Playing with Fire
In the just concluded session of the Lok Sabha, the government, in order to secure the support of “two Yadavs” (Mulayam and Lalu) towards the passage of the union budget, promised to include a caste count in the 2011 census, the process of which has already begun. Predictably, the issue has opened a Pandora’s box. For it is not the first time that the demand for inclusion of caste as a factor in the census has been made. Many a time, the so-called OBC leaders had put forward the demand to revive the caste-based census in the country, the last of which was enumerated in 1931 when Lord Irwin was the Viceroy. But each time, the demand has been rejected by the government of the day on the ground that an independent India aimed at a “casteless society”. In fact, this was the stand taken by India’s first home minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.
Let us find out the reasons cited by the proponents for caste-census. It is said that whatever one may say, caste is a reality in Indian society, irrespective of even one’s religion. See the demand made by Muslims and Christians that they are given reservations on the basis of their original castes, which never withered away in their newly adopted religions. Even the homegrown “religions” such as Jainism, Buddhism and Sikhism could not withstand the pressure of caste in India. Such being the case, there is no “shame” in counting persons on the basis of their caste.
“Caste is taken into consideration from politics to matrimonial deals on a day-to-day basis; then why not the actual reality of caste configuration be updated in the present census?”, argues social scientist Shaibal Gupta of Patna-based Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI). Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, another big votary of caste-politics- and here he is in complete agreement with Lalu Yadav – asserts that the census should be held caste-wise to establish the correct strength of the backward and extremely backward castes. That will pave the way for devising plans for their all-round development as was being done in the case of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, he adds.
Some votaries of caste-census even go to the extent of arguing that it was nothing but a political conspiracy of the “uppers-caste ruling class” that prevented a caste-census in the country for 80 years. In a sense, this reasoning cuts across almost all the political parties and formations in India. The principal political parties of the country – the Congress and the BJP – have many stalwarts who share this reasoning.
Invariably, every commission pertaining to the OBCs – Kalekar, Mandal and Venkat Chelliah – have recommended caste census. Under the UPA regime, the Social Justice Ministry has also demanded the same, its argument being that a caste-census will greatly facilitate the preparation of an authentic OBC list and would help the Government in supplying correct data to the judiciary, which is confronted with many legislations by states recommending reservations beyond the statutory limit of 50 per cent.
However, the above arguments need to be taken with a pinch of salt. First, the so-called OBC leaders are literally cheating the nation by reducing themselves as caste-leaders. In reality, the OBC stands for “Other Backward Classes”, not “Other Backward Castes”. The Constitution under Articles 15 (4), 16 (4), 46 and 340 refers to “socially and educationally backward classes” or “backward class citizens”. Thus, nowhere, “caste” is mentioned. While determining the OBC status many criteria are taken into account; here caste is one of the criteria, not the criterion.
Further, as Prof. Ghanshyam Shah rightly says, there is no uniform definition of the Other Backward Classes across the states. Though in practice “class” has been used by the State to be synonymous with “caste”, there is no agreed criteria, however, as to whether a social group as a whole ought to be considered socially, economically and educationally backward, or only a part of its population be categorised as backward. And if the latter, in what proportion? A homogeneity test has not yet been agreed upon by the various OBC commissions. Moreover, it is difficult to define social backwardness without eliciting information on customs and rituals and social status in caste hierarchy.
A particular caste having the same name can be an upper caste in one state, a backward caste in another state and a most backward caste in a third state. So how do the enumerators, who are often schoolteachers, tackle this problem? And more important, how can the Census Commissioner ultimately prepare the reliable figures when the basic data on a particular caste will vary from state to state?
Secondly, if finance minister Pranab Muhkherjee’s suggestion in the Lok Sabha is taken in to account, then the 2011 Census will enumerate only those castes equated with the OBCs, not all castes in the country. For in stance, we will not be able to know the total number of the so-called upper castes. Because the enumerators will have separate columns for SCs, STs and OBCs. The rest of the population will automatically come under “General” list, a list that is too general to derive any conclusion from since this list includes persons of many aspects, including those who do not believe in any religion or caste.
What this proves is that caste is not an “objective” measurable category like occupation, age, sex, education etc. It is to some extent a “subjective” category related with identity and perceptions that change from time to time. That is the reason different censuses during the pre-independence period did not provide uniform data on caste.
Finally, while there is no denying the fact that caste is an important factor in Indian life, it does not necessarily mean that it is a desirable thing. Efforts for a caste-less society cannot be given up just because caste-factor is continuing to be problematic. In fact, if it is proving to be problematic it is essentially because of those who profess to be fighting against caste.
Ask Lalu, Mulayam or Nitish or Karunanidhi and they all will say that they want a caste-less India. But in practice, their very politics will ensure that India can never be rid of castes. Because, their very survival in politics is dependent on their respective castes, which they exploit in the prevailing electoral system based on first-past-the-post system. Their nefarious designs are that a caste census will result in a higher OBS figure, which they will use as further pressuring the State to increase the quantum of quotas in education and jobs. They are not bothered that such a politics will further divide the country, force the talent to go away, diminish the nation’s productivity and weaken the overall political and economic strength of the country.
The country needs to generate more wealth and assets to meet the demands of its burgeoning population. Only when there is more wealth and assets can there be effective social distribution and justice. Unfortunately, the caste-based politics and the associated demands for reservations only talk of distributions and shares. This politics is simply not bothered about creations of or additions to national assets and wealth, which, in turn, require building talents. But then “talents” is a very dirty word for those who champion caste-politics and caste-census.
Have you ever heard any of them talking of affirmative actions to build talents amongst the OBCs? For them affirmative actions are synonymous with reservations. They are not realising that they are playing with fire.
By Prakash Nanda