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The Riddle Of Representation: Issues in The Caste Census Debate

By Cynthia Stephen

05 January, 2012

The inclusion of caste as a classification in the ongoing census has been the subject of much debate recently. While many believe that it should have been included in the census questionnaire, others stoutly oppose it on the ground that it will reinforce the casteist mindset and cause friction in society. The naysayers won, and the question of caste does not figure in the ongoing census except the usual one on whether one belongs to the SC or ST. What are the real issues involved in the enumeration of the population of the various castes in the country? Why is it such a controversial issue?

The context of the debate is the Planning Commission Report 2008 which emphasized the need for a census of the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) whether immediately or as part of the 2011 census, pointing out that in the “absence of exact assessment of (the OBCs') population size, literacy rate, employment status in government, private and unorganized sectors, basic civic amenities, health status, poverty status, and human development…., it is very difficult to formulate realistic policies and programmes for the development of OBCs”. The Commission said that the lack of population data state-wise and OBC-wise and other vital demographic variables is the main hurdle in formulation of development plans for the OBCs. In 2006 the Standing Committee on Social Justice headed by Sumitra Mahajan strongly recommended that “the Ministry pursue the need for a survey of OBC and population living below double the poverty line..”The three Backward Classes Commissions – in 1955, 1980 and 2005-6 as well as the National Commission for Notified, Denotified, Nomadic and Semi-nomadic tribes in 2008 have all called for the OBC census.

An even stronger argument for the census of castes is the Women's reservation bill debaate which has been stalled by a demand by some political parties for proportional representation for OBC women, which is now being seen as inevitable. However, mainstream women's movement groups are agitating for the implementation of the reservation even for a reduced percentage. The government cites the lack of data on OBCs as an important reason for not working out the “quota within the quota” for reservations in legislatures and Parliament, though many states including Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have quotas for OBC women at the panchayat level.

One of the main arguments advanced against the caste census is that including it would reinforce caste identity, and be counter-productive at a time when we as a nation are trying to move towards a casteless society. There is also the fear that it would open a Pandora's box of demands from various disadvantaged non-dalit castes, otherwise known as Other Backward Classes (OBCs). As the Constitution provided for time-bound reservations for the Dalits, which continue to be extended, critics fear this may spark similar demands by OBC castes which are found to be backward.

History of the debate

Interestingly, debates centred around counting of castes in the census are not new – they date back a century, when a special questionnaire of ten tests was prepared in 1911 to group together castes which would pass the test and could then be marked off as Depressed Classes (DCLs). The term Depressed Classes itself was chosen as an alternative to the term Untouchables, which it was felt was stigmatising. Writing in the 1930s, Dr. B R Ambedkar records that even then the Hindus raised an objection which did not bear fruit and consequently the enumeration of DCLs was successfully carried out. Objections were raised again at the time of the 1921 census but failed to hold and again the enumeration was complete. The figure arrived at was 53 million. But even earlier, in 1901, when the third general census was taken up, the Census Commissioner had adopted a classification namely “Classification by Social Precedence as recognized by public opinion”, which Ambedkar felt was most appropriate because “for a society like the Hindu society which does not recognize equality and whose social system is a system of gradation of higher and lower, …[n]othing can present a more intelligible picture of the social life and grouping which is organized … on the basis of caste as this principle of social precedence.” But as Ambedkar goes on to state, referring to the workings of the Indian Franchise Committee (of which he was a member), part of the Lothian Committee which was set up following the Round Table conferences in the early 1930s:

there was another (struggle) which though of a smaller character, was yet full of significance. It was the struggle between the Backward Classes and the Untouchables. The representatives of the Backward Classes contended that the category known as Depressed Classes should not only include Untouchables... [b]ut should also include those classes which are economically and educationally backward.... [I]n putting forth this contention they were not asking for anything that was new. Under the reformed constitution that came into operation in 1920, the right of the economically and educationally backward communities was recognised in the two provinces of India namely Bombay and Madras . In Bombay the Marathas and allied castes and in Madras the Non-Brahmins were given separate representation on the only ground that they were economically and educationally backward.

