Caste Census

Critical exercise

Print edition : May 15, 2015

Chief Minister Siddaramaiah taking queries from enumerators of Karnataka's Social and Educational Survey in Bangalore on April 16. Photo: The Hindu

An enumerator at a residence at Siddapura in Bangalore on April 11, the first day of the State-wide caste census. Photo: K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

H. Kantaraju (second from right), Chairman of the Karnataka State Commission for Backward Classes, at a meeting in Gulbarga on March 7 to review the preparations made in the district for the survey in April. Photo: ARUN KULKARNI

The comprehensive survey under way in Karnataka, ostensibly to collect social and educational data, is also a political exercise as it seeks to enumerate caste and thus provide crucial data that can help political realignments of caste groups.

THE comprehensive house-to-house social and educational survey undertaken by the Karnataka government from April 11 assumes significance from the fact that it also seeks to record the respondents’ caste. Caste has not been included as a category in the decennial Census since 1931. Considering the fact that details about caste have not been gathered in Censuses and other surveys, the limited attention that the current exercise is getting is surprising. While the focus of the survey, which is expected to be completed on April 30, will be on gathering information about the social, economic, educational and political conditions of all residents of the State, questions about the respondent’s caste and sub-caste are also included in the questionnaire.

Apart from enumerating the exact number of people belonging to various castes, the exercise seeks to derive data pertaining to the socio-economic conditions of various communities. The Karnataka State Commission for Backward Classes (KSCBC) is conducting this mammoth exercise for which the State government has sanctioned Rs.185 crore, with the help of 125,000 enumerators with previous experience.

Reason for recording caste

The reason for the current exercise arises from the lack of data on the demographic profile of the Backward Classes (B.Cs). The State government provides 32 per cent reservation to B.Cs under various categories. If the 15 per cent reservation provided to members of the Scheduled Castes and the 3 per cent provided to members of the Scheduled Tribes are taken into account, the reservation ceiling of 50 per cent is reached.

The Siddaramaiah government has undertaken this bold exercise in the face of opposition from dominant caste groups. The Congress Chief Minister has been in favour of a caste survey since 2005 when he was Deputy Chief Minister in the Janata Dal (Secular) government.

Siddaramaiah belongs to the Kuruba caste, the fourth largest bloc in the State after the dominant Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities and Muslims. He was a long-time associate of former Chief Minister and Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda and followed him to the Janata Dal (Secular) when it was formed after the Janata Dal split in 1999. He had built a reputation for himself as a B.C. leader even before he was expelled from the party in 2005.

Siddaramaiah is associated with the consolidation of Ahinda, an acronym for minorities, B.Cs and Dalits. The support he enjoys among this agglomeration of backward communities in the State shows where he draws his political strength from. Siddaramaiah has assiduously cultivated this group ever since he joined the Congress in 2005 through his subsequent rise to power, first as the Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly during Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule and since 2013, as the Chief Minister.

So, Siddaramaiah’s support to the caste survey is not hard to understand as the results of such a survey will result in a reassessment of the overwhelming influence of the two dominant castes, Lingayats and Vokkaligas, in the State.

Estimates put the combined population of Lingayats (mainly influential in northern Karnataka) and Vokkaligas (mainly influential in the Old Mysore region or most of southern Karnataka) between 25 and 28 per cent of the State’s population, but their political representation at all levels far exceeds their demographic strength. For example, they account for more than 50 per cent of the members of the State Assembly. Several sub-castes among the Lingayat and Vokkaliga communities are also part of the B.C. list and benefit from reservation, and this population may need to be re-evaluated.

The powerful Veerashaiva Mahasabha (the main representative body of Lingayats) has come out strongly against the caste census and, interestingly, the organisation is a purely caste-oriented one: its many senior members have political affiliations across all the major parties in the State. Thus, a situation has arisen where senior Lingayat Congress MLAs are opposing their own Chief Minister. This is one of the reasons why the survey could not be carried out during the previous BJP government although all infrastructure was ready. The saffron party relies heavily on the support of Lingayats and forward castes in the State. Members of the Vokkaligara Sangha (the leading representative organisation of the Vokkaliga community) are also opposing the caste census although their opposition has not been as vociferous as that of Lingayats.

Demands in the past

Thus, the survey, whose ostensible intention is to collect social and educational data, is also a political exercise. Detailed caste-based data will lead to political realignments of caste groups and provide an impetus to the rising demands for a more equitable share of welfare and affirmative benefits provided by the government.

There is a provision in the survey for respondents to declare himself/herself an atheist. This is interesting because even the decennial Census does not have such a provision. There have been demands in the past to include caste as a category in the nationwide decennial Census, particularly in the years leading to the 2011 exercise, but these have not been heeded so far. A conference organised by the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy (CSSEIP) at the National Law School of India University (NLSIU) in 2010 brought together several academics and they argued for the inclusion of caste as a category in the Census.

