How long do we want to live with the wishful thinking that caste will disappear if we do not count it or discuss it publicly?
Written by Pankaj Kumar
The government’s refusal to carry out a caste-based census in 2021 has transformed the otherwise dull exercise of conducting the decennial census into an emotive issue.
The meeting of an all-party delegation from Bihar with the prime minister on this question has increased the pressure on the government to rethink its earlier position. The efforts by Nitish Kumar and Tejashwi Yadav would appear counterintuitive and daring in the light of Abhay Dubey’s dubious claim that enumerating caste might be politically suicidal for them. The reason he cites is that it might expose the fact that a larger share of the pie has been cornered by the Kurmis and the Yadavs, communities to which these leaders belong.
The majority of society’s mainstream media and opinion-makers are trying their best to delegitimise the rationality of caste-based census. The opponents of caste enumeration lack any novel argument. They are replicating the same fear psychosis that it will breed casteism, divide society, and increase the existing caste-based quotas, which has been used against every other progressive measure centred around caste.
It is absurd to think that caste can be eradicated and social harmony achieved only if we do not count castes. Indeed, we must come to terms with the fact that caste by its nature is anti-social (as Ambedkar has rightly suggested), and no social cohesion can be achieved without destroying its edifices. How long do we want to live with the wishful thinking that caste will disappear if we do not count it or discuss it publicly?
It is a settled debate that modern complex societies cannot function without the widespread documentation and categorisation of the population. That is why “legibility” and “simplification” have been seen as part and parcel of modern statecraft. Besides, what is being counted and not counted must be based on principles and not arbitrary factors. If caste breeds social unrest—as is widely argued by the opponents of caste enumeration — so does religion. Then, why are we counting the latter? Any observer of Indian society would suggest that caste and religion continue to be the twin central axes that structure the relations of domination and subordination.
It is ironic that the suffering, pain, and everyday oppression of thousands of castes are neither acknowledged nor registered by the very regime which is deeply obsessed with what we eat, think, speak, and who are the authentic citizens. Consequently, not counting the exact socio-economic and educational conditions of castes is nothing short of a scandal.
What does the hostility against caste census signify? It denotes five things.
First, it is an attempt to conceal the overwhelming dominance of the upper castes in all walks of life, as Professor Satish Deshpande has emphatically argued. He calls them the most pampered minority of this country. It implies that caste-based enumeration is opposed because it might lead to a scrutiny of the privileges of the upper castes.
Second, it also helps us understand that the elites do not want themselves to be an object of enquiry. This explains why the upper castes in India are understudied in comparison to the lower castes and Dalits.
Third, it validates Leela Fernandes’s perceptive observation that the upper-caste dominated middle classes in this country, unlike the West, are socially illiberal and conservative in that they do not want lower groups to be incorporated within their fold. If this is not so, then what explains their double standard in opposing reservations but not protesting against the disinvestment regime, which will eventually result in fewer jobs in the public sector for all?
Fourth, the opposition to enumerating castes in the census showcases that we have collectively failed to acknowledge the gravity of caste-based oppression and are indifferent towards the everyday humiliation and cruelty that the majority of this country faces. It would not be an exaggeration to say that public reason in India is still caste-ridden. The classic case of this is the reception which reservations (or, for that matter, any policies directed to ensure social justice) have got in India. Instead of perceiving reservation as the marker of society’s reflexivity towards its wrongdoings on its people, the constant attack on it only suggests that those seeing it as a symbol of collective remorse were historically wrong.
Fifth, in a society deeply divided on caste lines, most of us not only know that there are numerous castes but also practice caste specific-codes in our daily lives; be it marrying within our caste boundaries; inviting fellow caste members for funeral feasts; carrying on rituals by Brahmin priests, etc.. At the same time, we hardly acknowledge our privileges, question prejudices, and think intersubjectively about the plight of the oppressed communities. That is why, despite credible evidence suggesting that caste is the most crucial category that shapes an individual’s life prospects even in contemporary India, a caste-based census is vehemently opposed. Instead of being willing to know about the actual condition of various social groups, attempts have been made to thwart their genuine demands right from the inception of the Indian republic.
How can we build a nation without acknowledging the centuries of oppression and humiliation which the lower castes and Dalits have faced? Can we build a just society or a nation based on assumptions, hypocrisy, lies, and prejudices? Thus, it is necessary to offset the mistakes which have been made by not conducting a caste census for such a long period. However, it must not be reduced to its political implications, as is generally done; rather, one must pay attention to its potential to reconstruct Indian society on egalitarian lines.
The need is to deconstruct the two dominant narratives vis-à-vis the caste census. Firstly, the lower castes would use it solely to claim a higher proportion of reservations. And secondly, the demand is not only to count Other Backward Classes (OBCs) only but upper castes as well. In sum, it must not only be reduced to an urge for extension of reservations.
Three normative justifications make this exercise not only essential but desirable as well.
One, the demand for caste-based census needs to be seen as an essential step in nation-building. It offers us a historical opportunity to assess the socio-economic miseries that a large number of social groups face. Moreover, national cohesion and social harmony can neither be achieved by keeping the masses in the dark nor by depriving them of their legitimate share in power and resources. In other words, a stake must be generated among various groups for the nation. A nation cannot be built based on lies, hypocrisy, dishonesty, and denial of justice to its citizens.
Two, caste empowerment is a stepping stone towards its eventual destruction. There is no harm in knowing the exact conditions of different castes in India. We must think: Is it possible to eradicate caste without attacking the structures which perpetuate it, without acknowledging its presence and impact? Privileges need to be attacked so that no social group has a stake in maintaining them. It cannot be undone by wishful thinking. A notional change in social relations is required for the eradication of caste.
Three, there is a growing apprehension that the quest to address inter-group inequalities (through various affirmative action policies) has given rise to the intra-group domination of a few communities. In the absence of any scientific information on different castes’ socio-economic and educational conditions, we are clueless about how to devise mechanisms to address the intra-group dominance. Therefore, caste enumeration would enable us to identify the extent to which OBCs and upper castes are undifferentiated categories. The lack of proper data arrests any possibility of radical socio-economic transformation of the lower castes in India.
To conclude, caste enumeration should not merely be perceived as an instrument to facilitate robust and targeted policies and to revitalise reservations. Too much obsession with its political implications in debates has sidelined the role which it can play in ensuring social harmony, national cohesion, and intra-group equality. Thus, it must be seen as a much-needed mechanism to facilitate an informed debate, bereft of assumptions and prejudices on what has been achieved and what needs to be done for societal transformation. There is no harm in counting castes, and the Indian government must reconsider its decision if any sense of justice and fairness is left.
The writer is a Ph.D candidate, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University