It was feared that if special representation was not given to those communities, they would be politically suppressed by the minority of high caste Hindus such as Brahmins and allied castes. There are many communities in other Provinces who are in the same position and who need special political representation to prevent their being suppressed by the higher castes .

Almost 80 years after these events the issue is still alive, and the same question – and the same objections – are being raised. This, more than anything, shows how the mainstream political structures have worked systematically over generations to keep large sections of the Indian population backward, suppress their representation and appropriate their due share of political space, power and resources.

Regional Disparities

There is no disputing the fact that a few castes dominate the political, economic and socio-religious spheres in our country. The traditional elites – the so-called “upper”-caste Brahmin, Kshatriya and trading castes continue to play a disproportionately important role compared to their population share in the judicial, administrative, educational and corporate structures all over the country and at the centre. In recent decades land-owning agricultural castes have joined the ranks of the powerful through entering politics in large numbers. These politically dominant groups, though falling in the sudra category and classified as Backward classes – are found all over the country, but display regional variations. In South Peninsular India the Reddys, closely followed by the Naidus, dominate in Andhra Pradesh, and Lingayats and Vokkaliggas dominate in Karnataka. Tamil Nadu has three broad regions – North, Central and Southern. Different groups such as the Mudaliars, Chettiars, and Thevars dominate in these areas, with pockets of strong mobilization unevenly distributed across the states by sections of the Dalit and Backward communities such as Parayas, Pallars, Nadars and Vanniyars. In Kerala, despite claims of caste having taken a back seat due to the Left mobilization, caste does play a strong role – Left party leaders have mostly been from the Brahmin and upper caste groups and the dalits of Kerala say they are almost totally marginalized due to the class discourse which elides the reality of caste there. Also, strong backward class/caste mobilizations by Nairs and Ezhavas in the past resulted in their upward social mobility and presence in the power structures.

The situation is no different in the rest of the country, where Jats, Bhumihars, Patels and similar groups dominate the rural economy and political spheres. A large number of traditional occupational groups including those providing services to local caste-class elites, such as Barbers, washermen, and potters, artisanal classes such as jewellers, carpenters, blacksmiths etc, and other groups like “boatmen”, shepherds, inland marine fishing communities, to name a few, exist in sizeable numbers but whose progress in comparison with the rest is backward.

Falling between the cracks

In regions where the adivasis and tribal groups dominate numerically, they continue to be marginalized in the political sphere despite having their own organisations. While this could be seen as a gap in their inclusion within the structures of formal political structures and development of leadership, it is more likely to indicate their non-integration into the structures of the dominant social and political frameworks. Significantly, the mainstream left parties were never really able to capitalize for long – if at all - on the adivasi peoples' struggles in the central Indian belts even pre-independence. In many states there are also a number of groups of erstwhile or still nomadic tribes, who may not have citizenship rights. Lakhs of homeless persons have spent a generation or more on the pavement of metros and large cities, and they fall through the cracks in the system, lacking ration cards, voter ids, and any rights. The Northeast of India represents yet another region which has historical, regional and local specificities, making the riddle of representation even more complex.

Mobilisations of the marginalized

In recent years, however, due to the development process more communities are finding their voices and mobilizing. The agitation following the Mandal Commission Report is one example. Prof. Hari Narke, member of the Maharashtra Backward Classes Commission, points out that Art. 340 of the Constitution deals with the recognition of the OBCs, while Arts. 341 and 342 deal with SCs and STs respectively. He contends that there has been a gross delay in implementing Art. 340 by the Centre, till 1990, and implies that this is one of the main reasons for the disparity in development of the Backward classes.

