In rural India, even today, the first words uttered by way of introduction when two persons meet are — “what is your caste….?”; a piece of information people seem most enthusiastic to elicit from each other before anything else. Political parties have caste-based cells and caste arithmetic becomes the basis on which tickets are allotted. Every caste recognises jati panchayats, has its mahasabhas and often, caste-based armed forces (senas) are constituted. Thousands of publications are brought out across the country to invoke caste sentiments in people. Whether Haridwar or Pushkar, the bathing ghats are segregated on the lines of caste. Who can offer archana in temples, bridegrooms of which caste can sit on the horse — caste governs even such specifics practised till date in our country. Even today, khap panchayats based on castes, sub-castes and further, gotras,flourish and decree inhuman decisions.
In our country, caste hounds us from the moment we are born to our death. Whether birth, marriage or last rites, caste dictates how all these rituals should be conducted. Every government document asks us our caste category. People are instated on jobs and reserved seats during elections based on their caste identity certificates. People's names are complete only with their caste names. Even the so-called big people hang on to their caste pride; making their achievements look small.
In simple words, there is no escaping the fact that castes exist in our society today, and if they exist, what is wrong in counting them and bringing to light the true figures in front of the whole country? Just as there are houses, land, roads, schools, cows, forests, there are also castes – and just as how they are counted, so will be castes.
Around 25 lakh employees are undertaking this massive exercise of our 15th Census. This is a historic opportunity and they will easily be able to collect information on caste along with other information from our entire population. Then these figures can be analysed to tell us what is the population of each caste and who has control to what extent over the country's resources?
This very straightforward attempt has generated much noise across the country. Everyone from ministers in the ruling government to the media houses and intellectuals seem to be divided on the issue. Right-wing thinkers have put it down to a “ploy to deface the Hindu society” while some elites feel a caste-based census will halt India in the tracks of becoming a global superpower. Many others are being eaten up by the worry that this will lead to social fragmentation and increase caste enmities. The upper echelons of Indian society, which like to pretend that caste doesn't exist, are suddenly gripped with nationalistic fervour. They fear the demand for quota-based reservations will catch momentum and castes will get legal recognition.
Reality is different
There is another group which has started a campaign “Meri Jati Hindustani” of which prominent persons like Arif Mohammad Khan, J.C. Sharma, Ved Pratap Vaidik, Shravan Garg, Amitabh Bachchan, Alka Madhok and Ram Jethmalani among others are a part. These people are in favour of declaring their caste in the census as “Hindustani”. It is true it sounds good, like an ideal situation, but the country is not running on ideals but on realities. If they are indeed so proud to be “Hindustani” why have they not yet removed their caste names and replaced them with “Hindustani” instead?.
Now let's talk about those fears revolving around the caste census and see how many of them are real. Was there never any discord between castes in the country before and if so what do we have to say about the dalit genocides at Gohana, Jhajjar, Mirchipur, Lakshmanpur Bathe, Kumher, Khairlanji and Kambalapalli? What about the thousands of cases of caste-based discrimination and crimes that are reported or never come to light in our country year after year? It is being touted as though the minute the caste column is introduced in the census the problems will explode. Then why is it that when the whole country has been partitioned on the basis of religion, we never forget to ask the question “which religion” in every single official paper or document, and there seems no opposition to this? Why are we not able to comprehend that the true problem is caste itself and not a census of castes, and if caste is annihilated, caste-based problems will self-resolve. But instead of searching out the deeper malaise, we are sweeping the dirt under the carpet to make a show of cleanliness which is illusionary.
A good part of the academic intelligentsia feel that enumerating caste presents ‘practical' and ‘operational' difficulties. The presence of thousands of castes and sub-castes have suddenly sent some of them in a tizzy, while others deem the enumerators as being incapable of collecting such data. In India, to ask a person his/her caste name is as simple as asking the person his/her name. Obviously the enumerators should only record and not be expected to classify caste names at the time of the survey. In other words, these academicians seem to confuse data collection and data analysis. The latter can be done at a later stage with much careful thought and after wide consultations whereas the first step of data collection can be done without problems with trained enumerators. To doubt their capacity to elicit a caste name would implicitly throw doubt on their capacity to do the entire census survey.
Some have even gone to the extent of saying that it is “too costly” to enumerate castes. Maybe they should try to quantify the ‘cost' of the disrespect, the lack of opportunities, identities, the untouchability, the rapes, the killings and the atrocities borne by the dalits and so-called lower castes in our society over all the years since Independence. Then it may not seem so costly after all.
The truth is that if such a caste census provides figures on caste and these are analysed objectively, the hypocrisy of India's upper castes and their disproportionate claim over the country's resources will stand exposed. Whether this will or not lead to a demand for more reservation, it will certainly spark a people's campaign for an equitable stake in resources and entitlements.
A caste census would, on the one hand, bring forward anthropological facts, and on the other, provide the basis for framing sound development policies required for social justice.
A caste census is also important because there are hundreds of such castes which are nomadic and even today, deprived of an identity and development. Obtaining factual information about them would make it possible to design programmes for their security and growth. The country will also come to know about those castes which have profited a lot already and those which our so-called development hasn't even been able to touch.
The opposition to the caste census is not only from the Hindus; Muslims, Christians and Sikhs are also scared, since there exist castes even in these communities and the dalit Muslim, the dalit Christian and the dalit Sikh are catching up on the fight for their rights.
Many people have linked the caste census to the mindset of the British era of “Divide and Rule”, but are they aware that some 200 years before British rule, between 1658 and 1664, the Home Minister Munhata Nainsi of the Marwar kingdom ruled by Maharaja Jaswant Singh Rathod conducted the first caste census? So how does it become the design of a foreign mind?
It is unfortunate that all the arguments are centred around removing the caste column in the census questionnaire. The whole debate is on whether or not there should be a caste census when we should actually be debating about whether or not we need castes in this country. The day caste is obliterated, untouchability, discrimination, inequality, casteist hatred, caste genocides and the fight for reservations will automatically get wiped out and nor will politicians be able to play politics on the basis of caste. There are campaigns to say ‘hide your caste, don't tell your caste in the census' but how many of us are saying, ‘let's do away with caste'?