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Counting Castes: Advantage Ruling Class

By Anand Teltumbde

14 July, 2010

The debate over whether caste should be included in the decennial census 2011, which has actually begun, has provoked the government to constitute a Group of Ministers (GoM), the magical invention of the UPA government that yields decisions on any vexatious issue. The shrill arguments both in favour and against the proposition, with an amazing degree of embedded confusion, coming from all conceivable corners (caste, class, individuals, parties, and so on) is making it difficult to guess what the magical decision of the GOM would be. But if it comes in favour of enumeration of castes in the census, it will be the second biggest blow to the emancipation project of the oppressed people, the first being the Mandal reservations.

Colonial Census of Castes

It is well known that the institution of census (with enumeration of castes) came as a sequel of measures that were imperatively taken by the British colonialists after the mutiny of 1857. The mutiny made the government officials painfully realize that they were woefully ignorant of local Indian customs and more. The knowledge of natives would enable them to find local allies to provide insurance against the possibility of a future uprising and more importantly, use internal divisions among them for playing groups off one against another.[1] The inclusion of questions about caste in the census, entailing huge expenditure of time and money thus was not just for the sake of ‘intellectual curiosity’. There were political reasons for the intensification of the British interest in the institution of caste. “District-level manuals and gazetteers began to devote whole chapters to the ethnography of caste and custom; imperial surveys made caste into a central object of investigation; and by the time of the first decennial census of 1872, caste had become the primary subject of social classification and knowledge… By 1901, when the census commissioner H. H. Risley announced his ambition for an ethnographic survey of India, it was clear that caste had attained its colonial apotheosis.”[2]

Notwithstanding the crude formulation of Hindutva nationalists, relying on some smart American historians that castes were the colonial creation, it cannot be denied that the introduction of the Census in particular ‘transformed previously ‘fuzzy’ into ‘enumerated’ communities’.[3] As Cohn points out, ‘what was entailed in the construction of census operations was the creation of social categories by which India was ordered for administrative purposes’.[4] The Census objectified religious, social and cultural difference. This objectification later catalysed lower caste movement but as its unintended by product, which could not be confused with the primary aim of the colonialists to preserve their rule.

Politics of Castization

The ostensible need to include enumeration of the backward castes (BCs) flows from the Mandal Commission recommendations, which mandated monitoring of their progress after 20 years from their implementation. Before the 2001 Census began, there was a demand made for such inclusion in the census. But for whatever reasons this proposal was turned down by the Ministry of Home Affairs, which controls the census organisation.[5] This time although the government created turbulence around the issue by referring it to the GoM, it will be under pressure to accept it.

The core rationale for this caste census may thus lie in the technical requirement arising from the acceptance of the Mandal Commission recommendations to extend reservations to the OBCs. Mandal recommendations and particularly their acceptance by the V P Singh government in 1989 will be an ominous mark on the path of annihilation of castes. It gave a new lease of life to castes. The entire caste game was mischievously played in the name of the Constitution, which rather had reference to class and individuals. The Constitution under Articles 15 (4), 16 (4), 46 and 340 refers to “socially and educationally backward classes” or “backward class citizens”. In the country in which peoples’ politics is stuck on the unfortunate duality of caste and class, the State as well as the judiciary coolly interpreted class in the Constitution to be synonymous with “caste”. In order that an entire caste is considered socially, economically and educationally backward, it needed to pass the test of homogeneity and to formulate a policy for such castes there should have been objective definability. However, there was none.[6]

Whither Caste Dynamics

The entire load of argument in favour of inclusion of castes in the census is that it will help in targeting development efforts towards the specific social groups. But can the social groups be viably conceived on the basis of castes today? The entire argument smacks of the colossal confusion in transposing the non-caste dalits and tribals to others and the enormous ignorance about the contemporary caste dynamics. It was the Nehruvian project of modernization, mapped mainly by the land reform and green revolution in rural India that brought about this change in castes structure as never before. The displacement of the upper caste landlords from villages, enrichment of a section of the shudra caste cluster (traditional farming castes) through this programme, the consolidation of the populous shudra castes by them into political constituency, has changed the entire socio-political fabric of the country. Paradoxically, these castes labeled as backward have full social control of the entire rural and semi-urban India, dominate politics and significant part of the economy of the country. The ritual caste differences between them and dwija castes are no more extant because of these developments. This caste dynamics reduces caste to the divide between Dalits and non-Dalits. Although, many people constituting BC/OBC are as backward as dalits and tribals, the idiom of caste binds them with their powerful elements and prevents identifying with the dalits and tribals.

