Caste-based Census back on national discourse

Amid a plethora of problems facing India, the sudden clamour for caste-based census by political parties in and outside parliament has brought the sensitive subject back on national discourse. After a heated debate in the Lok Sabha on the last two days – May 6 and 7 - of the budget session of parliament, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the government would soon take a decision on the caste-based census.

The cabinet did take a decision, perhaps the best decision under the circumstances. It has referred the issue to a group of ministers (GOM) headed by finance minister Pranab Mukherjee, obviously with a view to buying time and to let matters cool.

The central issue of the parliamentary debate was whether information on the caste of the respondent should be collected in the on-going Census 2011.The debate saw members across the political spectrum favouring a caste-based census. The most vocal were the Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav, Rashtriya Janata Dal supremo Lalu Prasad Yadav and Janata Dal (United) leader Sharad Yadav.

While caste census may be of good academic value from a sociological point of view, what raises concern is the way political parties are demanding it. Are their intentions pious? Are they not seeking to stoke fires of the kind witnessed during the release of the Mandal Commission report in 1990? The parties that are in the forefront of the demand are the ones that are seen to be products of the Mandalisation. For the same reason, these parties are seen to have an axe to grind in demanding a caste census. These questions are bound to be major topics of discussion in the weeks and months to come.

In the context of the raging controversy over caste census in Parliament and outside, what noted demographer Ashish Bose claims is worth mentioning. Says Bose: “In Indian census history, there has been no caste census as such, not even in 1931 as is generally perceived. Ever since 1872 when a non-synchronous census was conducted and in 1881 when the first regular decennial census was conducted right up to 1941 which was the last census under British rule, every census questionnaire had a question on religion and caste (for Hindus) but this does not mean that the census was a caste census or a caste-based census. Every census questionnaire had a question on mother tongue. Nobody calls the census a language census. There was a question on employment. Nobody calls it an employment census. Thus, there is no such thing as a caste census or even a caste-based census. Census is a census.”

A question on caste was asked in 1941 also. However, the caste tabulations were not done in the 1941 census because the Census Commissioner did not think that there was true reporting of caste and he found the data highly unreliable. The official excuse given was that it was a census conducted during the War and the tabulations were restricted. So one has to look to the 1931 census tabulation for caste data.

Information relating to the caste of each member of the household was last collected and published in detail in 1931. After independence, as a matter of policy, the question relating to caste, other than scheduled caste and scheduled tribe, was not included. Caste was not included in the last Census of 2001 also. Records show that an attempt was made by the Ministry of Social Justice to include caste as one of the questions that should be canvassed during the 2001 census. However, the Government of the day – the NDA Government – did not take a decision to that effect and maintained the policy that has been in force since 1951.

The government says there are two questions to consider. The first question is, ‘whether it is desirable to enumerate the caste of each member of the household?’ The second question is, assuming that it is desirable to do so, ‘is the census the vehicle to carry out the enumeration?’

The parliament debate brought out different views on the subject and that are equally valid. While “caste is a reality”, it is also a divisive factor. The country is nowhere near establishing a casteless society even 60 or more years after Independence.

The Registrar General has pointed out a number of logistic and practical difficulties in canvassing the question of caste while conducting the census. In this connection, government says, a distinction must be kept between ‘enumeration’ on the one hand and ‘compilation, analysis and dissemination’ on the other.

The census is meant to collect ‘observational data’. As many as 21 lakh enumerators, mostly primary school teachers, have been selected and trained. They have been trained to ask the question and record the answer as returned by the respondent. The enumerator is not an investigator or verifier. The enumerator has no training or expertise to classify the answer as OBC or otherwise.

There is a central list of Other Backward Classes and State-specific lists of Other Backward Classes. Some States do not have a list of OBCs; some States have a list of OBCs and a sub-set called Most Backward Classes.

The Registrar General has also pointed out that there are certain open-ended categories in the lists such as orphans and destitute children. Names of some castes are found in both the list of Scheduled Castes and list of OBCs. Scheduled Castes converted to Christianity or Islam are also treated differently in different States. The status of a migrant from one State to another and the status of children of inter-caste marriage, in terms of caste classification, are also vexed questions.

The Registrar General has also pointed out that, assuming that it is desirable to canvass the question of caste, further issues will arise regarding the methodology, avoiding phonetic and spelling errors, stage of canvassing, maintaining the integrity of the enumeration, doing an accurate headcount of the population etc.

After all, the main objective of the population census is to do an accurate de-facto headcount of the usual residents in India on the deemed date i.e. 00.00 hours on March 1, 2011. Based on universally applied scientific demographic tools, it will be possible to have an estimate of what the population of India will be on that day.

The government view, however, is that it is necessary and desirable to make an accurate headcount. It is also concerned that nothing should be done that may affect the accuracy of the headcount or the integrity of the population census.

The home ministry, which is opposed to the demand for the inclusion of caste figures, has been maintaining that it is fraught with `` dangerous consequences’’. In a note drafted for the Cabinet, it cited `` operational difficulties’’ in carrying out such an exercise which, if executed, would overshadow its basic objective itself. There were 1,885 notified SCs and STs in India, according to the note. But the number returned in the 2001 census was 18,478. There were, in addition, surnames and clan names, and classification and grouping under SC/ST itself was a formidable task. In the event of a caste-based census, hundreds of castes will be returned with people using clan names and gotra interchangeably.

The total number of OBCs were 6,000, including castes and sub groups. There were two separate sets of OBC lists — one for the Centre, and the other for the states. Several complex entries are very difficult to comprehend at the level of the enumerator who is only a primary school teacher.

For instance, the OBC list in the state was not easy to comprehend. Dhobi in Delhi, Kohli in Maharashtra, Patua in UP and Rajjhar in MP were also names in the list of SCs. Again, orphans and destitute children were listed as OBCs in Tamil Nadu.

Microscopic and probing inquiries into caste was not possible at the level of enumerator, says the note. `` It is difficult to tabulate and classify OBCs... the phonetic similarity in the name of castes may lead to confusion in the enumerator’s mind and throw up inaccurate data.”

The issue brought out serious differences in the Cabinet, with members such as Mr Veerappa Moily, Mr Vayalar Ravi, Mr S Jaipal Reddy, Mr A Raja and Mr M K Alagiri pitching strongly for the resumption of caste-baste census, and home minister P Chidambaram, Mr Anand Sharma and Mr Mukul Wasnik opposing it.

As John Henry Hutton, census commissioner in 1931, wrote later: “Experience at this census has shown very clearly the difficulty of getting a correct return of caste and likewise the difficulty of interpreting it for census purposes.”

That problem of verification is similar 80 years on, but the India of 1931 is long past, and the ways of seeking caste identification cannot be taken from long ago. In the intervening years, it is pointed out, an independent country gave itself a progressive Constitution that resolutely resists the idea of is citizens being ranked by caste.

Experts insist that India today must come to the idea of caste by another route. Of course, the reality of caste exists in too many places and too many ways. Mitigating that reality, however, requires dealing with the systemic inequality resulting from caste realities but without, in turn, perpetuating caste.

This then will remain the challenge to the authorities as and when cast Census is allowed to be undertaken. (Ends) RCR

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