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HVK Archives: Caste-based census will compound past blunders

Caste-based census will compound past blunders - The Times of India

Ghanshyam Shah ()
May 22, 1998

Title: Caste-based census will compound past blunders
Author: Ghanshyam Shah
Publication: The Times of India
Date: May 22, 1998

Caste in India cannot be wished away. At the same time, the dream
of a casteless social order cannot be given up. Efforts should be
made to weaken the caste structure based on pollution and purity,
and the oppression experienced by those who have - been at the
bottom of the caste hierarchy. There is no grand path to attain
the objective. This calls for understanding of caste its
changing nature - without justifying the system.

The proposed census of caste and collation of information under
the categories created by experts, as done by colonial rulers in
the past, would hardly enhance our understanding of caste. Nor
will it facilitate in weakening the caste system. Nor again will
it help the oppressed castes to expand their material and
political base. However, I am not arguing that by not enumerating
caste, it will get weakened.

Enumeration of jati i.e. caste has been discontinued in post-
independent India. Nonetheless, the census does enumerate
scheduled castes and tribes (SCs and STs) since 1951. The list
of SCs and STs has been promulgated by the President of India on
the basis of representations, reports and studies. Earlier
censuses and the consequent socio-political processes that went
along with them, have certainly contributed in identification of

There is ambiguity as to why the government now wants to
introduce a caste category in the forthcoming census of 2001. Has
the demand for caste enumeration come from census users, namely,
administrators, social scientists, political leaders, or other
cross-sections of society?

We may assume five principal reasons behind the move. One, the
Backward Classes Commission has asked for the caste enumeration
to identify the OBCs. Two, the ministry of welfare favours the
proposal to facilitate and monitor implementation of welfare
programmes for the OBCs.

Three, it is suggested that since reservation for women is on the
agenda, a caste census would help towards this end. Four,
political parties have demanded such enumeration. Five, argue
that since the next census would be in 2001, scholars interested
in ethnographic data feel that it is good to have a caste census,
which is an important social category, once in a millennium.

Each objective requires different methods of collection and
classification of information. The present census,
notwithstanding technological advancements, is not equipped to
meet these diverse objectives.

Though the literature on jati is large, so far there is no
precise definition of caste which can help a quantitative study.
A definition encompassing different marks and boundaries of the
numerous jatis among Hindus and non-Hindus in different parts of
the country is a sine qua non for census enumeration.

Caste is not an "objective" measurable category like occupation,
age, sex, education etc. It is to some extent a "subjective"
category related with identity and perceptions which change from
time to time. That is the reason different censuses during the
pre-independence period did not provide uniform data on caste.

Today, the definition of caste for an individual varies from
context to context.

For instance, in south Gujarat one is a Matiya when one meets
acquaintances within the village. The same person calls himself a
Koli at the taluka level. And he identifies himself as a
Kshatriya at the state level. Even at the village level one
identifies with these categories interchangeably depending upon
the purpose.

It is also possible for two brothers to report different caste
labels for themselves. One may call himself a Matiya and another
report himself as a Kshatriya. As a result the former gets
classified in the backward category and the latter in the upper
caste category.

Today, caste carries at least four simultaneous identities.
First, it plays a role in day-to-day social relationships for the
purpose of roti-beti vayavahar. Second, caste signifies one's
status in relation to purity and pollution. Third, identity of
caste is for the purpose of demanding reservation benefits.
Fourth, there is the political definition of caste. Which version
of caste would the census propose to enumerate?

Some years back the Anthropological Survey of India (ASI) under
the "People of India" project carried out several
"anthropological" studies of castes. Though its reports provide a
broad picture, the overall information and analysis of caste is
far from satisfactory Anthropologists involved in the study faced
innumerable difficulties relating to definitions of castes,
differences between caste and sub-caste, caste organisations etc.
The ASI tried to quantify the data not because it was valuable,
but because it was there. A census of the castes will have the
same fate.

Assuming that the census does manage to formulate a working
definition of caste, then one would end up enumerating several
thousand castes in most of the states. The census would not
publish a listing of the castes.

Such a list would be meaningless for policy and administrative
purposes. Would the census officials who are not trained
sociologists be in a position to collate the data? In the past,
they would end up putting different castes under a single rubric.
The state will thus create categories which have not existed so

Once such categories are created, they will in course of time
emerge as "facts". Such generation of "facts" has dangerous
implications for the future as shown in the past. Do we learn
>from history or repeat the blunders of the colonial state?

Further, there is no uniform definition of the Other Backward
Classes across the states. The Constitution under Articles 15
(4), 16 (4), 46 and 340 refers to "socially and educationally
backward classes" or "backward class citizens".

Though in practice "class" has been used by the State as well as
the judiciary to be synonymous with "caste", there is no agreed
criteria, however, as to whether a social group as a whole ought
to be considered socially, economically and educationally
backward, or only a part of its population be categorised as
backward. And if the latter, in what proportion?

A homogeneity test has not yet been agreed upon by the various
OBC commissions. Moreover, it is difficult to define social
backwardness without eliciting information on customs and rituals
and social status in caste hierarchy.

The Baxi Commission in Gujarat, under the guidance of an eminent
sociologist, carried out an extensive survey to find out the
"socially and educationally" backward castes in the mid-

In their findings, the sociologists found that the data collected
was not helpful in identifying OBCS. If the government aims at
using the census data on the basis of the social and economic
backwardness for identifying the OBCS, then it will meet the same
fate as that of earlier exercises.

Nonetheless, the problems faced by the ministry of welfare are
genuine. The State on the one hand has accepted reservation for
the OBCs who have been identified by various commissions. Such
identifications usually have a political flavour.

After all, reservation has become a political issue. Therefore,
survey data is needed to monitor welfare programmes for these
castes. The census is not equipped to collect meaningful data for
all castes for inclusion and exclusion from the OBCs list.

For that, other mechanisms will have to be evolved as in the case
of SCs/STs. However, if the caste census along with the
introduction of caste on identity cards is after all carried out,
it would not only be waste of resources but will not prove useful
to administrators in formulating policies.

It will also have a disastrous impact on the dalit and the
Bahujan movement as it will further intensify the internal
conflicts within them.

(Ghanshyam Shah is a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru
University, New Delhi.)

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