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).Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.