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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 23, May 29, 2010

Caste in Census 2011—Is it Necessary?

Tuesday 1 June 2010, by Rajindar Sachar

The country is in a vortex of challenges, counter-challenges and suspicious suggestions even amongst good friends on the desirability or otherwise of inclusion of caste in Census 2011. I feel that a calmer discussion may clear a number of cobwebs.

It is common ground that the caste system exists in our country since centuries. It is unnecessary to dilate upon the origin of caste; whether due to the freezing of the guild system, helped and encouraged no doubt by the Brahamanical scriptural history, and the lack of Industrial Revolution (because of British occupation of India) caste got frozen in the time-frame of the Middle Ages. The Constitution recognised the evil of caste and provided for affirmative action with a view to ultimately eliminate it from our social structure—but unfortunately it remains, even stronger. Affirmative action has only created a creamy layer subclass and the benefits are still being denied to the vast, submerged poor in the backward classes, and the poor in all the castes.

The proponents of caste census offer a strange reason that without knowing the actual numbers, adequate affirmative action cannot be taken by the States. This argument assumes as if there is no reliable estimate of the OBC/SC/ST number. The fact is that the NSSO’s 61st round by the Government of India of 2004 tells us that OBCs constitute 41 per cent of the total population of India; OBC percentages in some religious communities are, for example, Hindus (42.8 per cent), Muslims (39.2 per cent). More important, by virtue of Article 340 of the Constitution, Parliament passed the National Commission for Backward Classes Act, 1993 constituting the National Commission for Backward Classes for identification of the backward classes and to make special provision relating to such backward classes. Application for inclusion of the backward classes in the list maintained by the Central Government can be made to the Commission and its advice is ordinarily binding on the government. States also have Backward Commissions with similar power. Thus a permanent list for the country showing the number of backward classes is continuously being updated and would be readily available.

Surely that record is more authentic than the unsatisfactory one prepared hurriedly and without any parameters during the census, which even the proponents of caste census concede. Also let us clear one cobweb that even if it is found in the census that the Backward Classes (BCs) are 60–70 per cent, it can make no difference to the strategy of affirmative actions like reservations etc. which are in operation at present. The reason is that the Supreme Court has mandated a maximum of 50 per cent reservation for jobs, education etc. (23 per cent are for the SC/STs)—that leaves 27 per cent which are already being given to the Backward Classes. So the argument of exact number of people belonging to various castes like Vashists, Yadavs, Kurmis, Kapurs will serve no purpose except to create an artificial bond of kinship on one side and unnecessary antagonism to the other castes.

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There is the argument that if sex and religion in census has not led to friction, why would caste census do? A simple answer is that sex, religion are measures of identity and not divisive in themselves. No doubt vested interests create religious divides, but that does not justify equating caste on the same plane. Can we in the name of caste treat the Yadav landowners or Ministers at par with the Yadav labourers or a Yadav car driver? Similarly it would be as ridiculous to treat on par the Brahmin priest or the Brahamin civil servant and the Brahmin cook or a Kapoor businessmen with a Kapur peon. Do we want to go back to the feudal classification and encourage raw casteism? Let me immediately make a caveat—that the policy of affirmative action for Backward Classes (excluding, of course, the creamy layer) has my full acceptance. However, I am troubled at making caste the central point of all public policies because this will damage the real fight in the society between the haves and have-nots, the rich and poor, irrespective of their religion and caste identities. In fact those progressives who talk so fervently of a classless society must remember that originally caste/ class was synonymous in India. But now because of industrialisation and the emergence of the working class as a significant factor class loyalty is becoming more dominant as against caste loyalty. In some sectors like dockworkers, railway employees, steelworkers, coal and oil workers, should they not be classified as working class or must they be continued to be classified in feudal phraseology of the castes and sub-castes? If we do that, would it not be a sure way of strangling the strength and unity of the working class—indeed the capitalist would be very happy to have the trade unions based on caste composition rather than class. Dr Lohia had caustically remarked: “The system of castes is a terrifying force of stability and against change, a force that stabilises all current meanness, dishonour and lie—and that the resurrection of the real India lies in the revolt against caste.”

For Dr Lohia, “it is meaningless to talk of equality while maintaining separate castes. Castes have to be abolished. even their nomenclatures should go.” That religious identity is not as strong as caste was foreseen by Dr Lohia who said: “British rule in India had made use of the element of caste in the same manner that it made use of the element of religion. The revolt against caste is the resurrection of India and only then will India be truly and fully alive.”

A patriot and a progressive would look askance at the growth of parties of regional caste, even when they purport to mask themselves by putting on a radical garb. Their capacity to disintegrate should not be overlooked. They disintegrate the people. They disintegrate the mind.

I feel that as we have more authentic information from the NSS Survey and Backward Commission, why muddle it with caste census which, it is admitted by all, may suffer from lack of preparatory material and absence of proper verification? And also when this estimate would not be relied by the government for affirmative policies?

The author, a retired Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, is the Chairperson of the Prime Minister’s high-level Committee on the Status of Muslims and the UN Special Rapporteur on Housing. A former President of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), he is a tireless champion of human rights. He can be contacted at e-mail: rsachar1@vsnl.net / rsachar23@bol.net.in

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