Monday, June 14, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Caste in Census: Hypocrites all!

Caste in Census: Hypocrites all!
Monday, June 14, 2010

We can tell a person's caste from his name. Upper caste Hindus mostly
use the caste as their surname. As long as this practice continues,
people will be known by their caste name and not their first name.
This writer, for example, is known as Mr Nair among friends and
colleagues, though my first name is Viswanathan. Years ago when I was
with the Indian Express, someone from my village came to Bombay and
called up the office asking for Viswanathan. The telephone operator
told him that there was no one in the office by that name. This
applies to most Indians, they go by the surname Reddy, Rao, Iyer,
Iyengar, Mehta, Shah, Desai, Sardesai, Chakravarty, Choudhary,
Chaturvedi, Goswami, Nair, Menon, Pillai and so on. It gives them an
identity and they are proud of their caste, too. When it comes to a
debate on the abolition of caste, all are hypocrites. Most columnists
and news channel Editors vehemently argue against reintroducing caste
in Census. But those who abhor the caste system do not want to drop
their caste-based surname first to prove their genuine concern. Even
Gandhiji did not do it though he had championed the cause of the
Harijans and the downtrodden. Caste makes a person inferior or
superior, caste determines an individual's place in society, the work
he or she may carry out, and who he or she may marry and meet. A
person is enabled or disabled at birth and one cannot change his low
birth though he can change his destinies through education and hard
work. But the fact remains, a Nair's son becomes a Nair and a Dalit's
son inherits his father's caste.

A controversy has erupted over the inclusion of caste in the 2011
Census, after a long gap of 60 years. The colonial practice of
caste-based headcount was discontinued after independence. All
government records, registers and application forms also deleted the
column of caste. One of the major objectives of Independent India was
to remove the disabilities arising out of this social malady. But
then, did the caste system disappear? On the contrary there are
violent agitations for more reservations based on caste. More and more
communities are fighting for their inclusion under lower castes and
backward classes in order to enjoy the benefits of reservation. With
the result, some states like Tamil Nadu has 70 per cent reservation
though the Supreme Court has limited this to 50 per cent.

The Census, first conducted in 1881 by the British, collected
caste-wise data until 1931. While the Census continues to count
scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, OBCs have not been enumerated
for 80 years. Parties with strong OBC constituencies argue that this
leads to wrong data on their numbers and consequently affects their
entitlement. The Census over the years provides vital information on
population and its relative characteristics in terms of sex, age
groups, economic activity, occupation, literacy, language, religion,
scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, and a host of demographic

Though India's Constitution has sought to abolish caste discrimination
and the practice of untouchability, the caste system is still
widespread and remains deeply rooted in the society, especially in
rural India. A Dalit's shadow was believed to pollute the upper
classes. They may not cross the line dividing their part of the
village from that occupied by upper classes, drink water from public
wells, or visit the same temples visited by the higher castes. Dalit
children were often made to sit in the back rows in classrooms! Things
are changing, but the lower castes are not treated on par with the
upper class even now. In my village there is a Bhagwati temple. Even
today, only people belonging to the Nair community worship in the
temple. There is no bar on others, but their inferior complex
dissuades them from entering the temple. This applies to most of the
temples in Kerala.

The caste system is not restricted to Hinduism alone. It is prevalent
among Christians and Muslims as well. Christians in Kerala are divided
into several sects, the main sects being Syrian Christians, Latin
Christians, Protestants, Jacobites, Marthomites, CSI (Church of South
India), etc. Syrian Christians consider themselves superior to others.
They were believed to be converted from Brahmins, other upper castes
and Jews by St Thomas, while Latin Christians were converted mainly
from lower castes where fishing was the traditional occupation. Latin
converts were poor and deprived. So the Government of India gave them
the social benefit of OBC status. Anthropologists have noted that the
caste hierarchy among Christians in Kerala was much more polarised
than the Hindu practices. They would not enter into marriage alliances
without the permission of their respective church authorities. In Goa,
mass conversions were carried out by Portuguese Latin missionaries.
The Hindu converts retained their caste practices, thus the original
Hindu Brahmins in Goa now became Christian Bamons and the Kshtriyas
became Christian noblemen called Chardos. The Dalits or untouchables
who converted to Christianity became Mahars and Chamars. Though Jesus
Christ took everybody by his stride without differences, Christian
Dalits suffer discrimination from the higher castes.

Among Muslims, there are Sunnis, Shias, Boris, Iranis and so on. The
rivalry between the Sunnis and Shias is known throughout the Muslim
world. Those who are referred to as Ashrafs are presumed to have a
superior status derived from their foreign ancestry, while the Ajlafs
are assumed to be converts from Hinduism, and have a lower status.
There is also the Arzal caste regarded as the equivalent of
untouchables. There is a demand to accommodate the Muslim Dalits in
the quota given to the SCs. The Sachar Committee on the plight of
Muslims too has recognised that there are Dalits in the Muslim

Under the Constitution, caste discrimination and the practice of
untouchability are prohibited. According to K Kanakasabapathy,
Director, EPW Research Foundation, though Caste in census was
discontinued, the report of the first Backward Classes Commission in
1955, in fact, recommended caste-wise enumeration of the population in
the Census of 1961 and treatment of "caste as the criteria" to
determine backwardness. It had prepared a list of 2,399 backward
castes, of which 837 had been classified as the "most backward." This
report was not accepted, as it was feared that the really needy would
be swamped by the multitude and would not receive special attention.
The Second Backward Classes Commission, using the 1931 Census data of
the British, estimated that 54 per cent of the total population
(excluding SCs and STs) belonging to 3,743 different castes and
communities were backward.

The objection to Caste Census is that it will push back the country to
the dark ages. The electoral politics has blinded the three Yadav
leaders – Mulayam, Lalu and Sharad – who argue that their flock, the
OBCs, would be entitled to more reservations in employment and
educational institutions after the Census. Critics believe that the
government has succumbed to pressure from the Yadav trio for its
survival. Poverty is not confined to the OBCs. In a country where 40
per cent people earn less than a dollar, the concerted effort of the
political parties should be how to salvage people from the deplorable
economic conditions in which they are stuck. It is time to change the
basis of reservation from caste to poverty. The criterion should not
be caste but how much a person earns.

On the positive side, the question is why do we have to omit the OBCs
alone in the Census. The Census covers all the religions, the SCs and
STs, and the vast number of OBCs are deliberately left out
unidentified for whatever reasons. By doing so, we were, of course,
open to manipulation, corruption and dishonest representation. The new
data collected from the Census may never be perfect; people tend to
misrepresent the caste and their income. Actual caste data could shed
light on how backward some of the OBC classes are. The data might
reflect that inter-cast gaps in education, occupation and access to
infrastructure are far greater than we think. By avoiding caste
details in the Census, we are not eliminating it.


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