A costly digression

Print edition : September 12, 1998

The proposal to include caste in the "millennium census" is ill-conceived.

IF H. H. Risley politicised caste in relation to census in British India, the celebration of the centenary of this event by the Advanis and the Malkanis of the Bharatiya Janata Party through what the Census Commissioner has pompously called the "millennium census" may push India into the 21st century as a new-fangled caste society.

Risley was not the first in British India to do what he did; but the dramatis personae in the BJP will be the first in independent India to do what they may. Understanding the real import of this is understanding the nexus between caste and colonialism, caste and the Constitution, and of course, caste and the "millennium census".

The colonial construction of caste, which preceded the long saga of decennial censuses in British India, was the working out of several intricate processes of gathering, processing, and using materials on Indian society, which at the ideational and pragmatic levels were functional imperatives of the colonial administration. These processes involved the British concern for creating an overarching administrative machinery reflecting the established structures of the country, and for incorporating into its colonial framework the traditionally well-entrenched, and from its viewpoint, strategically placed, social groups, as its compradors, the related policies and politics of patronage, concessions, conciliations, counterpoises, and so on.

These processes had a direct bearing on the decennial censuses conducted by the British, and reinforced the nexus between caste and colonialism, reflecting what has often been characterised as the British passion for labels and pigeonholes.

"The castes were entered," wrote W. R. Cornish in his report on the 1871 Census in Madras Presidency, "in the order in which native authorities are pretty generally agreed of their relative importance." The fallacies and fallout of the use of caste and its classifications, that is, the grouping or arrangement of the various castes for administrative, political, and social purposes, in successive censuses from 1871-72 to 1931, are still debated. However, as Ghurye (1979: 278) mentioned, "this procedure reached its culmination in the Census of 1901 under the guidance of Sir Herbert Risley of ethnographic fame."

Among those highly critical of what Risley did was Hutton (1986: 433), Commissioner of the 1931 Census:

"All subsequent census officers in India must have cursed the day when it occurred to Sir Herbert Risley, no doubt in order to test his admirable theory of the relative nasal index, to attempt to draw up a list of castes according to their rank in society. He failed, but the results of his attempt are almost as troublesome as if he had succeeded, for every census gives rise to a pestiferous deluge of representations, accompanied by highly problematical histories, asking for recognition of some alleged fact or hypothesis of which the census as a department is not legally competent to judge and of which its recognition, if accorded, would be socially valueless. Moreover, as often as not, direct action is requested against the corresponding hypotheses of other castes. For the caste that desires to improve its social position seems to regard the natural attempts of others to go up with it as an infringement of its own prerogative; its standing is in fact to be attained by standing upon others rather than with them."

Among others, Ghurye (1979: 279) dwelt at length on Risley's caste ranking in the heat of the controversy itself:

"It is difficult to see any valid public reason for this elaborate treatment of caste in the Census Report... The conclusion is unavoidable that the intellectual curiosity of some of the early officials is mostly responsible for the treatment of caste given to it in the Census, which has become progressively elaborate in each successive Census since 1872. The total result has been a livening up of the caste-spirit."

Elaborating this "livening up", Ghurye (1979: 278) observed:

"Various ambitious castes quickly perceived the chances of raising their status. They invited conferences of their members, and formed councils to take steps to see that their status was recorded in the way they thought was honourable to them. Other castes that could not but resent this "stealthy" procedure to advance, equally eagerly began to controvert their claims. Thus a campaign of mutual recrimination was set afoot."

This "livening up", as implicit in Ghurye's statement, was also mobility within the caste system as elaborated by M. N. Srinivas (1970: 18):

"The decennial census, introduced by the British, recorded caste, and it unwittingly came to the aid of social mobility.Prosperous low castes, and even those which were not prosperous, sought to call themselves by new and high-sounding Sanskrit names. Getting the names recorded in the census was part of the struggle to achieve a higher status than before."

Going by K. S. Singh's Foreword to the 1986 reprint of Hutton's report, in the 1931 Census, 175 claims to higher rank were registered, out of which 80 were to Kshatriya status, 33 to Brahmin, and 15 to Vaisya in the four census regions (United Provinces, Bengal and Sikkim, Bihar and Orissa, and Central Provinces and Berar). There were similar claims in the rest of the country as well, many of them since the 1871 Census itself.

