The caste factor
VIKHAR AHMED SAYEED
A conference on caste-based enumeration comes up with valid arguments
in support of the exercise.
DIGVIJAY SINGH, AICC general secretary, and D. Raja, CPI national
secretary, at the release of "Caste Census: Towards an Inclusive
India", in New Delhi on August 5.
THE inclusion of caste in Census 2011 has been a vexed question for
the polity. The uncertainty over the issue has now come to an end with
the Group of Ministers (GoM) on Caste Census giving its consent for
the exercise. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who led the GoM,
announced in the Lok Sabha on August 12 that only the modalities
remained to be sorted out.
In the past few months, caste-based enumeration has been the subject
of opinion columns of newspapers, talk shows on television and
discussions on the Internet. A conference on "Caste Census: Towards an
Inclusive India", held on July 23 at the Centre for the Study of
Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (CSSEIP) of the National Law
School of India University (NLSIU), Bangalore, provided another forum
to discuss the issue at length. The participants consisted of a
multidisciplinary academic group involved in research on caste and
Justice M.N. Rao, Chairperson of the National Commission for Backward
Classes; Dr M. Vijayanunni, former Registrar General and Census
Commissioner of India; Prof. Sukhdeo Thorat, Chairperson of the
University Grants Commission; and Prof. S. Japhet, Director, CSSEIP,
NLSIU, were among the distinguished personalities who participated in
the conference. The group generally was of the opinion that
caste-based enumeration was unavoidable in the Indian context.
However, in a letter to the GoM (published in the Opinion Column of
The Hindu dated August 14), the participants of the conference
objected to its recommendation to conduct caste enumeration at the
biometric data capture stage. Saying that outside agencies are likely
to be involved at this stage, they argued strongly that The Census of
India (or the Office of the Registrar General of India) "is the only
competent agency in the country with the necessary expertise and
experience to undertake this gigantic task".
History of caste census
The last time an Indian census included caste data was in 1931.
According to Vijayanunni, caste data were collected in 1941 as well,
but their tabulation was dropped as a money-saving measure during the
Second World War. Several historians have argued that the inclusion of
caste in the Indian census by the British was an anthropological
exercise to learn about the colonised. In his well-known book Imagined
Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism,
Benedict Anderson has said that the 'census', the 'map' and the
'museum' were ways in which the colonialists learnt about the
colonised. Some historians say that the manner in which caste and
religious data were collected rigidified the otherwise nebulous caste
and religious identities in South Asia.
The 1871 census (the first census exercise in British India) shows how
the colonial census operations categorised certain castes as superior,
intermediate, trading, pastoral, and so on (Memorandum on the Census
of British India 1871-72, page 21, available on the website of La
Trobe University). This clearly legitimised certain caste notions of
superiority and inferiority by the state itself.
Census 1901 reveals an interesting feature: a fall in the number of
'lower castes' compared with past censuses. This was because of a
severe famine in the 1890s. The census report states: "The diminution
in the lower groups is doubtless due to the excessive mortality of
1897 when the administration had to face, and admittedly failed to
solve, the difficult problem of forcing relief upon people who were
reluctant to accept it until they had been reduced to a state of
debility which could end only in death." This is an example of how
caste enumeration can be useful; the 1901 census helped identify which
castes were affected most severely by the famine.
Idea of a casteless society
When India became a republic and adopted its Constitution in 1950, it
was recognised that the nation needed to move towards a casteless
society. But the very fact of 'untouchability' being accepted as a
reality in the Constitution implied that caste was pervasive in
society. The issue came up for a vociferous debate in the Constituent
Assembly. Several members argued that untouchability could be
abolished only if the caste system was done away with.
Promatha Ranjan Thakur, a member of the Constituent Assembly from
Bengal, said on April 29, 1947: "I do not understand how you can
abolish untouchability without abolishing the very caste system.
Untouchability is nothing but the symptom of the disease, namely, the
caste system. It exists as a matter of caste system. I do not
understand how this, in its present form, can be allowed to stand in
the list of fundamental rights. I think the House should consider this
point seriously. Unless we can do away with the caste system
altogether there is no use tinkering with the problem of
untouchability superficially. I have nothing more to say. I hope the
House will consider my suggestion seriously" (Constituent Assembly
debates at http://parliamentofindia.nic.in).
Caste continues to be a pervasive marker of identity in Indian society
today, and there have been mixed opinions in the recent debate on
conducting a caste-based census. For instance, in a scathing piece in
India Today, the sociologist Dipankar Gupta wrote thus about the
demand for conducting a caste-based census: "Our democracy is
determined to show the world that whatever others can do, we can do
worse. If in this process, individual initiatives are killed,
standards lowered, and professional ethics compromised, there is no
cause for worry. We can still sink a lot lower."
AN ENUMERATOR COLLECTING details from a Maleykudia family at Kutlur
village in the Kudremukh National Park area in Karnataka
Caste and polity
There is a visible link between caste identity and political
affiliations in almost all parts of the country. The discipline of
psephology in India is dominated by the analysis of the 'caste'
factor, and its open usage in the media and public forums defeats the
noble idea enshrined in the Constitution. It may be argued that direct
elections and the growth of political parties have helped the growth
of caste consciousness. Over several decades it has also led to what
Christophe Jaffrelot calls, in his work India's Silent Revolution: The
Rise of the Lower Castes in North India, "a genuine democratisation of
India". He says "the social and economic effects of this 'silent
revolution' are bound to multiply in the years to come".
