Caste Census: Need of the Hour or a Tool for Appeasement?
The great leader of backward castes, Babu Jagdev Prasad Kushwaha said - 90 out of 100 are exploited and 90% belong to us (backward castes). It goes without saying that the backward castes have been and are still exploited under the inhumane caste system, but to provide a remedy, it is pertinent that we have a figure of what part of the society is suffering the brunt of exploitation. For that, there has to be a precise estimation of what percentage of the population is ‘backward’. The caste-based census is one such exercise which will provide a precise figure of the number of people who belong to backward or oppressed castes.
The demand for a caste census has been raised time and again by people from several walks of life. From the political parties and eminent scholars to the members of the Parliament, a broad spectrum of the populace is vouching for a caste census to be conducted at the earliest. But at the same time, the government has shown hesitancy in holding a caste-based census stating the fear that the country would be divided and also pointing to the inaccuracy of the data collected in the socio-economic and caste census 2011. What explains this anxiety of the state? Is there really a need for a caste census or is it just a way to appease the backward castes and garner political fame? To fetch answers to these questions and to understand the intricacies of the issue let us dwell deep into the issue of the caste census.
Census Vs Caste Census
In lucid terms, a census is a comprehensive count of a population or group of people at a point in time based on a set of specific characteristics. It includes details regarding the demographics of the population like age, sex, occupation and so on. In India, the exercise of census started during the colonial regime in 1872 under Viceroy Lord Mayo and the first full-fledged census was conducted in 1881. Census has been used by the government, policymakers and academicians to capture the dynamics of the population, analyze social changes, conduct delimitation exercises and so on. In India, the census has been a decennial exercise i.e. conducted after every 10 years, it has been conducted 15 times till 2011 by the Registrar General and the Census Commissioner under the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India. The next census was to be conducted in 2021 but it was postponed due to the covid pandemic. A caste census is being demanded in order to provide a breakdown of the Indian population in terms of numbers and percentages that would include all castes in addition to the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs).
2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census
The 2011 Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) conducted under the UPA government under Dr Manmohan Singh was the first to produce detailed data on households in both rural and urban areas. There were some things which made the SECC 2011 a noteworthy exercise. It was carried out in 640 districts using handheld electronic devices and was India's first paperless census. India's 1931 census was the first caste-based count ever conducted and data on manual scavenging and the number of transgender people in India were gathered.
The Union government denied conducting a Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) in an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court on September 23. The affidavit claimed that a caste census, with the exception of those traditionally conducted for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, was impossible and "administratively difficult and cumbersome." The affidavit was submitted in response to a writ case filed by the Maharashtra government asking the Union government to give instructions on how to gather information during the 2021 census on the Backward Class of Citizens (BCC) of rural India.
It is important to note that the data collected during the SECC 2011 has not been released yet. According to the SECC-2011, there are 46 lakh distinct castes. The government claims that the census is faulty and the entire data set is flawed, making it useless for making reservations or setting policy because the overall number cannot be exponentially high to this level. For these reasons, it has refused to provide even the SECC-2011's raw caste data.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar addresses a press conference after an all-party meeting on the caste-based census in the State, at Samvad Hall in Patna, on June 1, 2022. RJD leader Tejashwi Yadav is also seen. | Image Source: PTI
Need for a Caste Census
Amidst the growing clamour and contestations over the issue of the caste census, it is pertinent to ponder whether a caste census is really needed. Is it something which is the need of the hour? Will it do any good to the public and the policymakers? Or is it just a tool to appease the backward castes and a way for the opposition parties to pressurize the government?
Well, there are plenty of opinions on this issue but in my opinion, conducting a caste census is really important and it should be conducted at the earliest. A caste census is not only required to know the figures of different castes but it will also address many pertinent issues. A caste census would help to address the problem pertaining to the lack of data on backward castes because, without the data, India's social equality programmes cannot be successful. The OBC population was pegged by the Mandal Commission at 52%, but other sources have estimated the OBC population at 36 to 65 percent. The census would yield a wealth of demographic information (sex ratio, mortality rate, life expectancy), educational data (male and female literacy, ratio of school-going population, number of graduates), and policy-relevant information about economic conditions (house type, assets, occupation) of the OBCs in addition to resolving the mystery about the size of the OBC population.
The Rohini Commission, which was established to consider how to fairly redistribute the 27% OBC quota, found that there are approximately 2,633 castes that are covered by the OBC reservation. A second category of ‘Extremely Backward Castes’, who are even more marginalized, exists among the OBCs, but the Centre's 1992 reservation policy ignores this fact. A caste census will have political and social ramifications since caste has an emotional component.
Caste counting has raised questions about whether it contributes to hardening social identities. Due to these effects, nearly ten years after the SECC 2011, a substantial portion of the data is still unavailable or has only been made partially available. Although a caste census may not be in line with the idea of a casteless society, it might be used to rectify social injustices. Caste data will allow for impartial research on the issue of who needs affirmative action and who does not, as well as the efficacy of this policy.
