India’s Caste Count Dilemma

Recent Features

Features | Society | South Asia

India’s Caste Count Dilemma

Would including caste in India’s census next year perpetuate a sometimes deadly system? Shreyasi Singh reports from Delhi.

Priyabhanshu Ranjan had no idea how wrong he’d be when he casually dismissed it as ‘trivial.’ Priyabhanshu, a 23-year-old Delhi-based journalist, was in love with Nirupama Pathak, another journalist at a leading business daily. The two had met while both students at New Delhi’s Indian Institute of Mass Communications, one of the country’s best-known journalism schools.

Like young couples everywhere, they talked of marriage and a life together, and despite their relationship getting their families’ backs up a little, they were confident their ‘well-educated’ and ‘cultured’ parents would eventually come around.

But on April 29, Nirupama was found dead at her home in Jhumritilaya, Jharkhand. Although her family cried suicide, her mother was arrested and is the main suspect in the murder case. Her alleged motive? Trying to protect the family’s honour.

The problem was that although both hail from small-town, middle class families in eastern India, Priyabhanshu and Nirupama were separated by caste. She was a Brahmin, the priestly caste at the top of India’s deeply entrenched, centuries-old Varna system. Ranjan, meanwhile, was a Kayastha and so two rungs lower. For Nirupama’s family, it was a social divide that couldn’t be bridged.

‘I come from a state which is deeply caste conscious. But I never thought it would impact my life so brutally,’ says Priyabhanshu. ‘We knew this was a hurdle, but I’d just tell Nirupama we were journalists who can’t get bogged down by these trivial issues. “With time, things will be fine, I’d assure her.”’

Priyabhanshu’s case is by no means unique. Last month saw a number of so-called honour killings in Delhi, including a case in which three members of the same family—a 26-year-old man, his wife and her cousin—were brutally killed by the wife’s brothers and his friends because she had eloped to get married outside her caste. In nearby Sonepat town, a woman and her two sons killed two of her granddaughters because she believed they were having an illicit affair with a male relative.

These grisly episodes have coincided with an uneasy debate taking place in Indian political circles over the issue of caste.

India is in the middle of collecting population statistics for its decadal census, the results of which will be announced next year. It’s a mammoth exercise that will cover 1.2 billion people. Several political parties have demanded the inclusion of caste data, arguing that it’s critical the country has updated information on caste demographics, especially as the positive discrimination ‘reservations’ policy is based on this information. Supporters have also said the information will be useful in aiding efficient distribution in government schemes aimed at traditionally downtrodden castes.

Demands for updated information have been voiced regularly since the early 1990s, when India first legislated for caste-based reservations after the findings of the Mandal Commission Report in 1991. But so far, no central government has shown any real desire to follow through. It’s a position that has the support of liberals across the country who fear the practice will perpetuate and legitimise the caste system.

At present, India only collects numbers for the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribe (SC/ST), or Dalits, who make up the vast depths of the occupation-based, hierarchical caste structure that is broken down into four main ranks—Brahmins (priests and scholars), Kshatriyas (warriors and administrators), Vaishyas (merchants, craftsmen and farmers) and Shudras (untouchables), the latter of which for centuries were denied equal treatment and were barred from sitting and dining together with the upper-castes. Most Dalits are shudras.
The Dalits and SC/STs are the beneficiaries of ‘reservation’ laws in government-run education institutions and jobs, laws that were introduced in an effort to ease centuries of discrimination and ultimately to create a level playing field for them.

But these efforts are complicated by a myriad of sub-castes, offshoots and other groups, including some which are referred to as Other Backward Classes (OBCs are defined as socially and economically marginalised sections of society by the Indian Constitution).

In the lead up to Census 2011, influential regional politicians, including Laloo Prasad Yadav (from Bihar) and Mulayam Singh Yadav (from Uttar Pradesh), have put pressure on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government to include caste in the census findings.

Yadav, former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Samajwadi Party president, has repeatedly said a caste-based census is an idea whose time has come.

‘It’s those who are against caste census who want to perpetuate inequalities in society. They don’t want to confront the real size of backward people in the country and take remedial measures to uplift them,’ Yadav said in a recent speech.