The participants of the conference made this point while arguing that
counting caste will help the nation move towards caste equality and a
caste-free society. They questioned the so-called 'nobility' of not
ascertaining castes leading to the utopian idea of a casteless
society. Said Satish Deshpande, a sociologist at Delhi University:
"Not counting caste has defeated the desire to transcend caste, and
the noble idea of 'caste blindness' should be rejected in favour of a
fresh beginning [of counting caste]." The participants also argued
that "enumerating all castes will allow us to examine whether – and
how – caste continues to affect the distribution of privilege and
disprivilege in our society. It is as important to track how caste
benefits some groups as it is to monitor how it disadvantages other
The strongest point in favour of conducting caste-based census was
that it would help devise an evidence-based social policy. As such,
there is a wide disparity in caste figures, particularly in the number
of Other Backward Classes (it varies from 40 to 52 per cent). The
implementation of several social policies benefiting particular castes
depends on knowing their exact numbers.
It is also true that policy discussions on caste-related issues are
handicapped by a lack of data. Caste-based census, its proponents say,
will generate a reliable and comprehensive database on "issues such as
interrelations between caste and socio-economic condition". This will
also help the judiciary on adjudicating on important measures such as
reservation of government and public sector jobs in States where
reservation has crossed the constitutionally mandated 50 per cent (as
in Tamil Nadu where reservation is 69 per cent). Caste-based census
will also give details on the differences in the socio-economic
conditions of various castes.
MEMBERS OF MERI Jat Hindustani during a demonstration against
caste-based census, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi on July 27.
Responding to the procedural difficulties that might entail the
incorporation of caste in the census, Vijayanunni said the Census
Commission of India was equipped to handle all the procedural and
methodological requirements. He said the issue of including new castes
in the Scheduled Castes list had come up for consideration in the
1990s, but the census establishment did not want to take up the
responsibility because of several factors, including the fact that the
Social Justice Ministry is the nodal ministry to deal with the subject
On the stand taken by some people to involve other organisations in
identifying castes, he said the Census Commission of India was "the
only competent agency that can be expected to undertake the all-India
data collection and tabulation exercise required for caste data. The
Social Justice and the Tribal Affairs Ministries, though dealing with
the subject of castes and tribes, do not have the infrastructure,
experience or organisational base to undertake this task, and that is
why collection, tabulation and dissemination of Schedule
Caste-Schedule Tribe [S.C./S.T.] data has been undertaken by the
census all these years."
He also said that the proper time for the collection of caste data was
the population enumeration phase of the census, from February 9 to 28,
2011, and not during the biometric data capture for the National
Population Register. Dismissing doubts about the methodological
hurdles in collecting caste information one by one, Vijayanunni said
the census could be used to collect data for all castes without
confining the data collection exercise to OBCs alone.
The competence of the enumerator to decide whether a person belongs to
the S.C., the S.T., the OBC, or any other category was a contentious
point in the debate.
In fact, a few castes are categorised differently in different States.
The delegates concurred that the enumerator was not the competent
authority to make this distinction and that he or she should enter the
given caste name in the designated column on caste without raising any
objections or argument. The process of verification/classification was
to be done later by census officials, they said.
The participants also agreed that a National Task Force or advisory
group can assist with the identification and consolidation of caste
data (as was done with religion and caste returns for S.C./S.T. groups
in past censuses).
Sceptics say that in a caste-based census, there is the possibility of
upper castes misreporting their caste and claiming to belong to
backward castes or of backward castes inflating their numbers for
political and material benefits. However, the delegates said that
caste being a public identity, it would be difficult for a person to
make spurious claims about one's caste. What they chose to ignore,
however, is that while caste may be a public identity, the process of
collecting census data is a private activity and not one conducted in
Minorities and caste identities
The question of minorities and their caste identities also came up for
discussion. The sociologist Imtiaz Ahmed, whose pioneering work
demonstrated the pervasive consciousness of caste among Muslims,
feared that religious minorities would not be enumerated as having a
caste, thus immediately denying them entry into any category on the
basis of caste. His fears may be valid, but in several States
communities of Muslims (some even in their entirety) are included in
the lists of OBCs or S.Cs.
The conference did not address how caste enumeration will lead to a
casteless society when the proposed caste-based census is already
being pejoratively referred to as Mandal-II. The political upheaval
that such a clear delineation of caste figures would lead to was also
The participants dismissed the criticism that caste-based census would
lead to an increase in caste consciousness or that it will further
caste divisions. Except for a tiny minority, they said, everyone was
aware of his or her caste identity.
The proceedings of the conference were released as a book in New Delhi
on August 5 by Digvijay Singh, general secretary of the All India
Congress Committee, and M. Veerappa Moily, Union Minister for Law and
Justice. The book serves as a useful primer on the issue of
incorporating caste as a category in the census.
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