The nation is debating whether or not to count caste in the ongoing census. There are divergent opinions on this sensitive subject. Even the cabinet seems to be divided on accepting this proposal put forth by several opposition parties. In fact, there are valid reasons on both sides. The government of India though resisted in the beginning, however conceded to the demand owing to political ramifications.
The caste based census was for the last time conducted in 1931. Since then, this practice was discontinued. Even after independence the caste census was not resumed though information about SC and ST population is counted. The founding fathers of Indian constitution and the leaders of early phase of post independent India must have had valid reasons for not taking up the caste census. But, this logic would not suffice to reject the demand. Yet an another explanation offered is that the 2011 census operations have already commenced and therefore it is not possible to attempt caste count now. But still this defense seems to be not convincing the advocates of caste census. The actual enumerations has not been taken up yet.
The most important fear expressed by those who are opposing the caste census is such an exercise shall perpetuate caste system. The caste polarization in the polity shall intensify. The post Mandal politics has seen caste assertion and census shall further fragment the political space in India. There are even doubts over the accuracy of the information thus collected. The enumerators, as pointed out by Home minister, lack the sociological sensitivity to collect and classify such information. Even the some people may deliberately give inaccurate information to boost up their caste constituencies. Any such inaccuracies will vitiate the entire census data. Indian census data is considered as authentic information even internationally. The census data is the basis for socio-economic planning and political activities. Therefore inaccurate census data has dangerous implications for the nation. Even if the government concedes to this demand, many advise that such an exercise should be delinked from census and should be taken up separately.
There is no uniformity in the status of caste in India. There is innumerable number of castes, sub castes, gotras, and clans. The nomenclature also varies significantly. Given this enormous diversity, caste data shall be a nightmare for those who compile and analyze the census data.
The caste is a highly subjective category. It can not be quantified. It is related to identity. Such perceptions change from time to time and place to place. For instance, the toddy tapping caste has different name in Telangana and Andhra regions. Even the pre-independent census that counted the caste did not yield uniform data due to these reasons. Therefore, the caste data collected through census can not be standardized and relied upon.
There are equally powerful arguments supporting the demand for caste based population count. The caste is a social reality. It can not be wished away whether one feels it as legitimate or not. The country still has rampant caste based social inequalities. The governments spend billions of rupees on welfare schemes aimed at correcting the age old social malaises. The reservation benefits are extended to other backward classes (OBC’s)in education and employment. There are new demands in regard to reservations. For instance in Bihar, the Most Backward Castes are demanding categorization. Such political questions can only be settled based on accurate data on caste-wise distribution of population. The welfare schemes can be well targeted if such accurate data is available. Census or no census, castes shall remain in Indian society. This data can be used to bridge the great social divide.
In the post Mandal phase, the Indian society is witnessing a process of social churning. As a result, the political landscape is increasingly coming closer to social reality. Availability of accurate data on caste-wise distribution of population shall further hasten this process thereby contributing to greater democratization of Indian society and polity. The census enumerates scheduled castes and scheduled tribes since 1951. It has not created any major social problems. Therefore the fears expressed on caste based census are unfounded or motivated.
The census provides valuable data on the social and economic conditions of people. The inclusion of caste as a category in the enumeration will provide data that links caste with inequalities. Mere censuses operations will not in any way adversely alter the social structure and influence the people’s perceptions and loyalties to the caste. The eleventh plan aims at an inclusive growth .The concept of inclusive growth can not be achieved without systematically studying the social exclusion. The caste is as significant institution In Indian society that has historically legitimized the social exclusion. The fear of misuse or abuse of any information or technology cannot be a valid basis for not creating such technology or producing such information.
Given this very divergent opinion on whether or not to collect caste based data, the government needs to comprehensively look into the subject. Any demand to either in favour of or against caste census can not be made on parochial political basis. The short sighted approach on this crucial question may prove to be detrimental to the interests of the nation. The debate should continue. This debate may throw up more creative ways of dealing with this dilemma.
This article is Originally written for DECCAN POST
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