Should We Include Caste In The Census?

Image from Census of India website.
Why You Should Read This
  • Throughout 2021,momentum has been building behind the demand for a new caste census. As we discussed in our video on the subject, upper caste-dominated parties seemed to fear it while parties which rely on OBC support were the most vocal in their demand for it.
  • Whether a caste census will lead to greater social justice or a more divided society is one of the most contentious and long-running political debates of independent India.
  • This paper by Nandini Sundar explores the arguments for and against the idea of a caste census.
  • We have condensed the original 10,000-word paper into a 1,500-word summary. You can read it in fullClick on each point to dig deeper and get the complete picture. in 5 minutes or skim itRead only the numbered points. in 2 minutes.
  1. In 1998, the office of the Registrar General of India released an informal proposal to record caste data for India’s entire population in the 2001 census. This led to a heated debate. While some claimed the census simply records facts about society and could provide much-needed data about caste inequality, others argued that during the colonial era, when caste data was last recorded, the process of recording the facts had transformed the caste system, making it more rigid than before.
    • There were two main schools of thought about the place of caste in the colonial census: One school treated caste like any other social fact like gender, age, or occupation. They argued that a census just records data about society.
    • The opposing school said that census classifications didn’t just mirror society as it existed. They could also create new categories or at least change existing categories in society. So in terms of caste, they argue that the colonial census “froze” caste identities that were much more vague and open before that.
    • There was also a third school which agreed that the colonial census changed society but also pointed out that caste censuses had happened even before the colonial period. So while the colonial census did affect caste, it was a part of a process that had been happening from pre-colonial times.
  2. Caste has been a part of Indian societies since the ancient times, yet colonialism has undeniably also changed caste in some ways. The British forced Indians into strict categories of caste and religion that sometimes didn’t reflect their actual identity. They thought caste defined a person’s behaviour, describing some castes as “martial” and others as “prone to insanity” or “criminal activities.” They also tried to create an official hierarchy of all castes and sub-castes.
    • Almost nobody questions the idea that caste existed before colonialism. The four-fold varna system is present in vedic texts and the existence of several different castes from the Mughal ruler Akbar’s reign are also listed out in the Ain-i-Akbari and other pre-colonial documents.
      • However, in most pre-colonial contexts, the counting of caste was usually done only for the purposes of conscription and taxation.
    • The colonial enumeration and documentation of caste differed from the pre-colonial times in terms of scale and how they used the data.
      • The British created strict categories and forced people into them just for ease of administration – even if these categories didn’t reflect the complexities of the real world.
      • For instance, in the 1911 census, many respondents chose to identify as Hindu-Mohammedans. However, beginning from 1921, people were told that they could identify as only one of the two identities.
    • But the British were already occupied with their study on and classifications of race at that time. They became obsessed with castes in the same way. They began recording their rituals as well as describing the behaviour and identities of castes as if they were biological, rather than cultural.
      • For example, they marked out certain castes as “martial races” from which they recruited soldiers for the British Army. They also thought some castes were more prone to insanity or criminal activities.
    • The 1901 census, under the administration of Herbert Risley, tried to rank all enumerated castes and sub-castes in the order of ‘native opinion of social precedence’. This triggered a lot of political mobilisation among caste organisations who began to take a greater ownership of their castes in order to be able to bargain for caste-based scholarships, concessions, and the like.
  3. But even in the colonial period, opinions were divided about the presence of caste in the census. Organisations like the Jat Pat Todak Mandal were against recording caste whereas Dr B.R. Ambedkar felt that it was necessary to win special concessions for communities who were oppressed by the caste system.
    • Various organisations opposed the enumeration of caste for different reasons. For instance, the Lahore-based Jat Pat Todak Mandal (which means “casteism-breaking committee”) felt that asking a person their caste amounted to forcing an identity on them which they wanted to leave behind. On the other hand, organisations like the Hindu Mahasabha were opposed to caste enumeration so that they could emphasise a larger Hindu identity over Adivasi and Dalit communities.
