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What is your caste? Now that the government is pondering over the inclusion of caste in the 2011 Census, how will you answer that question? While you contemplate on that issue, the opinion seems to be divided on the very rationale of a caste Census."Anthropologically, some of us have been arguing against including caste in the Census, but my point is if you are taking into account tribe, religion and gender, then why not caste. Caste is not the only divisive force in the society. Wasn't there an uproar in Parliament over 33% reservation for women?" asks social activist Kancha Ilaiah. To him, one advantage of the caste Census lies in bringing forth accurately the total population of each caste. "The Mandal Commission recommended a 27% reservation in view of the fact that 54% of the total population, according to the 1931 Census projections, belonged to backward communities. The Supreme Court has been consistently asking how that figure was arrived at," says Ilaiah, also a professor at Osmania University, Hyderabad.While academic stalwarts like MN Srinivas, Andre Beteille and Dipankar Gupta are of the view that a caste Census will lead to greater caste conflict, Ilaiah is quick to assert that "if we are avoiding caste census on the basis of a presumable conflict, we'd rather resort to counting only the number of people in India". There is a point—after all, caste has not been enumerated for the past 80 years, but that hasn't helped in eliminating it either. There is ample evidence that discrimination on the basis of caste is still rampant. Consider, for instance, a field experiment conducted by academics Sukhadeo Thorat and Katherine Newman to estimate the relative performance of low and high-caste candidates in the job market. Vacancy advertisements from major English newspapers for entry-level white collar positions in private sector firms were collected and responded to with three artificial applications for each position. The educational qualifications, academic performance, number of years of experience, etc, were kept nearly identical, while each application was associated with a stereotypically high-caste Hindu, Dalit or Muslim family name. The study shows that owing to their identity, the Dalits and Muslim applicants face significant discrimination in the white-collar job market. The odds of a Dalit applicant receiving a call were 67% of a high-caste Hindu applicant with the same set of CV characteristics. Incidentally, call-back odds for Muslim applicants were 33% of high-caste peers.Eminent social scientist TK Oommen agrees. "Apart from getting the numbers, we should also know the nature of deprivation this group is suffering from, because there are multiple deprivations," he says, further explaining how in the case of adivasis or STs, spatial exclusion is an important deprivation since they largely stay in forests and there is no infrastructure to reach them. But in case of SCs, the fundamental basis of exclusion is untouchability. However, in case of OBCs, he adds, the source of deprivation is a hazy area. "Thanks to universal adult franchise, owing to their large demographic composition, OBCs have been able to capture power at the grassroots level. In terms of economic resources, they aren't as poor as SCs and STs. They have benefited immensely first through land reforms and then through the Green Revolution. However, they are not adequately represented in top bureaucracy—this has led to 'status incongruence'. This under-representation can only be gauged by a caste Census. Once we know we can think of relevant measures."Political scientist Ghanshyam Shah, however, is of the firm view that the whole exercise of enumerating caste will not serve any purpose. He points out at the practical and technical aspect of data collection. "Caste is a subjective category. It's not an objective question such as what is your gender or your language. Objective data is difficult to come by due to the concept of caste changing according to the context. A person will identify himself as belonging to Baria caste in the village, as Koli at the district level and as a Kshatriya at the state level. The enumerator may ask a person in the village to what caste does he belong to, but the official at the district level may not know which category to classify it under? Enumerators aren't anthropologists. The exercise will only add to confusion instead of bringing in any clarity." Shah would know. He happened to be a member of People of India project launched by the Anthropological Survey of India. The project, completed in the 1990s, identified 4,635 castes or communities in India. "We couldn't make head or tail of the deluge of data it revealed," he adds. He also fears that a caste Census would intensify divisive caste identities and create sub-caste politics.There is a corollary to that belief though. "Not including caste in the census will further perpetuate the injustice of the caste system because lack of data will only result in inefficient policy measures for the marginalised, says Harish Wankhede, research scholar on social justice at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He contends that caste has been largely able to delineate itself from the concept of purity and impurity, but caste prejudice now manifests itself in the form of violence. He cites the recent Jat-Dalit clash in Mirchpur village in Hisar district as an example. "Two Dalits were torched to death and 18 Dalit homes were gutted by Jats—for throwing a stone at a dog?" he asks in disbelief, adding, "How else do you interpret the atrocities meted out by the khap panchayats in the pretext of saving the honour of their castes?"The last caste Census, conducted in 1931, is a case in point for Shah's argument. In the 1931 Census report, John Henry Hutton, then Census Commissioner of India, laments, "Every Census gives rise to pestiferous deluge of representations, accompanied by highly problematic histories, asking for recognition of some alleged fact or hypothesis of which the Census as a department is not legally competent to judge. And of which its recognition, if accorded, would be socially valueless." After the 1931 Census, 175 of such claims were registered, of which 80 were to Kshatriya status, 33 to Brahmin and 15 to Vaishya in the four census regions! The tables seem to have completely turned now, given the benefits of caste reservation in the legislatures, government jobs and for admission to educational institutions, the battle for getting a BC tag is only intensifying.Interestingly, in 1931, as Hutton mentions, a definite return of nil was accepted for castes as distinct from the individuals, who, on account of ignorance or accident, failed to state any caste at all. Also, no return of caste was demanded from Arya or Brahmo Hindus or from Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Muslims or Christians unwilling to make one. The returns of 'caste nil' totalled 18,83,464 for India, 98% of which came from Bengal. Additionally, there were 60,715 Hindus for whom no return of caste was obtained! The 1931 census report also documents at the difficulty of stating a caste in the case of inter-caste marriages. It also indicates instances of wrong returns: "Even castes of chamars in the United Provinces dropped their characteristic nomenclature and at this Census returned themselves as sun-moon-descended Rajputs.... It is obviously impossible for the Census authorities to do anything other than accept the nomenclature of the individuals making that return, since to discriminate and to allot to different groups would involve entering into discussion on the basis of largely hypothetical data."Given that the caste complexity has grown over the years, how the 2010 Census tackles these issues is yet to be seen. "We are yet to receive any instructions for the caste census. It will be part of the second phase of the census exercise and the enumerators will be adequately trained for it," says Varsha Joshi, Director of Census Operations, Delhi. Even as the census department gears up for the volatile exercise, there is no denying that much would have changed on the caste front in the last 80 years. The data thus extrapolated will throw up more than a few surprises.COUNTING CASTE* The primary principle of classification used in 1872 and also in 1881 was that of varna. The number of castes went up from 3,208 in 1871 to 19,044 in 1881. The variation was largely due to the difference in the methodology, rather than the growth in the number of castes.* The 1891 census abandoned varna in favour of occupational criteria for enumeration, based in large part on the models established by Nesfield's and Ibbetson's classification of caste groups in the Punjab, the north-west and Awadh. 60 subgroups were broken into six broad categories: agricultural and pastoral, professional, commercial, artisans and village menials, vagrants and other races and indefinite titles.* The census commissioner for 1911 reported that hundreds of petitions were received from different caste organisations, their weight alone amounting to 120 pounds, claiming changes in nomenclature, demanding a higher place in order of precedence, and emphasising affiliation to one of the three twice-born varnas.* The number of castes identified in the 1901 census was 1,646, which increased to 4,147 in the 1931 census.* JH Hutton, Commissioner of Census, 1931, pleaded for the abandonment of the return of caste as it cast an avoidable burden on the census administration. This was done 20 years later in 1951. The Constitution of India forbade discrimination on the ground of caste and enumeration of caste, except that of social categories such as the SC and STs, was therefore discontinued.
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