The United Progressive Alliance government has a knack of arriving at the right decisions for the wrong reasons. The latest announcement on counting caste in the Census is a case in point. In this instance, as in the case of Telangana, a policy measure that was long overdue has been made to look like a hasty decision. As in the case of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the government needed some arm-twisting to act in the larger national interest, and its own. The decision to count the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the coming Census is, and should have been, presented as a forward-looking and overdue policy announcement that would help evidence-based formulation and monitoring of policies of social justice. Instead, by presenting it as a reluctant concession to retrograde forces, the government has left itself open to needless and ill-informed criticism from the usual quarters.
The government's silence on what exactly the decision is, has only added to the confusion. Media headlines and parliamentary discussions have spoken of a “Caste Census.” This gives the impression that the government has decided to resume the colonial practice of enumeration, and often ranking, of all castes and sub-castes among Hindus. But Pranab Mukherjee's statement to the media indicates that the government proposes to do something more limited — to extend the current practice of recording the SCs and the STs to include the OBCs. In other words, the enumerators will ask everyone if they belong to an SC or an ST or an OBC (enumerators already do so in the case of the SCs and the STs), and if the respondents do, the enumerators will record the exact caste name. Others will not be asked about their caste name. This appears to be the most reasonable interpretation of the demand for a “caste-based census” in the present context.
There are some good arguments for a full caste-based Census, as those advanced by Professor Satish Deshpande. But we may not be ready for it at this stage of the current census operations and national deliberations. If we take ‘caste-based census' to mean OBC enumeration, as I do here, this will not be a dramatic reversal of an 80-year-old policy, but only a logical culmination of many earlier attempts. Over the years, partial attempts have been made by several States — Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh — to collect this information with the help of specially appointed commissions. Karnataka is the pioneer and exemplar. The Mandal Commission used a sample survey to gather this information at the national level. But in the absence of its inclusion in the Census process, these kinds of evidence have remained partial and unverified.
What do we get from such an enumeration? Quite a lot, if we care about putting policies of affirmative action on a sound, empirical footing and putting at rest endless disputes about the size and backwardness of various communities. An enumeration of the OBCs will not only settle disputes about their numbers but also yield vital information about the socio-educational and economic conditions of the communities. Specifically, the Census will now give us robust information about the numbers, demographics (sex ratio, mortality, life expectancy), educational data (literacy, ratio of school-going population, number of graduates and so on) and economic conditions (assets, working population and so on) of the OBC castes. The data will be available for each State and district, and for each caste and community within an OBC. These will become the basis for fine-tuning reservations and other schemes and for adjudicating politically sensitive disputes regarding inclusion or exclusion. It may not be sufficient to design policies of affirmative action – the Census does not record the upper end of salaried jobs as an occupational category — but it will still be a giant leap forward.
Enumeration of the OBCs is not an optional policy. No modern state has the option of not counting the social groups that it recognises in its law and policy. Thus, the policy of reservations for the OBCs in government jobs and educational institutions, besides a host of other schemes for the benefit of backward classes, mandates that this group be enumerated. The judiciary has repeatedly asked for robust empirical evidence for the formulation of any affirmative action policy. OBC enumeration should have begun in 2001, in the first Census after OBC reservations came into effect. Indeed, the then Registrar General had proposed it. It was shot down by the Home Ministry in the National Democratic Alliance government.
Question of timing
Is it feasible to undertake the exercise at this stage, now that Census operations have begun? No doubt this decision should ideally have come earlier, and it is perhaps too late for a full enumeration of all castes. But enumeration of the OBCs is not impossible even at this stage. The National Commission for Backward Classes has already prepared a list of “Socially and Educationally Backward Classes” — legal nomenclature for the OBCs. This can be the basis of identification of these communities across the country. This can be supplemented by the list of all caste-communities in each State, compiled by the Anthropological Survey of India under the ‘People of India' project. Listing of castes at the district level will, of course, pose some challenges. But that is no different in terms of either scale or complexity from similar problems encountered with other census categories, notably occupation and language. Objections on practical grounds are clearly misplaced, if not mischievous.
What about objections on grounds of principles? There is an understandable unease about giving caste primacy in public life. But it is unclear how counting of the OBCs is in this respect qualitatively different from counting the SCs and the STs. We have done this for more than half a century. It is true that official enumeration of any category tends to solidify its boundaries a little more than would be the case otherwise. But this subtle and long-term cost has to be weighed against the most evident and short and long term cost of official non-recognition of categories that everyone operates with. If the enumeration of religious communities has not led to the breakdown of secular order in India, and if enumeration of race in the U.S. has not made U.S. politics racist, it is unlikely that the enumeration of one more caste group would push the country into the prison of caste.
In any case, the way to transcend caste is not to close our eyes to it, but to look at it very closely, identify and neutralise its relationship with disadvantage and discrimination, and to discover how caste relates to other social divisions such as gender and class. That is what necessitates a caste-based census.
( The author is Senior Fellow with the CSDS, Delhi. He is currently at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin .)