From 1931 to 2021, the caste question persists - Hindustan Times

From 1931 to 2021, the caste question persists

ByParitosh Joshi
Sep 04, 2021 06:41 PM IST

A detailed look at the process, modalities and outcome of the 1931 caste census shows how little has changed in Indian society in nine decades

“As on the occasion of each census since ****, a certain amount of criticism has been directed at the census for taking any note at all, of the fact of caste. It has been alleged that the mere act of labelling people as belonging to a particular caste tends to perpetuate the system, and on this excuse, a campaign against any record of caste was attempted in **** by those who objected to any such returns being made.”

It is striking that the 1931 census spoke of caste as ‘of vital consideration in the structure of Indian society’, and how it impinged on questions of race, religion, economy, occupation and conjugal life. The India of 2021 must ask itself if this still holds true (Arvind Yadav / HT Archive) PREMIUM
It is striking that the 1931 census spoke of caste as ‘of vital consideration in the structure of Indian society’, and how it impinged on questions of race, religion, economy, occupation and conjugal life. The India of 2021 must ask itself if this still holds true (Arvind Yadav / HT Archive)

You would be forgiven for assuming that the passage quoted above sounds contemporary. This, sadly, is far from the case. It is from nine decades ago. The two redacted years are 1901 and 1931. The quote forms part of the preface to the section on “The Return Of Caste” in para 182 of Chapter XII of the Census of India, 1931.

The preface then says, “It is difficult to see why the record of a fact that actually exists should tend to stabilise that existence”. And further. “It is just as easy to argue and with at least as much truth, that it is impossible to get rid of any institution by ignoring its existence like the proverbial ostrich”.

It is a measure of the durability of the caste system, and of attempts to airbrush it out of objective scrutiny, that the arguments we hear, a solid 90 years later, have not changed an iota.

Census-takers in 1931 refused to be cowed down by the raucous bullies of their time, and the results of their work became a critical component of the objective documentation of caste in India. But caste enumeration, the census-takers recognised, was plagued by a multitude of factors. The list below, based on observations in Chapter XII, examines these factors. They were relevant in 1931, and irrespective of whether a caste census happens, they are relevant today.

One, census-takers like their totals across different tabulations to match exactly. To wit, the final sum on census tables for 1931, documenting literacy, age, gender, state of residence and marital status, all added up to 352,837,778 citizens of India. No more and no less. This rigidity was conspicuously relaxed for the caste tables where about 1.9 million people reported “caste: nil”.

Two, caste is present across all major religions; however, non-Hindus are more likely to avoid reporting their caste, as their religion may regard it as a heathen practice.

Three, caste identifications are shaped by growing interactions across different parts of the country. The consolidation of groups, earlier separated by geography, creates agglomerations of previously disparate castes. “The best instance of (the consolidation) of a number of castes into one group is to be found in the grazier castes... combining under the term “Yadava” Ahirs, Goalas, Gopis, Idaiyans and perhaps some other castes of milkmen”. Given that these groups are from distinct, and distant, regions, their consolidation on a pan-India basis suggests an incipient desire to project the power of numbers.

Four, artisan castes such as “carpenters, smiths and goldsmiths” were also pursuing a similar objective, seeking common classifications as “Vishwakarma or Jangida” across different geographical regions. Further, they would hyphenate their guild or professional caste with a “varna” identity, usually “Brahman or Rajput”. This categorisation was not rigid. Castes, which identified as one in 1921, sometimes changed to the other in 1931.

Five, the census acknowledged the “difficulty of stating caste in the case of intercaste marriages, which, few enough in proportion to the population, appear to be increasing”. This may have, in part, contributed to the categorisation “caste: nil”, mentioned here.

Finally, the census made a special effort to “make a list of castes who suffered disability on account of their low social position and on account of being debarred from temples, schools or wells”. This category, which the census classified as “depressed castes” was understood to be hard to pinpoint and “because it was realised that conditions varied so much from province to province and from district to district, even within some provinces, that it would be unwise to tie down the Superintendents of Census Operations with too meticulous instructions”.

The reason was explained thus. “Both for social and political reasons it is obviously necessary to know the numbers of these classes...The matter is of importance not only with reference to their representation in the body politic but any social work that is to be done towards raising them from their present position to one more nearly compatible with...more advanced social groups”. (Appendix I, page 472)

There is evidence available to suggest that this exercise was to continue in both the 1941 and 1951 censuses. However, for different reasons, it was abandoned. The 1941 census was the most cursory exercise in the series, being green-lighted as late as February 1941, and plagued by two factors. World War II had thrown the world out of gear. Closer home, the growing clamour for Independence, and the possibility of Partition had begun to impact the census. MWM Yeatts, the census commissioner, was candid about the “communal excitement” which informed census-taking. In the event, the caste question was de-prioritised.

In 1951, post-Independence, many of the voices which fear the caste question in 2021, as in 1931, held sway, and the project, since then, has been stymied, in each successive edition.

It must be understood that caste enumeration is not a separate exercise from the census per se. It can only be conducted as a part of the larger, and indispensable, decadal census-taking, which India has been fortunate to conduct, without a break, since 1881.

This essay would be unable to do justice to an overview of the caste system in today’s India, but it is striking, and deeply disturbing, that the following quote from page 433 of Census of India 1931 still fits our situation like a glove. “Caste is still of vital consideration in the structure of Indian society and of intense importance as well as interest to the majority of Hindus. It impinges in innumerable ways on questions not only of race and religion but also of economics, since it still goes far to determine the occupation, society and conjugal life of every individual born into its sphere”.

Modulate the tonality if you must, but if this applies, even slightly, to where we find ourselves, it makes a compelling case for reinstating the caste question.

Paritosh Joshi is a media professional with a keen interest in audience measurement

The views expressed are personal

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