When the so called progressive intellectuals take cudgels for the ‘lower castes’ they ignore this post-Independence developmental dynamics. They certainly err in extending the social justice logic applied to SC and ST to these castes. The rationale behind applying exceptional measure of ‘quota’ for these communities was deep rooted social prejudice against them through the practice of untouchability (SC) and physical separation (ST). This simply cannot be replicated to the shudra castes, lest one deliberately undermines the rationale itself and ignore the structural forces that exploit them. The backwardness of the BC/OBC is a part of the larger secular backwardness of the country, depicted by a plethora of disgraceful indices and statistics on poverty, health and such others. It is the duty of the state to ensure distributional justice to these classes. But to say that it should be done along caste axis is playing into the hands of the ruling classes. It serves them best to tacitly support caste issues as they deflect peoples’ attention from their neoliberal project, which is fast dispossessing people of even whatever little they have. The root cause of peoples’ woes lies here!

Flawed Arguments

The best of these arguments are perhaps presented in this very journal by Satish Deshpande and Mary John (The Politics of Not Counting Caste, June 19, 2010). They dealt with opponents’ contentions -‘logistcal challenges’ and ‘political objections’ in their own way. Logistical challenges, may not be insurmountable if one is reconciled with the tentative ‘collective self portrait’ the census provides. But the question is to what avail? Recognizing the fluidity and polyvalence of caste identity, they suggest some what clumsily the collection of supportive synonyms for castes and using technology to resolve them. Obviously, they belittle the logistical problems by imagining their complexity and offering such a weird solution. The basic problem is associated with the characteristics of caste itself. Caste, as one sociologist puts it, has no precise definition, it is not an “objective” measurable category like occupation, age, sex, education, etc. and rather may be seen as “subjective” category related with identity and perceptions which change from time to time.[7] They have missed out one dangerous logistical characteristic of caste which is that caste is essentially hierarchy seeking and hence infinitely divisive. If with all, one still wishes to have caste data, with pile of negatives associated with them, one fails to understand why.

The other point they deal with is political objections that caste enumeration would promote ‘divide and rule’ and argue that ‘subaltern claims for power sharing’ is always taken as divisive by the elites. The basic point here is whether castes today are viable units to plan sharing of power, privileges or any resources equitably. This takes us back to rethink them away from the stereotypes. Today the Indian political reality may be simply read in terms of rulers as a class whereas the ruled are castes, whether by volition or by engineering, as in colonial times. In defence of the caste census, their shadow boxing reaches a profound pitch that “not counting caste has been one of independent India’s biggest mistake.” One fails to know how in face of the fact that the so called backward castes as a caste group have done extremely well in coming to dominate political, social and economic spheres. Why unlike the colonial rulers, the Congress under Nehru and Gandhi, decided not to count castes is because they were afraid it would indefinitely fragment their constituency. Despite it, the state with all its apparatus has not been caste blind as claimed by them. Any Dalit can vouch for it! But that did not deter the progress of the BCs. As a caste group, the coalition syndrome, Mandal, as well as the current demand for the caste census rather reflects their empowerment, no matter it has resulted in disempowerment of huge mass of their own members.

No, counting caste can never benefit people; it benefits only the ruling classes.


[1] Sekhar Bandyopadhyay, Caste, Politics and the Raj: Bengal 1872-1937 (Calcutta: K.P. Bagchi & Company), 1990: 29.

[2] Nicholas B. Dirks, Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 2001, p. 15.

[3] S. Kaviraj, ‘The Imaginary Institution of India,’ in P. Chatterjee and G. Pandey (ed.) Subaltern Studies VII (Delhi: Oxford University Press) 1992.

[4] B. S. Cohn, Colonialism and Its Forms of Knowledge, (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 1996, 8.]

[5] A. Krishnakumar, “Caste and the census”, Frontline, 17(18), 2-15.2000.

[6] G. Shah, ‘Caste-based census will compound past blunders’, Times of India, May 22, 1998.

[7] G. Shah, Caste and Democratic Practice in India, (London: Anthem Press), 2004, 27. Also, See G. Shah, ‘Caste-based census will compound past blunders’, Times of India, May 22, 1998.

Dr. Anand Teltumbde is a political analyst and a civil rights activist with CPDR, Mumbai E-mail: [email protected]