Contemplating the Caste Census Conundrum

V Geetha in her article “Bereft of being, The Humiliation of untouchability” writes ‘when one’s-corporeal and spiritual existence is itself considered evidence of one’s lowness, when being (as in the self is disallowed the knowledge of its integrity), its claims to self-respect, then a profound crisis besets thyself–a crisis which the American philosopher Cornel West describes very aptly as “an ontological wounding’.A simple translation of what V Geetha has penned  would be, Caste in India is a living reality and caste oppression has been a lived reality for so many people. It serves as a weapon for subordination,  gaining power and an identifying marker that foretells your place in society. It’s rather a travesty how India is a two-edged sword. How we have polished and nurtured one side and let the other side rust. We have packaged the Indian identity with terms like equality, development, progress, and inclusivity to give it a scintillating sheen but as we soar as the fastest-growing economy we are also climbing the stairs as one of the most unequal countries.

To bring the entire argument of this article into perspective, it’s rather essential to flip the pages of the past. The Caste System is a ‘societal categorisation’ unique to India. The caste system carefully stratifies the society underpinning occupational basis. The system that roughly emerged around 1500 BC has successfully been institutionalised by the ones who gained from it by divinising the entire hierarchical organisation of the society. What the caste system effectively did which is of core importance to the present is, it mentally scared the ones who were crippled by a system that considered them ‘outcastes’ and ‘impure’ and consequently, they found it too difficult to identify with the independent India that became the cheerleader of equality and raced for development and progress.

The constitutional makers well recognised the historical wrongs committed by the so-called lower caste. Hence, the quandary that shadowed the minds of the Constitution makers was that India gained freedom from the raj but half of its population was still living in the dark and to lift them was a challenge well taken.

Constitutional safeguards like articles 14,15,16,46,330 and 332 were placed as a fundamental step towards ensuring a level playing field for those who were earlier even denied to step on the field , thereby making a significant step in acknowledging the historical ferocity.Dr B.R Ambedkar came up with the world’s first and also the largest affirmative action programme of ‘Reservation’.It is nebulous how many socioeconomic problems have Reservation solved but it sure has created a lower caste bourgeoise. Bapu’s ‘harijans’ are given constitutional protection and backing on paper but ,a promise made 75 years ago of equality ,liberty and fraternity still is  distant from its practical manifestations.It is  non -arguable that constitutionally we have criminalised untouchability but to assume that caste-consciousness has evaporated too would be both a stupid and naive conclusion to draw.

Tracing back to History

India’s strategy to deal with the visceral problem of  caste in society was rather tautological.It’s rightly said we prisoned ourselves with ‘commission pe commission’.The first prime minister of Independent India appointed Kaka Kalelkar to constitute The First Backward Class Commission.Kaka was reportedly called “ Savai Gujrat” which translates to quarter more than gujarati since he had an extremely tight relationship with Mahatma Gandhi.Kalelkar wrote in his report that prejudice doesn’t hold a community back educationally or economically. “If backward communities have neglected education, it is because they had no use for it. Now they have discovered their mistake. It is for them to make necessary efforts for their prosperity. They will naturally receive whatever help is available to all citizens,” he concluded.Continuing the premise  he also wrote that backward classes should remember that any liberal policies they find in the Constitution are a result of “the awakened conscience of the upper classes themselves.”He later,consumed in self doubt proposed to reject his own recommendations.

The incendiary Second Backward Classes Commission was appointed by the Janata Party in 1979. Mandal was more resolved than Kalelkar to work past caste-based exclusion – he believed that social backwardness was the direct consequence of caste status, and used systematic survey methods to conduct his research. Using data from the 1931 Census, Mandal created the point system to measure backwardness and reported that these backward communities made up around 52% of India’s overall population.Mandal was aware about the fierce content in his report and timings couldn’t have been worse.The outsting of Janta Party by Indira Gandhi government lend no opportunity for Mandal to explain his report.It was tabled, debated, and then dismissed by the Congress in 1982 and 1983. It lay forgotten after that.

Mandal report though saw an afterlife click.Under Prime minister VP singh it was brought to  life in 1990 again.“I know when we try changing the structures, there will be resistance,” he said in the Rajya Sabha on 9 August 1990.The decision triggered the “Mandal-Mandir” chain of events.Based on the findings of Mandal commission which used 1931 census data revealed that 52% of india’s population accounted for OBCs and consequently 27% of seats where reserved in public sector jobs and educational institutions for OBCs.What always shall remain an enigma is whether these numbers were justified without a proper data.It is thus instrumental to introduce caste question in census.

