The fact is that try as we might, it’s impossible to ignore the reality of caste if you are an Indian. Sure, it’s uncomfortable discussing it and the middle class claims that caste is a non-issue. But the truth is that we peel away those layers of gloss that our society has coated itself with and there it is staring, unblinkingly at you. So now the question is whether we stare right back and talk about it or do we keep our eyes shut and hope that it’s gone by the time we are ready to open our eyes again. The government’s decision to go ahead with the caste-based census has brought out many voices in support of, as well as against the idea.
The last official enumeration of the population on the basis of caste was conducted in 1931. All reservations in the spheres of education, jobs and the like were done on the basis of this data that was culled before independence. Even the controversial Mandal commission report had to use the numerical data from this 1931 dated census in the course of their research. There were murmurs of the 2001 census including caste as one of the criteria, but the administration did not follow through with the idea. Predictably the debate then as it is now, raised pretty much the same concerns no matter which side you were on.
The supporters of a caste based census contend that since India has never been a casteless society, it is clear that it has always been a social factor. If we are asked about our religion, then why not our castes, they ask. In a country where even today you find human beings forced to work certain jobs, because of the ‘category’ of society they are born into, it is impossible to ignore the fact that casteism in India is far from a myth. Of course there are examples of how the age old stranglehold of caste has been broken with members of a lower caste even managing a majority of seats in their state government. In which case, should people from this group still be enjoying the preferential reservation that they have been accorded on the basis of the 1931 census? Isn’t it time to update the official records and the data? It seems almost illogical that there could be an opposing view.
But every coin has two sides and the opponents of the caste-based census believe that this can only serve a divisive agenda. In a country, where even political seat tickets are doled out on the basis of one’s caste, they believe that this will only further a policy of divide and rule. Also in a country where often the most backward of castes is also the smallest unit of our population, will caste-based counting do more harm than good? If the preferential discrimination privileges are revised to benefit the various backward castes according to the number of people, then even the intended benefit behind the census will be subverted.
Personally I feel that it is high time that the numbers are updated. It simply does not make sense to ignore the caste system when doing so for nigh on 80 years has not worked either. Although it’s not enough that we obtain the data, if the government does not work with it. The caste-based census must be the means to reach at a more meaningful allocation of reservation to various sections of the population rather than being the end itself. And if for nothing but the need to better understand the society in which we live, I believe an offical national tally based on caste is essential. After all we cannot hope to cast out the evils of our society, if we have no idea of the size of what we are up against.