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A mass movement

Census 2011 highlights the wide discrepancies that exist within India. It's imperative that such data be used to drive policies. Sitaram Yechury writes.

columns Updated: Oct 10, 2011 12:10 IST

Yes, we have done it. After 28 years, India has lifted the cricket World Cup. It has been a long journey, from listening on radio sets and watching on black and white TVs at the neighbour's, to satellite TV sets showing the thrilling Saturday encounter several times over already.

The first results of Census 2011 show that we are home to 121 crore people, the largest numbers anywhere in the world, for whom, cricket is virtually a religion. China with 19.4% of the world's population, as compared to our 17.5%, has mercifully not yet entered the field of cricket visibly.

The census operations in India, probably the largest such exercise anywhere in the world, have an immense importance in our history as well as in our contemporary lives. While delivering the Sixth Sumitra Chishti Memorial Lecture, Professor Ashish Bose, one of our foremost demographers, underlined the importance of the census by saying "census data have determined the destiny of the Indian subcontinent in many ways. The partition of India was based on the census data on religion. The reorganisation of states in 1957 on a linguistic basis used census data on languages (mother tongue), the delimitation of electoral constituencies, ever since India held its first general election in 1952 is based on census data". Likewise, the determination of reserved seats for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are based on census data. Equally important is the fact that the Finance Commission that recommends allocation of resources between the Centre and the states bases itself on the census as does the Planning Commission while preparing the Five Year Plans.

Census data has been central in formulating population policy. Consequently, to ensure the southern states that were more efficient in implementing the population policy do not lose out as against those states that weren't as efficient in terms of their representation in Parliament, the Constitution had to be amended to freeze the number of seats in the Lok Sabha till 2026. Census data, however, also had the potential to be used to strengthen the process of political unification of modern India or to feed the disruptive tendencies that British colonialism so perfectly used for their divide-and-rule policies. During the transition towards independence, the census operations, pregnant with the possibility of Partition, assumed passionate expressions of strife.

Given such potential for conflict, the issue of caste-enumeration in the census had become a contentious issue in last year's parliamentary proceedings. Having amended the Constitution to grant reservation and other benefits to the other backward classes (OBCs), it had become important to quantify the numbers that are entitled to such benefits. While the Mandal Commission did so many years ago, the current status is very opaque. It would be, therefore, necessary to arrive at some scientific assessment on this score. The census enumeration however, is based on voluntary disclosure of information. It thus lacks a scientific methodology to authenticate an individual's claim. So the Left has suggested that the estimations of the OBCs must be based on a scientific evaluation and not on voluntary disclosures. This could have been done through surveys conducted by constitutional entities than through voluntary census enumeration.

But the UPA 2 government, under the by-now familiar 'coalition compulsions', decided to conduct a caste enumeration as a part of the Census 2011 operations conducted between June and September 2011. While one can't have an ostrich mentality and ignore the powerful caste reality and consequent social oppression, such an enumeration should not be allowed to become yet another cause of tension. In this context, quite apart from the existing reality of anachronistic khap panchayats, the census data revealed the most disturbing reality of continuing gender discrimination. The child-sex ratio fell to the lowest level since independence: 914 females to 1,000 males. This atrocious, bordering on criminal, antipathy to the girl-child reflects the age-old hierarchical attitudes. What is worse is that the data shows that this phenomenon is most acutely manifested in what are considered as the most economically developed parts of the country.

This draws discussion towards the emergence of a modern India. On the one hand, we applaud our status as an emerging economy where our PM rubs shoulders with the high and mighty at the G20 high table. We aspire to be a nuclear powerhouse. Yet, on the other hand, the vast backyard of our society continues to live in the morass of traditional backwardness that is the complete anti-thesis of modernity.

This is the modern Indian paradox. Those considered 'modern', in terms of flaunting the latest gadgets and fashion, simultaneously perpetuate age-old prejudices based on caste and gender. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta defines a modern society as one that has the following characteristics: "Dignity of the individual; adherence to universalistic norms; elevation of individual achievement over privilege or dis-privilege of birth and accountability in public life." The Iranian intellectual Jalal-e-Ahmed coined the term, 'westoxification' as opposed to westernised. He was referring to those who embrace western technology and the high life while negating the equality of opportunity. In the Indian context, a more appropriate term would be 'modern toxicity' as opposed to 'modernity'. Unless we in India embrace modernity in its completeness, the dreams of India as an emerging economy would be impossible to achieve.

In order to win this battle of realising this modern idea of India, we need to immediately set right the policies that perpetuate the creation of two Indias - the privileged and the dispossessed in India.

Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP.

The views expressed by the author are personal.