Thus, the claims in Madras Presidency to the status of Brahmins by the Kammalas alias Kamasalas, and the Patnulkar, of Kshatriyas by the Vanniyar, Nadar, and some of the Balijas, and of Vaisyas by the Komatis, and some of the Vellalar.

The British policies and politics of patronage and counterpoise and the use of caste in censuses introduced a strong caste idiom into the fast emerging bargaining culture among the socially assertive, aspiring, and upwardly mobile castes, and strengthened the nexus between caste and colonialism. Seen from this perspective, the use of caste in censuses under the British dispensation was seen in the affirmative by several castes. In fact, they waited eagerly for each census to stake their claims for higher and more respectable ranks. However, "there was revulsion at the unseemly scramble to use census listings to upgrade caste status and to inflate numbers for political advantage. (Galanter 1984: 260). Stated differently, the use of caste in censuses was also seen as socially divisive and hence undesirable, especially by the nationalists since the early 20th century, and there were protests against it. On the protests in general Hutton (1986: 430) wrote:

"As on the occasion of each successive census since 1901, a certain amount of criticism had been directed at the census for taking any note at all of the fact of caste. It has been alleged that the mere act of labelling persons as belonging to a caste tends to perpetuate the system and on this excuse a campaign against any record of caste was attempted in 1931 by those who objected to any such returns being made."

When, for reasons evident from his criticism of Risley, Hutton (1986: 433) wrote that "an abandonment of the return of caste would be viewed with relief by census officers" and "this question is one which it will only be possible to determine when time comes," little would he have realised that the Census under his guidance was the last to include caste. In fact, that Census itself saw the "contraction of caste sorting", the first breach in the tradition of recording faithfully all castes returned. Owing to retrenchment necessities, the scope of this in regard to the coverage of caste was restricted, and it enumerated only a dozen or so of selected castes of wide distribution. The 1941 Census, the last to be conducted by the British, was constrained by the War-time economies, and did not tabulate any data except the basic population totals and community totals.

As "abandonment of caste enumeration seemed a step toward the deestablishment of caste" (Galanter 1984: 260), after India attained independence, enumeration of caste in censuses was dispensed with, as part of national policy, since 1951.

"In one respect ... a departure from precedent was clearly stipulated from the outset. The 1951 Census was not to concern itself with questions regarding races, castes and tribes - except insofar as the necessary statistical material relating to "special groups" was to be published and certain other material relating to backward classes collected and made over to the Backward Classes Commission. (Census of India, 1951, Vol. 1, India, Part 1A, Pp. x.)"

The special groups were primarily the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, the data regarding whose numbers was essential to ensure their representation in Parliament and legislatures as required by the Constitution. While the enumeration of these groups has continued without break, as Galanter pointed out (1984), the data on backward classes collected as part of the 1951 Census were not fully tabulated and were never published.

INDIA has had five decennial censuses since 1951. None of them has collected caste data despite demands for it, especially from the first All-India Backward Classes (Kaka Kalelkar) Commission appointed in 1953. In its "Summary of Conclusions and Recommendations", the report of this Commission (Government of India 1955: 159) suggested the following:

"Before the disease of caste is destroyed all facts about it have to be noted and classified in a scientific manner as in a clinical record. To this end we suggest that the 1961 Census be remodelled and reorganised so as to secure the required information... If possible, Census should be carried out in 1957 instead of in 1961."

Seen against the Centre's consistent stand of five decades that reflects its abiding concern for preventing caste from coming into play in the public sphere, and the fact that "caste enumeration would aggravate caste consciousness and undermine modernisation has remained the received view" (Galanter 1984: 260), the BJP's proposal to use caste in the next Census is ill-conceived for at least eight reasons.

One, the policy of dispensing with caste was in keeping with the new social order envisaged by the Constitution, as evident from various related writings, especially by Galanter (1968: 299):

"It is a commonplace that the Constitution of India envisages a new order with regard to both the place of caste in Indian life and the role of law in regulating it. There is a clear commitment to eliminate inequality of status and invidious treatment, and to have a society in which the government takes minimal account of ascriptive ties."