Benefits of caste data

Participants at the conference included several senior political scientists such as Yogendra Yadav, Suhas Palshikar, Valerian Rodriguez, Sukhadeo Thorat and Satish Deshpande. The conference listed out several benefits of enumerating castes. It claimed, counter-intuitively, that it would move towards caste equality and a caste-free society as a thorough enumeration would help in ascertaining “how caste continues to affect the distribution of privilege and dis-privilege in our society”. It would also help in devising evidence-based social policy while creating greater democratisation of the Indian polity as caste data would “help to take steps for providing visibility and representation to communities and groups that have been invisible in the political arena until now”. Thus, the participants at the conference envisaged a deepening and widening of the democratic process while reshuffling the provision of benefits of affirmative action.

A common criticism against a caste-based census is that it will increase caste consciousness and further caste divisions. The participants at the conference disagreed with this assumption. In a summary note, they responded to this criticism by concluding that: “Except for a very tiny part of India’s population that may not be aware of their caste or community identity, everyone else knows the community they belong to. Census enumeration of caste, therefore, will have no significant impact on caste consciousness.”

There are several commonalities in the salient points made in this conference and in the thinking of the KSCBC. One of the crucial questions posed by the survey will be that of political representation. Question number 38 asks whether the respondent is a “people’s representative”. Once the survey responses are received, data crunching will clearly show how various castes and communities are represented at various levels in the political sphere.

H. Kantharaja, Chairman of the KSCBC, told Frontline: “Caste is one of the important criteria in adjudicating backwardness. Caste is a very relevant factor and we need to carry out an extensive survey of all the residents of Karnataka.” He said Article 15(4) and 16(4) of the Constitution of India provided for reservation for backward classes among the citizens. “My understanding is that to have a welfare society it is a constitutional compulsion to have a caste survey done to ensure social justice. If you take something like the Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act [1993], it provides for 27 per cent reservation for Backward Classes. How are we supposed to implement this if we don’t even know the exact number of backward classes in the State?” he asked.

The previous B.C. Commissions formed in the State had all argued for a thorough survey to ascertain the number and relative backwardness of these groups of people. The princely state of Mysore had set up a committee headed by Sir Leslie Miller which, in its recommendations in 1921, provided for 75 per cent reservation for the B.Cs. There have been 10 B.C. commissions since 1956, and all of those endorsed a detailed caste survey in order to ascertain the exact number of people belonging to the B.Cs so that the welfare benefits could be provided on the basis of demographic evidence. These commissions had used random sampling methods and the 1931 Census data to approximate a proportionate share of welfare benefits to the B.Cs.

Mobilisation of caste and communities

Historians have commented on how castes and communities were mobilised before the Census exercises in British India to assert their identities. Such an assertion is under way in Karnataka with various communities asking their members to use homogenous caste names along with their standard spelling in English and Kannada so that there is no confusion over caste names and their numbers. Various caste groups are openly consolidating members of their caste.

Caste associations have issued advertisements and press releases in the print media. They have been posting messages on social media sites and Whatsapp groups with instructions on what particular synonym of the caste name should be used for maximum consolidation. An advertisement by the Jaibheem Samajika Parivarthana Vedike (Jaibheem Social Transformation Forum), a representative forum of the Balagai (Right-Hand) Scheduled Castes, attracted a lot of attention for its clear instructions to its community members on how to identify themselves.

C.H. Dwarkanath, a former Chairman of the KSCBC, is actively working with the extremely marginalised and impoverished semi-nomadic tribes in the State, whose fundamental crisis is that of identity as members of the same communities are found in the S.Cs, S.Ts), Most Backward Classes (MBCs), Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and General categories. At a meeting conducted in Bangalore, representatives of 20 semi-nomadic tribes were invited to understand the relevance of the forthcoming survey and encouraged to take the message to their fellow members all over the State. “A detailed survey of castes is absolutely necessary to address backwardness,” he said. Such mobilisations are happening among the B.C., S.C. and S.T. communities and among the dominant castes.

In his work on the formation of the idea of nationalism, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson argues that the colonialists used the Census, the map and the museum to understand and rule over the colonised. Undoubtedly, these were three crucial institutions that helped in exercising power. Caste was a category incorporated in the Census by the British to understand the humungous social diversity of the people under their rule.

The historical anthropologist Nicholas Dirks makes an interesting argument in his seminal work “Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India”. He writes: “It was under the British that ‘caste’ became a single term capable of expressing, organising, and above all ‘systematising’ India’s diverse forms of social identity, community, and organisation.” This seems like a rather instrumental understanding of the historical nature of caste but some aspect of it seems to be happening as caste is being codified in a thorough manner for the first time since 1931. Synonyms of caste names are being identified and there is a consensus on what makes a person belong to a certain caste. This is an interesting sociological phenomenon that has been happening in Karnataka since the announcement of the caste survey.

It would be speculative at this stage to comment on the ramifications of this phenomenon. Will this exercise increase caste consciousness or will caste-based social and economic data help in providing affirmative action to deserving groups? What cannot be denied though is that caste, and the inherent inequality engendered within it, is an important building block of Indian society. Political understanding is premised on caste and community formations in India, and their overwhelming influence on electoral politics cannot be overstated.

Critics hark back to the fervent and often violent responses to the partial implementation of the recommendations of the B.P. Mandal Commission report in 1993 as they rail against the proposed survey.

It remains to be seen what societal and political churning the results of the survey will bring in its wake but this is a crucial moment in the modern history of Karnataka and, perhaps, for the rest of India as demands for similar surveys are raised across the country.

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