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Census and caste: debating caste enumeration in Census 2011 June 11, 2010

Posted by southasiamasala in : Dash, Kamala Kanta, India , trackback

Kamala Kanta Dash

The Indian census is a decennial exercise started by the British colonial power in 1872.  It has been religiously followed ever since. The 2011 census, the 15th since the first and the 7th after independence, is touted to be the biggest ever in the history of mankind. This mammoth exercise will cover all 640 districts, 5,767 tehsils, 7,742 towns and more than six hundred thousand villages of the country. More than 2 million primary teachers have been trained to act as enumerators for this census. It  would count more than 1.2 billion people on their socio-economic characteristics including gender, religion, occupation and education. The debate about whether to include ‘caste’ in the 2011 census or not has divided the political and academic spectrum alike.

Collection of caste-based data was stopped after 1931 and independent India has been reluctant to collect such data, except in the case of  people in ‘Scheduled Caste’ (popularly known as Dalits) and ‘Scheduled Tribe’ (popularly known as Adiwasis) categories. However, the debate over the caste census has not ended. The search for a model is on. The incumbent government is a divided house, as also is the opposition party, the BJP. In the cabinet, P Chidambaram and Anand Sharma have shown their disagreements and reservations on the possibility of carrying out the caste enumeration, while other cabinet ministers like Jaipal Reddy, Veerappa Moily, Farooq Abdullah and A. Raja, have talked about the need to do so.  Those who oppose the caste census claim that the census is not an “ideal instrument” for a caste survey and favour the idea that another appropriate body, such as the Backward Commission, being entrusted with this responsibility. This argument can be seen in the pattern of political responses of the incumbent government, when they cite one reason or the other for not conducting the caste enumeration.

Caste enumeration has been opposed on the grounds of: 1) there is no universal and standard definition of ‘caste’ so it won’t be easy to enumerate; 2) the census enumerators are not qualified to do the difficult job as they are not trained ethnographers; and 3) the caste census will add fuel to the fire of an already divided society and contribute to the rise of vicious caste politics that runs contrary to the constitutional idea of an egalitarian society. To explain it further, arguments against the caste enumeration can be divided in to three broad categories, moral, pragmatic and technical. The moral argument stresses how caste as a category is in opposition to the realisation of an egalitarian society. The pragmatic argument raises the possibility of false reporting by people where they claim to be lower caste in order to gain the benefits of affirmative action. And the technical argument suggests the difficulty of covering the changing notion and complexity of the concept of caste in “a massive, one time and quick operation like census”. Professor Nagaraj believes that this complexity arises primarily because of the “fragmentation, localisation, fluidity and ambiguity of castes.” (For a detailed explanation of these concepts see ‘Caste and the Census’, Frontline).

Delhi University professor Satish Despande supports the caste census so that the age old tradition of discrimination can be first accepted so as to deal with it. (‘Count caste in this census to annihilate it’).  Surjit Bhalla criticizes the idea of a caste census by identifying the inherent contradiction that exists in the praxis of caste politics and cautions on its impact on the society and politics of India. (‘Dishonesty in Caste Census’).  In a similar line Rajinder Sachar, a former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court, is not in favour a caste census and terms it as an unnecessary exercise. He feels that there is “more authentic information from the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) and Backward Commission” and asks “why muddle it with caste census which, it is admitted by all, may suffer from lack of preparatory material and absence of proper verification? And also when this estimate would not be relied by the government for affirmative policies?”(‘Caste in Census 2011—Is it Necessary?’).

However, P S Krishnan, a senior policy advisor with experience of working for the Government of India on the OBC quotas in higher educational institutions and the backward Muslim quotas in Andhra Pradesh, feels that the debate over impossibility of caste enumeration is exaggerated. He has written to the Prime Minister, to the ruling Congress party and to the BJP. Though his letter portrays the high complexity of the caste system, he is confident that the task (of caste census) is manageable and has advised against any confusion and chaos. (http://www.indianexpress.com/news/caste-no-bar-clearing-the-air-on-census-2011/628726/0 )

Against this backdrop of heated debate, Bollywood superstar Mr. Amitabh Bachhan has blogged that he would put “Indian” when asked to mention his caste. He perhaps reflects the mood of the modern, urban, elite community who have been either largely uninformed about the plight of the oppressed or simply uncaring. Another movement in a similar vein has been launched, named the Meri Jaati Hindustani (My caste is Indian) movement. Mohammed Arif Khna (former union minister), J.C. Sharma (former Foreign Secretary) and Ved Pratap Vaidik (a noted political commentator) have come forward to popularise this movement with an ambition to reach at least 50 million people who would mention ‘Indian’ as their caste.

These well-meaning initiatives to argue against a caste census may be the reflection of their nationalistic and inclusive ideas, but to me it seems they have failed to recognise that the absence of a caste census in the last 60 years has not in any way helped India to be free of caste oppression and violence against the lower castes, as seen recently in Haryana, far less achieve a ‘casteless’ nation. It would suffice here to quote the Home Minster, who admitted that “caste is a reality” and “a divisive force”. Further, he added that “India is nowhere near to establish[ing] a casteless society.”

The caste census is long over due and its must be done so as to dissuade unhealthy caste politics based on rumours and fabricated statistics. The politics of caste has been played since independence and is gaining momentum over the last two decades. This development has mostly benefited a certain section within the lower castes, leaving a large number of them at the mercy of a hierarchical and casteist society.

The government must not run away citing incompetence of the census enumerators and other politically motivated grounds, but needs to devise a strategy to tackle this situation. Why not devise a mechanism and determine the exact number of people who are below the social hierarchy and desperately need government support? And it is irrelevant to engage in the debate whether to have caste census or not. The time is opportune to engage with the question of caste and its enumeration and prepare modalities of how to do it, when to do it, and who should do it. The state needs to seize this historic opportunity in order to establish a just social order – one in which it knows who needs what and ensures needs based delivery of benefits.

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