and are part of our identity as citizens. It
has also enumerated those who have been subject to the most scandalous
feature of our social order: the practice of treating some of our
fellows as sub-human, through the crime of untouchability—in order to
give them a special push towards becoming full citizens. But it never
recognized caste, because it saw that as disintegrative to the idea of

To advocates of a caste census of OBCs, opposition to such a measure
is seen as a peculiarity of anxious liberals, perplexed by the
workings of real politics. After all, isn't caste ordinary—just one
more form of identity available to Indians, and one among several
indicators of social disadvantage (which would include gender, region,
religion, class)? It follows that we shouldn't essentialize
caste—that's to fall into the trap of advocates of caste politics,
those who see it as the only reality of Indian society. Rather, we
need to treat caste as a sort of administrative category: and
enumerating the OBC castes, in this view, is essentially an
administrative matter rather than one that goes to the foundations of
identity and citizenship.

This is disingenuous. Caste in India is not just another form of
identity, like any other—it does have a pervasive quality, and it does
possess the potential to grip our politics in ways paralleled only by
religion. In fact, it is caste—much more than religion—that has proved
to be the identity around which our democratic politics has organized
itself. A caste census would further entrench this; it would deepen
the nexus between caste, electoral politics, and the pursuit of
legislative favours.

Yet I think the strongest case against a caste census is the fact that
persisting with policies of positive discrimination and reserved
quotas is no longer the best way to construct a more just society.
Instead of continuing to tinker with reservation policies, we'd do
better to write a new social contract for ourselves, based on a more
universalist approach to justice. Instead of arguing for privileges
for some, we should be redesigning the state so that it works towards
providing adequate public goods—above all, education—for all.

In working to build a new social contract, founded on a universalist
approach, the ability to individuate our citizens is fundamental. And
for this, the Unique Identification number is an important tool.
That's not to say that there are not dangers inherent in it. All forms
of knowledge, especially those collected by a state and linked to
state power, contain the potential for pernicious misuse. But it is
that debate, about the utility as well as the perils of the UID
project in the task of building a new idea of citizenship, that we
should be having today. It's more future-directed than the argument
that distracts us now, about whether or not to revert to a practice
that kept the British busy—and us divided—well over a century ago.

Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India and is currently
working on a new book, India in Search of Wealth and Power. Write to
him at


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