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Headcount of castes could be countdown to chaos

india Updated: May 27, 2010 00:19 IST
Ashish Bose of OBC-oriented parties’

“It’ll be like casting a stone at a beehive,” said well-known demographer Ashish Bose of OBC-oriented parties’ demand for caste enumeration in Census-2010.

The cons

* Caste census can further fragment society
* Defining caste is the single biggest challenge
* Could lead to large-scale chaos if govt gives in to pressure to count castes
* Castes and caste-based parties could multiply
* Experts say ’31 caste census valid for extrapolation
* 10-yearly exercise not enough to collect such
sensitive data

His worry: the exercise won’t generate authentic data while leaving society and the polity even more divided than in the aftermath of 1990 when V.P. Singh implemented the Mandal Commission’s report on quotas for other backward classes (OBCs).

In these times of security challenges, the paramount need is to forge homogenization, not the kind of socio-political fragmentation a caste census would trigger. Sharpened identities will help regional, sectarian outfits such as the BSP, SP and RJD, damaging the BJP’s Hindutva plank and the Congress’s long-term objective of negating Mandal by building an aspirational India.

Known for his work on “social mobility and caste conflicts” in the 20th century, sociologist Imtiaz Ahmad considered defining caste as the single biggest challenge in any such enumeration.

Boundaries of caste have never been known. There were protests when the British tried to fix them,” he said.

For instance, the Chandaals claimed to be Naamshudhras in 1910 and Naamshudhra Brahmins in 1921. The resultant confusion and chaos will be way bigger in scale if the government gives in to caste-based groupings in 21st century India. But it’s caught in a bind on the complex issue.

On one hand is the pressure for greater share (in special concessions for backward classes), on the other the judiciary’s push for enumeration to evaluate continuation of the quota system.

“The inevitable byproduct of it will be social fission. Castes will multiply and so would caste-based political parties,” remarked Ahmed. He felt data generated by the last caste census in 1931 was valid for extrapolation to determine the count of communities other than Muslims who faced major dislocation during Partition.

Dr Bose agreed with Ahmad that a caste census wouldn’t go beyond what’s already known. “A ten-yearly exercise isn’t a good way of collecting such sensitive data,” remarked the Professor Emeritus of the Institute of Economic Growth. He relied more on the national sample survey, the national family health survey and the agriculture census for their shorter periodicity.

The limitations of once-in-a-decade enumeration were best illustrated in 2001 when the census recorded over 6000 mother tongues. The Language Division of Registrar General of India took 7-8 years to make sense of the raw information, reducing eventually the number of mother tongues to 120-odd. “As a result, the published version of the 2001 census came out in 2009 when it was time already for fresh enumeration,” said Bose.

The government obviously has bought time by referring to a Group of Ministers the issue on which consensus eluded the Union Cabinet.

Can a question that so deeply divided the ministers be expected to strengthen the Union that’s India?

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