Why India needs Caste Census: We need to count underprivileged and the privileged

In a society that is already divided along caste lines, conducting a Caste Census could actually provide comprehensive and comparable data, which in turn can inform evidence-based policymaking.
Students and civil society organisations take part in a march demanding Caste Census at Kakatiya University in Warangal.
Students and civil society organisations take part in a march demanding Caste Census at Kakatiya University in Warangal.
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The Caste Census is expected to become a political issue in the next general election, but this issue should be viewed beyond electoral exercises, as it will provide comprehensive comparative datasets for making policy decisions aimed at achieving social justice and equality. As Professor Yogendra Yadav aptly put it, this endeavor is not just akin to an X-ray image; but an MRI of privileges and disadvantages of various castes. It seeks to delve deeper, to illuminate the nuances, and to shed light on the inequalities that persist within our society. Caste, often considered the bedrock of social hierarchy in India, has always played a significant role in the nation's history, and its influence continues to permeate every aspect of our lives.

Contrary to misconceptions, the presence of caste-based data collection in the census is not new. Since 1951, the Indian census has been capturing data related to Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs). However, the time has come to extend this data collection to all castes. The need for such an extension becomes evident when we consider the Supreme Court's repeated assertion that affirmative measures and reservations must be based on evidence and data. How can we implement these measures without knowing the social map of our communities?

One glaring example of this gap in our knowledge is the reservations for Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Shockingly, we have been providing reservations to this category without having a clear understanding of their actual numbers. This absurd scenario is almost unheard of anywhere else in the world. To ensure a just and equitable society, it is imperative that we count and acknowledge all sections of our population. 

Caste census is not about categorizing people into discrete boxes; it is about assessing privileges and deprivations. The true privilege of certain castes often lies in anonymity. The privileged sections have resisted being counted for far too long, but it is time to rectify this. To achieve true justice in our society, we need to count both the underprivileged and the privileged. Without comprehensive data on all castes, we cannot hope to address the deep-rooted disparities that persist. A caste census goes beyond simply counting individuals by caste. It aims to provide a complete socio-economic and educational profile for each caste, allowing us to understand the advantages and disadvantages faced by different groups. In doing so, it empowers us to compare these groups with one another, thereby informing targeted policies and affirmative actions. It is through such detailed insights that we can work towards a more equitable society.

Some argue that conducting a caste census is a daunting task. However, it is not impossible. We already have listings for SCs, STs covering a quarter of the portion of the population. Expanding this data collection to all castes is a natural progression. Those who oppose this expansion may fear that updated census data would lead to demands for proportionate reservations, but this is not a threat to our nation. Rather, it is a necessary step toward rectifying historical injustices.

Politics on Caste Census 

Census data pertaining to all castes and jatis from various provinces and princely states was systematically compiled between 1871 and 1931 during the British colonial rule in India. The inaugural Backward Classes Commission, chaired by Kaka Kalekar, and the subsequent Second Backward Classes Commission, led by BP Mandal, relied heavily on the information gathered during the 1931 census. It's worth noting that there was a significant gap in data collection after 1931. Both of these commissions emphasized the need for conducting a comprehensive Caste Census. In 2010, Gopinath Munde, a prominent BJP leader and then a member of the Lok Sabha, strongly advocated for the inclusion of all castes in the 2011 Census.

In 2018, the Ministry of Home Affairs made a noteworthy announcement, confirming the inclusion of OBC (Other Backward Classes) castes in the Census for the first time. The then Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, officially conveyed this information during a press briefing. However, it's important to mention that the stance of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government underwent a significant change after the 2019 General Election. Subsequently, the Census for the year 2021 was indefinitely postponed due to the global Covid-19 pandemic, and there has been a growing demand for the inclusion of a Caste Census despite this delay. 

Following his departure from the BJP, Nitish Kumar, along with his ally RJD led by Tejashwi Yadav, voiced their support for the implementation of a Caste Census. In an unprecedented move, Bihar undertook a comprehensive survey, gathering socio-economic and educational data on various castes. Despite receiving approval from the High Court, the matter remains pending in the Supreme Court.

The Union Government responded with a counter affidavit, asserting that only the Central government has the authority to conduct a Caste Census, as census-related matters fall under the Union List. Interestingly, Dr Laxman, the President of the BJP OBC Morcha and a Rajya Sabha MP, advocates for a state-level Caste Census. He argues that caste statuses can vary significantly from one state to another, citing technical reasons in support of this approach. As the parties of the INDIA bloc came together to reach a consensus on a nationwide Caste Census, all eyes are on Prime Minister Modi, known for his penchant for making unexpected decisions.

Caste Census enables evidence-based social policies

Those who oppose the idea of a Caste Census put forward three key arguments in support of their stance. First, they argue that conducting a nationwide Caste Census is technically challenging and seemingly impossible due to the vast number of castes in India. Second, there's concern that the exercise could further divide society along caste lines. Third, there are fears that certain castes may demand greater representation based on the census results. 

However, these arguments may not hold if the government is genuinely committed to achieving justice and equality. It's worth noting that the Union government and the National Commission for Backward Classes (NCBC) already maintain state-wise lists of Other Backward Classes (OBCs). 

In a society that is already divided along caste lines, conducting a Caste Census could actually provide comprehensive and comparable data, which in turn can inform evidence-based policymaking. Identifying anomalies through the caste census can also pave the way for corrective measures by the government. Therefore, the potential benefits of a caste census in terms of promoting fairness and equity cannot be dismissed outright. 

A comprehensive caste census is not just desirable; it is essential for achieving equality and justice in our diverse and complex society. It is a means to identify privilege, acknowledge disparities, and craft policies that uplift the marginalized while ensuring fairness for all. It is time to embrace this opportunity for a more inclusive and equitable India, where every citizen's worth is recognized, regardless of their caste.

The author is a research Scholar with the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. He is also the National President, All India OBC Students Association (AIOBCSA).

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