When I learnt, during this ongoing debate on quotas, that our census process does not collect data on caste, my first reaction was "What a loony thing to do?". However, there probably were good reasons behind the decision to not collect caste-related information after the 1931 census. I am just not sure if those reasons still apply.
Right now, 'caste' is a bad word because it is inextricably linked with notions of 'caste discrimination', and 'caste hierarchy'. Naturally, people -- including me -- feel uncomfortable talking about specific castes; we refer to only broad groupings such as Dalits, OBCs, General Category, etc. This is sad, and I hope we will achieve a state where caste is irrelevant.
Note that I said 'irrelevant', not 'abolished'. While getting 'caste' out of the Oxford English Dictionary is a worthy goal, it's just not going to happen. For many, many people, their caste -- and its associated social rituals, customs, traditions -- will continue to be an important part (but still only a small part!) of their identity, and to the extent that castes reflect the diversity of our country, we can accept their reality, all the while working towards extricating them from the nasty things associated with them. Also, I don't see anything great in a caste-free
utopia India, in which everyone belongs to a single, smeared-out, homogenized, pasteurized caste called 'Indian'. That would be a boring place indeed.
In a caste-agnostic India, 'caste' would just be another dimension of one's identity, without any connotations of hierarchy. As a crude analogy, consider the US, with its Irish Americans, Italian Americans, African Americans, and yes, Indian Americans; your ethnic background is just that: your ... ethnic ... background. It matters zilch when it comes to issues of public interest. The same goes for religion (and religious subgroups): Jew, Catholic, Hindu, Baptist, Muslim, Seventh Day Adventist, the works. Presidential candidates are open about their religious backgrounds and upbringings. Such a state is far more desirable than a homogenized state with no caste, no religion, no ethnicity, etc.
Make no mistake: as OBCs and SC/STs grow their collective stature, clout and power (socially, economically and politically), we make progress towards the era of caste-irrelevance. That era will be a lot more fun to be in. I won't have to feel uncomfortable about talking about this or that caste. Also, it'll be wonderful to see visiting cards that feature their owners' blog URLs and castes. We are not there yet, but it's something to look forward to.
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Coming back to the current context of reservation, caste is an important criterion (in fact, right now, it's the *only* criterion) that the government seems to want. If so, it's important that the caste-related information is collected and subjected to a dispassionate, scientific analysis. It's also the only way to assess the progress that's made by verious groups of people. Social justice -- in whose name quotas are being implemented -- also demands that we keep track of groups that are still out of the mainstream, even after reservations. Without any caste-based tracking, they may continue to suffer even while all of us begin to claim victory and go home.
So, I say yes to the next census collecting caste-based data.
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Could someone point to some good resources -- preferably, online resources -- on why caste enumeration stopped after the 1931 census, and on why we continue with that policy. Many thanks in advance.