Caste Census: The Conundrum of Counting Caste
With the decennial census at our doorstep, the demand for a 'Caste census' has also intensified. Let us analyse the historical trajectory, the pros, and the cons of a caste-based enumeration.
Image Credits: DNA India
The Telangana state assembly recently adopted a unanimous resolution, becoming the fifth state to seek for a caste census as part of the general census of 2021. It is the latest episode in a recurrent demand raised by major regional parties and even BJP allies like the Janata Dal (United) and Apna Dal, urging the Union government to conduct a national caste based enumeration. The clamour over a complete caste census resurged now when the Centre submitted an affidavit on September 23rd in Supreme Court in response to the petition filed by Maharashtra government asking Social Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011 raw caste data and gathering of information on Backward Class of Citizens (BCC) in the upcoming Census. In the affidavit, the Union Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment clearly stated that a caste-wise enumeration other than that of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes “would not be feasible” and it has been given up as a matter of policy since independence.
Caste Census in the Pre-Independence Period
The synchronous decennial Census of India, world’s largest enumeration exercise, was begun in 1881 by the British as a means of comprehending the complex social realities of Indian society to better administer the erstwhile colony. The British undertook this arduous task in order to identify and classify the Indian population on the basis of caste from the very first Census itself. Some scholars even claim that ‘caste’, as conceived in contemporary academic writings or within the policies of the State, is a new idea produced because of the census operations of the British and cannot be equated with either varna or jāti. The origins of this notion lie in Bernard Cohn’s work on the role of census in codifying jāti and on the role of Brahmin native informants in shaping the British imagination of Hinduism. The colonial caste census carried on till 1931, brought in the idea of numbers as a critical variable in the local imaginations of caste communities and helped depressed classes to emphasize the need for affirmative action. Counting caste in the census was discontinued by the British with the 1941 Census, citing financial constraints because of World War II. After independence, the full-scale caste census was given up and limited only to the enumeration of SCs and STs.
Arguments For The Caste Census
The demand for a caste census is not something new; it always resurfaces at the juncture of a new census. When the First Backward Classes Commission submitted its report in March 1955, it suggested undertaking a caste-wise enumeration of the population in the census of 1961. Following the implementation of the Mandal Commission’s recommendation of 27% reservation for OBCs, the claim for a caste census intensified, as there was no proper statistical data to determine the exact number of Backward Classes and their share of resources. The supporters of caste census argue that it provides a concrete source of information on social and economic discrimination in society and will help the Governments to formulate policies for inclusive development. It is also crucial considering that courts always ask for ‘quantifiable data’ to support the current levels of reservation.
Social Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011
The Social Economic and Caste Census (SECC) 2011 was the first major exercise after 1931 in which the caste of every Indian was asked. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA II) government commissioned SECC along with the 2011 census due to constant pressure from different political parties and leaders. As it was not conducted under Census of India Act 1948, the information disclosure was voluntary for citizens and not mandatory. Though the union government revealed data collected on poverty and deprivation, the caste part of SECC was never brought out referring to the flaws in it. The data's shortcomings stem primarily from the fact that no caste registry was prepared prior to the 2011 caste census. As a result, enumerators made mistakes, spelling the same caste in multiple ways and messing up caste with sub castes and clan (gotra).
Arguments Against The Caste Census
The Union government has ruled out conducting a Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) this year along with the general census stating that a caste based enumeration is “administratively difficult and cumbersome”. It points out logistical and technical complexities involved in accurate calculation of castes, given that the SECC-2011 showed 46 lakh different castes at the national level, whereas the total number of castes as per the last caste census of 1931 was only 4,147. Moreover, the government at the centre and different state governments have separate and varied OBC lists unlike the uniform SC/ST list. The Office of the Registrar General was quoted during a parliamentary debate on caste census that adding an additional question of caste can jeopardise the whole exercise of census itself as the preparatory works for a census begins three to four years earlier. Apart from these operational hindrances, the government stresses on the policy decision taken after independence not to count caste as it may give wrong messages regarding its purpose. Organisations like RSS oppose caste census saying it will divide Hindu community on the basis of caste and fear that political parties committed to the politics of social justice (with their base in particular social groups) will gain from it.
Different empirical analyses, reports and sample surveys have shown growing disparity between social classes of Indian population and its resonance with caste divisions. Thus, moving ahead with a caste blind approach will only help in cementing substantial privileges and dis-privileges associated with caste identity. The lack of solid data covering the dynamics of a caste ridden society is an impediment to initiate equity measures and it is unfortunate that the existing affirmative policies are based on age old statistics and assumptions. The allegations such as a caste census will promote casteism and affect the unity of society are equally redundant like the claims of caste being a ‘British construct’ born out of colonial census operations. But, the administrative and logistical complications linked with data collection should be addressed. The counting of caste though necessary not necessarily be included in haste with a pandemic-hit, already-delayed general census. Instead, it can be an independent exercise invested with sufficient time, preparations and advanced technology aiming at reducing structural inequalities rather than electoral benefits.
By Muhammad Luqman (Guest Writer)
Muhammad Luqman is a Second year Political Science undergraduate student at Hindu College. He is a person of multiple contradictions who sometimes speaks like a shrewd outspoken politician or acts like a calm mystic Sufi. He loves quizzing, public speaking, and wandering here and there. Sometimes he can be seen teaching children. He will talk about anything and loves to listen to anyone so long as he is offered a plate of Biryani and a cup of coffee.