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Anisha Sheth | The News Minute | November 28, 2014 | 8.50 pm IST Initiated years ago, the socio-economic caste census ordered by the Karnataka government comes at a time when caste is being debated rather animatedly and along with its intersection with religion.  The last few days have seen reports of “ghar vapsi” ceremonies being conducted across the country and the VHP has said that once they “returned”, people could choose what caste they would belong to. This has raised interesting questions about how the caste census underway in Karnataka will look at caste and religion, as similar programmes have been conducted in Karnataka as well. Chairperson of the Karnataka State Backward Classes Commission H Kantharaj said that the survey question in the caste census would include questions on religion and caste, and none of them would be mutually exclusive. “The informant is the best source of information. This is only a fact-finding exercise. We will ask them what caste and religion they belong to, and if they say they do not have a caste, we will record it accordingly. Similarly, their response to religion will also be recorded,” Kantharaj said. The dynamics between caste, Hinduism, and other religion are complex. While the RSS stance on caste is that all Hindus are “one”, there are many who are skeptical of this claim. Many of these skeptics include Dalit groups. State president of the Karnataka Dalit Sangharsh Samiti (Ambedkarvaada) Mavalli Shankar said: “If we wanted to be part of a caste, would we be here (having chosen another faith)?” Shankar, himself a Buddhist, said: “Caste is the breath of Hinduism. The Hindu religion’s foundation is caste. You cannot annihilate caste from within Hinduism.” He said that such claims were nothing but gimmicks. He said that in B R Ambedkar’s view, untouchability was made possible because of caste, and the four varnas made possible because of Brahminism. Hence one could not annihilate caste without addressing the idea of Brahminism. Ambedkar therefore decided that although he was born a Hindu, he would not die as one, and embraced Buddhism along with many of his supporters. There is also the argument that even if one changes one’s religion, the caste label does not go away. Shankar said that there were different ways in which people changed their faith, and to different degrees. “It takes two or three generations for the caste tag to go, it is not easy to shrug off. Many people who changed their faith lived according to the ways of the old as well as the new faith. But the Mahar community today, which embraced Buddhism along with Ambedkar in the 1950s, is completely Buddhist in all their ways. Today, they access the reservation meant for Buddhists and not because they belong to an untouchable caste.” He rubbished claims about people changing their faith but holding on to caste simply for the benefits of reservations in government jobs. Calling it a “baseless” argument, Shankar said: “The government sector is shrinking, and there are no jobs to be had. The government is increasingly going in for privatization, where are the jobs to be had?” Necessity of data Kantharaj said that the government would base its decisions on the information thus collected. On the necessity of the census, he said: “To give one example, under the Panchayati Raj Act, 27 percent reservation is to be given to the backward classes and within this, one third is to be made available for women. This not being implemented properly because there is no real data on what the population of any community is.” “The purpose of the census is to assess the level of benefits given to each community and equally distribute them where they are found to be inadequate,” he said. Kannada writer and Chairperson of the Kannada Book Development Authority / Kannada Development Authority Banjagere Jayaprakash said that a comprehensive, well-thought out caste census had been a long-standing demand of the Bandaya literature movement which began in the 1980s. He said that the present policies of affirmative action meant to uplift and empower the marginalized communities and caste groups were “futile” to the extent that there was no real data on which they were formulated. Ideally, Jayaprakash said that a comprehensive caste census would help gauge the overall socio-economic, cultural, and political participation of a community.  “If the caste census looked at the social status of various communities, the participation in educational, social and political spheres (it would serve its purpose). For instance, what level of education do communities have? Do they go beyond SSLC or a BA? What sort of representation do they have in government jobs, and in what levels? People of a community may (generally) own land, but may have very low levels of education. If a caste census looks at all these, then it will achieve its purpose,” he said. For Jayaprakash, a caste census is necessary to remedy the present unscientific classification of groups into arbitrary categories. He said many groups which may have the same social status are not actually backward in the real sense of the term today.  “For instance, in Category 1, both Gollas and the fishing community have been clubbed together. But these two groups have received some level of benefits made available by the government. But other communities such as the Upparas are extremely marginalized and have never been beneficiaries of the policies of affirmative action,” he said. More importantly, he said, it was important to ensure that communities that were not properly represented among the beneficiaries of affirmative action, should be given adequate representation to ensure that all communities progressed evenly. “Often, two communities might have the same social status, but while one progresses, another simply does not have the tools – MPs, MLAs, academics, no representatives – to claim the benefits offered by the government.”

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