Greatest blunder

Caste Census

By Dr S. Saraswathi
(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar led a delegation of ten leaders from ruling and Opposition partiesto Prime Minister Narendra Modi to press for a caste-based census in the country– a demand repeated by many political parties and caste-based groups in many States. Bihar legislature has already passed a resolution twice (February 2019 and February 2020) infavour ofthe proposal.

As elections are duein theneighbouring State of Uttar Pradesh in 2022, the matter has acquired special meaning in the context ofYadav (OBC)-non-Yadav tusslefor capturing government. For both sides, the crucial OBC factoris linked with the numerical size of castes, official recognition of a caste as OBC, and assessment of the places occupied by the OBC and non-OBC in governance and public employment.

Demand for caste census has grown louder in many States after 127A (Amendment) Bill was passed in Parliament restoring the power ofStates to identify OBC.This was necessary as there can be nocentralised list of castes that are extremely heterogeneous. Even endogamy, once considered the major test of caste,is weakening by choice of people and changes in life pattern. However, nation-wide census seems to be the obvious choice of many for estimating the strength of each caste as if it is a simple task like sex-wise enumeration of population.

Government recognition of caste as the basic social factor classifying population as SC,ST, OBC, and Others to be taken into account in the Reservation Policy and many welfare schemes is at the bottom of this demand. All governments, judiciary, and government-appointed commissions assume that caste is the crucial determinant of backwardness though the Constitution only mentions “socially and educationally backward classes”.

The demand for caste census is made for several purposes. Starting with representation in public services and admission to educational courses openly through legislations and executive decisions, it has spread to private sector and political offices by natural extension.The fact that the present Cabinet at the Centre contains a good number of SCs, STs, and OBC is often mentioned as proof of its inclusiveness.

Though the partyhad ruled out caste census, some BJP leaderswere in the delegation led by Nitish.His leadership in the matter is acceptable to all parties in Bihar.

It is reported that some colleges in Assam are seeking information on caste and religion from applicants on online forms.In Tamil Nadu, champions of OBC are busy erasing caste identity in the names of literary celebrities. They have successfully erased caste titlesin road names givenin memory of great men and women though they were part of their identity.But, they want caste to remain intacttoclaim special privileges.

During the non-functioning winter session of Parliament, a demand for removing the ceiling of 50% for Reservation Policy was heard. Several political parties are clamouring for inclusion of caste enumeration in the census of 2021in the hope that the returns would show OBC as majority reduced to minority in positions of power and status.

Population classification is a tricky affair raising controversial issues. If the British rulers wanted more and more information aboutthepeoplethey ruled to help tighten their hold, post-independence politicians need information for a variety of purposes not excluding creating vote banks. But, our experiencein conducting caste census was not smooth. In any case, census enumeration in any country cannot be absolutely accurate because of its voluminous nature, particularly in abig country. If we recall our experience, we will surely shudder to take the route again.

Caste is said to be an endogamous group and therefore permanent. But, in reality, it is the sub-caste that is endogamous and this is also divided into sub-sects resulting in several thousands of groups. There is no possibility of conversion in the caste system. Within a caste, there are backward and non-backward sub-castes and sub-sects.

Enumeration of population by caste was first suggested in 1869 by the Madras Town Census and the first country-wide census conducted in 1871 carried it out. Caste classification was done according to traditional and hereditary occupations. The same method was followed in 1881 to enumerate all castes, sub-castes, and sub-sects. In 1891, traditional occupation again became the basis of caste classification ignoring economic, sociological differences. Anthropologists and ethnographers then had a big role in census operations while political parties are taking more and more interest after independence.

It was in 1901, a graded classification called “social precedence” was introduced thus beginning official notice of what was a social system.A government report then said that, “what was a main caste was by no means an easy question to answer …Castes and sub-castes were much confounded”. Today,120 years later, the confusion about caste and sub-caste has not lessened though the link between caste and occupation has declined.

The confusion must have grown due to inter-caste marriages, spread of education, migrations, occupational mobility,growth of several new occupations,and loosening of caste practices. In 1921, what is now known as “Scheduled Castes” made its first appearance under the label “Depressed Classes” and was done systematically in the next which is the latest country-wide caste census in 1931, in the context of political emergence of this class.

In conformity with the policy of Government of India to discourage and also remove wherever possible caste and community divisions in the interest of building national unity, the 1951 census – the first census after independence – gave up the traditional recording of caste or tribe. It was decided that “no enquiry regarding caste or tribe be made, but an enquiry should be made regarding caste or tribe only to the extent necessary for providing information relating to certain special groups of the people who are referred to in the Constitution of India”.

No doubt, caste census is a reminder of caste, a record of social distinctions and would encourage ideas for mergers, amalgamations and partitions as number has meaning in public life. Thinking in 1951 and 2021 thinking is very different.

An attempt to conduct Socio-Economic and Caste Census was undertaken in 2011. It had three components conducted by three different authorities under the over-all coordination bythe Department of Rural Development of the Government of India. Caste census was under the administrative control of the Ministry of Home Affairs, Registrar-Generaland Census Commissioner of India. The attempt was not successful and a huge task of rectifying lakhs and lakhs of errors is faced in all States. The number of errors cannot even be publicized. Do we want a repeat performance?

True, in the absence of caste census, estimates have to be made from different sources which widely differ. Mandal Commission estimated OBC population as 52% of the total, School Enrolment data as 45%, and 2007 NSSO Survey as 41%. Some political leaders in some States claim much higher proportion exceeding 60%.Even in States, estimates made bydifferent commissions are not uniform.

But, common man doesnot need caste census. He wants education, employment, and good living. For whom is it? Caste census will surely be thegreatest blunder of this century. — INFA