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India: State and Its Anxiety of Caste Census

Acknowledging the fact of caste through census reveals the truth of anxiety.


The idea of caste census by the colonial rulers had both constraining as well as enabling sight. It was constraining to the extent that it was designed to bring certain sections, such as sex workers, prisoners and patients suffering from contagious diseases, under the surveillance of the colonial administration. The enabling sight of the colonial census operation was discernible in particular respect to the Untouchable castes. Colonial census that used anthropological parameters to cover these castes not only brought their predicament in the national focus, but it also helped Untouchable leaders to approximate the social reality of untouchability at the national level. Put differently, through print and wireless media, the enumeration of caste census generated a pan-Indian social consciousness among the Untouchables.

The central government of free India, for distributive purposes, continued all-India census for the Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). However, the rising desperation and depression that has been increasingly faced by several castes seems to have led the leaders of these castes to demand caste census so that the case for state attention to the problems of these castes could be legitimately made. These parties are demanding the enumerative mention of caste in government records just like the SCs and STs. However, it is both the central government as well as some academicians, who, for different reasons, do not favour the idea of extending caste census to castes other than SCs and STs. What are the grounds of such scepticism to caste census?

Scholars with liberal/radical orientation seem to use universal argument that, by consequences, might deflect policy attention from comprehending human development index. From this perspective, then, data on human development index becomes much more important than the data on caste. Thus, such argument assumes abstractly countable individual, such as citizen or poor, as a reference point rather than sociologically and hence concretely situated person in the caste. These scholars, how­ever, ignore the connection between caste and development, which are mutually constraining, as they do not address the following questions. For example, how does one account for the disproportionate distribution of opportunities favouring one caste rather than another? If the argument for the defence of disproportionate distribution is, as is the case more often than not, attributed to competitive merit even then one needs to ask further question: Is merit devoid of favourable conditions that have historically enabled some castes to retain their privileged position in the distribution of opportunities? Even for a developing index that is sensitive to human development, we need to accurately know which castes, apart from SC and ST, are forced to do inferior and degrading jobs. In order to draw the exact account of deprivation index, we need totality of caste figures.

The liberal/modernist, on the other end of the spectrum, see in a caste-based census a lurking danger of essentialism. According to such line of thinking, the demand for caste census, which is primarily driven by the need to gain distributive benefits from the government, would eventually make caste an essential source of progress. Caste census as the single parameter of distribution of reservation, in fact, undermines the logic of essentialism. Put differently, it, instead of perpetuating caste, seeks to undermine it through internal differentiation induced by intra-group inequality which itself is the result of skewed implementation of reservation policy. In a dialectical sense, the demand for caste census by the Other Backward Class (OBC) leaders actually promises this internal differentiation.

However, we need to raise the question: Why is government sceptical of either undertaking the operation of caste census or making public caste-based figures that are supposed to be already available? Among other reasons, the important reasons could be that the government may not want to confront the fact of caste that causes moral embarrassment both within and outside the country and, hence, the acute need for avoiding official enumeration of caste. Castes, however, are not abstract or an innocent entity, in fact, they are concrete facts that play out through social practices. The analysis and interpretation of such facts play an important role in producing truth of discrimination and domination both across and within castes.

However, those who represent the government tend to use the fact of caste as rhetoric rather than truth. For example, those in power have been frequently using caste numbers as the source for gaining legitimacy as a political need. Thus, the claim to have given ministerial berth to more members from the OBC and SC forms part of the rhetoric. But such claims of being the government of the subaltern castes is seldom the government for the millions of OBCs or SCs who are almost mired in disadvantage and depression. The rhetoric which necessarily feeds itself on the fuzzy rather than census-based identity of the OBC helps the government in power to avoid acknowledging the internal inequality within caste groups. Arguably, the caste-based census promises to ground the truth of internal inequality. Any government which is committed to producing a healthy and robust society would not shy away from acknowledging, through caste census, the fact of caste as truth and not as rhetoric.


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