When the current population census in India for 2011 got underway, I was really sad that it did not include information on caste. India has been recording the data on SC/STs but not on OBCs. The last census on OBCs was done in 1931 by the British.
Indians have tumultuous relationship with caste. While caste continues to dominate one’s life, decide one’s food habits, select one’s spouse, and determine one’s access to education and opportunity, the elite and modern Indians do not like to discuss about it. Though it is a dominant identity, sometimes more dominant than religion or sex, that determines the fate of an individual in nearly 75% of India, most of us living in cities like to believe that caste is a shameful identity of the archaic past.
In reality, one cannot escape caste so easily even in cities. Though there are Tamils, Telugus and Malayalee in my apartment complex, close family relationships are maintained along casteist lines. So how did these people discover other’s caste? They do so by many means, by one’s food habits, one’s last names, and sometimes through the maids who seem to be the conduit for such information disclosing the caste of other families to the curious minds.
While we are quite OK to gather official information on language, religion, and sex, why are we reluctant to gather information on caste, especially when the socio-economic status of an individual has such strong correlation with one’s caste, more so than with any other identity? When caste is such an important identity why shy away from collecting scientific data on castes in India?
During the recent Mandal Commission debate, people were lost on what is the exact percentage of OBC in India. When such important decisions on reservations based on caste are taken, wouldn’t it help if we have scientific data on the profile of the population, their economic status, their percentage representation in various areas? How can we take concrete measures without any actual data? Isn’t a census the best time to understand the caste related information in India? Why should we shy away from collecting the actual data that could help us make educated response to these problems?
Thankfully, PMO has succumbed to the pressure of OBC parties and has decided to tabulate caste related information in the current census. However, three major newspapers, Times of India, Mint, and The Hindu, all have expressed dissatisfaction at collecting caste related data in the current census.
TIMES OF INDIA writes:
The government has unfortunately given in to pressure from the OBC lobby to include caste as a category in the 2011 Census… There was good reason why caste wasn't included in the census since the idea was to move towards a casteless society. In that sense, the government's move is regressive it would result in the perpetuation of caste as a lynchpin of government policy. We have argued in these columns that people must move beyond restrictive categories such as religion or caste.
A casteless society, like a religion-less society, or sexless society, or nation-less world, or language-less country is a pipe dream, something only idealists dream of when they have renounced the real world. Caste is something that is all permeating in an Indian’s life, especially the small town and village life, an identity that an individual has to contend with in everyday life, much more than religion or language. Caste dictates what you eat, where you live, what you do, where you sit in a school, what school you go to, what you can aim for and aspire in your life, who your friends are going to be, who you are going to marry and have kids with, and many other things. It is an inescapable identity one has to live with till one dies. For thousands of years, caste dominated this country, ruled it in a tyrannical grip, much more than any emperor or monarch.
A casteless society is possible only when caste is no longer the criteria for deciding the fate one’s individual, when educational and economic opportunities are easily accessed by anyone irrespective of their caste, when this society becomes equitable and just, only when caste becomes a redundant identity. Till then, we have to contend with this reality, not shy away from it. ‘Cowards’ is the right word to describe those people who shy away from tabulating information on caste, who refuse to recognize that caste is an identity we have to deal with, even if it is a disagreeable identity.
While it is undeniable that Dalits, who have been oppressed for centuries, needed and have been empowered by affirmative action, the same cannot be said for the OBCs. There is good evidence to suggest that OBCs such as the Yadavs have become dominant groups in terms of political and economic clout.
That’s bit of a naïve generalization coming out a person who looks like an anti-reservation bigot. It is already understood that many OBCs (not all) had experiences similar to that of Dalits. Using only one example of a powerful OBC group, that of Yadavs, to characterize thousands of OBCs castes in different regions is oversimplification of a complex problem. Some OBCs are closer to upper castes while some are closer to Dalits. Not all OBCs are the same in all regions of India.
There are other good reasons for not including caste in the census. The logistics of caste enumeration is daunting. When a similar proposal had come up earlier, the then census commissioner had warned that it would be too complex and could affect the integrity of the population count, which is the prime purpose of the exercise.
This baseless conclusion baffles me. We have been collecting data on castes, that of SC/STs, so how come we cannot collect data on OBCs? Why would it affect the integrity of population count? Did counting SC/ST affect integrity of population count? Does introducing the caste in census yield different results on the population of India?
…there could be unintended consequences implied in such a move. The census is primarily an enumerator—an objective chronicler of Indian life. With a caste element added, it may well become a political tool for redistributive policies in a country that is already burdened by them, not to mention the misguided social and political mobilization that distorted data on castes could give rise to.
Countries like United States collect data on one’s race because race is the subject for discrimination in that country. And since caste is the main subject for discrimination in India, it makes a case for tabulation of caste-related data in India. India is not burdened by redistributive policies. On the other hand, it is bereft of policies that provide equitable distribution of access to education and economic opportunity.
THE HINDU writes:
For social justice, we are made to believe there is no alternative to reservation, and for reservation, no alternative to counting caste.
Yes, it is indeed true that there is no alternative to reservations-based-on-caste, and there is no alternative to counting caste, whether there are reservations or not.
There is no doubt that stringent affirmative action policies are required to make formal institutions more socially inclusive, but to shackle the census to this agenda betrays a failure to learn from the past or to think imaginatively about the future.
What is the past we are talking about? What is the imagination that the author is talking about? If ever, the only reason why some castes and religions continue to be discriminated against in post-Independent India and why some groups like Telanganas are discriminated by powerful groups is because India failed to provide safeguards based on group identities. The only reason why a SC/ST person can actually dream of being a normal human being in modern India is because of the caste-based-reservations in India. Without them they would have been slaves of 20th Century.
What we need to learn from history is exact opposite of what this author suggests. We have to bravely face the reality, not hide from the truths that continue to haunt us. Caste is a reality that will not go away just because you refuse to look at it. It has stayed with us for over two thousand years, and it will continue to stay for another three hundred years. It is not a simple problem that can be wished away. So, let’s not pretend the problem does not exist. Real problems require real solutions based on real data; and it needs people with guts who can face up to that reality, not cowards who want to pretend the world has become safer just because they refuse to look at the evil in the eye.