Identity, Indian politics and caste census

By Asghar Ali Engineer,

The Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has assured the parliament that caste will be included in the current census. This was after Yadav leaders and OBC members of Parliament raised the issue and there was heated debate. The question arises why is it or is not necessary to include caste in counting people of India. Apart from caste even religion has not been included which also raises doubts in the minds of minorities. Maulana Madani, a Muslim leader and Rajya Sabha member has threatened to launch an agitation if column of religion is not included in the census form.

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These are controversial issues. Some people feel why one should include these caste and religion columns at all while counting people of India. These are divisive categories and people should be counted only as Indians. However, since there is reservation for Scheduled Castes and Tribes only these two columns should be included. The last caste census had taken place in 1931 during the British period.

In independent India the Constitution abolished caste and hence caste as a category was not included in subsequent censuses. The question of caste again became important when the recommendations of Mandal Commission were implemented in 1990 by V.P.Singh Government. The exact number of OBC was disputed. The Mandal Commission arrived at 52 per cent figure for OBC through interpolation of 1931 data and the Supreme Court also, in one of its judgments, had expressed its doubts about Mandal Commission’s figure of 52% in the absence of counting.

First let us throw some light on the need for counting or not counting on the basis of caste. It is true caste is an anathema in a secular democracy and must be abolished and our constitution rightly abolished it. But what is reality? India is highly stratified, multi-layered, multi-cultural and multi-religious society. This stark reality faces us all in the society. The stratification has not diminished even a wee bit. On the contrary it has been intensified several folds.

Inter-caste marriages lead to brutal murder, of all the people by parents themselves or other members of the family. Even today, many dalits cannot fetch water from village well; a low caste person cannot contest post of Sarpanch and is murdered, if he does. For upper caste, caste is not only an identity, it is a great prestige. This sense of prestige increases if economic disparities increase, low caste people continuously going down the scale.

Also, all our elections are fought on the basis of caste and communal identities and castes and sub-castes come into play for political aspirants. Tickets are given not on merit but on the basis of these identities. Even those who were not aware of their sub-castes are demanding their share on that basis. The case of Gujjars in Rajasthan is a case in point. The Gujjars launched a prolonged agitation for reservation in government jobs in which more than 40 persons lost their lives and there was violence between Minas and Gujjars as Minas with their tribal status were getting more jobs.

We are going to live with increasing stratification for a long time to come. We can hide our head like ostrich in the sand of unrealistic ideas or ideals we violate on every step. Our very culture is caste culture and it is being reinforced by our ethos, our status symbols and above all our politics. Despite our constitution having abolished caste, in last sixty years no government can boast of a single concrete step to mitigate, let alone abolish caste. And implementation of Mandal Commission, tough a right step in the given political condition, further enhanced the importance of caste in Indian politics.

In view of all this not to count caste would indeed be defying our socio-political reality. It would also help to find out exact number of OBCs though by no means it is an easy task. The Census Commission Report, reproduced by Indian Express in its Mumbai edition of May 9, 2010 shows, was quite a messy affair. Besides other factors, the status of castes vary from region to region. But nevertheless counting has to be done.

If it is indeed 52% or more, as being claimed, the 50% moratorium on reservation in government jobs, presently imposed by the Supreme Court, may have to be revised upward as in some of the southern states where reservation for various caste categories has reached 69 per cent. Not counting caste would be not only unrealistic but would result in ever mounting problems.

The political culture of our society is leading to more and more social contradictions. On one hand, we aspire to become egalitarian society and the caste cultured negates this very aspiration. And what is ironical we cannot become egalitarian without the help of this very caste culture, at least in economic sense. In order to pull the backward castes up we must know their numbers thereby reinforcing caste identity.

Thus we are in this bind: we must do away with caste system to create egalitarian society and our caste ethos and caste culture requires that we count caste to do justice to them in terms of government jobs thereby reducing economic gaps and fulfilling aspirations of backward castes. There is hardly a way out. Thus caste will continue to play contradictory role in our society for quite some time to come. Our caste culture is so deep rooted that even an egalitarian society cannot be created without its help although caste leads to in-egalitarian social structure.

Counting Religion

Similarly there is another sensitive question of introducing column for religion for which religious minorities, especially Muslims, are demanding. Today of course there is no religion-based reservations at all and the Constitution does not provide religion-based reservations either. Constitution has given this concession only to Sikhs and Neo-Buddhists who are supposed to be offshoots of Hinduism.

However, Justice Rangnath Commission Report which was submitted subsequent to Justice Sachar Committee Report has recommended 10 per cent reservation for religious minorities especially for Muslims and some political leaders are demanding implementation of Justice Rangnath Commission Report. Of course this is highly sensitive matter and the Congress Government is highly hesitant to implement the Rangnath Commission Report. Not only that it is even hesitant to table it in Parliament.

Thus today since there are no religion-based reservations one does not feel need to introduce religion column in the census but if it is also introduced it will be much better. With greater democratization and increased awareness minorities will agitate for conceding religious based reservations and then there will be need for knowing exact numbers of religious minorities as we need to know today exact number of OBCs.

In a multi-religious and multi-cultural societies number of contradictions are emerging including in western countries which are also becoming increasingly multi-religious and multi-cultural. Western democracy is essentially based on individual rights and this can work very well, if the society is homogenous or monolithic, but it creates serious contradictions if it is multi-cultural society.

In India we always had highly diverse and highly stratified society and so paid heavy price through partition as the two communities could not come to agreed arrangement for power distribution and now in post-independence period new contradictions are emerging which were suppressed (except in case of dalits which was solved through reservation) as religion became principal contradiction at the time of partition.

In western society as it is becoming multi-cultural due to immigration from various former colonies new political as well as social problems are emerging and political tensions contradictions causing grave problems. In western concept of democracy voting right is strictly individual but in multi-cultural society it becomes both individual as well as communitarian.

An individual remains conscious of the religious or caste community one belongs to and his/her voting is affected by considerations of his/her community, justices or injustices done to it and this bring pressure on the system. Also, since democracy supposedly is imbued with egalitarian ethos and communitarian inequalities militate against this egalitarian ethos, these contradictions often becomes explosive.

In a way, one must accept the fact that India, with its bewildering diversity has been able to manage these contradictions more smoothly than many other countries and many countries take India as a model in this respect. However, this is not to say that there are no serious problems of governance. There are and thus challenges of caste and communal identities are to be taken more seriously.

These identities will continue to play contradictory roles both regressive as well as progressive and would not fit into any neat logic as many of us expect. Contradictions would remain very much with us for long time to come. The socio-cultural complex that we have inherited is very much part of our psyche and would continue to influence our political behaviour along with our socio-cultural behaviour.