In a country living with the reality of caste and striving constantly to offset disadvantages created on the basis of social hierarchy, the central government's decision to hold a caste census does have wide appeal. The enumeration of castes is to be undertaken along with a ‘Below Poverty Line' census in such a way that there is a simultaneous mapping of the economic, caste, and religious backgrounds of the entire population. A mere caste census may have meant just a headcount of diverse communities, but with the plan to integrate socio-economic data with the caste count, there is hope that the country might at last have a set of quantifiable data that would justify key administrative measures predicated on caste identity. Over the years, the debate over the use of caste as the basis for ensuring social justice in education and public employment has been resolved in favour of caste-based reservation for ‘socially and educationally backward classes.' Once caste was accepted as the main parameter on which social justice would be measured, it was only a matter of time before the country came round to the view that a restoration of the pre-Independence system of including caste in the decennial Census was necessary. The continuance of existing levels of caste-based reservation also hinges on collection of caste-wise data. For the judicially imposed limit of 50 per cent on the quantum of reservation — flowing from a constitutional scheme that says the extent of reservation, being the exception, cannot exceed equal treatment, the norm — can be overcome only by providing hard data to the court.

However, a caste census will be much more challenging than a lay view suggests. For one thing, a precise headcount of a particular caste may ultimately prove elusive, given the number of sub-castes and sects that the Indian caste system has spawned, and the inevitable scope for confusion over the inclusion or exclusion of a sect from a larger caste umbrella. The nomenclature used by a caste group to refer to itself may vary from region to region, while there could be confounding similarities in name between different sects. And even more scientifically challenging would be the exercise of integrating the headcount of a caste with the socio-economic profile of the population falling under it and coming to a reasonable conclusion about its precise state of backwardness. There are other questions, too, such as whether the final caste-wise breakdown of the population would be used to parcel out all opportunities under the state solely in proportion to the strength of the communities or whether there would be some exiguous space for open competition so that the longer-term goal of a caste-free society is not lost sight of.

More In: Editorial | Opinion