Thursday, June 10, 2010

[ZESTCaste] Counting Castes

Counting Castes


India kicked off the national census of its billion-plus population on
1 April 2010.
Census 2011 will be historic, and its findings will correct many dominant myths


Published : 1 June 2010

O N THE SECOND SUNDAY THIS MAY, while the sun was burning every living
thing unfortunate enough to be outdoors in Delhi's 40 degree summer, a
short, thickset, government schoolteacher, armed with an umbrella and
a thick register, knocked at my door. She is one of the 2.5 million
enumerators  on duty, carrying out one of the biggest administrative
exercises in the world, the Indian Census. India is among very few
countries that have conducted an unbroken chain of regular decennial
censuses. The first modern census in India started in 1871, but the
practice goes back as far as the Mauryan Empire (321-185 BCE).

"Kundi kholo. Census keliye aaye hain (Open the door. I've come about
the census)." The voice had a teacher's authority.

The teacher-enumerator gave me a questionnaire that had columns for
names, number of children, educational qualification, source of water,
material used for wall and roof, and if I had toilets in my dwelling;
politely put, whether or not I used the bushes or the banks of railway
lines. (The last census in 2001, told us 78.4 percent of the rural
population and 13.6 of the urban population still practised open
defecation.) The enumerator left with my replies, telling me she would
come again before March 2011 to take the biometrics.

But there is a change of plan. On her second visit, the government
will give her yet another question to ask, one they haven't asked
since 1931.


Just a few days ago, the Manmohan Singh government made an historic
decision to count heads according to caste, reversing the dominant
thinking in New Delhi since Independence that enumerating caste would
threaten the unity of India. Most leaders of the Congress, including
Jawaharlal Nehru, were against the idea. Even after several
government- appointed commissions on caste (Kalelkar in 1956, Havanur
in 1975, and Mandal in 1980) asked the government to include caste in
the census, there was resistance from the cream of the power, class
and caste. Either they cited administrative difficulties or sounded

In a country where caste discrimination persists in all walks of life,
elimination and burning down Dalit houses are routine, and affirmative
action and social justice continue to be major policy debates, the
government, judiciary, community leaders, academics, corporations,
everyone, will benefit from some real numbers on the caste composition
of India; and not just sample surveys and guestimations. The current
lack of credible numbers will be solved with Census 2011. And most
importantly, the math that will come from the Census will dispel two
national myths.

Myth number 1:

The upper-caste population is huge. The fair, tall, vegetarian,
confident men and women of the priestly Brahmin, warrior Kshatriya and
trading Vaishya must be more in number than the dark, short, servile
Shudras and the Untouchables. The latter kind, Shudras and the
Untouchables, who subsisted on farming, cow-herding and manual labour,
whom historians such as Romila Thapar call the original inhabitants of
India until the Aryan invasion in 1,500 BCE, are still around as
Backward Castes (BCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes
(STs). But they're only a few and live afar, in the villages and
forests. This myth on the number will be broken with the caste census.
We will see the BCs, STs, and SCs forming the majority, somewhere in
the range of 70 percent of the population. It's just that this
population is still so servile, and invisible to the national
mainstream, that many mistake the visible as the majority. Now, the
invisible will make the majority.

Let's look at this popular misconception of visibility and
invisibility another way. If you're an Indian, or a foreigner who is
familiar with India, the chances of you recognising one or many
well-known personalities with the following surnames are plenty:
Mukherjee, Ganguly, Mishra, Sharma, Iyer, Murthy, Joshi, Rao,
Namboothiripad, Kamath, Haksar, Kaul, Goswamy, Tiwari, Vajpayee
(Brahmin); Rathore, Raju, Singh, Sisodia, Rana, Bedi, Jadeja, Tanwar,
Adhikari (Kshatriya); Mittal, Gupta, Singhal, Goyal, Patel, Khanna,
Kapur, Vohra, Shetty (Vaishya). In India's prevailing hierarchy of
social status, men and women with upper caste surnames, like the
above, generate an image of confi- dence, power, social dignity and
omnipresence among us— omnipresence, because they're everywhere from
politics to cricket; and even the educated and well-exposed make no
attempt not to use their caste names.

