Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Caste in the census


The demand for a caste-based census is being strongly advanced by the prominent OBC parties, while it is being opposed by the Home Ministry as fraught with numerous hindrances.

The Parliament was repeatedly thrown to uproarious scenes by the senior leaders demanding an amendment in the format for the questionnaire for census enumeration. Within the ruling UPA , in the Congress Party itself there is no unanimity on the issue with the union cabinet divided down the middle supporting and opposing the caste-based census. Only the Home Ministry, which is overseeing the census work is clear that the demand is dangerous and difficult to accomplish.

The supporters of the caste-based census have their reasons. Their politics in the first place hinges on caste. But they woke up too late. The census exercise for 2011 is well in progress. It is now too late for the enumerators to go back and repeat the process all over again. A caste-based census will help the OBC parties have a better idea of the constituency profile for making their political moves. It will also give them more opportunities to make fresh caste based reservation demands. Afterall caste is a sensitive issue. People kill each other in the name of caste. Even parents resort to honour killings of their children to protect the caste purity. Caste is thicker than blood! Inter-caste marriages are still rare and with every passing day people are getting more and more caste conscious. This often undermines a collective Hindu personality. And the government policies, reservation benefits and economic interests have perpetuated the caste system. There is also political profit in the caste. The Congress Party recently announced its list of office bearers for Bihar prominently announcing the caste tag of each individual. Other parties are not far behind when it comes to finalising the candidates’ list and ministerial berth. The other day, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi claimed that the tainted union Communications Minister A Raja cannot be removed because he is a dalit. So even for taking action against corruption one has to consider caste. This is the travesty of our times.

For four decades after independence national leaders taught us to forget caste, religion, language and provincialism to develop a national psyche. India is one. Indians are one. Our only identity is that Indian nationality. But in the last two decades the politicians have revived casteism and now it has become a political agenda. There are many ways of listing the caste. A comprehensive survey by the National Commission of Backward Classes and or the state Commissions of Backward Classes could generate reasonably authentic data on castes. The Anthropological Survey has listed 65,000 castes. The Government of India has officially recognised 6000 castes and sub-castes under the OBC. Unlike the SC-ST category which has a uniform central list of 1885 notified castes, the OBC lists are different for the state and centre.

A note prepared by the Home Ministry listed a number of practical difficulties for the enumerators and also raised certain fundamental objections on the politician’s obsession with caste based census. "Operational difficulties", in carrying out caste-based census would overshadow the basic objective of the census itself, according to the Home Ministry.

The Ministry is right. The last caste-based census was done in 1931 under the British, and the national leaders afterwards opposed a caste census as divisive. There is no doubt the caste-based census could become misleading and can lead to double counting. Further, there is no religious sanction for the Christians and the Muslims to declare their caste though majority of them enjoy the benefits of caste reservation both at the state and central level. The biggest fear, expressed by the Home Ministry is that a caste census could result in "motivated returns through organised and surreptitious means to project higher numbers of a particular caste". If that happens the sanctity of the census will become suspect.


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