Abstract: The proposal to reintroduce caste as a category in the 2011 census sparked off considerable discussion among sociologists, anthropologists and others. This paper attempts to analyze the pros and cons of the idea to reintroduce the variable of caste, a distinctive social institution of India.
This objective is achieved by focusing on the process of caste enumeration in colonial India, the subsequent decision to exclude the caste enumeration in censuses and the proposal that had hinted at fresh enumeration. The implications of caste enumeration or excluding such a variable from the census to the society are also discussed. _____________________________________________________________________ Introduction The proposal to reintroduce caste in the 2001 census was floated in 1998 by the Registrar General of India, almost half a century after the idea had been abandoned.
That proposal was later discarded but it sparked off a considerable debate around the subject. A plethora of issues notwithstanding, the sensitive subject of the caste-based census was brought up once again by some prominent political parties at the centre. The demand for the restoration or resumption of a caste based census in 2011 came from none other than some Cabinet members in the present government. However, the process of caste-wise census may not be undertaken now but there have been reports that such an exercise could be underway from June to September 2011.
Rationale A caste based census refers to introduction of the caste category in the census form, wherein the citizens of India specify their caste, thereby enabling the government to approximate the number of people in each caste. Caste enumeration was carried on from 1871 but only after Risley’s ranking of castes based on the ‘native opinion on social precedence’ in the 1901 census, did people realize the importance of census categories and mobilization around the census increased with the objective of social, economic and political advancement.
Hundreds of dispersed castes and sub-castes grouped themselves into caste associations demanding increased material benefits and higher caste rankings. By 1931, the census had become an instrument of assigning identities to the Indian population and groups appeared which, even then, encouraged people to respond negatively to the question of caste. Post-independence Census Act of 1948 did not include the category of caste except for the castes and tribes included in state schedules for affirmative or remedial action.
However, today, one of the major demands for a caste census is an outcome of the difficulties entailed by the Backward Classes Commissions which lack data to carry on their task of identifying lists of backward classes for their respective states. Such lists are a prerequisite to the implementation of reservations in jobs and educational institutions and the various welfare schemes. The Chairman of the First Backward Classes Commission identified backward classes by caste.
Apart from conducting their own sample surveys, obtaining data from educational institutions and government offices, the Commissions still fall back upon the 1931 census data to draw up new lists of OBCs, to admit new castes into the OBC category and also to graduate the advanced castes out of the existing OBC category. It is argued that the Caste based census, wherein the enumerators will inquire into the caste of those belonging to the Other Backward Classes, will enable more equitable distribution of the reservation benefits among the severely under-represented and underprivileged sub-groups.
It will be possible to keep the creamy layers out with the help of quota-within-the-quota system devised from caste based census data. Further the Planning Commission Report 2008 and the National Commission for Notified, De-notified, Nomadic and Semi-Nomadic Tribes also called for OBC Census. Drawbacks Opponents of caste enumeration argue that such an exercise is a retrogressive step and would only lead to fresh mobilization, counter mobilization and further consolidation of caste identities. Vote-banks and reservation politics would vitiate the quality of data given the fluidity of the category.
The caste opponents further add that caste enumeration will only perpetuate and transform caste identities. Thus, divisive caste identities, conflicts and violence will be intensified, castes legitimated and perpetuated and casteism increased. There are thousands of cases filed in courts wherein the different caste communities are seeking to downgrade themselves to avail of the reservation benefits. Some have argued against the feasibility of obtaining caste based data given the multiplicity of names with hundreds of synonyms and often based on sects, sub-castes, occupations, etc.
Costs incurred, energy consumed and money spent would make available seemingly scientific but, in reality, spurious data. Any attempt to reintroduce caste is viewed by the non-supporters of caste based census as abominable in a country oriented towards a casteless society. The caste census will be counter-productive and only solidify and reify not dissolve caste identities. State involvement is another reason for the strong opposition to a caste-inclusive census as the state substantializes fluid identities and categories.
Still others oppose the caste-based census fearing that the voluminous caste data generated would be difficult to be processed, tabulated and published, before it becomes obsolete. Advantages Caste being undeniably an important variable in contemporary India its enumeration will enable Indians to obtain an excellent demographic picture of caste communities. In fact, public awareness and opinion can be created through a caste based census regarding the systematic lack of facilities for the underprivileged groups.
It has the potential to highlight the rampant inequalities, mobilize the public and challenge the status quo and eliminate caste relegating it to the dustbin of history. Caste based census supporters claim usefulness of the caste census in planning, especially the development of the backward groups. According to the supporters of the caste census the state needs data on Other Backward Classes so that, with correct figures available to them, the government may be able to plan appropriate welfare measures and implement developmental schemes to eradicate backwardness.
As pointed out earlier, reservations are available for the Other Backward Classes and census data will enable identification of the deserving individuals for the benefits of reservation. As no solid statistical data is available as of now, caste based census will help gather information on the complex structure of social inequality. Only such data can lead to the formulation of effective policies which can eventually eradicate caste. The age-old tradition of discrimination has to be first accepted and counted, to then annihilate it.
Caste is a reality in India not a myth and no one can be harmed in collecting data as is done on other variables like sex, gender or work. It is to be noted that the demand for the caste based census is true of both political parties and social organisation supporting backward castes. Further, till date post-Independent India has counted Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes without any divisive consequences. On the other hand, if such data is obtained for the Other Backward Classes, the planner will be able to target the communities and concentrate on the development of these marginalized groups.
One must accept that caste based census will generate a relatively more reliable database on interrelationship between caste and socio-economic conditions. In fact the census provides the authoritative and detailed information on caste collected by the state, a relatively neutral agency and helps combat the fanciful projections of vested interests. One must understand that census or no census, caste has remained in India and caste based census will only help bridge the social divide existing among the citizens of India, The Way Out
Data on religion, languages are still collected, despite the many occurrences of religious and linguistic tensions in many parts of the country. Likewise, a caste-inclusive census is a social imperative which social scientists must pay attention to and give up their reluctance to collect data on caste if they want to be effective enough in their efforts towards building an egalitarian society. The polemics for and against caste based census notwithstanding, much will depend on the strategies devised to actually carry on the caste enumeration and the way it is used. A judicious mix of statistically conservative measures (such as limiting aggregation to the state level) and more innovative strategies (such as greater emphasis on area- specific processing of caste data based on the existing information base) could help maximize the utility of the data’ (Deshpande 1998). Also steps need to be taken to maintain the integrity of the enumeration. But having highlighted the divergent opinions on the inclusion of caste in the census the subject needs to be looked at comprehensively.
No decision on parochial political basis is acceptable, as any short sighted approach could very well become detrimental to the interests of the nation. The debate must go on as only educated and well-informed deliberations will throw up some creative ways of dealing with this dilemma. References Bhagat, Ram, B. ‘Census and Caste Enumeration: British Legacy and Contemporary Practice in India’, Genus, LXII (2): 119-134. Deshpande, Satish and Nandini Sundar. 1998. Caste and the Census: Implications for Society and the Social Sciences’ Economic and Political Weekly, (August 5), pp. 2157-2159. Deshpande, Satish, 1998. ‘Caste and the Census’, Symposium on Indian Census and Social Reality at XV All India Conference of the ISS, AMU, Aligarh, 17-19. Sundar, Nandini. 2000. ‘Caste as Census Category: Implications to Sociology’, Current Sociology, July 2000, Vol. 48 (3): 111-126 Teltumbde, Anand. 2010. ‘Counting Castes: Advantage the Ruling Castes’, Economic and Political Weekly, (July 10),Vol. XLV (28): 10-11.