    • On the other hand, Dr B R Ambedkar kept stressing his demand for separate electorates – seats reserved for candidates from the Depressed Classes (Dalits) where only members from those classes could vote. This was eventually abandoned due the infamous Poona Pact – an agreement between Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar that led to a proportion of seats in legislature being reserved for the depressed classes (but people from all castes could vote).
  4. After India became independent, the constituent assembly felt it was best to keep caste out of the census – except in the case of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes because the constitution mandated measures to uplift them and data was needed to create and implement such schemes. The logic was that gathering caste data was divisive. However, data on religion remained an important part of the census.
    • The Constituent Assembly in its meetings on the the Census Act of 1948 decided to not include caste in enumeration except for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as they were deemed to be exceptionally “backward” and in need of state affirmative action.
    • However, religion continued to be documented in the census. This led to the state taking an odd position that collecting census statistics by religion and SC/ST status was fine, but statistics on other castes was divisive.
    • In the first post-Independence census in 1951, data on some “backward communities” other than the SCs and STs was collected, but it was never made public and was only made available to the first Backward Classes Commission.
  5. But contrary to the hopes of the Constituent Assembly, removing caste from the census has not resulted in it disappearing from the public sphere. Advantages and disadvantages due to caste continued to define every strata of Indian society, even though the official understanding was that it was something that had to do with Dalits and no one else. Eventually, the rise of political parties representing lower castes and the movement for reservations led to increased caste consciousness among oppressed castes.
    • Caste didn’t disappear from Indian society. For example, caste identity remained an important advantage for trading and money-lending castes as they migrated and expanded across India. Their caste was used to indicate their creditworthiness.
    • Atrocities against Dalits continued. When they retaliated, such situations came to be termed caste-wars in states like Bihar, Tamil Nadu, etc.
    • Caste-consciousness intensified in electoral politics due to political parties catering to specific castes in their constituencies.
    • The presence of caste-based reservations was always a source of conflict and that has only increased since the recommendations of the Mandal Commission were implemented in 1990.
  6. Opponents of the caste census stress on its potential misuse by political parties to sow discord in society and the challenges involved in collecting accurate data. Those in favour see it as a move that could change the status quo by highlighting existing inequalities and eventually create a casteless society.
    • Opponents of a caste census argue that a caste census would go on to further entrench caste divisions in the society. They feel that enumeration of caste data will not change the status quo. They argue that the entire political system needs to be changed to avoid representation on caste or communal grounds. They also question the quality of data as caste is not a well-defined category.
    • Supporters, meanwhile, point toward the fact that caste divisions are already entrenched in society. They claim that opponents of the caste census aim to invisibilise caste so that upper castes can continue to maintain their caste hegemony.
      • According to LG Havanur, Chairman of the 1st Karnataka Backward Classes Commission, “government unwillingness to collect caste data” was “a deliberate move to preserve the status quo of disability, distinctions and injustices”.
    • Supporters believe that a lower-caste capture of power through existing means and political machinery can bring in real change to the institution of caste.
  7. While supporters argue for the need to collect caste data, it is clear that data alone isn’t enough to change Indian society. The hope is that this data will lead to more mobilisation by the people for greater equality and justice.
    • Supporters of caste census feel it is essential for planning and infrastructure – especially at the block or district level where decisions about schools and health centres are made.
      • P Sainath has written about how village schools are always built in upper caste hamlets to ensure control over polling.
    • But at the same time, it’s clear that data is not enough. This data already exists for Scheduled Tribe communities but they still do not receive equitable resources.
    • A caste census will not change the way the government or the state functions but there is hope that the broader public will use the data to agitate and mobilise for equity and justice.

This summary was written by contributor, Amlan Sarkar

Source text: Caste as Census Category: Implications for Sociology
Publication: Current Sociology (2000)
Author: Nandini Sundar

Note: This is a summary of a one paper. It reflects one argument that we think would be interesting or useful to discuss. It may not offer the full picture or represent consensus on this topic, both of which are always evolving. If you would like to know how other scholars have built on or critiqued the arguments presented in this summary, click here to see some of the works that cite it.