An outcome of Indira Sawhney Judgment was the coming of The National Commission for Backward Class (NCBC) constituted in 1993.The NCBC was given the responsibility to investigate complaints and grievances and examine welfare measures for backward classes, and it maintains a central list of OBCs. It doesn’t, however, maintain population sizes.Fundamentally, without population sizes and exact figures we are drawing castles in air.The result of framing policies without precise data has rightfully caused indignation across caste groups.In 2010 , Manmohan Singh government commissioned a Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC) which took 5 years to complete.Another gruse with our administrative machinery is the tortoise speed of it’s functioning.The SECC report never saw the light of the day.The report was assumed to have downplayed reality and the caste data it collected remained a secret.In the spirit of “commission pe commission” the latest development has been of Rohini commission dwelling into  the equitable redistribution of the 27 per cent quota reserved for OBCs. It was originally supposed to submit its report by March 2018, but is on its eleventh extension.

Caste and Wealth disparity

The economical success story of India is not a story alot of Indians can call theirs.The pie of economic development is not shared equally rather snatched for some to fill the overflowing plates of ‘others’.Researchers and academcians  have studied how wealth and income inequality in India is, more often than not, split along caste lines, with upper castes cornering a larger piece of the pie.The research article, titled “Poverty, wealth inequality and financial inclusion among castes in Hindu and Muslim communities in Uttar Pradesh, India”, is authored by Chhavi Tiwari,of the Institut National d’études Démographiques (INED),Mohammad Zahid Siddiqui of the Centre for the Study of Regional Development under JNU; and Pradeep S. Salve of the International Institute for Population Sciences.The  research article shows that consumption expenditure for Hindu Dalits and Dalit Muslims is lowest compared to other sub-castes.In the same vein, it is Muslim OBCs and Muslim Dalits followed by Hindu Dalits that are the most common landless households in UP. Lastly, both the categories also register one of the highest poverty levels.Alternatively, and perhaps not surprisingly, Brahmins, Thakurs and other Hindu general castes have higher wealth accumulation, lower poverty and lesser exclusion from formal financial services than Dalits. Additionally, within-group income inequalities among upper castes are strikingly less compared to within-group income inequalities observed amongst Hindu and Muslim OBCs and Dalits.It has roughly categorised a household’s economic and social position into four major categories: lifestyle deprivation, historical deprivation, household condition and wealth, and deprivation in financial inclusion, highlighting how caste-based social stratification continues to undergird poverty levels in India.

Professor Himanshu from Jawahar Lal Nehru University opined that “What is particularly worrying in India’s case is that economic inequality is being added to a society that is already fractured along the lines of caste, religion, region and gender.”It is thus  clearly established how economic prosperity and income equality is closely interlocked with caste.This effectively means any policy addressing poverty and economic dispartity should or rather must look at how caste is an important  ancillary factor.

Oxfam report 2023 on rising inequality finds that the richest 1per cent holds more than 45 per cent of global wealth, while the bottom half of the poor population has just 0.75 per cent.The report further corraborates that the concentration of wealth is also along the lines of caste stratification, as the report suggests. i.e., the caste considered to be at the top, the upper caste, has higher concentrations of wealth than those at the bottom of the caste system. It provides an advantage to the former in social and economic domains and incapacitates the latter at present and over the generations.

Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and Savitribai Phule Pune University collaborated on the two-year project. According to the report, only 22.3% of higher caste Hindus in the nation hold 41% of the nation’s total wealth, making them the richest group, while 7.8% of Hindu Scheduled Tribes own only 3.7%, the lowest wealth share of the nation’s assets.Interestingly , a study titled, Wealth Ownership and Inequality in India: A socio-religious analysis. It was conducted from 2015 to 2017, and the study’s findings were revealed recently.The researchers have found a marked divide in wealth distribution depending on whether members of a particular caste lived in urban or rural areas.The study also notes that historically, the right to property and education was available only to the Hindu high caste population, and this trend has remained largely unchanged. “Even today, caste plays an important role and the caste hierarchy downward, within Hindus, was found to be poorer. Inequality and discrimination is still faced by populations belonging to the lower castes. This is true for purchase of property or undertaking any business, both of which continue to be ruled by the upper castes”.

