Thursday, May 25, 2006

Who's afraid of castes? Not me ...

In his comment on this post, the blogger who runs Reality Check asks, "Would you agree to adding caste enumerations to census 2011?". I say 'yes', unconditionally.

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.

* * *

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.

* * *

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.


  1. Anonymous said...


    Thanks for the clarification. Now, I think there is really not much we disagree on. I also appreciate your points of view on this topic.

    One more point is that I think that expanding the OBC quota system to premier institutes (AIIMS,IIT,IISC,IIM) must wait until such data is available and analyzed. I dont know what your views on that are.

    One small correction, the census does collect caste enumeration data for each scheduled caste and scheduled tribe. SC/ST data is available as recent as 2001. Only OBC data is not available.

    Check out:

    I too was amazed that how such a massive social program unparalleed in scale in human history (OBC quota) was not monitored *at all*. So I am studying everything I can lay my hands on to find out why this is the case.

    What I found so far, points to a large scale encroachment of political interests into this program. Suprise !!

    TN does not study any effects of reservation, this is probably because the quota system has an entirely different meaning there. The answer is no data from TN other than the accidentally leaked statistics about medical admissions for the past 2 years.

    Karnataka is interesting. Actually two commissions, the Havanur commission (1971) and the Venkataswamy Commission (1980) conducted a study of OBC communities ( . The independent findings of this commission was that both Lingayats and Vokkaligas were not backward under most parameters and recommended moving them out of the OBC list. Large scale political action happened and now both are back as OBCs - even though in the past 25 years they have become even stronger. Having said that KA is fairer than say TN, because it has subdivided OBCs into five groups (1,2A,2B,3A,3B). This could happen only because of the findings of these two commissions that resulted in some OBCs realizing that they were being dominated. Similarly with AP.

    Now, assuming the Havanur and Venkataswamy commissions had never taken place, everyone would have been blissfully unaware of the facts and personal anecdotes would have guided public opinion. The OBCs would not have been split into five groups and the two dominant OBCs would have steamrollered the others.

    This is what is happening in TN - which has many OBC components that are considered forward everywhere else. TN also has a much more aggressive quota policy for much longer than anywhere else. A survery in TN is sure to throw up starting facts about just two/three OBC components dominating the others.

    All said and done, just because facts and surveys are politically uncomfortable does not mean that they should not be done. The students who are giving up their right to equal competition in the interest of the nation deserve basic facts about the system.

    As always, the only hope for such a study lies with the Supreme Court.

  2. Anonymous said...

    This may be asnwer your question:

    "Many of us may not be aware that the Mandal formula of the 1980s, originally reserving 50 per cent of the seats in government service and educational institutions for Other Backward Castes, is based on the Census data of 1931. The Census process was affected by the World War in 1941, and from 1951 on caste, data are not collected (except that pertaining to Scheduled Castes and Tribes) as it was felt that these numbers may not further the aim of creating a casteless society."


  3. Anonymous said...

    Two questions:
    a) What happens when it is found that certain castes/cultures do disproportionately better than others in certain areas? Example: Tam Brams in Math/Tech, Patels in Trade, Sikhs in small scale industries.

    b) If certain castes multiply faster than the others, how will you factor that in?

    Make no mistake about it, the caste system will be kept alive by the freeloaders as long as it gets them free lunches and free seats.

  4. Anonymous said...


    I agree with most of the points including the need for a caste based census. If we are giving caste based reservations, we need that data.

    Though I find the solely caste based reservation stupid and actually worthless. I do not think upper castes should be given reservations even if they aconomically poor. Reservations are not a poverty removing tool and must be restricted to historically backward groups. But what people seem to have forgotten that OBC are not a homogenous group, and within OBC are currently defined there are huge differences in terms of gender, sex , region, poverty, political power.

    Final point, I completely disagree when you equate caste with ethnicity, caste was an artificial tool of oppression, people of similar race hang together because of geogrpahical and cultural similarites. I am not sure I look forward to a day when someone thrusts a visting card with his caste/religion to me, I would be very much inclined to throw it in the dustbin. Even if you believe in caste, it like religion must be personal. Also, please do not forget that caste has given rise to so much bitterness among both groups....


  5. Anonymous said...

    I agree with the need to get caste-based demographic data. But I don't agree with your statement:
    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.

    So long as our "identities" (caste, religion, region) define our politics, no amount of progress can make it irrelevant.

    What will make caste irrelevant is growing interdependence of different castes, and economic, political and civic freedom in spite of ones "identity".

  6. Abi said...

    RC: Thanks for those links, and for the additional info on TN and Karnataka. I am with you on the need for hard data.

    Krishna: Thanks for that link.

    Barbarindian: Use of words such as 'freeloaders' doesn't get you far in a debate. Will you please tone your rhetoric down?

    Confused: Well, I am all for a more nuanced AA program, but under the circumstances, I will take the quota program over the status quo.

    As our society urbanizes and makes further progress towards equal access to opportunities for all groups, caste will lose much of its sting, and much of its polarizing ability will vanish. I look forward to that day.

    BTW, even NOW, many visiting cards blare out the caste of their owners. Do look at the last names, before throwing the cards into the dustbin ...

    Niket: Caste and other such identities that have entered our politics need not stay there forever. I am hopeful.

  7. Anonymous said...

    I'm pleased to have stumbled across this thoughtful, articulate, reasonable (with one exception) discussion on the reservation question now before India. Charged issues like caste/ ethnicity/ politics/ affirmative action are only rarely discussed on their merits as so many people have a tendency to rant and rave based on gut reactions and "inherited", unexamined "knowledge".

    My view is similar to most of those expressed above. Caste exists and has to be confronted, but the strategies should be based on a reasonable degree of verifiable data.

  8. Anonymous said...