Juxtapose those names with the following surnames, or caste names,
that don't come so easy to our tongues, primarily because we don't
hear them in the national mainstream: Adi Karnataka, Shendurnikar,
Valluvan, Tirkey, Khakha, Adi Dravida, Paraiyar, Kaibarta, Namasudra
(SC); Santal, Paniya, Kurichiya, Oraon, Kumre, Naitam, Bedar, Bhumija,
Mala Araya, Bhil, Yerukala (ST); Kamati, Yadav, Maso, Ezhava, Jatab

The figures that will emerge from Census 2011 can't be very different
from those of 1931. When the British last counted caste, Brahmins
accounted for only 6.4 percent of the population, Rajputs 3.7 percent
and Banias 2.7 percent. The backward castes, excluding the Dalits and
tribal people, came to 43.7 percent. In 2011, as a block, the Shudras
and Untouchables could reach 70 percent of the Indian population.

However, the main difference between 1931 and 2011 is that the former
was carried out under the colonial government that had no
responsibility to fight social injustices, whereas now, the caste
figures will have Independent India's official stamp. Among other
things, we'll know the ratios of everything from Shudra-Brahmin
breakdowns of the population practicing open defecation to educational
qualification. These figures will give the lower caste communities a
more confident and aggressive claim on the share of development and
national wealth. And New Delhi will have to listen.

If he was alive today, Babasaheb Ambedkar would be happy hearing
Manmohan Singh's decision to count caste. In his classic work Who Were
the Shudras? (1946) Ambedkar lamented: "If people have no idea of the
magnitude of the problem (of the shudras) it is because they have not
cared to know what the population of the shudras is. Unfortunately,
the census does not show their population separately. But there is no
doubt that excluding the untouchables, the shudras form 75 to 80 per
cent of the population of Hindus."

Ambedkar's point was about the social, political and administrative
invisibility of the shudras, and how the majority Indians are
dominated by the minority upper castes. Even with the onset of BC
reservation in 1993, the community occupies only five percent of the
Central gazetted posts. The absence of Shudras and Untouchables in the
private sector is even more appalling. For instance, in the industry I
belong to, journalism, there was a survey in 2006 by the Centre for
the Study of Developing Societies that examined the social profile of
more than 300 senior journalists in 37 English and Hindi newspapers
and television channels in Delhi. The study found there was not a
single Scheduled Caste (SC) or Scheduled Tribe (ST) person in a senior
post. Brahmins alone, the survey found, held 49 per cent of the top
jobs in the national press.

Myth number 2:

The textbook description of India as a Hindu-majority nation (80
percent), with around 15 percent Muslims, two percent Christians, less
than two percent Sikhs, less than one percent Buddhists, Jains, etc.
This watertight religionbased classification will be challenged, when
cutting across religious lines, if people decide to identify
themselves more by their caste. In recent years, more and more people
are doing so. This is evident between two National Sample Surveys. In
2000, 40 percent of Hindus and 31 percent of Muslims described
themselves as BCs, and by 2005, these figures went up significantly,
with 45 percent of Hindus and 41 percent of Muslims describing
themselves as BCs.

What does this tell us? The construct of India as a Hindu majority
nation, where Islam and Christianity treat converts equally, could
suddenly become 'imagined claims,' and something very different could
emerge out of the census.

If the direction of societal movement is towards the diverse
Shudra-Untouchable communities forming intellectual, political and
social alliances, then the ancient age's battle of two philosophies
could surface once again. Then, the Brahminical camp's Vedanta,
Purva-mimamsa, Nyaya and Vaiseshika (more cosmic, ritualistic,
liturgical and hierarchical) philosophies had won over the
non-Brahminical camp's Sankhya, Jaina, Baudha and Charvak Lokayat
(more rationalistic, non-hierarchical and materialistic) ones. Looking
ahead, if an intellectual and political assertion gets further
developed based on the caste numbers and historic and sociological
facts, even the very idea of India, its classifications and
descriptions, could be challenged.

Two very assertive Yadav politicians, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam
Singh Yadav, get the credit of having influenced the Manmohan Singh
government towards caste enumeration. There are rumours that the
Yadavs cut a deal in which, in exchange they would support the
minority government to complete its remaining four years. With its
Bengali partner, Mamata Banerjee, of the Trinamool Congress,
threatening to withdraw support, the government needed an arrangement.
Whatever be the political barter, however, the time has come to count
caste. And Census 2011 will be historic, and will give everyone
talking points in the years to come.


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