The greatest caste-based affirmative benefit scheme in the world is administered by India. Caste identities are used to grant reservations in educational institutions and government positions. Caste and tribal identities are the basis for the Scheduled Castes (SCs), also known as Dalits, whose quota is 15%, and the Scheduled Tribes (STs), whose quota is 7.5%. The B. P. Mandal Commission determined the Other Backward Classes' (OBCs') backwardness on the basis of caste, hence the greatest reservation mandate for OBCs - 27% is caste-based. The reservation for OBCs is not based on their proportion of India's population, unlike the quotas for Dalits and STs, which are proportionate to their populations as determined by censuses held every ten years.
OBC quota was set at 27% since there wasn't enough room as the total reservation was limited to 50%. The OBC population was projected to be 52% of the population by the Mandal Commission. This is why Akhilesh Yadav, president of the SP, and other leaders demanded - "jiski jitni sankhya bhari, uski utni hissedari" (every caste group should get representation proportionate to their share in the population). Caste information was gathered in the last census conducted by the British colonial authority in 1941, but the results were not made public. Following independence, the government only gathered and released SC and ST caste data for the 1951 Census. The first independent Indian government, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, reportedly overturned the caste census programme in 1951, according to the government's testimony before the court. In their affidavit, the government claims that "a caste-wise enumeration in the Census has been given up as a matter of policy from 1951 onwards, so, castes other than scheduled castes and scheduled tribes have not been enumerated in any of the Census since 1951 until now." However, the Manmohan Singh administration chose to collect caste information as part of the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) in 2011, although the information was never made public. Since there is no current caste census data, the 2021 welfare policy formulation will be based on the caste estimations from 1931. A caste census is likely to present policymakers with new and updated data.
In their affidavit from last week, the administration stated that it was unable to perform a caste census due to technical issues. The Centre's position before the Supreme Court was in response to a plea from the Maharashtra government requesting that data on the Backward Class of Citizens (BCC) be collected for the Census 2021. Since that time, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), a rival party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) have resurrected calls for a caste census to be conducted concurrently with Census 2021. The Centre claimed in an affidavit dated September 21 that conducting a caste census would be challenging in practice and emphasized that the population census is not the "perfect instrument" for gathering information on caste. There must be more than one caste for the caste system to exist. There must be other castes for one to engage in caste practices. Caste is always already taken into account in this "practising of caste," and this action causes a person to locate the other in relation to one's caste. According to Babasaheb Ambedkar, "ascending order of reverence and descending order of disdain" is how one would locate themselves in the caste system using this numbering. For instance, one would need to know the surname in order to determine someone's whole name. Surnames are a good indicator of caste. Most Indians alter their behaviour or attitude when they learn about a person's caste location. This change in behaviour can either be encouraging or demeaning to a person.
Hindu castes or upper castes are overrepresented in contemporary institutions. Castes that are marginalized have a social existence that is similar to death. Such castes hardly ever appear in contemporary institutions. The anti-caste movement, which included Ambedkar's call to "Educate," the Dalit Panthers, Dalit Sangharsh Samiti, Dalit Mahasabha, the Mandal agitation, and several more undocumented efforts, have ensured their existence by instilling the value of education in the underprivileged people. The purpose of the caste census is not to determine a caste's numerical strength. Instead, the caste census tells us where distinct castes are located in social and modern organizations. The caste census reveals the illusion of the national imagination or the perceived community of the country. In the social, political, and economic institutions of the country, are all castes on the same page? Census data exposes nation-building myths, particularly those relating to the politics of economic and social progress. We can see from the census how each caste is progressing. Are the marginalized castes receiving their legally mandated part in the national institutions? What effects do the government's plans and programmes have on disadvantaged populations? The listing of castes will reveal the answers to questions of this nature.
The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP) were accused by the BJP of focusing their campaigns solely on Jatavs and Yadavs while disregarding the rest of the Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes during the 2014 Lok Sabha and 2017 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh. This line of reasoning was also emphasized by the electronic media, which directly aided the BJP's campaign. Let's imagine that the Jatavs and Yadavs of UP, respectively, have been entirely uplifted by the politics of the BSP and SP. This implies that none of them should have any social or economic backwardness. However, a random study in the state would show that while the Jatavs and Yadavs may have improved in terms of political consciousness or mobility, respectively, there has been little progress in terms of social and economic mobility.
