Castes count: On T.N. caste-wise survey

The idea of a caste census is back in the realm of public debate, following the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to establish a commission to collect caste-wise data. The move may have been born out of political expediency, in response to the restive pre-election agitation organised by the Pattali Makkal Katchi demanding 20% exclusive reservation in education and government jobs for the Vanniyar community, its main electoral base. However, it is equally true that there is a social and legal necessity for compiling caste-wise data. The Supreme Court has been asking States to produce quantifiable data to justify their levels of reservation, and it would help Tamil Nadu to retain its 69% total reservation. At the same time, some castes that have either electoral or numerical importance across India have been restive about the manner in which affirmative action programmes based on classes and communities have been implemented so far. Be it the Gujjars, or Jats or the Patidars, or the Vanniyars, some sections have been linking their prospects of advancement to exclusive reservation. In Tamil Nadu, sections of the Vanniyars, whose violent 1987-88 agitation resulted in the creation of a ‘most backward classes’ category entitled to 20% reservation, are apparently dissatisfied about being clubbed with over a hundred other castes. It is a sobering reflection on how reservation operates that some castes feel crowded out in the competition and aspire for the safety of exclusive reservation.

The proposed commission may not conduct an elaborate enumeration on the lines of the Centre’s decennial census. Its mandate is to examine the methodology for collecting caste-wise particulars, conduct a survey based on that and submit a report. It will be quite a challenge to arrive at a sound assessment of the social and educational backwardness of each caste. The Census of India has not collected caste-wise data since 1931, with the exception of details about SCs and STs. The Centre conducted a ‘socio-economic caste census’ in 2011, in an attempt to link the collection of caste data along with socio-economic data so that there could be a comprehensive assessment of levels of deprivation and backwardness in society. However, presumably because of the lack of reliability of the data collected, or its political and electoral sensitivity, the caste portion of the SECC has not been disclosed so far. The State government could possibly seek access to this data pertaining to Tamil Nadu as part of its exercise. However, it should not treat this as a politically expedient move to quell a possible electoral setback due to the agitation of one party or community. Rather, it should seek to rationalise and deepen its social justice policy with a true assessment of the backwardness of various castes. After all, progress towards a casteless and equal society ought to remain the state’s ultimate goal.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 5:31:18 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/castes-count-the-hindu-editorial-on-tamil-nadus-caste-wise-survey/article33234434.ece

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