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Counting backwards

Originally, small social groups behaved according to fluid ‘caste’ lines based on professions rather than on birth, writes Indrajit Hazra.

columns Updated: May 26, 2010 21:49 IST

Caste, we are constantly told, is a reality in India. Whether we approve of caste-based identities or not, the very fact that a vast number of Indians still identify themselves and others along caste lines, makes it an issue that can’t be dismissed. But acknowledging its existence is hardly the same thing as approving it. There may be a fair number of people who believe in little green men. But to categorise them in an official exercise such as the census — as opposed to in a study on delusionals — is to willy-nilly give credence to the existence of little green men.

The origin of a caste-based census lies in the British colonialists’ fetish to categorise a motley group of people they wished to govern smoothly. It was according to the same principles that they divvied up Indians according to their martial prowess (a hodgepodge of ethnic groups like Rajputs and religious groups like Sikhs). The invention of the category of ‘criminal tribes’ in 1871 followed the same line of Victorian parlour games. (Incidentally, independent India ‘denotified’ these communities in 1952, but in 1959, they were reclassified as ‘habitual offenders’.)

Caste, the British failed or refused to understand, was not cast in stone. Originally, small social groups, overwhelmingly in rural communities, behaved according to fluid ‘caste’ lines based on professions rather than on birth (akin to the European concept of ‘guilds’). A more robust artificial caste ‘solidified’ down the years. After the 1857 ‘mutiny’, for instance, Indian soldiers were given caste tags by the British once they joined the army. This saw Hindus, who never really identified beyond ‘profession-caste’ terms, return to their villages while on leave and continue their army ‘caste’ tag among puzzled locals. So, from being a class category with its avenues of social mobility, caste became an unmoving ‘endogamic’ (of marriage within a class or tribe as required by custom or law) ID tag.

This history lesson is important because our current understanding of caste is a colonial hand-me-down. The only caste-based census conducted was in 1931. The census commissioner, J.H. Hutton, later acknowledged criticism about “the mere act of labelling persons as belonging to caste tends to perpetuate the system”. But he responded by stating that it was “difficult to see why the record of a fact that actually exists should lend to stabilise that existence”. As he pointed out, “It is just as easy to argue... that it is impossible to get rid of any institution by ignoring its existence like a proverbial ostrich.” True. Just by ignoring the existence of bigots, for instance, bigotry doesn’t go away. But the whole debate over ‘caste in a census’ today stems from one singular, practical and political reason: to stand up and be counted in order to be eligible for goodies. To put it in one easy word: quotas.

Here again, we have to go back to the 1931 census. When the Mandal Commission started its task of evolving criteria for ascertaining the population of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the 1980s, it arrived at the figure of about 52 per cent of India’s population on the basis of the 1931 census. (In 2007, the Supreme Court rejected this figure.) And here, Hutton highlighted a problem. He quoted a Madras superintendent: “An extremely dark individual pursuing the occupation of waterman on the Coorg border described his caste as Suryavamsa, the family of the Sun.” In other words, many had lied for the express purpose of moving up the social ladder.

By the 1990s, when the Mandal Commission recommendations kicked in, lying about caste took the opposite direction. Instead of ‘Sanskritising’ oneself, people started lying to ‘de-Sanskritise’ themselves to avail of quotas earmarked for ‘backward’ castes. In an article in last week’s Business Standard, economist Surjit Bhalla nails the lie using National Sample Survey (NSS) data. Bhalla points out that if the NSS figures of 1999-2000 show the OBC population of about 36 per cent jumping to 41 per cent in 2000-2004, that would amount to the national average fertility rate of OBC women jumping from 2.5 to 6.9. Effectively, two out of every 10 non-OBC Hindu in the NSS survey lied to be branded an OBC and get in line for a slice of the quota pie.

Unlike sex, ethnicity or religion, ‘caste’ is a malleable marker. So even as countless matrimonial ads, khap panchayats and political parties show that caste is taken very seriously, one is really talking about self-styling. And even here, large groups like Lingayats or Kolis have less in common within their ‘caste’ cousins than with others from similar socio-economic groups.

So apart from encouraging reverse-engineering IDs (“I’m a Gujjar if it gets me a government job; I’m a Brahmin if it gets me a good bride”), a caste-based census, at best, serves no purpose. At worst, it’ll institutionalise wedges in a society that can do with less artificial pecking orders.