In his speech of November 25, 1949 on his motion for the adoption of the Constitution, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Constitution, observed (Rao 1968, IV: 945):

"I am of opinion that in believing that we are a nation, we are cherishing a great delusion. How can people divided into several thousands of castes be a nation? ... These castes are anti-national: in the first place because they bring about separation in social life. They are anti-national also because they generate jealousy and antipathy between caste and caste. But we must overcome all these difficulties if we wish to become a nation in reality. For fraternity can be a fact only when there is a nation. Without fraternity, equality and liberty will be no deeper than coats of paint."

The concern of the framers of the Constitution for ushering in a casteless society is evident from the treatment of caste in the Constitution. Galanter (1968: 325-26) has brought this out clearly:

While there are guarantees to preserve the integrity of religious and linguistic groups, there is none for the caste group. It would not seem to enjoy any constitutional protection as such. This silence may represent an anticipation that caste will wither away and have no important place in the new India, or it may represent an implicit ratification of the old policy of non-interference.

There is a desire to minimise the impact of caste groupings in public life. The government has discouraged the use of caste as a means of legal identification. Appeals to caste loyalty in electoral campaigning are forbidden. Promotion of enmity between castes is a serious criminal offence.

Apart from explicit restrictions on caste discrimination, there is a tendency to discourage any arrangements which promote the coherence and integrity of the caste groups as such."

The judicial interpretations of the Constitution have also been too liberal and optimistic: the Constitution has completely obliterated the caste system; reference to caste in Articles 15(2) and 16(2) is only to obliterate it; prohibition on the ground of caste is total; the mandate is that never again in this country caste shall raise its head, and so run these interpretations, as evident from the Supreme Court's judgments of November 16, 1992 on the two notifications relating to the partial implementation of the Mandal Commission's recommendations.

Two, "the caste enumeration and the census recording of social precedence was perceived as a device of colonial domination, designed to undermine as well as to disprove Indian nationhood." (Galanter 1984: 260). Even if the BJP has a "hidden agenda" of introducing its own version of imperialism, the so-called "Hindu imperialism", the changes in the caste system since the early 20th century will make it impossible to do so by means of using caste.

Briefly, starting from the late 19th century, colonial rule accelerated the processes at work in the interaction between society, the economy, and the polity. These processes included the interface between British rule and local society; expansion of the economic frontier; emergence of new professions which were not ascriptive or prescribed by caste; and urban growth. They helped the historically disabled and disprivileged bottom groups gain at least some access to society's opportunity structure from which they were excluded through a series of "social closures"; led to new forms of caste solidarity; and the transition of caste from an "organic" system to a "segmentary" one, that is, from a structure to a juxtaposition of substances; spread of social movements, some of which gave a certain militancy to their anti-caste thrust, while some others which sought to nestle under the caste system through efforts to move up in its hierarchy, also weakened caste, at least insofar as they affected Brahmins, by sapping their prestige and depriving them of their dominance in administration; the broad-basing of the nationalist movement, which provided the much-needed socio-political basis for the articulation of the rights of the bottom groups of society, though importantly enough it was also "subversive" of the caste system.

Enumeration work in Bangalore during the 1991 Census.-T.L. PRABHAKAR

The change in the caste system over the last 100 years or so and the shift in emphasis from religious factors to politics in matters relating to caste make the collection of caste data through census is a costly digression into the irrelevant and irrational.

Three, the BJP's plea that the implementation of the Mandal Commission's recommendations has made enumeration on the basis of caste imperative is disingenuous. For much of the data for this purpose was collected by this Commission itself, and the commissions appointed by the Centre and the States at the instance of the Supreme Court are expected to correct the lapses, if any, in the OBCs' lists prepared by it, by deciding on complaints of exclusion and/or over-inclusion of castes and communities.

Four, the need for population figures of the OBCs for their political representation in Parliament and the legislatures, as claimed by the present Census Commissioner, is both presumptuous and preposterous, inasmuch as the Constitution does not envisage such representation; nor has there been any enabling by Parliament.

Five, assuming that collection of caste data is still relevant, this task is bound to be vitiated by vote-bank and reservation politics, which may inflate population figures and suppress or distort vital information such as that on education, employment and economic status.

