The Reality of Caste in India

  A Foolish Protest  

Posted on 1-August-2010

     In all decennial censuses in India from the beginning of the twentieth century until 1941, numerical data about different caste groups in India were collected under the heading "Race, Caste, Tribe" and were tabulated except that in the case of the truncated census of 1941 it was decided, for reasons of economy in that year of war, that these data would not be tabulated for the whole country. Provincial governments were free to have the data tabulated for their areas if they were prepared to pay for the exercise out of their budgets and three provinces, namely, Bombay, the Central Provinces and Bengal made that choice. The organisers of the first census after independence, that of 1951, moved by the idealistic desire to de-emphasise caste and community divisions in India, decided not to count citizens according to their caste and the only caste question they were asked was whether they belonged to a scheduled caste or tribe--these are the two categories which according to the Constitution were given quotas of positions in government employment and of seats in the federal and state legislative bodies, originally for the first fifteen years of the republic, which is until 1965. Since then these quotas have been renewed for ten years at a time every ten years and the question about a person belonging to any of these two groups has been retained. Numbers of people in other caste, tribal or ethnic groups have not been counted in any census after independence.

     As the country was getting ready to organise its next decennial census in 2011, some groups, most notably two political parties, widely perceived as deriving their sustenance from support among a small number of caste groups, demanded that caste be included as a category for enumeration in the next census. Faced with this demand, the government of India wobbled and has not ceased doing so since then. The Union Cabinet, the highest governmental authority in India, has failed to decide on the question in two of its meetings and has asked a group of ministers--among a panoply of devices, a group of ministers is the latest which enables the Indian prime minister not only to exclude most members of the Cabinet from decision making on many crucial issues but also to personally escape both responsibility and controversy--to deliberate on the question and recommend a decision. While the government has dithered, other political parties, most notably, the main opposition party, have vociferously opposed the move to include caste for the purposes of enumeration saying this would destroy India's unity. A group of "intellectuals", various scribes and a motley crowd of television talk show regulars have joined in the protest parroting the same warnings about the threat to national unity. If the protesters paused a little and allowed both their brains and vocal chords to cool a little, at least the more intelligent among them would have no difficulty in seeing how mindless their protest was and that they were committing the very common error of substituting opinion for thought.

     A little bit of clear thinking will richly repay itself. The 1951 decision to exclude the category of caste from the census, howsoever well-intentioned and idealistic was not only utopian but fallacious too as it was based on the quite illogical assumption that not talking about a social phenomenon, supposedly undesirable, will in some mysterious manner make it disappear. That decision maintained for succeeding censuses also has in addition deprived policy makers in India of useful information about an important aspect of life in India. As we shall see a little later absence of authentic information about numbers of people in different caste groups has queered decision making in one whole category of positive discrimination programmes. That Hindu society is divided into different castes is an ineluctable fact. Caste is so integral to Hindu society that it will not disappear unless Hindu society changes so much that it becomes unrecognisable to itself. Moreover the phenomenon of caste is so all pervasive that it has permeated in smaller or greater measure other avowedly casteless religious communities of India too. For the dreamers who would wish to see a casteless Indian society another inconvenient fact is that in some ways caste identities have over the last sixty years become stronger and some caste conflicts have become more bitter. Besides, Indian politicians, always prone to pandering to caste loyalties, have shown themselves to grow ever weaker in the face of even patently unreasonable demands on the state's resources made on behalf of different caste groups. Finally the dreamers will do well to remember that the Indian constitution seeks to prohibit discrimination among citizens on grounds of caste, creed or sex; it does not seek to do away with caste.

     The Indian constitution while allowing for positive discrimination in favour of members of the scheduled castes and tribes for a limited period also left open the possibility that the government might devise measures for the upliftment of other socially and economically backward communities. There arose especially in the decade of the 1960's increasingly strident demands for reservations in government employment for members of an undefined number of "other backward" castes under this constitutional provision. In response, the Indian government appointed a commission under the leadership of one B.P. Mandal for the purpose of determining which were these backward castes and making recommendations about measures to adopt to help them. Mandal, using caste data collected in the 1931 census drew up a list of such castes and recommended that 27% of all jobs in the federal government be reserved for these other backward castes in addition to the 22.5% already reserved for the scheduled castes and tribes. Mandal's recommendations lay in deep freeze till 1990, when a very opportunistic and intellectually dishonest Indian prime minister decided to implement them. He did it in order to garner political capital and not because his heart bled for the economic and socially backward. He lost his job soon, never to come back to office but his decision has left a legacy of occasionally bitter caste based contestation. It also started a process in which different other castes demanded to be considered backward and demands for similar treatment by other groups that had been left out of this scheme of reservations. Later there were demands for reservations in institutions of higher and professional education which have been fully or partly conceded. Politicians of no political party have found themselves able to resist such demands. The lasting consequence of this process has been that caste divisions have become more and not less entrenched.

     For as long as India has had electoral democracy based on universal adult suffrage, political parties, not excluding those professing to be above caste and community divisions, have competed with each other to gain the allegiance of different caste or tribal groups. Recognising, as they do, caste as part of the Indian reality, they are loath to offend caste sentiments or take on perceived caste interests or caste leaders. This tendency manifests itself not only at election time but at other times too. Recently there have been a number of instances of caste elders deciding to have young couples getting married in violation of caste rules executed. These were recognised by many as instances of honour killing desired by the young couples' families under the seal of approval of caste elders. The Indian government considered legislation which would have allowed the prosecution of not only parents under the existing criminal code but of the caste elders under an amended criminal code. Such an amendment is being delayed for the ostensible reason that that the states need to be consulted. But the real reason almost certainly is that many politicians are against stern action against caste elders.

     These then are political realities about caste. The social realities are that caste loyalties remain as strong as ever and that caste rules especially in the all-important field of marriage retain their vitality. The first is implicitly recognised by all politicians and this recognition is reflected in the weight they put on caste in the calculations of their electoral prospects. As for the second, except in a very small number of cases in pockets of urban India, most couples marry according to caste rules. All that those who doubt the truth of of this proposition need do is to look at any sample of matrimonial advertisements in an Indian newspaper or, now, a matrimonial website. There can be no gain in continuing to exclude the socio-political reality of caste from Indian censuses. On the contrary, there can be important disadvantages.

     Consider the following. Two of the most cogent criticisms of the Mandal report are that he used outdated data for determining the numerical strength of different caste groups and that his method for determining economic and social backwardness was impressionistic. To be fair to Mandal, he used the most recent figures available to him about the number of people in different caste groups, which were in the 1931 census report. As for the criteria for determining economic backwardness of different caste groups, he had very few authentic figures to go by. Had Indian censuses continued including information about different castes and their economic conditions, the picture would have looked different not only to Mandal but to all those concerned with socio-economic problems in India. The discourse about issues relating to caste would have been less contentious, less venomous and more rational. Finally, to deprive policy makers of authentic information about an element as central as caste in Indian society in a document as basic as the decennial census is a disservice. A wholesome, full-face recognition of caste as part of the Indian  reality and dispassionate discussion of different aspects of it can in no way endanger Indian unity but in fact help strengthen it. Its inclusion in censuses will only help such a recognition. The argument of those who are protesting against it must be dismissed for what it is: piffle.


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Linked articles:

Affirmative Action to Help the Dalit in India


Also on this site:               Introduction to The Waste Sad Time             The Waste Sad Time






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