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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 24, June 5, 2010

Relevance of the Caste-based Census

Critics of the caste-based census overlook deeper connotations of caste as a system

Thursday 10 June 2010, by Dilip Chavan

India is gearing up its decennial census now. The present opposition to the caste-based census has a long lineage. G.S. Ghurye, one of the pioneers of Indian Sociology, had, way back in 1932, criticised the colonial practice of the caste-based census and the consequent politicisation of caste. He also attributed the origin of caste-based reservation to this politicisation and recorded his disapproval to the idea of caste-based reservation.

Caste in India is increasingly seen as an obscure doing of the British. Recent scholarship on postcolonialism shows that the institution of caste, as we know it today, is largely a modern and specifically colonial invention. Some have pointed out how the fluid precolonial boundaries of caste and community were fixed and made rigid in certain ways in the colonial period. The colonial state employed diverse strategies like the census, enumeration, classification, codifi-cation and documentation to reinvent and substantiate caste.

Many such scholars disregard the fact that caste had been a very material system of production in precolonial India. Castes were the building blocks of social structure in the precolonial Indian subcontinent. What colonialists did was not to invent caste. However, by collaborating with the upper sections of the Indian society, they conveniently used the precolonial caste structure by means of strategic negotiation. Colonial capitalism had a tendency, as capitalism had world over, to readily adapt to and collaborate with the pre-capitalist socio-cultural formation. This adaptation of caste should not be seen as its creation.
Following the argument raised by the postcolonial school, the present-day nationalists argue that caste-based enumeration was a colonial design aiming at disintegrating the unity of Indian society. Here, it is naïvely assumed that nation is not an imagined community and a homogeneous society existed in India before the colonial invasion.

If counting caste was necessary for its perpetuation, it is equally necessary for its eradication. As Ghanshyam Shah has argued, there is no grand path to attend the objective of the annihilation of caste. The annihilation of caste calls for a systematically and impartially generated empirical data of all the castes and tribes—without justifying or glorifying them.

In view of the multiplicity and complexity of the caste scenario, some scholars have suggested a decentralised approach to caste enumeration. The assumption behind the decentralised approach overlooks the fact that caste, despite the regional variations, has a national character and it should be seen always as a national fallout. Decentralising the enumeration of caste would dangerously mean leaving it to the vagaries of the State governments. We should not forget that the more provincial a government is, the more it is likely to be rooted in and imbued with caste prejudice.

It would be a commission of hypocrisy and self-deception if we believe that the fabric of caste has disintegrated and caste has remained just incidental to Indian society. Caste, as a system, has continued to reproduce itself through endogamy. The commonly accepted view that inter-caste marriages are widespread in India is hardly sustainable. At present, we do not have any authentic data to substantiate such a claim. Such a belief obscures the fact that intra-caste marriages are the rule and inter-caste marriages are only the exception. The high incidence of honour killings and brutal violence in cases of inter-caste marriages should not be overlooked. Even metropolitan cities like Mumbai have not escaped this intolerance. Insistence on the same caste bride/bridegroom in the millions of matrimonial advertisements is a testimony to the fact that intra-caste weddings are widespread in India.

It would be too naïve to assume that the inclusion of caste as an essential criterion of census would increase casteism. This reminds us of the popular logical fallacy that removal of the mention of caste from the caste certificate will curb casteism. It should be borne in mind that casteism has continued to haunt the Indian polity and civil society despite the fact that nearly eight decades have passed since the caste-based census was suspended. Moreover, can we afford to assume that sex-based census enhances gender discrimination and language as a parameter adds to linguistic strife?

AS we do not support poverty or economic inequality by enumerating people according to their income, and gender discrimination by enumerating them according to their sex, we do not help increase casteism by merely counting caste. Instead, by not counting them, we will be depriving the victims of caste from assessing their own deprivation and underdeveopment.

In the absence of caste as a parameter, financial income remains the only significant criterion of gauging the individual’s position in society. What lies behind such a take is that it is class and not caste that is the basis of Indian back-wardness. In the heyday of the Mandal strife, the Indian Communists, while opposing caste as the basis of reservation, had also demanded, like their Rightist counterparts, that poverty and low levels of living standards rather than caste as the criteria for identifying backwardness. The supporters of this view overlook that fact that economic backwardness in India is essentially an outcome of the caste system. Class relationship has been implanted on caste relationship and hence there is a kind of parallelism between the erstwhile caste order and the present-day caste-class order. There are innumerable studies, which show that the working class has been characterised by caste. The most exploited and lowest paid labour required for the factories, agriculture, sanitation, continues to be provided by the lowest ranks of the caste order, the dalits and the adivasis. And the educated elites are predominantly drawn from the upper castes.

It has been experienced several times that the unavailability of data on caste has hindered the process of welfarism. Many a time the Supreme Court of India and several State governments have expressed their inability regarding decision-making due to want of authentic data on caste. Many backward classes commissions, including the historic National Commission of Backward Classes established in 1953, have recorded the need for caste-based data for the effective imple-mentation of the reservation policy. Neither the advocates nor the opponents of the reservation policy in India have any reliable statistical data on caste.

Many senior census officials, pointing at the complexities involved in head-count, have frequently argued: “The census is overloaded. Over five million tables are generated and analysed even without caste enumeration.” This pretext is hardly sustainable. Given the phenomenal development in the field of information technology, castewise counting in India is not a problem at all. New technology potentially allows us to manage enormous data without any technical flaw. The Census Commissioner has already decided to use new techniques like thumb reader. In order to count caste, what we only have to do is to customise the software by adding a couple of parameters of caste. Moreover, let us put it simply: China deploys seven million people for the national census; why can’t we?

The opponents of the caste-based census are least concerned about developing scholarship on the relationship between caste and under-development. Such an illiberal and callous attitude of the academicians and politicians indicates that they are non-committal to any fundamental social change in Indian society. By not making systematic attempts of documenting and studying the caste scenario through the census, the Indian state is usurping from the oppressed the liberal democratic space that they have earned through their struggle. Such a nation may end up with caste-civil-war and not attaining the status of a ‘superpower’ that the Indian elite so eagerly longs for!

The author teaches English at SRTM University, Nanded.

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