Don’t Censor Caste Data

Should the census in 2001 ask people to specify their caste? Yes, say the Census Commissioner and Home Minister. Definitely not, say others indignantly.

I am agnostic on this issue. I see some technical reasons to question the inclusion of caste in the census, but no moral or political ones. I am amused at the noisy condemnation by supposed intellectuals who claim that caste enumeration will worsen casteism. Really? The census asks people what their religion is. Has this automatically led to greater communalism? Should the census stop enumerating religions?

It also asks people their gender. Does this automatically lead to greater gender conflict and oppression, and should we stop asking this question too? The census records the regional composition of the population. Does this automatically exacerbate regionalism, and should this question be abolished also?

I find this whole line of thinking absurd. Carried to its logical conclusion, it implies that you should never ask any questions about the composition of society in the hope that sheer ignorance will somehow provide social harmony. Apparently knowledge is fatal. Apparently the ostrich is the ultimate in intellectual morality.

Solutions to social problems can be found only by understanding them in as much detail as possible. Caste is a vital aspect of Indians, and needs the most thorough elaboration. Knowing which castes have what sort of income, fertility, sex ratio, employment characteristics etc. will be an important first step. Lenin would have found absurd the notion that you can end class conflict by asking no questions about class. Yet his Indian followers believe you can eliminate caste conflict by not asking questions about caste.

The shrill indignation of the Left today is not really aimed at the Census Commissioner: It is aimed at the people of India for having the gall to refuse to trade their caste identity for class identity. The failure of social engineers to change India must be borne by them alone.

Ten-yearly census began in 1901, and enumerated castes till 1931. This was then stopped. The leaders of independent India were modernisers who wanted to create a casteless society. They thought it wrong to even think in terms of caste, leave alone enumerate it.

I myself once belonged to this class. But today, after six decades of keeping caste out of the census, I admit humbly that the strategy has failed.

For most of my life, I felt it was sinful to think in terms of caste. I was obliged to change my views when Mandal became a burning issue in 1990. Initially, I opposed caste-based reservations. But the debate threw up data showing how starkly OBCs (other backward castes) were under-represented in influential occupations. I tried to see how many OBCs there were among the journalists of The Times of India. A quick look revealed none at all. I asked my wife to take a similar look in The Indian Express, where she worked. She too found none.

I then realised that by refusing to think in terms of caste, I had blinded myself to a great social reality. In pursuit of the high moral ground, I had buried my head in the sand.

We modernisers had sought to create a meritocratic society free of caste. We had the best intentions. What went wrong? The answer is that the upper-caste elite got the best education, the highest marks in college, and hence all the plum jobs. Thus meritocracy turned out to be a modern reincarnation of upper-caste domination, perpetuated by better access to good education.

The Nehruvian modernisers never gave primary education top priority. They were in theory committed to universal education, but they saw higher and technical education as more important to create a modern industrial state. Had they given primary education top priority, then perhaps lower castes in rural India could have acquired the human capital to compete on even terms in a true meritocracy. In fact the race was fixed in favour of the ruling upper castes. The OBCs saw this. I did not as long as I refused to think in terms of caste.

The ideal solution, of course, is not job reservations but good governance that gives every caste equal opportunities, ending advantages of birth and wealth. But after waiting five decades for good governance, the OBCs have decided this is a mirage. They see governance deteriorating, with the supposed meritocracy becoming venal and crooked. So, they say, don’t bother about giving us good governance, just give us a slice of the bad governance. Give us a share of the loot and plunder going on in the name of meritocracy. Hence, reservations.

I can only say, ruefully, that I sympathise. Job reservation for OBCs is a deserved penalty paid by the upper-caste elite for neglecting primary education and social mobility.

Now caste-based reservations have become law, and the Supreme Court has given directions for removing of the creamy layer among backward castes from preferences. So we need the maximum possible information to put this into effect. Today, we are groping in the dark. We need to know the relative status of different castes, their dynamics, which caste deserves special help and which are successful enough to be graduated out of the ranks of reservation. On legal grounds alone, caste data are a must.

Will the publication of such data exacerbate caste conflict? I am not sure. But I am quite sure that the absence of caste data has conclusively failed to end conflict.

The questions remains, which is the best way of obtaining caste data? A census is not a very good way, since it is conducted only once in ten years. The annual surveys of the National Sample Survey Organisation probably need to be expanded to provide us with a picture of the changing characteristics of different social and caste groups, of their access to services and trends in income and employment.

Many will be aghast at this suggestion. We are against caste data in the census, they will say, and here is Swaminomics wanting caste data every year. Cool down. Our censuses and sample surveys have always included data on dalits and tribals. Has this caused social disruption? Surely not. Can you really argue that enumerating dalits is fine but enumerating Yadavs will be fatal?

The real problems in caste enumeration are technical. The Anthropological Survey of India has identified 6,325 castes (7,500 if we include urban-rural differentiations). How can a census surveyor handle so many categories? With hand-held computers, possibly, but the census organisation is not yet equipped with these. In any event a lot of preparatory work needs to be done to ensure the comparability of castes in different regions, without which we cannot aggregate caste dynamics.

Perhaps a series of small sample surveys are a better way to get the data in the first instance. But once we are better organised and computerised, we need a reality check from the census once in ten years.

The greatest reality we must acknowledge is that a casteless society can be created only on the basis of universal education, social mobility and good governance. If we fail in this, the ensuing problem should not be blamed on the Census Commissioner.

Finally, in the list of castes for surveys, we must include the category ‘casteless’, to which all true modernisers belong. Let us persuade more and more people to opt for the ‘casteless’ category. That is a better way of carrying forward the battle for equality than censorship of survey data.

What do you think?