Should the Census of India 2011 be tasked with the collection of caste data, returning in a sense to the practice of the pre-Independence, colonial era? Let us start by recognising that the question is arguable. Opponents of caste enumeration tend to hark back to the ideals of the freedom struggle and the Constitution, which treat caste as illegitimate and see Census enumeration of caste as a tool of ‘divide and rule.' By not collecting caste data, the Census, a great national undertaking, strikes a blow for social equality. Supporters of caste enumeration tend to argue the opposite, namely that by collecting data on the caste-inequality link, the Census could become a promoter of progressive social change, chiefly by strengthening the case for compensatory discrimination policies across the land. As the sociologist Nandini Sundar points out, India in the past couple of decades has entered “a new era of caste relations” and while there has been heated debate on the political consequences of doing or not doing caste enumeration in the Census, little thought has been given to “how this is to be done, if at all; the nature of data generated; the level and form of tabulations in which data would be useful; who would gain from this knowledge at different levels; or the concrete ways in which caste data might or might not help to design government programmes to offset caste disabilities.”
Whether the collection of caste data, other than for the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, will be socially divisive or will help in the quest for equality can be left aside for the purposes of settling the remit of the forthcoming decennial exercise. The short answer is that the Census is a great demographic endeavour that must not be confused with social science field work. As it is meant to collect observational data, and not information based on the perceptions of the respondents or self-categorisation, it cannot be the vehicle for capturing caste-wise population data. Besides, India is home to a humungous number of sub-castes with nomenclature variations across regions: aggregating them across villages will be too complex for the Census to handle. The enumerators, as Union Home Minister P. Chidambaram has pointed out, lack the sociological sensitivity to record and classify the population on the basis of castes and sub-castes. But this shortcoming applies also to the trainers and indeed to the whole Census system. If backward class commissions or socio-political movements need up-to-date measurement of caste and better data on the caste-inequality link, there are other ways of gaining this information. The government certainly did the right thing in resisting pressure from some political parties and regional groupings to task Census 2011 with doing something it just cannot handle.