Among umpety number of causes for a deplorable statistic like this , one fundamental cause for the story of ‘India’s billionaire and billion others’ is archaic data usage for policy formulation.The core objective of stating the many finds of the microscopic  researches is to firmly establish that any poverty alleviation scheme or any scheme  would be a lost cause without accounting ‘caste data’ , a conscious chicanery committed by the policy makers.This further strengthens my argument for the need for  caste census, since it’s irrefutable that how caste is omnipresent but completely absent while policy formulation.

Political Tumult

A pertinent question to ask would be why should state now undertake caste question into census.The colonial administration was rather flustered by the what was aberrant for them to see a population which lived together albeit was divided on caste,creed,religion and was further convoluted with sub categorisation of caste and religion.Effectively ,the colonial administration looked at census as a modicum to codify and categorise caste.The independent India was keen on being a representative and an inclusive state which had move beyond caste and religious indifferences.The result of these opposite approaches to the census is a highly skewed and incomplete picture that doesn’t match ground reality — but, unfortunately, it became the blueprint for future censuses, as well as public policy.Dilip Mandal, former managing editor of India Today Hindi Magazine and founder of Centre For Brahmin Studies, told ThePrint that only the census commissioner has the technical capability to conduct a census — the SECC was done by the Ministry of Rural Development and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation over five years, and is largely seen as a failed mission.One of the major argument that surfaces is that ,caste census is a ‘cumbersome’ task.This argument instantly reminds me of The India of 1951 which undertook the mammoth task of conducting the first elections in 68 stage because no task was cumbersome when democracy and people’s voices were at stake.M. Vijayanunni, who served as the census commissioner from 1994 to 1999, wrote that there shouldn’t be any procedural difficulties in collecting caste data while conducting the census. While it might take longer to compile and analyse the data, the collection itself should not take extra effort.Hence, it wouldnt be wrong to assume that cumbersome is just a figleaf . One cannot become deaf in the cacophony of the groups from Jats,Marathas to lingayat’s demanding recognition under OBC category.But,on what bases will we make this selection?Census of 1931?This would be a mockery on everything we ever stood for.

Ironically , the country that prides itself in running the largest affirmative action programme has no definite data on the population it aims to emancipate.A consequence of this is, since states have the autonomy to define backwardness and create their own OBC list they also suffer from anomilities.Jats, for example, are listed as OBCs in Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, while in other states like Haryana, they are vying for OBC status.Then there is the Maratha reservation issue.“Whichever community wants to demand a different status should be allowed to — they have a right to demand. But we need to know if their demand is justifiable, and that’s why we need numbers,” said G. Karunanidhy, General Secretary of the All India OBC Federation.Migration further adds to this already complicated quest over OBC identity.

A census For All

It’s  important for the sake of my argument to put it conspicuously that census should not only account for the OBCs but be representative of the entire demographic.Some critics of caste census often rebut as they say that it would further lead to divisive policies and stronger the caste fault lines.The unity of this country is in it’s diversity.Denial will not address the widely acknowledged issue since India is purposefully running away from the past and failing to recognise the requirements of the presentAnother argument against caste census is that it would backfire on hindus to which I’d take the liberty to quote  Khalid Anis Ansari, associate professor of sociology at the School of Arts & Sciences at Azim Premji University in Bengaluru says “caste is the storehouse of social power in South Asia that cuts across religions”.Hence,caste census is juxtaposed to nation building activity.I further believe the caste census of 1931 is an oriental colonial document and by delaying caste census we are underplaying the link between caste , political economy and power. The data on caste is imperative for enabling reasonable conversations on categorical revisions within Scheduled Caste (SC), Scheduled Tribe (ST) and Other Backward Classes (OBC) categories, the legitimacy of the Economically Weaker Section (EWS) category, targeted development programmes for the marginalised etc.. In the absence of concrete caste data, we are bound to work with speculations that often cause misplaced antipathies and competitive envy between various castes and communities.If India,is to progress as a nation, we need to choose national interest over myopic caste based self interest.For India to overcome the crevasse caused by caste and  affirmative action, we need numbers. And recent ones.

Author: Ishani Garg from Kirori Mal College, Delhi University

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