Caste In Census

01 June, 2010

The late French philosopher, sociologist and anthropologist, Pierre Bourdieu, while observing the ways that social actions interact to produce differences in our society, pointed out that at times “social magic can transform people by telling them that they are different,” thus creating differences between people even when there might be none.

Telling a student in Delhi University that he/she has secured a place in the first division because he/she scored 60 percent while his/her friend, who got 59.5 percent, has the less exalted status of a second division, creates a difference between them even when there might not be slightest difference in academic calibre.

After a gap of 80 years, the government has allowed the Ministry of Home Affairs to include caste as a field in census forms. The last caste-based census was conducted in 1931. The critics of this move echo thoughts similar to Bourdieu’s: that by forcing people to identify themselves on the basis of their castes, we might create societal rifts, when an official validation of such classification would best be avoided.

They argue that today, when caste should disappear from the public imagination as a social identifier, this move would reinforce the fault lines of social conflict and differences.

But, then, the listing of caste data in the census is not based on the invention of new identities, or meant to push people towards a new system of segregation. Caste has been an active part of Indian life for centuries, the earliest expression of it being found in the Vedas, which are believed to have been compiled between 1500 and 1000 BCE. Subsequent texts, including the Bhagwad Gita, the Mahabharata and the Manusmriti, elaborated on caste as a law of life.

Caste as a basis for formal distinction became increasingly important in the pre-Mughal period, getting progressively entrenched under the Mughals and during colonial times. Important reasons for this were the commercial and strategic needs of the various regimes that favoured high-caste persons. The Mughals, for instance, needed to forge alliances with the high-caste Kshatriya Rajputs; and since the British needed men of learning to manage their commercial systems and tax collection networks, they favoured the Brahmins.

The Hindu kings were no different. In the early 1500s, the famed Emperor of the Vijayanagara empire, Krishna Deva Raya, emphasised the importance of caste and the Brahminical system of life, “[A king] should protect one and all of his subjects, should put an end to the mixing up of castes among them…[and]...should always try to increase the merit of the Brahamans.”

Even the great Maratha ruler, Shivaji Bhonsle, who reigned during 17th century and who himself belonged to a low caste, provided an underpinning for caste hierarchy under his rule, first by building classification on the basis of jati and varna into his court, and, second, by inventing the means of having himself upgraded to a high-born Kshatriya of Rajput descent by co-opting Brahmin priests to perform the required rituals and ceremonies.

The importance of caste, in fact, waned during the years that immediately followed the previous caste-based census of 1931, perhaps as a result of Gandhi’s unifying influence.

Caste identities and caste-based politics have, in fact, strengthened in post-Independence India, despite the absence of caste-based censuses. Perhaps this has happened because of the emerging consciousness among the intellectuals of the lower castes that there exists a disproportionate skew favouring the higher castes for positions of power and influence and of affluence.

As people from previously repressed castes gained the power and the means to rally support, they protested against the structural inequities of a caste-based society, demanding special treatment to offset historical injustices. Among the social justice policies that various governments have implemented in response to these demands, reservation has been the most contentious.

Over the past few decades, the country has witnessed ever-new demands for reservations from various repressed sections, almost all of them built on caste identities. There has been an equally vociferous opposition to reservation, first on principle of equality, and, second, on the controversial basis of how the figures for reservation were reached.

The opponents of reservation claim the existing levels of reservation are already far higher than what should reasonably be allowed—if, that is, reservation must be implemented at all. The pro-reservationists argue that the proportion of reserved seats in public institutions still falls far short of the representation of the reserved castes in our society.

The inclusion of caste in the ongoing Census 2011 is justified in terms of the second contentious point. As of now, lacking any comprehensive data over the past eight decades, all we have to work with are mere estimates. The numbers that the census throws up, whether they end up favouring the reservationists or their opponents, will at least provide us a more scientific and rational basis for evaluating the needs of various social justice programmes, including that of reservation.

It is incorrect to say that including caste in the census questionnaire will sensitise people to a new mode of self-identification. Caste has always been a deeply entrenched social phenomenon in our society, and the move to make it a part of the government’s databanks is a response to this millennia-old system of social stratification rather than a probable cause of further reinforcing divisive norms.

Anant Nath