Caste is an intrinsic part of Indian society across religions. A person’s name tells a lot about their social, political and economic location in society. To understand the structure and composition of Indian society and politics, understanding caste is imperative. A caste census was proposed after the release of the Mandal Commission report. Since then, it has been the subject of hot debates before the commencement of every census.
A history of the Caste Census
The first census in India commenced in 1872, and caste used to be included in the census. Caste seems to be the only way the British could make sense of Indian society. The last census with caste data happened in 1931 because the second world war disrupted the next census of 1941, and the census of 1951 started in Independent India. Our leaders chose to avoid caste as a category lest it divides the population.
The caste data of the scheduled tribes and the scheduled castes were included because of the constitutional necessities. Still, when the Mandal commission had to study the other backward castes, they had to rely on the data of 1931, which was obsolete by now. The share of OBCs in the population, being 52%, comes from the data of 1931. It also included the count from present-day Pakistan and Bangladesh. Here lies the demand for a proper caste census that would reveal the caste-based demography and help form welfare policies.
In 2010, the UPA government conceded to the recurring demands but separated caste enumeration from the census. Today that report is known as Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC). The current government put the report aside as unreliable, bringing the debate over the caste census back into the room. From the present Bihar CM Nitish Kumar to former Bihar CM Jatin Ram Manjhi, even the constitutional body NCBC has urged for a caste census, and several states have passed resolutions supporting it. But the current government has excluded caste from this decade’s census citing the overwhelming impracticality of the exercise as the reason.
The Caste and the Census
We can begin talking about caste census by first putting ‘caste’ and ‘census’ into the frame. Satish Deshpande and Mary E John give three distinct models of a census. First of all, the census can be used as an instrument for making welfare programs more efficient and effective. The second model frames census as a tool to create ‘compulsory identities’, which can fix the fluid identities of people. Considering this framework, a caste census would hinder making a universal Indian citizen. As per the third model, a census can be approached as a vast research project to produce the truth about the categories of people it enumerates. The fourth model is used to form a ‘collective self-portrait’ of a nation. Like a map that defines a nation’s territory, the census gives form to its community.
Deshpande and John also provide different models for perceiving caste. The first model takes about how the word caste denotes the ‘lower caste’, just like gender implies women, and race would mean non-whites. Here, discussing caste would mean discussing the concerns of the lower caste. Another model, anthropological in nature, considers caste as a complex institution meant to bring order to everyday life. The third way to look at caste is ‘as a web of distributional relations that determines the distribution of power, privilege and material resources in conjunction with class’ (Deshpande & John, 2010). This model makes caste relational, meaning that caste is practised only in relation to other castes. The fourth perspective on caste is that it hinders achieving modernity.
This debate starts with the constructivists who believe that the caste census would construct rigid caste identities. Anthropologist Bernard Cohn believes that the colonial census played a significant role in the identity formation in south Asia. Scholars like Anderson, Kaviraj and Appadurai agree that ‘modern politicised identities in India found their definite geographical and social boundaries through census enumeration initiated during British rule’ (Bhagat, 2007).
Satish Deshpande categorises three strands of arguments given by the opponents of the caste census, the technical, the pragmatic and the moral argument. The technical argument is that caste identities are ‘polyvalent’. The same person can identify with different castes depending on the situation. This will make the categorisation complex and incomprehensible. The pragmatic consideration is that the census being a statutory exercise, will legitimise the caste identities and create social tension and deep social division. Lastly, the moral issue is that the census will not just reflect but will start creating reality. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta argues, it will impose ‘compulsory identities’ on people.
As a counter to these arguments, Deshpande and John believe that the debate should begin by putting out the harm that the absence of a caste census has done to the ambition of annihilating caste. Countering the technical argument, they say that the luxury of being unaware of or confused about one’s caste is only available to the upper caste urban elite. A typical Indian will not be confused about their caste identity. Moreover, the respondent should be seen as a subject capable of knowing and telling about their caste. Moreover, technological advancement has made it feasible to carry out such a complex exercise.
Professor Upendra Baxi forms the pragmatic argument as the political argument or the argument of fears. The fear that the caste census data will be abused or misused for partition politics. But he follows this will the question- how different will caste politics become from today’s caste-based politics when caste is not ‘Censused’? Isn’t caste already the basis of fierce politics of Ethnoclientism? (Baxi, 2010)
They also write that opponents should not just ask ‘if we would be worse off with the caste census’ but ‘if we are better off without it’. Moreover, we need to differentiate between censorship and abolition. If we want to progress, we need data to trace that progress. Hiding the reality of caste would not solve our problem; we need to get rid of caste blindness and accept the reality if we want to abolish caste discrimination.
Revival of the Mandal Politics?
It is not the first time that the demand for the caste census has come to the forefront. Since 2001, every census began with the demand for a caste census. The census of 2021, which was postponed due to Covid-19, will start soon; hence as the norm, it is preceded by the same demand and antagonism from the opponents.
On the ground, both sides see it as the revival of Mandal Politics. The favour or hostility depends upon where the person got situated after the power politics that the first Mandal era gave platform. According to political scientistAshwani Kumar, ‘if Mandal was about a battle for job reservation in the 1990s and the reservation in college admission in 2008 was dubbed Mandal II, then this demand for caste-based census or lifting the cap on 50% reservation heralds the onset of Mandal III — a much complex and transformative phase of ‘consociational’ settlements in Indian democracy (Kumar, 2021).
The caste census would help us in a healthy debate over the reservation. But most importantly, it will give us data about the number of people at the margins, the kind of occupations they pursue and their hold on the public institutions. Moreover, a caste census should enumerate all the castes and not just the ‘policy targets’ because caste is not just a source of oppression but is also a source of privilege for many. Moreover, impoverishment can be across the vertical hierarchy of castes. Hence, the census with data integrity would debunk many myths.
Prof. Upendra Baxi puts the caste census as a complex and contradictory affair. Not just an ‘affair of expediency’ as seen by its opponent and not just a ‘realistic Utopia’ imagined by its proponent. It will not be a beautiful affair and might bring up short-term problems, but the ultimate democratic dividend is high.