Counting Castes

Census 2011 will be historic, and its findings will correct many dominant myths

India kicked off the national census of its billion-plus population on 1 April 2010. AP PHOTO/ANUPAM NATH
01 June, 2010

ON THE SECOND SUNDAY THIS MAY, while the sun was burning every living thing unfortunate enough to be outdoors in Delhi’s 40 degree summer, a short, thickset, government schoolteacher, armed with an umbrella and a thick register, knocked at my door. She is one of the 2.5 million enumerators on duty, carrying out one of the biggest administrative exercises in the world, the Indian Census. India is among very few countries that have conducted an unbroken chain of regular decennial censuses. The first modern census in India started in 1871, but the practice goes back as far as the Mauryan Empire (321-185 BCE).

Kundi kholo. Census keliye aaye hain (Open the door.

I’ve come about the census).” The voice had a teacher’s authority.

The teacher-enumerator gave me a questionnaire that had columns for names, number of children, educational qualification, source of water, material used for wall and roof, and if I had toilets in my dwelling; politely put, whether or not I used the bushes or the banks of railway lines. (The last census in 2001, told us 78.4 percent of the rural population and 13.6 of the urban population still practised open defecation.) The enumerator left with my replies, telling me she would come again before March 2011 to take the biometrics.

But there is a change of plan. On her second visit, the government will give her yet another question to ask, one they haven’t asked since 1931.


Just a few days ago, the Manmohan Singh government made an historic decision to count heads according to caste, reversing the dominant thinking in New Delhi since Independence that enumerating caste would threaten the unity of India. Most leaders of the Congress, including Jawaharlal Nehru, were against the idea. Even after several government-appointed commissions on caste (Kalelkar in 1956, Havanur in 1975, and Mandal in 1980) asked the government to include caste in the census, there was resistance from the cream of the power, class and caste. Either they cited administrative difficulties or sounded alarmist.

In a country where caste discrimination persists in all walks of life, elimination and burning down Dalit houses are routine, and affirmative action and social justice continue to be major policy debates, the government, judiciary, community leaders, academics, corporations, everyone, will benefit from some real numbers on the caste composition of India; and not just sample surveys and guestimations. The current lack of credible numbers will be solved with Census 2011. And most importantly, the math that will come from the Census will dispel two national myths.

Myth number 1:

The upper-caste population is huge. The fair, tall, vegetarian, confident men and women of the priestly Brahmin, warrior Kshatriya and trading Vaishya must be more in number than the dark, short, servile Shudras and the Untouchables. The latter kind, Shudras and the Untouchables, who subsisted on farming, cow-herding and manual labour, whom historians such as Romila Thapar call the original inhabitants of India until the Aryan invasion in 1,500 BCE, are still around as Backward Castes (BCs), Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). But they’re only a few and live afar, in the villages and forests. This myth on the number will be broken with the caste census. We will see the BCs, STs, and SCs forming the majority, somewhere in the range of 70 percent of the population. It’s just that this population is still so servile, and invisible to the national mainstream, that many mistake the visible as the majority. Now, the invisible will make the majority.

Let’s look at this popular misconception of visibility and invisibility another way. If you’re an Indian, or a foreigner who is familiar with India, the chances of you recognising one or many well-known personalities with the following surnames are plenty: Mukherjee, Ganguly, Mishra, Sharma, Iyer, Murthy, Joshi, Rao, Namboothiripad, Kamath, Haksar, Kaul, Goswamy, Tiwari, Vajpayee (Brahmin); Rathore, Raju, Singh, Sisodia, Rana, Bedi, Jadeja, Tanwar, Adhikari (Kshatriya); Mittal, Gupta, Singhal, Goyal, Patel, Khanna, Kapur, Vohra, Shetty (Vaishya). In India’s prevailing hierarchy of social status, men and women with upper caste surnames, like the above, generate an image of confidence, power, social dignity and omnipresence among us—omnipresence, because they’re everywhere from politics to cricket; and even the educated and well-exposed make no attempt not to use their caste names.

