Little comfort in numbers
As a nation, we certainly have a penchant for the divisive rather than the inclusive. So, the latest brouhaha over the demand for a caste-based census comes as no surprise. Leading the charge are heavyweights like Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Law Minister Veerappa Moily, Minister for Overseas Affairs Vayalar Ravi and others while Home Minister P. Chidambaram and Commerce Minister Anand Sharma oppose it. The sultans of caste politics Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad are naturally for it, as also the BJP and the Left. The suggestion that a separate agency handle the caste enumeration makes little sense. After all, the empirical data gathered will be the same, irrespective of who collects it. The question is whether such information, if available to political formations, could be misused. The answer is yes, but then again the lack of credible data is equally open to exploitation as we have seen in the past.
The argument that caste data is necessary to ensure that affirmative schemes are appropriately targeted is specious since the most deprived castes have in the past been overlooked despite a fair amount of information available. The last caste-based census was in 1931. The 79 years without data collection have neither eliminated caste distinctions nor have they ended caste inequality. However, caste is a reality, an often ugly one, in India. It has long been argued that caste cannot be a criterion for according State benefits, rather the basis should be economic. We have seen that there is tremendous resistance to this with the so-called creamy layer oppressing the weaker castes. The collection of caste data as proposed will, if the intention is to bolster affirmative action, face a major hurdle in the fact that caste is very fluid across the country. A lower caste in one state is not necessarily so in another. So, it would be difficult to find a median to determine which is a needy caste and which is not.
The government’s argument that the census ball is already rolling and a new criterion cannot be added now is valid. It would be far better to debate the merits and demerits of a caste-based census in a rational manner, if that is possible, before introducing it. The prime minister has been a staunch advocate of meritocracy. It is a different matter that ground realities mitigate against this in many instances. That should be the holy grail that we should move towards. So, for the moment, it might be best to put this idea of a caste-based census on the backburner and examine other options to ensure a level-playing field for all citizens of the country.