Indian Caste Census-2011: How will it affect the Muslims?

By Abusaleh Shariff and Navaid Hamid,

A Cabinet press release titled ‘Methodology for conducting the Below Poverty Line Census and Enumeration of Castes’, dated 19-May, 2011 has set December 2011 as the target date to complete the census exercise. This hybrid Census of the BPL and the Caste would be conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development in association with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (HUPA) and the Registrar General of India (RGI) and expected to be completed by December 2011. However, the so called methodology for the caste census is only a single line statement – ‘The enumeration of castes will also be done simultaneously along with the BPL census’.

The announcement about the BPL census is welcome, although there are many controversies in terms of a methodology and variables which will be used to identify the poor. What is underplayed and not adequately highlighted in this cabinet note is the fact that the Caste Census will be undertaken for the first time since the Independence. Such data are likely to be used in determining and revising the cast and class linked quotas in national and state government jobs, admissions in educational institutions such as in colleges and universities and access to targeted social services. The caste census is being conducted without adequate methodological and analytical preparedness and since caste, class and religious identities have complex inter-relationships there will be ramifications which will be difficult to resolve in future. In the following, therefore, is a brief discussion as to how will the caste census affect the Muslim community of India.


Madarsa students at Jamiat Ulema rally in Patna in 2010

Muslims in India is a highly diverse community; while adopting the diversity emerging from the Islamic religion such as the Sunni, Shia, Bohra, Agakhani and so on; many also carried along the respective identity from the Hindu caste system even after their conversion. The social structure, therefore, amongst the Muslims is complex, and it further gets accentuated by cultural difference emanating from language and region/state of domical. For example, only about 40% of Muslims report Urdu as mother tongue. There are millions of Muslims who speak Bangla, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Gujarati, Punjabi and so on as their mother tongue. Of course due to dominance of Urdu in the northern parts of India especially in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Muslims do not report Hindi as their mother tongue and they intend to do so in future as well. Muslims besides being highly diverse are experiencing uniformly deep levels of deprivation in various social, educational and economic facets of life across all the states in India.

The collection of caste data has emerged from certain political corners and is expected to provide structured information so as to allocate or enhance respective shares in reservations for the SCs, the STs and the OBCs. The Indian Caste Census (ICC-2011) is likely to trigger a drive for Indian citizens of all castes and communities to get enrolled into deprived categorizations and this process can be labled as Competitive Backwardness. In case of Muslims there is an inherent complication; in spite of the presence of dalit type identity (being converts from erstwhile Hindu dalits) and their desire to report as such, the census enumerators may not recognize such reporting due to the ‘Census Filtering Procedures’ adopted during the canvassing. Since constitutionally there is a pre-existing- codified list for the SCs and STs, the ICC-2011 will use it. The procedures will authenticate the categorization as the SCs only when the reported religion is Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist. Therefore, all those Muslims who have dalit identities will be excluded from being identified as the SCs. Similar situation may occur in case of Christians as well. Note also that there is a pending case of judgment in this regard in the Supreme Court of India.

The Census will also collect data on selected economic and education indicators and asset ownership so as to categorize households / people into the ‘below poverty line’ or ‘above poverty line’ status. Such data along with religion and caste are expected to be used to compute the relative backwardness or forwardness of a caste group; which will have ramifications in determining the eligibility to jobs and higher level educational admissions under the quota system. In the following is a discussion as how the misclassified Caste data will not only be detrimental to the social, economic and educational development of the Muslim community in India; but also becomes stumbling block in the efforts of mainstreaming of the Muslims community in Indian economic and social spaces.

As mentioned earlier a pre-determined list will be used to identify the SCs and STs for any given geographic or administrative area; as they have guarantee and authentication under the seal of the Indian constitution since the Independence. The OBC categorisation on the other hand, is a post-Mandal scheme and supported only through government orders. The demands for ICC-2011 were made by caste groups which can be grouped as the OBCs (other backward classes). Will the ICC-2011 be based on Mandal Commission list of OBCs? The Census Commissioner during a meeting recently clarified that the Mandal Commission list will not be used during the ICC-2011. However, it will be helpful if at the outset central and independent state level lists of the OBCs are finalized and used before canvassing the ICC-2011.

Lessons can be drawn from the OBC reporting status during the NSS surveys collected annually. The NSSO 61st round data for the reference year 2004-5 suggests that only about 26% of all Hindus are considered as the High Castes or socio-economically better offs; whereas, about 60% of Muslims fall into the non-OBC and thus socio-economically better off category. This is because none from the Muslims are classified under the SCs/STs category and all such Muslims with the SC / ST identity could actually be listed as the high castes / class. This is a serious problem and an anomaly which must be addressed before any major effort to collect castes data in India.

Caste / Class Classification and Proportions of Hindus and Muslims in India (Estimates from NSS Surveys)

Religion SCs+STs OBCs All Others (High Caste/Class)
Hindus 31.3 42.8 26
Muslims 1.3 39.2 59.5

Source: Extracts from the Sachar Report

What should be done?

In view of these facts it is recommended:

1. That the Cast Census should be undertaken only after the pending Supreme Court judgment in the matter of the recognition of the presence of ‘dalit’ identities amongst the Muslims and Christians in India is decided.

2. Now that the ICC-2011 is announced and a certainty beginning June-2011, the Muslims who intend to report their castes as dalits / SCs / STs, should do as they wish. The ICC-2011 enumerators should be instructed to collect this information as reported and not to filter out caste reporting linked to religion. Note that, practically all Muslims in India are converts and are hardly any original Muslims who migrated from out of erstwhile Indian territory now reside in India. Further, it is historically documented that most of those converted to Islam belong to low castes such as the dalits and the tribes. The ‘Sachar Committee’ (2006) on status of Muslims in India has also clearly revealed the distressing socio-economic and educational conditions of Muslims which are closer to the levels recorded for the SCs and STs belonging to the Hindu Community.

3. It will be almost impossible to prepare a list of Muslim caste/class for classifying them as Muslim-OBCs. Therefore, a ‘list of exclusion’ can be prepared so as to determine the social forwardness or backwardness of a large section of Muslims who are not reported themselves as the SC or ST. Such list of exclusion can be prepared for each state separately after consultations with the state level Muslim intellectuals and religious bodies. Thus, once a list of exclusion is prepared, all other Muslims who do not belong to this list can be identified as the “Muslim OBCs”.


Abusaleh Shariff was Member Secretary of the Sachar Committee and Navaid Hamid is Member, National Integration Council.

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