Six, India's compensatory policy is probably the most important of its social policies to be so deeply embedded in its political rhetoric. M. N. Srinivas said (1970: 15, 75) in the 1950s that with the introduction of adult franchise and constitutional safeguards to the backward sections of the population, especially the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, caste has got a new lease of life. This is being said now with greater vehemence mainly because of the increasing importance of this policy.

As social discrimination is the essence of the caste system of which the bulk of Indians have been victims, it is only to be expected that this policy, aimed at helping such victims, should also lead to much populist rhetoric, and have a close nexus with caste constituencies which are its principal claimants and beneficiaries, and vote-bank politics. So the clamour for inclusion in the lists of the beneficiary groups, the scramble for cornering the benefits, and the abuse of this policy as well as its actual, aspiring, and potential beneficiary groups for political gains will only intensify with the passage of time, unless of course the implementation of this policy is closely monitored by the administration and the judiciary.

What happened in Tamil Nadu during 1988-89 should be an eye-opener. Following are some observations made in a write-up (Radhakrishnan 1989: 506) prepared before the DMK Ministry assumed office in 1989:

"The vociferous claims and counter-claims of just a few of the communities in Tamil Nadu about their numerical strength give the impression that this "model State" of family planning is now in the throes of a massive population explosion.

The 1981 Census estimated the State's population at 4.8 crores with the S.C.s, S.T.s, Muslims, and Christians alone accounting for about 1.5 crores (30 per cent). But if these claims are any indication, the State now has more than two crore Vanniyars, 2 crore Thevars, 1.5 crore Vellalars, 1.5 crore Kongu Vellala Gounders, more than 75 lakh Senai Thalaivars, 65 lakh Kammas, 65 lakh Muslims, 35 lakh Reddys, 20 lakh Arya Vysyas, plus, of course, the population of 300 and odd other communities which have not yet made a parade of their prowess in numerical terms."

These hyperboles were for nestling under the State's much hackneyed OBCs' list for cornering more and more of its much coveted reservation benefits, through agitations, threats, violence, and what have you:

"The Vanniyar Sangam, the most aggrieved of all the caste organisations in the State, has been struggling for over a year now for reservation of 20 per cent jobs and educational admissions in the State and 2 per cent jobs in the Centre for Vanniyars. Less ingenuous are the demands of some of the supposedly "forward" castes: of the Federation of Vellalar Associations for 35 per cent and 5 per cent reservations (in the State and Centre respectively) for the Vellalars; of the Thuluva Vellalar Sangam for 30 per cent and 3 per cent for the Thuluva Vellalars; of the Kongu Vellala Gounders Peravai (Federation) for 25 per cent and 2.5 per cent for the Kongu Velala Gounders: of the Vysya Mahasabha for 10 per cent and 1 per cent for the Arya Vysyas; of the Kamma Mahajana Sangam for 15 per cent (in the State alone) for the Kammas; and of the Reddy Welfare Association for an appropriate percentage for all the 24 Reddy sub-sects depending on the Government's assessment of their number. Among the runners-up for exclusive reservations in the State alone are the Thevar Peravai for 30 per cent (along with S.T. status) for the Thevar or the Agamudayar-Kallar-Maravar combine of castes; the Mutharayar Sangam for 25 per cent for the Mutharayars; the Nadar Mahajana Sangam for 20 per cent (along with SC benefits) for the Nadars; and the Yadava Mahasabha for 10 per cent for the Yadavas." (ibid.)

Virtually all the above castes and communities, and quite a few others for that matter, whose claims and counter-claims during British rule were for moving up in the traditional caste hierarchy, have persisted with their claims about their numerical strength and for exclusive or increased reservation even after 1989.

If the various caste groups sought mobility within the caste system by inventing "copper plates", "palm-leaf writings" and so on to clinch their claims in the past, assuming that quite a few of them are still backward, others have been inventing numerical strength, poverty, backwardness, and other relevant factors for claiming the benefits of the compensatory policy. So inclusion of caste in the census is bound to be potentially explosive, an invitation to further chaotic proliferation of caste and communal organisations, further realignment of castes for forming what has been called the "horizontal stretch" to ensure numerical strength for political mobilisation and articulation, and intensification of competitive communalism centring around caste. The effects of these and related developments on caste as an institution, compensatory policy, census and electoral politics, can be unsavoury and detrimental to pursuing the constitutional commitment to secularism, egalitarianism and a casteless society.

