Caste counts: On census and partisan political gains

A vision for a just India, and not partisan political gains, should inspire a fresh census

August 25, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 01:46 pm IST

The clamour for a fresh caste census is getting louder in the country. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar led a delegation of 10 political parties of the State to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday. No political party in the country has publicly opposed the demand as yet, and most have supported the call. Mr. Modi listened to the delegation but did not open his mind on the topic. Predictably, there will be more political mobilisation on the issue. The Bharatiya Janata Party has the advantage of being in the saddle and could time an announcement best suited for itself. The last time India’s population was enumerated on the basis of caste was in 1931, when it was under colonial rule. There is a strong argument that the colonial census was about creating and reinforcing caste and religious categories in India rather than recording them in a benign manner. Effective governance requires robust data on the governed. The creation of categories is itself a political act. Indian politics and the governance structure are all premised on categories that were firmed up during colonialism. But the salience of caste as the fundamental marker of identity for an Indian has only grown since Independence.

As the democratisation of society deepens, questions are being raised regarding the status of Dalits, tribal communities and a large section of the population that is characterised in the Constitution as Socially and Educationally Backward Classes. Political representation of these communities has increased and their participation in government jobs has risen. It is assumed that particular groups within each category have benefited disproportionately from political and job reservations, and there are demands for sub-quotas. Many communities are demanding inclusion in one category or the other. Some communities are feeling short-changed by the affirmative action steps of the state. With the role of the Government as a big employer diminishing, there is a demand for affirmative action in the private sector. All these questions are being debated without adequate and reliable data, leading to conflicting and often misleading claims. Supporters of a caste census cite these reasons, while sceptics fear it will only widen social rifts. They also point to the multitude of practical problems such an exercise will encounter. What is not debatable, however, is the fact that inequitable distribution of power and wealth endangers the stability of any society. Partisan political gains should not be the motivation for a fresh census. A renewed vision for a just and united India, where all divides are reduced must guide the discussion on a caste census.

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