Caste-ing the dice: India's dangerous gamble

Last Updated: Fri, May 28, 2010 17:54 hrs

Caste-ing the diceLet's admit it. We're hypocrites.

We've been speaking of abolishing caste since Independence. Yet, we know we never will.

We speak about 'the evils of the caste system' in schools, but spare a slot for 'caste' in the student information sheet.

Which is why ideals like "we must outlaw caste", "we must give the downtrodden a fair deal" and "we need data to implement caste-based schemes properly" ring hollow.

You can't grow up in India and think of yourself without the parameters of language, region, religion and caste. These are marked by our features, our names, our speech, our comfort zones, our social circles, the Gods we worship and our pride in our heritage.

However, the problem is not that caste exists. The problem is that it matters.

And it matters because of the people who are in charge of running this country.

Poll: Should caste be included in the census?

Thanks to their committees and legislation, the schools we study in, the seats we scramble for in college and the jobs we're eligible for are based on caste.

This is why the government's statement that caste is being included in the census for a headcount 'and not anything else' doesn't cut ice.

At some point, politicians discovered that in a nation that has been sliced into three on the basis of religion and is still splitting on the basis of language and ethnicity, caste is a moot point.

Now, vote bank politics have reached such a level of sophistication that psephologists might as well charge based on how easily they can pronounce words that seem to have popped out of a Roald Dahl book – Vokkaligas, Vanniyars, Badaganadus, Mahadiga, Kayastha...

In a country that is so obsessed with reservation – for women, for several strata of backward classes, for followers of various faiths – it is bizarre that the pragmatic solution of an economic criterion hasn't generated a similar outcry.

Perhaps it's in keeping with India's unwritten policy of looking after minorities – the economically disadvantaged do constitute a majority of the population.

Census question over caste identity divides India

Somehow, the phrase 'Other Backward Classes' morphed into 'Other Backward Castes'. And no one seems to have succeeded so far in establishing their headcount.

Whether or not the census adds an extra column to its tables and razes down another acre of forestland to supply paper for its 12,000 tonnes of documentation in 18 languages, let's remind ourselves several attempts have already been made at enumerating caste data.

Most of the committees and research groups taking on the task have drawn from each other's data and managed to contradict each other while going about it.

The 1931 census put the count of Other Backward Classes at 43.7 per cent.

In 1955, the first National Commission for Backward Classes estimated OBCs constituted 32 per cent of the population.

In 1980, the Mandal Commission, which rather whimsically covered two villages and one urban block in each district, fixed the percentage at 43.7 again.

Neelam Yadav, the author of Encyclopaedia of Backward Castes, points out "The Mandal Commission assumed that various castes have enjoyed, over the last 50 years, the same rate of growth as the all-India population. This is an impossible assumption." (Pg. 189)

She suggested the Mandal Commission's report be analysed by yet another committee, using a new survey method.

Right, that's all we need.

But when we knew caste data was being collected by various groups, why did a proposal to make it part of the census after an eighty-year gap create such a sensation that the Cabinet came to a head over the issue?

Mom or aunt? The surrogate's tale

A Google search will give you about a hundred thousand research papers and analytical articles, setting out why a caste census does (not) make sense. Among these are:

  • The data could get distorted as claims can't be cross-checked
  • Different castes have different statuses in different states, so we need a decentralised approach to ensure accuracy
  • A head count won’t reflect living conditions
  • Political parties may begin to focus on high-populated castes and neglect others
  • It could lead to more atrocities against minorities
  • A caste that finds itself dwindling might panic and stop family-planning (!!!!!)
  • The definition of OBC and parameters for qualification are ambiguous
First, let's forget accuracy. Given the rate at which we produce babies we can't afford to look after, the census is sure to be outdated by the time it is completed.

Second, while some statistics seem to be collected solely for the purpose of insertion in NCERT textbooks, caste data will definitely not feature in that list.

The fact that the ministers lobbying for caste to be included in the census are from 'oppressed classes' is portentous in itself.

Within days of the data coming in, there will be rumblings, demanding reservation in proportion to numbers. This could have dangerous repercussions.

The ostensible reason for introducing caste-based reservation is to eradicate the problems caste has caused. But in doing so, we're allowing several other problems to fester, which could reinforce rather than remove caste barriers.

For one, the bar for entry into coveted fields is being lowered for certain sections of the population. The corollary is that the person cutting you up under surgical lights may not have been good enough to qualify for it if not for his or her caste.

On the other hand, someone who is intelligent enough to have made it even without reservation, might not be given due credit for his or her aptitude.

What are the 'social biases' that seemingly make reservation a more practical solution than monetary aid?

We've had a Dalit President (and apparently, came close to having a Dalit Prime Minister in Mayawati), a 'Woman Dalit' Speaker, several Dalit Chief Ministers and even Dalit priests.

Starting with a Dalit who headed the committee that penned the Indian Constitution, several people of the 'oppressed' castes have gone on to play major roles in the functioning of the country and society.

Ata time when you might quite easily find a Brahmin cook working in a Dalit household, shouldn't we turn our attention to 'class' rather than 'caste'? Shouldn't we be looking at channelling funds into implementing the Right to Education Act rather than debating about caste?

Yes, untouchability does exist in certain parts of the country.

Yes, certain sections of society are mistreated.

But irrespective of caste, the factor that ties these 'oppressed' people together is poverty.

At one time in history, one's caste determined one's class. But not anymore.

The Sify Weekender

The danger of harping on caste at this time is that it could exacerbate the divisions that the British so cunningly capitalised on to consolidate their stranglehold over India.

We've seen large-scale communal and linguistic riots. Parts of the country have already witnessed caste riots. Should we allow this to flare up?

As a nation, we've often chosen to take two steps backwards to even things out. We've put vested interests ahead of the greater good.

There are those of us who lament about the state of affairs and berate the party we've voted into power, either by casting or boycotting the ballot.

But if we're to stop politicians from wrapping up the Indian electorate in gift boxes they exchange while dangling carrots like the Nuclear Liability Bill and women's reservation in front of each other, we need to take a stand now.

Maybe we should conduct a citizens campaign for economic reservation.

Maybe we should refuse to reveal our castes when asked, irrespective of the advantages we could reap.

Maybe we should use every available forum to question the decisions made on our behalf.

Maybe we should get more sincere in our attempts to convince our children labels don't matter.

We live in a country that is so resistant to being a melting pot that we even reserve seats in Parliament for people of mixed origin. Unless we 'helpless' hundreds of millions wake up, we could stand witness to our nation divide itself till it disintegrates.

The author is a journalist based in Chennai. She blogs at