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Casting the caste net

We must consider the implications of a caste census

Written by Abusaleh Shariff |
August 23, 2010 5:05:16 am

The group of ministers led by Pranab Mukherjee has approved the collection of caste information in Census 2011. Although Muslims are considered a caste-less community,it is diverse and practically all sections are experiencing deep levels of deprivation in various social,educational and economic facets. Here I’d like to discuss alternatives for collecting caste data and also highlight implications for the Muslim community within the context of the inclusive development agenda of the UPA government.

We should consider an open-ended question method. Given the large number of castes and caste-like identities in India,whatever the “caste names” the informants’ report can be filled in and codified later. A pre-coded list of castes that enumerators normally carry to ascertain the SC/ST identity would continue; for all others it can be open-ended caste reporting. Such a method would reveal the actual numbers,but from these numbers it is not possible to declare a particular caste as backward or forward. The information along social,economic and educational indicators which will be collected in Census 2011 may not be adequate to compute the backwardness or forwardness of castes. The Muslim community would participate in this process of data collection of the open-ended caste identities along with all other community groups in India. But it appears that such an open-method will not be used in the 2011 census operation although the demand of caste collection of data is of this nature.

We should match the reported caste with the pre-coded caste/ class lists. As mentioned above,SCs and STs are so identified using a pre-coded list which is matched while taking the census. Thus,only two coded categories are extracted from the census which are used to estimate the SCs and STs for any geographic or administrative area. Now since the demand for the caste census has been made mostly by the castes which can be grouped as the OBCs (other backward classes),it is but expected that a similar procedure is used to collect the share of OBCs in Census 2011.

Unlike in case of the SCs/ STs,for whom the respective lists have been compiled and updated for the last six censuses in independent India,the case for OBCs is to be undertaken for the first time in 2011. The most likely benchmark will be a list of OBCs from the Mandal Commission. It is puzzling to note that as per the Mandal Commission the “OBC list” is considered a “class” category with little sociological,cultural or economic basis to designate it as such. Besides,the OBC list was prepared almost 30 years ago and that too in the absence of any dependable data. The communities were identified using some sketchy data from the 1931 census,and in many cases even by the Mandal Commission’s own view are “best guesses”. I am of the opinion that using the OBC list during Census 2011 to identify the size and share of the OBCs will be highly problematic,and it will make devising inclusive policies difficult both at the national and state levels.

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The Mandal Commission guessed the percentages of both the Hindu and non-Hindu OBCs on the basis of assumptions. For example,one notices wide variation in identifying the “castes” and their shares to qualify as OBCs both in the state and Central lists. For example,in the case of Muslims,while almost all Muslims in Kerala are listed as OBCs,almost none (a very small proportion) in West Bengal are listed as such in the Mandal Commission document. About 40 per cent of Muslims are counted as the OBCs in Uttar Pradesh and such OBCs in Karnataka are about 5-7 per cent. The OBC listings for Muslims for all the respective states are just “guesstimates”. Such lists will do more harm to the cause of Muslims,especially because a large proportion of Muslims will be counted as those belonging to the “high castes/class” and therefore will be excluded from any scheme of affirmative action (for example,if government considers the implementation of the Ranganath Mishra Commission recommendations or other similar inclusive policies).

By the Mandal Commission estimates,only about 25 per cent of all Hindus are considered as high caste or socio-economically better off; whereas,about 50 per cent of Muslims are classified as high caste or socio-economically better off. This is because none from among the Muslims are classified under the SC/ST category and all such Muslims with the SC/ ST identity are actually listed as high caste/class,which is unacceptable. This is a serious anomaly in estimates of OBCs by the Mandal Commission in case of the Muslim community.

In view of these facts it is essential that correct estimates with respect to “SC/ST-type Muslims”,“OBC Muslims” and “all other Muslims” are undertaken with care and sensitivity. Even if the SC/ST-type of Muslims are not so listed due to certain procedural hurdles even when legally and constitutionally appropriate,such Muslims must be listed as OBCs in which case up to 80 per cent of all Muslims will be so classified. Note that practically all Muslims in India are converts,and hardly any original Muslims who migrated from 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 on the status of Muslims in India has also clearly revealed the distressing socio-economic and educational conditions of Muslims in India.


It will be almost impossible to prepare a list of Muslim caste/ class for classifying them as Muslim OBCs. Therefore,I suggest that the “list of exclusion” can be prepared so as to determine the social forwardness or backwardness of a large section of Muslims in India. Such a list of exclusion can be prepared for each state separately after consultations with state-level Muslim intellectuals and religious bodies. Thus,once a list of exclusion is prepared,all other Muslims who do not match the list of exclusion can be identified as “Muslim OBCs”.

Given the UPA government’s resolve to ensure inclusive development in India,it is necessary that a serious anomaly with respect to identification of the Muslims OBCs is removed before the conduct of the 2011 census,lest the discrimination so far faced by Muslims continue for ever after.

The writer, chief economist at NCAER,was member-secretary of the Rajinder Sachar committee on the status of Muslims

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First published on: 23-08-2010 at 05:05:16 am
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