To ensure justice, a caste census is essential

ByChandan Yadav
Aug 23, 2021 04:03 PM IST

The caste system is India’s nemesis and has severely restricted the country’s ability to realise its immense potential and become a great nation in science, technology, knowledge, art, sport and economic prosperity

An Indian women’s hockey team player, who happened to be Dalit, had to face caste slurs, and her family had to confront upper-caste harassment after the team’s loss in the Tokyo Olympics. This reminded me of novelist Farahat Zama’s apt comment, “You can take an Indian out of the caste system, but you cannot take the caste system out of an Indian.”

Representational image. (HT Archive) PREMIUM
Representational image. (HT Archive)

The caste system is India’s nemesis and has severely restricted the country’s ability to realise its immense potential and become a great nation in science, technology, knowledge, art, sport and economic prosperity. Many public intellectuals would like to believe that they have been “de-casted” — meaning they have got rid of all of the markers of caste identity. But whether we acknowledge it or not, caste has been at the forefront of our social existence and regulates our lives — from birth to death, customs, rituals, housing, professions, development planning, and even voting preferences.

Studies suggest that 94% of marriages are endogamous; 90% of menial jobs are performed by the deprived castes, whereas this figure is reversed in white-collar jobs. This abysmal lack of caste diversity, especially at the decision-making levels in various sectors — the media, the judiciary, higher education, bureaucracy or the corporate sector — is weakening these institutions and their performance.

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It is indeed strange that while caste plays such a dominant role in our social, economic and political life, no credible and comprehensive caste data exists for more than half the population of our country.

While census data has been captured for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, religions and linguistic profiles, there has been no profiling of all castes in India since 1931. Since then, caste has assumed an increasingly important position in our lives, and our reliance on inadequate data has also increased. A caste census, which will generate exhaustive data will allow policymakers to develop better policies, implementation strategies, and will also enable a more rational debate on sensitive issues.

With every passing day and increasing social awareness, the urgency to do away with the caste system is being sharply felt. BR Ambedkar stated that if India had to attain a place of pride among the comity of nations, caste would have to be annihilated first. The 21st century is the right time to solve India’s caste question, which would otherwise extract a heavy price, not just sociologically, but also politically and economically, and make us fall behind in the development index.

How can a nation live for eternity with innumerable social differentiation, divisions and graded inequalities, resulting in untouchability, mutual hate, separation, violence, lack of unity, illiteracy and poverty? Unequal distribution of wealth, resources and education has meant an acute shortage of purchasing power among the majority of Indians. As a democratic nation, we cannot forcibly overthrow the system, but we need to address it in a democratic, scientific and objective manner.

It is intriguing that while no one seems to publicly oppose a caste census, it is still not happening. India needs to be bold and decisive in tackling caste questions through data and statistics in the way the United States (US) does to tackle race issues, by collecting data around race, class, language, inter-race marriages, among other metrics. This data provides a mirror to the State and society of the US in which they can see themselves and take decisions to do course corrections.

Our Constitution too favours conducting a caste census. Article 340 mandates the appointment of a commission to investigate the conditions of socially and educationally backward classes and make recommendations as to the steps that should be taken by governments.

The Sachar Committee Report recommended setting up a national data bank. The Justice Rohini committee was appointed in 2017 to look into the sub-categorisation of the OBC communities; however, in the absence of data, there can be no data-bank or any proper sub-categorisation. The apex court has time and again asked governments to provide the data related to castes; however, this has not been possible due to the non-availability of such data. As a result, our national life suffers from mutual mistrust and misconceptions among different castes. All such commissions have had to rely on data from the last caste census (1931).

However, to reduce the whole rationale of caste census to its utility in the proper formulation of reservation and other social justice policies in favour of deprived sections of society would be doing injustice to the philosophy behind the caste census. Caste census is not merely an SC/ST/OBC question, it is above all a question of justice for all and national integration.

The reluctance of the Government of India to have a caste census will certainly not help in addressing the issue. If India has to emerge as a confident and strong nation, it must shed its hesitancy and ostrich-like escapism in conducting a caste-linked socio-economic census. This will kick-start a process that will eventually take, to use the words of Farahat Zama, the caste system away from an Indian.

Dr Chandan Yadav is national secretary, Indian National Congress

The views expressed are personal

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