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The caste factor

Print edition : Sep 10, 2010 T+T-

A conference on caste-based enumeration comes up with valid arguments in support of the exercise.

in Bangalore

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 public policy.

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 https://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.

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 groups.

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.

Procedural difficulties

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 of caste.

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.

Competent authority

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 public.

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 not addressed.

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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