Seven, the decennial Indian census is a massive undertaking even without the inclusion of caste data in it. If the Census Department cannot complete the data collected on S.Cs and S.Ts, even as late as 1998, that is, nearly a decade after its collection in the 1991 Census, that too with enormous manpower and computer technology at its command, it is inconceivable that it will process in the foreseeable future additional data which will be at least three times more than the data on the S.C.s and S.T.s. So, apart from politicising the census and vitiating the enumeration on caste and communal considerations, inclusion of caste data in the census is not likely to serve any useful purpose.

Eight, the BJP catapulted itself to political limelight by its attack of the V. P. Singh Government for its decision to implement the Mandal Commission's recommendations, on the ground that it will encourage casteism and caste-based social divisions. Seen against this, and the rabid concept of Hindutva of the Sangh Parivar, as a group known for its forced homogenisation, procrustean postures and predilections, there ought to be some sinister design if the BJP suddenly proposes the use of caste in the census on the pretext of helping the OBCs.

OPPOSING the use of caste in the census should not be construed as opposing the compensatory policy. In this sense, the argument in a section of the press that if we have caste-based reservations we cannot escape from caste-based census is inane; for after the Supreme Court's rulings in the so-called Mandal case, reservation is not caste-based in the real sense of the term, as once the creamy layer is excluded as directed by the judiciary, the unit for consideration is not caste per se, but individual members of specified social groups, which may be castes or corresponding sections of other religious communities; and implicit in such elimination is the gradual phasing out of the compensatory policy. It is one thing to have reservation and the relevant data for it through commissions appointed by the judiciary; it is quite another to inject the caste virus into the census, ignoring with impunity a well-conceived social policy that has been pursued for 50 years.

Stating that caste is the greatest Indian mystery known to modern writers, Vincent Smith (1919: 33-41) wrote in his 1918 critique of the report of the Indian Constitutional Reforms:

"The caste of an Indian is not to him a matter of insignia to be worn or doffed at pleasure. It is bone of his bone and flesh of flesh... Prophecies or hopes of the weakening or disappearance of caste within a measurable period are futile. So long as Hindus continue to be Hindus, caste cannot be destroyed or even materially modified."

That Smith's observations have been prophetic is stating the obvious; and like the proverbial cat with nine lives, caste may continue to be on the prowl with or without its inclusion in the census. What is implicit in caste is social division, which militates against social integration. While caste may continue to be fundamental to Indian life, and the most convenient category for political mobilisation, the state as the upholder and defender of the constitutional values ought to ensure that it does what is expected of it by the Constitution because institutions cannot be changed without changing their underlying values. It would have been impossible to abolish caste as an institution, which has survived for about 3,000 years, by legislation and at a stroke. So, as a testimony to constitutional pragmatism, the mandate was to ignore it in public life, make its socially inequitous, outrageous, stigmatic, and seemingly discriminatory aspects illegal, and allow it to have a natural, albeit slow, death. The inclusion of caste in the census will not serve this purpose.

P. Radhakrishnan is Professor of Sociology at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

Galanter, Marc. 1984. Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes in India. New Delhi: OUP. Galanter, Marc. 1968. "Changing Legal Conceptions of Caste". In Milton Singer and Bernard S. Cohn ed., Structure and Change in Indian Society. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Company. Ghurye, G.S. 1979 (first published 1932). Caste and Race in India. Bombay: Popular Prakashan. Hutton, J.H. 1986 (first published 1933). Census of India, 1931, Vol. 1. Delhi: Gian Publishing House. Government of India. 1955. Report of the Backward Classes Commission, Vol. 1. Radhakrishnan, P. 1989. "Tamil Nadu Backward Classes", Bulletin, Madras Development Seminar Series (MIDS Bulletin), Vol. XIX, No. 10, October. Rao, Shiva B. 1968. The Framing of Indian Constitution: A Study. New Delhi: The Indian Institute of Public Administration. Smith, Vincent A. 1919. Indian Constitutional Reform Viewed in the Light of History. London: OUP. Srinivas, M.N. 1970 (first published 1962). Caste in Modern India and Other Essays. Bombay: Asia Publishing House.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor