Why they want caste census

When large homogenous groups are identified, it’s easy for politicians to pamper them

Mousumi Majumder | May 28, 2010



All governments, in order to govern their subjects efficiently, convert the population into homogeneous categories and also try to transform people into statistics. These ‘statistics’ and ‘categories’ are tools of governance and the state also imagines them as the basis for planning for development.

Since caste is a vital structure of Indian society, policy makers, both during the colonial and the post-colonial periods, have tried to use it as a tool for governance. The colonial government, which never attempted to reform the society and which understood the obsession of Indians with caste, tried to accommodate this obsession into policy-making by documenting caste in all its complexities in the Gazetteers and census since 1881. In 1931, census commissioner Sir Herbert Risley went one step forward by attempting to locate each caste in the social hierarchy.

Based on the census, in 1935 the British passed The Government of India Act 1935, which brought the term ‘Scheduled Castes’ into use, and defined the group as including “such castes, races or tribes or parts of groups within castes, races or tribes, which appear to His Majesty in Council to correspond to the classes of persons formerly known as the ‘Depressed Classes’, as His Majesty in Council may prefer.” This discretionary definition was clarified in The Government of India (Scheduled Castes) Order, 1936, which contained a list or Schedule of castes throughout the British administered provinces. Reservation of seats for the Depressed Classes was incorporated into the Act, which came into force in 1937.
However, nationalist leaders like Gandhi and Nehru were not in favour of bringing caste into political life although they conceded that the lower castes needed to be provided positive discrimination to compensate for social injustice. Since the first post-colonial census in 1951, enumeration of castes was discarded although all the five censuses since then provided data on SC as a whole.

But it was only when the Backward Classes Commission identified a large number of non-SC and non-ST communities as backward and the Mandal Commission report too recommended reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in education and jobs did the issue of caste-based census enumeration, which has not been done since 1931, come up once again. It has now been decided that the ongoing census will classify people according to their castes especially to enumerate the OBCs who were given a quota of 27 percent in jobs and education based on a Supreme Court verdict, in order to ascertain whether the figure is appropriate to their number.

The decision of classifying all the people of the country by their individual castes will have a deep impact on the numerically small lower castes living in villages, especially in Uttar Pradesh where the caste-based hierarchy is still operational. The lower castes of this state are part of the homogeneous state categories of SC and also have the political identity of ‘dalit’ which is the byproduct of democratic politics that grants new identities to those communities which they mobilise and try to form homogeneous categories in their own way.

In Uttar Pradesh, the dalits comprise around 21 percent of the total population and of them the Chamars form the largest population. Pasi is the next largest community while Dhobi, Kori, Khatik, Balmiki, Shilpkar and Dhanuk are the other numerically important dalit castes. There are also many other formerly “untouchable” lower castes like Beladar, Kanjar, Badhi, Rangrez, Bangali, Barwar, Bauriya, Sahariya, Paradiya in the state but they are numerically very insignificant. At the grassroots the words ‘Scheduled Caste’ and ‘dalit’ as forms of address are not commonly used by the lower castes, as we observed in a study of a village named Shahabpur on the outskirts of Allahabad.

One example is that of a Shahabpur resident named Bhullar, who belongs to the Chamar caste. Bhullar lives in the village as a Chamar and also introduces himself to everyone as a Chamar. However, when he writes an application for a BPL card he mentions his category as SC, while he claims to be a dalit when he attends a political rally organised by BSP. However, Bhullar’s representation as dalit or SC is not his own but is mediated by a political activist of BSP in the village who helps him to write the application for a BPL card or NREGA job card. When the activist takes Bhullar to political rallies he sometimes calls him dalit and sometimes Chamar. These transformations of Bhullar’s Chamar identity into SC and dalit are momentary and are only for governance or political purposes. Bhullar once again returns to the Chamar identity in his everyday life. With the new caste-based census, the multiple meaning of Chamar which lie in Bhullar’s life will be fixed only as a political category. Thus caste would convert into a category for governance.

The coming of the BSP politics in UP has also empowered numerically powerful lower castes like Chamar and Pasi who now proudly assert their dalit identity. Today they are powerful enough to  claim a larger share in the development pie if the government decides to dole out quotas based on population size. For the most marginalised of the marginalised castes, especially the numerically invisible communities like Dhanuks, Rangrez, Tatwa, Jogi and so on who are SCs but are still wallowing in poverty and misery as they have not been mobilised by political parties because of their small size, the caste-based census will be a blessing since they will now figure among the other castes and would expectedly get some benefits of the welfare schemes launched for numerically small marginalised communities.

On the other hand, a fear for these small dalit communities is that due to their small number the political parties working as agencies in distribution of development schemes and political power might not pay much attention to them but would try to appease the big dalit groups such as Chamar and Pasi, as has been the case in this state. The OBCs like Kewat, Tewar, Garariya, Kahar, Nai, Mali, Bhar, Rajbhar and Bind and the Backward Castes like Ahirs (Yadav), Gujar, Kurmi, Lodhi, Kumhar, Darji, Lohar and Sonar too, which are numerically significant, will be able to claim a larger share in the pie if the government decides to dole out quotas to different castes in proportion to their population size.

Dalit castes like Chamar and Pasi too would receive hefty reservations due to their large population size. In such a situation a numerical hierarchy of castes might emerge in which the castes that outnumber the other castes will become more powerful and dominate over the numerically small castes if population size-based reservations are provided to all the castes.

Thus while these small marginalised castes which are still on the fringes despite the empowerment of dalits will get distinct identities due to the caste-based census they might also be relegated to the margins by the state as being numerically too insignificant.

So will these numerically small lower castes remain happy in their individual caste identity or will they need some more identities to obtain their dues from the state? We still need to find the answer to this question.

This column first appeared in Governance Now magazine dated May 16 - 31, Vol.01 Issue 08.

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