Asia Life

Counting Castes in India

Recent Features

Asia Life

Counting Castes in India

An Indian government commission is trying to make sense of the caste data.

Counting Castes in India
Credit: Harsha K R

On an all-country scale, the exercise of counting castes was introduced in South Asia by the British during the censuses (which were held across colonized India once every 10 years starting 1881). The underlying idea was that the dumbfounding variety of Indian communities could be reduced to a neat, systematic and hierarchic system, one that could be illustrated in tables and through statistics.

As history has demonstrated, this idea, an unfortunate child of colonial mentality, has often failed when used in practical research. Take the case of H.H. Risley, one of the officials in charge of the census exercise. Risley even believed that together with an attempt to recreate the hierarchical order of castes across the country one could use a nasal index which would supposedly lead to a discovery that the uppermost castes have the finest noses while the lowest have the coarsest. When the census returns proved to be much more complex, differentiated and not compatible regionally, these and similar ideas were gradually abandoned. The British ceased its efforts to establish a hierarchical order of castes after 1901, and stopped counting castes altogether after 1931.

While the tradition of organizing censuses continued in independent India, the subsequent governments of the Republic avoided asking respondents about their caste affiliation. Still, the caste never ceased to be a political category, as the statistics that spoke about the numerical strength of a particular community or group of communities could be used to demand or grant privileges. This lead to a paradoxical situation in the early 1990s when the government of V.P. Singh gave certain privileges to the Other Backward Castes, pointing to their numbers despite the fact that the castes had not been counted for 60 years.

In the lead-up to the 2011 census, it was decided that the castes would be counted again. Once the project was finished, most of the census data was uploaded to the Internet. However, the government was slow to reveal the results pertaining to castes. Eventually, they revealed that a staggering 4.6 million castes and sub-castes had been named by respondents and that on the average only 72 households used the same name when asked about their caste. (Meanwhile, a Socio-Economic Caste Census that dealt with the situation of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes has been published.)

The government changed in 2014 and yet the citizens are still being kept in the dark regarding more concrete caste data. Eventually it was decided in 2015 that a special commission will be established that will try to verify the caste data, possibly greatly reducing the number of returned categories. State governments had been also asked to participate in this endeavor, consolidating the returns into broader categories. I understand (maybe wrongly) that only after the bewildering number will be reduced the government may release more specific information about castes. The media estimated that the chairman of the commission, Arvind Panagriya, would need 355 days, working 12 hours each day, just to read all the caste names. At any rate, a year has passed since the commission was formed and news of its achievements has not been forthcoming.

The British officials seemed to think that the caste is a form of social currency: Its number may vary across the regions, but its value and the system it works in remains the same. Yet, the reality of caste in India may be more a matter of semantics than economics. Depending on the speaker, caste categories may overlap, be included in each other, or exclude each other. There is no set list here: Census officials do not force the people to choose between a limited number of caste categories but just ask them how they identify themselves. And, as any census anywhere proves, people always identify themselves in more than one way and not necessarily in the same way as even close kin and neighbors. Fortunately and obviously, people also do not always identify themselves in the way governments think they do. In the language section of one of the previous censuses in India a few people even claimed that their language is “Kisan” (meaning “Peasant”) and a long time ago inhabitants in a certain region of Poland, upon being asked about their identity, simply called themselves “people from here.”

As suggested by Indian politicians, the caste categories used by various people in the 2011 census may overlap with other categories such as a sub-caste, clan or a lineage. Members of a caste can often share the same surname, but not always: And if the members of the seemingly same community use different names, are these different castes? Moreover, identifying what is a caste and what is a sub-caste may be more difficult than establishing what is a language and what is a dialect. In a given region it may easy to establish that a particular caste consists of a few sub-castes. But what to do with the fact that for centuries there were attempts to group the castes in broader social categories (the varnas: Brahmans, Kshatriyas, Shudras and Vaishyas, and the Untouchables), but the attempts were accepted by some and rejected by others. And what of the fact that for more than a hundred years, with the evolution of infrastructure and communication, castes formed geographically broader coalitions and organizations to further their political and economic aims? This could well lead to the creation of caste, subcaste and subsubcaste categories in the census data, but a general hierarchy can never and should never be created.

By deciding to recount castes in 2011, the officials and politicians landed themselves with the same problem the British authorities once faced. The first wrong assumption is that there is one caste system, with the word “system” understood literally: an order of things that is reproduced all over India. However, as D. Quigley, a scholar of caste, once put it, there is no caste system, but caste systems. First, even when we identify a community that follows certain cultural traits, usually sticks to certain professions and inherits them, with its members marrying or inter-marrying according to an established tradition, in  another region a community with the same professions may be called by another name and have slightly, considerably or even completely different traditions. Second, one caste may be dominant in one region but have a lower position in another one. Third, every caste may have its own understanding of its position in the local social system and use the census to attempt to show itself as being of higher or lower rank. It can also use a different name than others use in referring to it, and a different one again when asked by census officials (to elevate its social position). Moreover, we have been fed by the Brahman ideology (which puts the Brahmans, the priestly class, on top of the society) for too long. It is this ideology that colluded with the British authorities in trying to establish an all-Indian hierarchy of communities. Such attempts should always be rejected.

I assume the government commission will be working on “consolidating” the census caste data into fewer categories for some time to come. Once the job is done, there is no guarantee that it will even release the census data, as doing so would once again open the Pandora box of political struggles for privileges. It may as well do what many previous governments had been doing for a long time: Just cast away the caste data.