October 03, 2021

On Caste Census

B V Raghavulu

THE central government in an affidavit submitted to the Supreme Court on September 23, stated that it is not possible to carry out caste census in the 2021 census operation. It also made it clear that this was a ‘conscious policy decision’. The reasons advanced by the central government for its rejection of the widely supported demand for conducting caste census as a part of the general census are flimsy and trivial. Actually, the real reason behind its flat refusal is that Sangh Parivar does not want the results of the caste census to expose the real nature of Hindutva communal politics.

The central government has stated in its affidavit that collecting caste details of backward classes is: ‘administratively difficult and cumbersome’; there is no guarantee about the ‘completeness and accuracy of the data’; and that data cannot be used for official purposes as ‘a source of information for population data in any official document’. Anyone who had observed the earlier efforts to collect caste data would understand that these arguments are not based on facts and are flying in the face of past experience. It can be done if there is enough political intent.

Before independence, in all the decadal census operations from 1881 to 1941, information related to caste was collected. The fact is that we are still depending on that information collected in the 1931 census because information related to caste was not included in the later census operations (the caste details collected in the 1941 census were not tabulated and published due to the Second World War). Mandal Commission had based its estimation of the percentage of backward caste population as 52 per cent on this census data. Many bourgeois parties are using these statistics to fine tune their social engineering strategies. Even after independence, collection of information related to caste has not been given up, as is being claimed by the Modi government. For the first time in independent India, in 1968, EMS Namboodiripad led LDF government had collected caste details in a comprehensive and scientific manner. It had used the information thus collected to design its socio-economic, welfare programmes for the poor and also to decide on the pattern of reservations.

Since then, many government agencies regularly collect information regarding caste through their surveys. National Sample Survey, National Family Health Survey and the Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households are some examples. These data gathered through these surveys are being used to design many government interventions.

In 2011, a countrywide massive ‘socio-economic caste census’ (SECC) was undertaken, though not as part of the general census operation. In this exercise, 118 crore people were covered. Data was collated and tabulated. Most of the identified mistakes were rectified with the help of the respective states. Only 1,43,00,000 (one crore forty three lakh) errors still remain to be addressed. This amounts only to 1.2 per cent. But the governments, first the Congress, then the BJP, have not released this data. The Congress government which was in power till 2014, sat on the release of the consolidated statistics. The BJP-led Modi government that had come to power in 2014, without releasing the data announced that SECC was completed with an expenditure of Rs 5000 crores, consigning the entire data to the dustbin. In this manner, the good beginning that was made ended in colossal waste of precious money.

The registrar general and census commissioner of India in 2016 stated before the parliamentary standing committee of rural development that 98 per cent of the SECC data is error free. But the Modi government is branding this data as of low quality to defend its refusal to release the present data and to conduct caste census. Even those two per cent errors are not much more than what occur in any population census. By using the experience gained, by correcting technical lacunae, by properly training census personnel, by using modern information technologies and big data analytics, even that small fraction of errors can be avoided in future. But the Modi government is advancing untenable alibis to reject the demand for caste census.

Some other objections are being raised against caste census. One such is that it is very difficult to collect data of OBCs because the same caste is categorised in different lists in different states; there is a difference between state and central lists; there is problem with categorising those children born of inter-caste marriages; and there is no clarity on how to categorise those who refuse to own any caste etc. All these difficulties are not insurmountable. In general census, data is collected on religion with similar set of issues like categorising children from inter-faith marriages and those who deny following any religion etc. When there is no problem in collecting such information about religion, there will not be any for caste census. BJP – which is not opposed to the collection of religious data – opposing the caste census clearly exposes its political duplicity.

We cannot expect the BJP to stand for caste census, in opposition to its parental organisation – the RSS. RSS, in fact has always been opposed to the collection of caste census, as was clearly stated by many RSS pracharaks on various occasions. Those who have accepted Manu dharma as their ideal cannot be expected to stand for social justice. They cannot tolerate the weakening of caste system. If Hindus are to be communalised on the basis of Hindutva, the existing socio-economic, political inequalities and oppressions based on caste are to be covered up and should not be allowed to surface. But if caste census takes place, it will expose the obnoxious nature of caste system, which is the core of Hinduism, undermining the unity based on communal politics. If the oppressed caste groups including OBCs among the Hindus start questioning about the iniquitous distribution of resources, it would be damaging communal Hindutva project. That is why the idea of caste census is not to the liking of the RSS and the BJP.

Another widespread impression is that, helped by the information of caste data, caste feelings will increase. This is like putting the cart before the horse. Caste exclusiveness, identity feeling, is an inbuilt trait of caste hierarchy. As long as caste system is not eradicated, foundations for such ideas will exist. Even without caste census, due to various factors, caste identity consciousness has been increasing in our society. Bourgeois political parties are fanning them to serve their vested electoral interests. As the awareness against social inequalities increases among weaker sections, caste identity consciousness will increase. Although there is narrowness in this caste identity consciousness among weaker sections, we should acknowledge the presence of a democratic aspect in it. It is wrong to assume that through opposing caste census, we can contain caste consciousness. It is through our fight against caste system, we can negate caste consciousness.

Some are objecting to caste census arguing that it may lead to new demands for reservations and redistribution of existing reservations. There is some truth in this argument. However, it should be noted that even when there is no caste census, such demands are being raised. Commissions are recommending reservations for new castes. Political parties too are promising such reservations. Governments too are taking decisions granting such reservations. All this is happening even without caste census.

Actually, caste census may help in deciding the genuineness of such demands of some groups and reject demands of some others. Courts, in many instances, are rejecting the decisions of the governments saying that they are not taken on the basis of verifiable data. If caste census is carried out, courts cannot dispose of cases on technical grounds. Moreover, caste census will help in understanding the link between caste and socio-economic, educational development, assess the impact of ruling classes’ policies and reservations for the welfare of backward classes till date. The reality of SC, ST and certain OBC caste groups who are still denied access to resources and opportunities will come out through caste census. The bankrupt policies of ruling classes and their failure in realising social justice will be exposed.

However, we should be cautious that come political parties and individuals are projecting caste census as a magic pill for the realisation of social justice and a solution for many problems faced by the weaker sections. The experience of SCs and STs – whose caste/ethnic information is available – in getting social justice is pathetic even after seven decades of independence. This should draw our attention to the policies that are harming the cause of social justice.

After the implementation of neoliberal policies, particularly after Modi-led BJP had come to power, privatisation, monetisation, cuts in subsidies and welfare schemes, dilution of land reform legislation, enactment of new farm laws that push poor and middle peasants into bankruptcy and such other policies have drastically reduced the utility of reservations and curtailed the importance of welfare schemes. Without fighting against such policies, we should not be under the illusion that there will be a big change in the lives of OBCs, even if caste census is carried out.

At the same time we should not think that caste census is of no use. The availability of authentic and scientific information about the status of various castes will help us in understanding the actual situation and in proposing alternative policies for the realisation of social justice. The information we get from caste census will help the weaker sections realise the limitation of caste identity consciousness and the necessity of developing class consciousness. It is for this reason we want caste census, even though we do not expect any miracles to happen through it. The actual data that can be obtained from caste census can be used as a weapon in our struggle for social justice.

Even today assets and wealth is concentrated in the hands of hegemonic and upper-castes. Majority among the SCs, STs and OBCs are still poor and live as workers. Caste oppression is still widely prevalent. We cannot achieve social justice without breaking land concentration and ensuring employment for all.