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The first time of asking

We must learn from the history of counting caste in India...

Written by Padmanabh Samarendra |
June 10, 2010 1:58:13 am

The proposal to include caste in the forthcoming census has generated intensely conflicting views within and outside Parliament. Those in favour argue that the survey would reveal the identity and numerical strength of castes (read OBCs) which suffer from deprivation; this in turn would help in the reformulation and extension of policies,such as that of reservation,and would ensure the upliftment of the deprived. Those arguing against the inclusion of caste believe that the measure contravenes our ideals of citizenship and Indianness,and would foster divisive tendencies within the society and polity of the nation.

Both those views,of course,raise many questions that deserve to be reviewed. In this article,however,I intend to examine an important area on which the conflicting views mentioned above converge.

Both protagonists and antagonists in this debate in the census share the following premises: they believe that caste is an indubitable reality of Indian social life,and that the census could be used to map this reality and thereby produce authentic caste data that is otherwise scarce. (To be fair,the home minister did refer to the procedural and practical difficulties involved in surveying castes during the forthcoming census. However,such qualifications do not contradict the shared premises.) Yet,the history of caste in colonial census undermines confidence that this survey can procure authentic data on the subject.

Census operations commenced in India in 1853,when an enumeration of the population of the North Western Provinces,covering parts of present-day UP,was held. A similar exercise was conducted over the next decade in several other provinces like Oudh and Punjab. The decennial census started,as we know,in 1871-72; 2011 shall witness the 15th pan-Indian edition of the series. Caste featured for the first time in the 1865 census of the North Western Provinces; it continued to be a prominent part of the colonial census till 1931.

From the very beginning,overwhelming discrepancies marked the counting and classification of castes. In 1871-82,for example,Bengal presidency listed just 69 castes. But by 1901,that number had swollen to 380. Meanwhile in Bombay Presidency,the numbers were greater — going up from 140 in 1871-72 to 690 in 1901.

Caste lists found in the colonial census reports were clearly inconsistent. In fact,what might come as a surprise to many is that between 1871-72 and 1931,no exhaustive list of castes could be prepared for any province,let alone for the country as a whole. Every list was concluded with entries such as “miscellaneous castes”,“other castes”,“caste not stated”,and so on. In addition,there existed the problem of identifying castes. After all,how do we know that communities named as Bhad Bhunja (1901 caste list,Bombay),Oraon,Marwari (1901 caste list,Bengal) or Lingayat (1901 caste list,Madras) are actually caste groups?

What was the problem in identifying castes? Explaining the reason for a “bewildering variety of entries” in caste lists,H.H. Risley,the Census Commissioner of India in 1901,wrote that a respondent,when asked about his caste,would give the name of “an obscure caste… a sect… a sub-caste… an exogamous sept… a hypergamous group… (he) may describe himself by occupation or… the province or tract of country from which he comes.” Since there was no uniformity in the notion of caste,the identification,counting and classification of such groups posed insurmountable problems. As a result,right from its commencement till it was finally abandoned in 1931,the exercise of enumerating caste earned the strongest disapproval of every single census commissioner entrusted with the task.

The historical experience of enumerating caste does not figure in the present government’s decision on the subject. In fact,in its haste,the government has not considered some basic questions. For example,in order to engage even in a limited exercise of assessing the strength of the OBCs,it must first specify the criteria applicable at the pan-Indian level to determine who would qualify as belonging to this class. This is necessary because not all states have an OBC list. Further,one may ask whether the government is going to include in the census questionnaire an OBC column for the Muslims? We know that many castes from the Muslim community figure in the OBC list prepared by the states. However,would the government be willing to introduce the principle of subdividing Muslims,or for that matter the Christian population,along caste lines?

The lessons from history are likely to be lost on those who manipulate policies only to accommodate short-term political interests. I leave the rest of us with the following teaser: if castes constitute such an indubitable aspect of Indian social reality,why should census operations in colonial India,which lacked neither skilled ethnographers nor resources,repeatedly flounder in the attempt to identify and count these groups?

The writer teaches at the K.R. Narayanan Centre for Dalit and Minorities Studies,Jamia Millia Islamia,New Delhi

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