'Caste inclusion in census will be a disaster'
June 29, 2010 13:55 IST
Professor P Radhakrishnan is a social scientist of repute and an
expert on caste and reservation in India [ Images ]. He was with the
Madras Institute of Development Studies till recently. In this
interview with Shobha Warrier he talks about the dangers of including
caste in the census.
Caste is a reality in India. Political parties are formed on caste.
Reservation is based on caste. What more harm can the inclusion of
caste in the census cause to the society?
No doubt, caste is a reality in India. But in many places it is not
the same reality as it existed traditionally. As an institution that
has survived for about 3,000 years, caste has undergone many changes.
There were many agitations too against the caste system as it is
intrinsically divisive, discriminatory, and oppressive. The Indian
Constitution was framed against the background of the full knowledge
of the persistence of this evil allowing it to gradually wither away
or have a natural death. As a result, the traditional caste has, to a
large extent, been driven underground over the years after India
became a secular democratic republic.
If caste is included in the census, it will come back venomously with
the vengeance of its suppression for about 60 years, which will be a
Caste was in the public domain during the British administration
mainly because of its divide and rule policy and partly because of its
patronage politics. India's independence brought about a major policy
shift in the State's approach to caste. That is evident from the
Reservation at present is based on data collected years ago. So, won't
a caste-based census help identify those in need of reservation?
The general perception that reservation should be caste-based and
castes are entitled to reservation is fallacious. From the perspective
of the Constitution, and of related Indian jurisprudence till
recently, reservation should not actually be caste-based -- except in
the case of Scheduled Castes -- though for purposes of identifying
backwardness caste groups and corresponding groups in non-Hindu
religious communities are subjected to the backwardness tests.
How will the government then proceed with reservations?
The government can do it in at least two ways: By following the
constitutional provisions for the purpose (Article 340); and by
evolving neutral criteria which might have existed as negative
attributes of the traditional caste system whose persistence, as I
said earlier, may be disabling, discriminatory and debilitating to
individuals from certain castes and communities.
In fact, each state has plenty of rich data on social backwardness. If
the states are not willing to process and publish these data it is for
fear that the creamy layers which now gobble up the benefits of
reservation will be affected and the benefits will go to the really
Why did the British think of stopping caste-based census after 1931?
It became an unwanted burden on the officials to collect enormous data
on hundreds of castes at exorbitant cost to the government. The
British also realised that caste-based census did more harm than good
as the data collected was not reliable, and the census reports caused
a lot caste-spite and encouraged 'caste patriotism'.
As a sociologist, do you think with economic development, social
development will follow?
It will, if there is proper distributive justice. Even in the absence
of the desired distributive justice, if you look at the profile of
individuals, you will see that social development is already
happening, though rather slowly.
Caste has come into the forefront with more vigour now with each
political party using caste and reservation to garner votes. Do you
hold politicians responsible for the current situation?
By the time the Constitution came into being, every caste group had
become aware of the importance of caste and numbers in a democracy.
India was the only country in the world that introduced universal
adult franchise at one go. More than two-thirds of the population was
illiterate at that time. At the time of elections, different groups of
cognate castes came together, formed what may be called a 'horizontal
stretch' and started exercising their numerical power. So, despite
illiteracy adult franchise gave a new lease of life to caste groups.
In 1953, the first backward commission -- the Kaka [ Images ] Kalelkar
commission -- was appointed. The commission submitted its report in
1956. At the last minute, the chairman of the commission himself felt
that the recommendations of the commission would go against the well
being and future of the nation; and wrote as much in his forwarding
letter. The government saw wisdom in his letter. Prime Minister Pandit
Jawaharlal Nehru [ Images ] and Home Minister Sardar Patel were
vehemently opposed to have anything to do with caste in any state
policy other than in the case of the Scheduled Castes.
After considerable debate at the Centre, the government wrote to all
state governments that while they were free to introduce reservation
preferably using economic criteria, the Centre was not acting on the
recommendations of the report. Then the states started appointing
backward class commissions and introducing reservations. This led to
violent caste clashes in states like Bihar and Gujarat.
What is envisaged in the Constitution is not caste-based reservation
as such but ameliorative measures for the advancement of individuals
from traditional caste groups who continued to be victims of the
persistence of the traditional disabling, discriminatory and
debilitating attributes of the caste system. Obviously the problem,
the reality was too complex to perceive, let alone address.
But the reality has been made different by politicians. Have they not
used reservation for vote bank politics?
Caste-based reservation came handy for vote bank politics; and
politicians have been mobilising various caste groups using
reservation as a rallying point. In the process of mobilising caste
groups, they make promises. Caste groups also demand many things,
caste-backwardness became a convenient tool in the context of
reservations and nobody is willing to look into the reality.
Caste gained a new impetus after Prime Minister V P Singh [ Images ]
played the Mandal card, apparently for political gains.
What will the United Progressive Alliance [ Images ] government gain
by introducing caste in the census other than appeasing some political
It is not the government alone that is accountable. Here, the role of
judiciary is crucial. If the reservation issue has been derailed over
the years, become messy and politicised, it is primarily because of
the judiciary. The response of the judiciary has been one of
knee-jerk, particularly after the Supreme Court rulings of November
16, 1992, in the Mandal case, which I thought were pragmatic.
If caste was excluded from the census since 1951 it was obviously for
well-conceived policy reasons. These reasons are available in
different documents of the home ministry. It is deplorable that
neither the judiciary nor the home ministry has shown any historical
sensitivity to the 'caste-in-the-census' conundrum. In fact, the home
ministry should have come out with a white paper on the whole issue
from 1951 to 1991 covering the views of Nehru, Patel, Indira Gandhi [
Images ], Rajiv Gandhi [ Images ], and so on.
If you have closely follow the caste-in-the-census debate what you see
is the Yadav trio holding the nation to ransom, stating that if caste
is not included in the census the UPA ministry will collapse.
So do you think the Group of Ministers' decision on the caste census
is yet another cat-and-mouse game in Indian politics?
My 'gut-level' assessment is that there will be no caste census. Phase
1 of the census is already in progress. Though the Group of Ministers
reportedly decided to have caste enumeration in the second phase of
the census along with UID (Unique Identification) number project that
may not happen. The government is under pressure to stop this project
as there are apprehensions that the data collected can be misused.
That apart, the project cannot be a one-time affair; it has to be a
continuous process. If the fate of the voter ID cards project is any
indication, the UID project may be a non-starter; and even if data
collection is possible the data can transmogrify India's demographic
characteristics. Let us admit that we are way behind e-governance, and
India is not Infosys [ Get Quote ].
Shobha Warrier in Chennai
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