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Who Is Afraid Of Caste Census And Why?

By S.R.Darapuri I.P.S. (Retd)

11 May, 2010

The Indian government had to succumb to the political pressure to agree for Caste Census at the end of the last budget session of the Parliament. It was demanded by almost all the political parties which it found difficult to put aside. This demand was raised earlier also by some political parties but was just ignored by the ruling party. But this time the pressure was so overwhelming that the government had no alternative but to agree to the popular demand.

The Supreme Curt of India and some High Courts had off and on asked for the basis of the quantum of reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) which the government lacked on account of absence of proper population data for these classes. Some attempts were made by some States to ascertain the population figure for OBCs but it was contested by the opponents of reservation. Kaka Kalelkar and Mandal Commission had evolved criterion for ascertaining the population of OBCs. National Backward Classes Commission was instituted to ascertain the list of the Castes to be classified under this category for reservation in Central Government appointments. Similarly State Backward Commissions were also instituted to prepare such lists for reservation in State level appointments. It is a fact that Central and State lists differ in content.

At the national level the population of OBCs has been accepted as 52% of the total population of the country and reservation to the extent of 27% has been made for them in Central Government posts. This was the outcome of the implementation of Mandal Commission Report in 1990. The matter went to the Supreme Court of India and it was held to be constitutionally valid. The matter again came up before the apex Court when the Central Government decided to give reservation to OBCs in Higher Education and Technical Institutions. The question regarding the basis of the quantum of reservation was again raised by the Court. The Court again directed the Central Government to come up with reliable figures of OBCs population but the Government lacked such data.

Apart from the above there has been a regular demand from various organizations and political parties especially those with Backward Classes predominance for Caste based Census but it was just brushed aside by the ruling party may it be BJP or Congress. This demand was raised during 2001 Census also and the then NDA government did not entertain this request. But this time the pressure was so high that Congress government could not afford to put it aside and it had to agree to the Caste count during 2011 Census.

The announcement for Caste count during 2011 Census has given rise to a big row among its supporters and opponents. One of the major objections against the Caste Census is that it will give impetus to Caste divisions and its perpetuation in society. The other objection is regarding the operational difficulty in ascertaining the correctness of the caste claimed by a person as there is no such final list available with the Census authorities.

It is true that the last Caste based Census was conducted in 1931 by the then British authorities and then it was discontinued. In post independence period no attempt was made to go for Caste count as the government was not prepared to take up this work. No doubt Caste Census is done regularly to ascertain the population of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes to fix up their quota of reservation in services and in political reservation in Parliament and State Assemblies which is invariably in proportion to their population. The 52% figure of OBC population has been arrived at on the basis of their population in 1931 Census which is also disputed by the OBCs and higher castes as well. So now it has become necessary to ascertain afresh the population figure of the OBCs and 2011 Census is the most appropriate occasion for it.
Now let us take up the first objection to Caste Census regarding impetus to caste division and its perpetuation. In this context it will be quite apt to recall the observations made by Sir J.H.Hutton who was the Census Commissioner during 1931 Census. In Chapter XII, ‘Caste, Tribe and Race’ in the section titled ‘The Return of Caste’ he observed,” A certain amount of criticism has been directed at the Census for taking any note at all of caste. It has been alleged that the mere act of labeling persons as belonging to a caste tends to perpetuate the system. It is, however, difficult to see why the record of a fact that actually exists should lend to stabilize that existence. It is just as easy to argue and with at least as much truth, that it is impossible to get rid of any institution by ignoring its existence like a proverbial ostrich.” This observation made by Hutton holds good against the arguments put forth by the opponents of Caste Census.

As regards operational problems in Caste count, Hutton also talks of the practical problems evolved. “Experience at this Census has shown very clearly the difficulty of getting a correct return of castes and likewise the difficulty of interpreting it for Census purposes,” he says. Hutton writes about how people used the Census to move up the social order, as a vehicle for what the latter-day sociologists call ‘Sanskritisation.’ To illustrate his point, Hutton quotes from a report of the Superintendent of Census operations for Madras. “For example, an extremely dark individual pursuing the occupation of waterman on the Coorg border described his Caste as Suryavamsa, the family of the Sun.”
No doubt similar difficulties may arise during this Census also but it will be of the opposite nature. During 1931 Census it was a scramble for up gradation of one’s Caste but this time it may be ‘Desanskritisation.’ i.e. down grading of Caste. In the post Mandal quota era various castes may scramble for downgrading their castes to get into the OBC list. The struggle of the Gujjars for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes list is a recent example of the ensuing trend. Similarly land owning Jat Caste of Uttar Pradesh has been included in State OBC list by BJP for political reasons.

The opponents of the Caste census tend to give the impression that the caste has ceased to exist and Census will make it raise its head again. But if you look at the matrimonial advertisements in the news papers you will find that not only caste but sub caste is most important for matrimony. It fully demolishes the above premise of the opponents of Caste Census. In fact Caste is a not only thriving but kicking also. It is a social reality which determines one’s social status and the limits of the social relations and also opportunities for advancement in the life of an individual.

After independence we have adopted a system of planned development which requires a correct data of our population and the extent of social, educational and economic backwardness. It is a fact that in India class and caste are almost congruent. The Castes which are socially and educationally backward are invariably economically backward also. Thus for proper planning, the strength of target groups must be known correctly which can be ascertained through Caste based Census only.

Actually higher Castes are allergic to the Caste Census because it will expose their low numbers and the share of development and national wealth they have usurped at the cost of lower Castes. Their fear is further accentuated by the probable high number of OBCs who are bound to demand a greater share in services and benefits of development and national wealth. That is why higher Castes are afraid of Caste Census.