The process of caste enumeration, which got under way recently, has shown that social categories are more malleable than they appear

Various ambitious castes quickly perceived the chances of raising their status. They invited conferences of their members, and formed councils to take steps to see that their status was recorded in the way they thought was honourable to them

- G. S. Ghurye on the Colonial Census

After a gap of over eight decades, the painstaking attempt to enumerate and measure castes has once again got under way. The pros and cons of compiling data on caste categories have been exhaustively discussed in the pages of this newspaper and elsewhere and I will not tire readers with a reprise. Most of those arguments revolved around the means by which the exercise could be accomplished and the possible end results of a caste-based head-count. Whilst the current compilation of data takes the form of a Socio Economic and Caste Survey rather than a full-blown census, now that it has begun our attention is drawn to the impact that the collection process itself may have. Over the past few weeks in Tamil Nadu the various responses, agitations, posters, demands and debates about how each caste should or should not respond have been absolutely compelling. Where some have urged members to register themselves with an over-arching caste name in the interests of numerical advantage, others have clung steadfastly and proudly to their sub-caste identities privileging status and identity over instrumental calculations. Central to these machinations is the fact that the survey is perceived to be more than just the collection of numbers. As with the British census it is seen as a means of classifying and categorising the social universe into groups entitled to or not entitled to certain benefits.

Crystallising caste?

The history of the colonial caste census has, of course, been well rehearsed. Benedict Anderson saw the census as one of the key instruments that shaped emergent national imaginations, and the ‘imagined communities' of caste were equally moulded by the classificatory process. In India, the British attempt to impose order upon an alien social world smoothed over the messy realties of everyday life. In asserting that each caste conformed to certain characteristics, and that everyone belonged to a caste, administrators avoided, and arguably precluded, the painstaking problems of differentiating between individuals. When Herbert Risley sought to place each enumerated caste in rank order, multiple castes seized the opportunity to petition for a higher status. Ironically, when Madras Presidency (as it then was) first introduced affirmative action programmes for the Backward Classes, many of these same castes changed tack and lobbied to be recognised as deprived communities. Petitions demanding a change in caste rank were submitted to the census commissioner, and the potential to renegotiate caste position animated caste competition. Nicholas Dirks argues that this desire for neat labels and categorical certainties ‘crystallised' a system that was previously more fluid and, thus, ‘invented' caste as we know it today. This, oft misunderstood, statement highlights the significant social transformations that occurred under, and in response to, colonial rule rather than suggesting that the British created the social institution of caste outright.

Colonial census reprised?

Dirks' suggestion that the communities classified by the census bore little relation to those that existed in everyday practice before this intervention is often disputed, but let us examine some of the possibilities thrown up by the current exercise in caste enumeration. First up we have the rash of organisations across Tamil Nadu calling on members to shed their sub-caste identities in favour of the more substantive group. The Vanniyar Union, amongst others, has urged members to register themselves under the overarching category in order to emphasise their numerical strength for political and material benefit. Stretching castes horizontally was also a prime response to the institution of the colonial census, and it fundamentally alters how we understand caste or, indeed, how that caste operates. The move from local to State-wide categories in the early 1900s, for instance, broadened marriage circles and led to an emphasis on ‘blood' or lineage rather than codes of conduct as the basis of caste belonging.

The example of the Agamudayars goes one step further. The proposal for the three distinct clans of Mudaliar, Vellalar and Mukkulathor Agamudayars to put themselves forward as a coherent block highlights the instrumental concerns underlying many of the claims being advanced. This proposal would lead to a re-categorisation of the community rather than a simple enumeration. The outraged response of the Mukkulathor Agamudayars demonstrates the extent to which the proposition flouts existing caste conventions let alone pre-British ones.

Finally, there is the example of politicians who seek to use this opportunity to create new census categories altogether. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal's Thirumavalavan, thus, called for marginalised sections to register themselves as Dalits or ‘casteless' people. His rationale was to avoid intra-Dalit debates about majorities and minorities. Not only is there no space for such responses in the survey, his stance finds no welcome from Arunthathiyar groups keen to increase their sub-quota award. In other words, the contours of caste or, to be more precise, caste politics are being refashioned and renegotiated in response to the current census just as they were in the face of British attempts to map the populace.Not surprisingly, the outpouring of caste-based demands, gatherings and statements gives rise to the argument that caste is politicised and animated by head-counts of this nature. The fact that notionally rigid categories can be negotiated and renegotiated in the hope of securing political influence, however, reminds us that caste has always been pliable by political influence. What this demonstrates is that while the ultimate effect of the census may be to crystallise, the process serves to highlight the inherent fuzziness and malleability of social categories. The debates and strategies surrounding the current administrative exercise offer yet another example of the politics of caste. What the end result of the current survey will be remains to be seen, but for now at least it provides multiple organisations a powerful means of mobilising support and an emotional card to play. The census has clearly animated the appeal to caste and the rhetoric of community, but only when the dust has settled will we be able to discern the shape that the newly classified castes have assumed. In the meantime, the hope that the data would serve to rationalise OBC reservations and related debates, lies buried beneath the claims and counter-claims of innumerable caste-based organisations.

(Hugo Gorringe is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. He has conducted research on Dalit movements in Tamil Nadu and is the author of Untouchable Citizens.)

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