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Caste and the Census in India

by Gail Omvedt, 25 May 2010

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(Also published in Frontier and Forward)

“See no caste, hear no caste, speak no caste.” The policy of the Indian elite towards the issue of caste has been that of the three monkeys: one of denial. It doesn’t exist; if it does it is not so bad; it should not be talked about, and those who do talk about it or try to act on it are the ones who are “casteist.” The entire onus is placed on the victims of the system trying to fight it.

This has also guided the policy of the government of India. Now that the Census of 2011 is coming closer, with preparations getting well in hand, it is clear that once again there will be no question of caste identification, except for the broad and rather useless (for most purposes) categories of “Scheduled Caste” and “Scheduled Tribe.” The issue has been raised in the past, and quite frequently has met with a rather frantic response that this would lead to turmoil, dissension and bitter conflict.

Yet for years the British government asked questions about caste in the Census; though the issue became politicized (with some groups seeking and proclaiming new identities) it led to no really serious problems. Again, the United States asks about race in each of its censuses; and while race in the U.S. is as contentious an issue as caste in India, it has led to no great problems.

The fact is that to deal with an issue, one has to have information about it. Policies require understanding and analysis; pretending that caste doesn’t exist is perhaps the best way to perpetuate it. On one hand, there are numerous acts and regulations dealing with caste; on the other hand, there is a genuine dearth of information. There is no encouragement for studies of caste; indeed, the only sociology students who are at all encouraged to deal with the issue are an occasional student from subaltern caste background who is taught to write on his own people. But looking at the caste system as a system is not so often done. The National Sample Surveys, for example, have only recently started using the very broad (and often not very useful) categorization of “OBC”; but this pulls together a diverse and hierarchically broad group of castes or jatis into one overall category. And Brahmans - those who, as sociologist Satish Deshpande has argued, “ride incognito in our social system” - are never looked at; all the “upper” castes together are lumped in the “other” group. There is almost no solid statistical data available about them. And issues like intermarriage - all we can do is speculate, on the basis of scattered personal experience and matrimonial ads in the newspapers, about what percentage of marriages (95%? 99%?) are still within caste marriages.

Yet it would be so simple to include a question about caste in the Census. Let it be a matter of self-identification; people would be free to identify their caste as they like, or (if they wish), reply “no caste” or “mixed.” This itself would yield valuable data. I would guess that the number saying “no caste” would be less than one percent! Then, a committee at the state level could identify the broad categories within which the data can be summarized.

This would hardly be a utopia. But it would provide a beginning for an honest attempt to deal with the issue, to gather data to deal with the issue. Caste has undoubtedly changed in modern India - though some extremely “feudal” and backward forms remain, such as the fact that cleaning human excrement is still done in so many places in India by members of particular dalit castes. Even cases such as those of Chitralekha in “developed” and “left-progressive” Kerala show the degree to which many occupations are “reserved” by ongoing, brutally enforced tradition for members of particular caste groups. In other cases, most of the old forms of the jajmani system have vanished. Yet the correlation of caste and economic status remains strong. Education continues to be two-track and it is the children of the subaltern castes who suffer particularly from this.

Another Census is going by without dealing with the harshest, most peculiar aspect of india’s social system. Let this be the last one.