But after announcing it would go ahead with a caste-based census, the Singh government has encountered a number of obstacles. Interestingly, though, the problems have not come from the main opposition Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), whose parliamentary representatives have welcomed caste-based data. Instead, it’s Union ministers from Singh’s own ruling Congress party who have voiced serious concerns.

Home Minister P. Chidambaram, for example, said inclusion at this late stage (collection of data began several months ago) poses numerous technical and logistical difficulties. Meanwhile, a number of ministers have echoed the concerns of liberals across the country, raising questions about the social repercussions of gathering this information.

In trying to reach a decision, Manmohan Singh on May 27 launched a ‘Group of Minsters,’ headed by Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, after the Union Cabinet failed to reach a consensus. But during its first meeting on June 30, the group remained almost evenly divided between supporters and opponents. In an effort to break the deadlock, the group has decided to seek out the opinions of every political party, each of which has four weeks to respond.

D. Shyam Babu, senior fellow at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies, thinks this dithering stems from a refusal to accept reality. ‘You can’t wish it (caste system) away. Our elections are based on caste, our politics is based on caste and there’s so much happening around caste,’ he says. ‘Doesn’t it make sense then to have access to legitimate data?’

It’s hard to see how any consensus between the two sides will be found. Despite the fact that Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley—two senior BJP lawmakers—spoke in favour of the caste-based census in both houses of parliament, the party’s parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), strongly criticised the plan in a recent article in its in-house magazine, Organiser.

In the article, a senior RSS functionary said an Indian should have only one identity, that of citizenship. It said: ‘The counting of castes in the ongoing census will weaken the efforts of social harmony and Rashtriya Ekatmata (national integration)…it will also ruin the dream of creating a casteless society as was emancipated by many great personalities.’

Babu says he’s baffled as to why the inclusion of such data should be controversial. ‘Why are we so defensive about caste,’ he asks. ‘The absence of this data (in the census) hasn’t negated the prevalence of caste in our society, nor will its presence perpetuate the system.’

And prevalent it is. Sonalde Desai, a senior fellow at India’s National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), points to a mass of anecdotal evidence that caste continues to dominate social organization in India. ‘If we look at any newspaper in India today and see the marriage announcements, most of the ads refer to the caste of the bride and the groom,’ Desai says.

The India Human Development Survey conducted by NCAER and the University of Maryland found that only 5 percent of women married outside their caste, Desai says, while about 14 percent of households belong to caste associations—far more than the 5 percent who belong to any union for example. ‘It would be hard to say that caste is not a significant dimension of Indian social life,’ Desai says.

‘It doesn’t make sense for a mature civil society to rely on outdated data for important policy decisions,’ she says. ‘A carefully constructed and honestly carried out exercise will lead to the design of a better system for targeting affirmative action.’

So, setting aside the rights and wrongs of trying, is it even practically possible to include caste in the census this time around? Desai says she thinks it is. ‘The enumeration stage where information about individuals (as opposed to households) will be collected will take place in February 2011 and so they can collect caste information if needed.’ But, she says it would still be better to separate the tasks to ensure a more thorough job.

‘This could be done as a one-time caste census or could be included in the 2021 census,’ she says.
Babu says logistical excuses are anyway a red herring, adding that the tardy debate hints at politicians’ short-term way of operating. ‘What prevented the government from preparing for this properly?’ he asks. ‘(And) nobody is stopping us from having a parallel exercise, a special census next year. Why should we have another decade of groping in the dark, and be having the same discussions in 2021?’

But even if it is possible logistically, many Indians still have their doubts. ‘I understand the intellectual justification for having such information,’ says 39-year-old Amarjeet Singh, a Delhi resident. ‘But I think caste is a visceral issue. As a child, I was ostracised by my father’s family for many years because he married outside of his caste. My cousins wouldn’t play with me. I’m not scarred for life. But any mention of caste still makes me uncomfortable.’

Priyabhanshu is, understandably, more direct. ‘According to official data, 77 percent of people in our country live on a daily income of less than Rs. 20 (40 US cents). Lower castes, upper castes, Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs are all part of this group. Why divide these people on the basis of caste and religion?’ he asks.
‘They all have just one caste— deprived and voiceless.’