The decline of tigers and certain other species in the Indian jungles worries the government, which keeps track of the tiger population, preventing particular creatures from being extinct. The government is concerned that tigers must survive. There are numerous mobile and satellite castes, such as the nomadic Dakkali. In many states, their population wouldn't exceed a few thousand. Since the majority of them lack any identification, they are not state recipients. By counting them and making sure they receive social benefits, the government can demonstrate its concern for these satellite castes. If there were no caste census, castes such as the Dakkali would vanish. Understanding caste social mobility in India is the goal of caste censuses. It also serves as a register for the amount of influence Brahmanism and Manu’s laws have on castes in India. Additionally, it would demonstrate the extent to which the Constitution or a constitutional state applies to various castes as well as the degree to which societal and governmental institutions have adopted constitutional mandates. In other words, it illustrates how castes situate themselves in relation to contemporary nation-states and social institutions like caste. Not conducting a caste census means maintaining inequality among those who are disadvantaged by systems like caste. Similar findings were highlighted by studies conducted collaboratively by Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU), Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), and the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies. “Wealth ownership and inequality in India: A socio-religious analysis”, a study presented in a paper published in 2018, found that "Of the total national assets, the highest 41% is owned by upper caste Hindus followed by 31% by OBC groups, whereas the lowest among STs and SCs, each owning 3.7% and 7.6% of the total assets, respectively." It clearly reflects that in India, the hierarchy of the caste system is reflected in the way wealth is distributed. We need precise statistics on the population of different caste groups and their socio-economic situation in order to address these concerns, which are essential for the general and holistic prosperity of our country, as the wealth of the country is distributed along caste lines.
A detailed examination of SECC surveys reveals that they suffer from unclear data variables, poor data capture (especially with regard to the caste variable) design, and a lack of organization. It should come as no surprise that the data is still not available for public use or review. The call for caste-based headcounts (or the inclusion of a caste column) in India's decennial census is growing louder every day in the lack of SECC 2011 data and any other alternative data. A caste column in the census might be an excellent place to start, but in its current form, it might not provide enough information to meet the data requirements for inclusive social policymaking. In fact, it offers thorough information on a few factors, like caste and household assets (common consumer goods) and education (currently for SC and ST groups only). However, especially in the context of OBCs, it would not be sufficient to answer all of the unanswerable problems about backwardness and representation. The statistics will continue to contain many gaps regarding contentious topics like income, wealth, representation in elite positions, involvement in caste-based occupations, etc. and the country would still be ignorant of the socioeconomic backwardness of people who are born into particular social groups. The point being made here is that the Census of India in its current form, with a caste column added, will be of only limited use and fall short of answering the majority of the important questions that the caste-census proponents hope it will. The only option is a full-fledged caste census along the lines of SECC 2011, which needs to be carefully planned, meticulously designed, and thorough in terms of socio-economic characteristics.
The Narendra Modi administration at the centre, according to Nitish Kumar, should rethink its demand to forgo conducting a caste census. Tejashwi Yadav, the RJD leader, has published an opinion piece in a major publication. Tejashwi Yadav had also sent letters to non-BJP parties pleading for their backing for the caste census. MK Stalin, the chief minister of Tamil Nadu, has also backed a caste census, and both his party and the DMK have written to the government and allies to support it. In Uttar Pradesh, the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) both reaffirmed their call for a caste census.
Fears Against a Caste Census - Are They Real?
There have been various fears which have been raised against a caste-based census. The first is directly tied to the reality that upper-caste people have benefited most from government initiatives on education, the economy, and development. A caste-based census will expose this fact, posing a danger to the hegemony of the Brahmanical ruling class. The hard-core Hindus view a caste-based census as a danger to their much-cherished vision of "Hindu" unity since it will reveal its Brahminical foundation. A caste-based census is seen in the Hindutva worldview as a plot to undermine “Hindu society”, akin to their opposition to a separate electorate during the colonial era. The caste-based census will disprove the assertion made by many neo-liberal proponents that capitalism and its variants are the greatest potential system for eradicating caste. The wealth difference between upper-caste groups and other caste groups has, if anything, only widened over the past 30 years of economic liberalization, according to the studies conducted. Will the caste census ultimately support caste and deepen divisions in an already fractured society? The simple response to this fear is that caste has existed prior to the census and the census gathers information on sex disparity and illiteracy rates, among other things. This does not imply that the census gives them legitimacy, caste counting only serves to track society's perception of caste identity; it does not undermine the goal of making our country caste-free.
A caste-based census is a need of the hour and should be conducted at the earliest. It will, not only, provide a precise enumeration of various castes, especially the OBCs, but will also serve as a credible database for the formulation of policies directed at social empowerment. Census is a potent instrument for reducing socioeconomic inequality. Hence, understanding the crucial role that the census plays in democracy is essential. It is more than just a tiresome data collection task done every ten years, it offers the statistical framework through which the State can develop its social goal for the ensuing ten years. The response of the government in its detailed affidavit citing ‘technical difficulties’ and ‘inauthenticity of the 2011 SECC data’ as the reasons for not conducting a caste-based census seems to be a deliberate attempt to delay this much-needed and pertinent exercise. The growing clamour by various political parties including some allies of the NDA government is a positive trend but it remains to be seen whether a caste-based census would be conducted or will remain an unfulfilled demand.
By Milind Shekhar Singh