Another notable feature is the rise of political parties in the Hindi heartland which have garnered the support of the largely economically and socially backward castes and classes which lacked a political space in the “national” parties which ruled the roost in the states states till the 80s – the Congress, the Janata Party, and later on the BJP. Regional parties like RJD, LJD, BSP, BJD, JMM, Shiv Sena, and the JD (U) are powerful in their own regions, covering two or three contiguous states [more in the case of the JD (U)]. As a result the composition of Parliament, which was predominantly Brahmin and upper caste in the early days, gradually began to show a shift towards the backward castes, albeit the more powerful land-owning, rural elite groups which constitute the majority in the parties named above (one exception could be the BSP which has a major base among the Dalits at one end and Brahmins at the other). Muslims, who constitute a large chunk of the backward sections, shifted allegiance from the Congress to one or the other of the regional political formulations.

Some critics of the present draft women's reservation bill – which has quotas only for SC/ST women – see the changing caste composition as the reason for the government trying to rush through the women's reservation bill, which will result in more upper-caste/elite women coming into Parliament using reservation for women, as parties are more likely to field them than women from other groups. Though parties of OBCs also have a poor track record of encouraging the political participation of women, their demand for quota for OBC women is the best bet yet to get women from the OBCs into the political sphere – but which is stymied by the fact that government pleads helplessness on the grounds of lack of data on OBCs and their respective share in the population.

Caste or Class?

Prof. Hari Narke makes another interesting point – echoing Ambedkar's voice from the past – that the Backward Classes are mostly educationally and economically backward: the source of the backwardness is not social, as in the case of Dalits, or religious, as in the case of say the Muslims. Thus, the so-called Caste census is really a Class census, he argues. Given that the term OBC has always been an abbreviation of the term Other Backward Classes, even though the majority of them, though touchable, are indeed categorized as Sudra -the fourth and lowest in the hierarchy of castes, he may have a point, that caste constitutes class, as the Indian Marxists have asserted all these years. Whatever the merits of the argument, opponents of the caste census were active even in Ambedkar's time. To quote him again:

It was feared that if special representation was not given to those communities, they would be politically suppressed by the minority of high caste Hindus such as Brahmins and allied castes. There are many communities in other Provinces who are in the same position and who need special political representation to prevent their being suppressed by the higher castes. It was therefore perfectly proper for the representatives of the Backward Classes from the Hindus to have claimed special representation for themselves.   If their point of view had been accepted the total number of Depressed Classes would have swelled to enormous proportions.

But they received no support either from the Untouchables or from the high caste Hindus. The Hindus were opposed to the move which was calculated to increase the population of the Depressed Classes. The Untouchables did not want to be included in their category any class of people who were not really Untouchables. The proper course for these backward communities was to have asked to make a division of Touchable Hindus into advanced and backward and to claim separate representation for the Backward.

In that effort the Untouchables would have supported them. But they did not agree to this and persisted in being included among the Depressed Classes largely because they thought that this was easier way of securing their object, [b]ut as the Untouchables opposed the backward communities, (the BCs) turned and joined the Hindus in denying the existence of Untouchables.

Thus the debate continues even though it carries an air of inevitability. Karnataka has had a BC survey on the cards for years now, only stalled by political upheaval with governments becoming risk-shy. Another seemingly practical argument advanced to hold up the process is that only the Census Organisation can undertake such a massive data collection operation. Ideally, this should indeed have been carried out as part of the census, but states can and should undertake this work on their own, since there is regional and state-wise variation in the number and kind of OBCs in their midst, and they have their own infrastructure to collect data for their own needs. Training and equipping the survey team is also cited as a concern, but if the centre and the states allocate funding and adequate personnel, the training and survey can be done in a short time. Thus individual states, many of which have their own OBC list, can cover their populations in record time, and the results compiled, compared, and extended to cover the entire country.

The question is, will those who suppressed the fact of Dalits and OBCs backwardness succeed in keeping the veil over the numbers and let the riddle of representation continue into the 21 st century? Or will the veil be drawn aside, the numbers gathered and crunched and the long-neglected OBCs, and specially the OBC women of India finally get their rightful share and voice in the affairs of the nation?

Cynthia Stephen is independent writer and researcher and a frequent contributor to Countercurrents.org



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