Juxtapose those names with the following surnames, or caste names, that don’t come so easy to our tongues, primarily because we don’t hear them in the national mainstream: Adi Karnataka, Shendurnikar, Valluvan, Tirkey, Khakha, Adi Dravida, Paraiyar, Kaibarta, Namasudra (SC); Santal, Paniya, Kurichiya, Oraon, Kumre, Naitam, Bedar, Bhumija, Mala Araya, Bhil, Yerukala (ST); Kamati, Yadav, Maso, Ezhava, Jatab (BC).

The figures that will emerge from Census 2011 can’t be very different from those of 1931. When the British last counted caste, Brahmins accounted for only 6.4 percent of the population, Rajputs 3.7 percent and Banias 2.7 percent. The backward castes, excluding the Dalits and tribal people, came to 43.7 percent. In 2011, as a block, the Shudras and Untouchables could reach 70 percent of the Indian population.

However, the main difference between 1931 and 2011 is that the former was carried out under the colonial government that had no responsibility to fight social injustices, whereas now, the caste figures will have Independent India’s official stamp. Among other things, we’ll know the ratios of everything from Shudra-Brahmin breakdowns of the population practicing open defecation to educational qualification. These figures will give the lower caste communities a more confident and aggressive claim on the share of development and national wealth. And New Delhi will have to listen.

If he was alive today, Babasaheb Ambedkar would be happy hearing Manmohan Singh’s decision to count caste. In his classic work Who Were the Shudras? (1946) Ambedkar lamented: “If people have no idea of the magnitude of the problem (of the shudras) it is because they have not cared to know what the population of the shudras is. Unfortunately, the census does not show their population separately. But there is no doubt that excluding the untouchables, the shudras form 75 to 80 per cent of the population of Hindus.”

Ambedkar’s point was about the social, political and administrative invisibility of the shudras, and how the majority Indians are dominated by the minority upper castes. Even with the onset of BC reservation in 1993, the community occupies only five percent of the Central gazetted posts. The absence of Shudras and Untouchables in the private sector is even more appalling. For instance, in the industry I belong to, journalism, there was a survey in 2006 by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies that examined the social profile of more than 300 senior journalists in 37 English and Hindi newspapers and television channels in Delhi. The study found there was not a single Scheduled Caste (SC) or Scheduled Tribe (ST) person in a senior post. Brahmins alone, the survey found, held 49 per cent of the top jobs in the national press.

Myth number 2:

The textbook description of India as a Hindu-majority nation (80 percent), with around 15 percent Muslims, two percent Christians, less than two percent Sikhs, less than one percent Buddhists, Jains, etc. This watertight religion-based classification will be challenged, when cutting across religious lines, if people decide to identify themselves more by their caste. In recent years, more and more people are doing so. This is evident between two National Sample Surveys. In 2000, 40 percent of Hindus and 31 percent of Muslims described themselves as BCs, and by 2005, these figures went up significantly, with 45 percent of Hindus and 41 percent of Muslims describing themselves as BCs.

What does this tell us? The construct of India as a Hindu majority nation, where Islam and Christianity treat converts equally, could suddenly become ‘imagined claims,’ and something very different could emerge out of the census.

If the direction of societal movement is towards the diverse Shudra-Untouchable communities forming intellectual, political and social alliances, then the ancient age’s battle of two philosophies could surface once again. Then, the Brahminical camp’s Vedanta, Purva-mimamsa, Nyaya and Vaiseshika (more cosmic, ritualistic, liturgical and hierarchical) philosophies had won over the non-Brahminical camp’s Sankhya, Jaina, Baudha and Charvak Lokayat (more rationalistic, non-hierarchical and materialistic) ones. Looking ahead, if an intellectual and political assertion gets further developed based on the caste numbers and historic and sociological facts, even the very idea of India, its classifications and descriptions, could be challenged.

Two very assertive Yadav politicians, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav, get the credit of having influenced the Manmohan Singh government towards caste enumeration. There are rumours that the Yadavs cut a deal in which, in exchange they would support the minority government to complete its remaining four years. With its Bengali partner, Mamata Banerjee, of the Trinamool Congress, threatening to withdraw support, the government needed an arrangement. Whatever be the political barter, however, the time has come to count caste. And Census 2011 will be historic, and will give everyone talking points in the years to come.