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India needs a caste census to see if we have conquered the social evil or merely hidden it

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In the Monsoon Session of Parliament, the clamour for the long-standing demand for caste census resurfaced. This demand was bolstered by the Justice G. Rohini-led commission, which submitted a draft proposal in which sub-categorisation of the reservation for the Other Backward Classes was proposed. Despite pressure from BJP’s own allies as well as the opposition, the Centre has shelved the idea for now.

Why do we need a caste census?

The most compelling argument in favour of a caste census is that it provides a concrete source of information on social as well as economic discrimination in society. The goal of achieving a caste-less society only underlines the importance of counting caste. Without monitoring it, we will not know if we have conquered this social evil or merely hidden it away. Another argument against caste census stems from the perception that the upper caste carries about caste in India. There is a belief among the upper class that caste is a relic of the past. Indeed, it’s true, but only for the upper class.

They are the most privileged section of society, their caste blindness stems from decades of privilege that allowed them to acquire social capital like wealth, education, and connection to an extent that they no longer need to invoke their caste identity. Caste census can dismantle this bubble – at worst, it may provoke the upper class, and, at best, it will help them recognise their privileges. Data acquired through census will help the upper class understand the intersection of caste ‘dis-privilege’ and corresponding privilege accruing to some other caste.

Also read: Real reason no govt wants OBC count in Census – it will reveal inconvenient truths

Unreasonable fears

Critics of caste census argue that collecting data on caste does not bode well for an already fractured society like ours and may lead to caste conflict. Although this fear is genuine to a certain extent, this should be weighed against the limited reality of caste census. At best, an attempt will be made to stir already existing movements to obtain data, but the census in itself will not create a new movement. Whether in the colonial-era or post-Independence, our experience suggests that caste census is not a switch to either start a movement or stymie it. Caste data has often been an extension of social movements, or a product of demand.

Another fear emanates out of moral principles. Will caste census end up endorsing caste? First, caste has been in existence from before the census. Second, the census, among other things, collects data on illiteracy and sex ratio. This does not mean the census legitimises them. Counting caste does not compromise the objective of making our nation caste-less, all it does is monitor society’s attitude towards caste identity. Both arguments are grounded on the fear of misuse of data for politics. However, what is not clear is that how this possible misuse is going be to drastically different from the last couple of decades. In fact, non-use of data perpetuates misuse or abuse of power by political parties and allows caste to be used as rhetoric in politics.

Also read: Modi gives parties ‘patient hearing’ at caste census meeting, but demand poses dilemma for BJP

The census is a powerful tool to mitigate social inequality. It is imperative to understand the critical role that the census plays in democracy. It is not merely a monotonous data collection exercise held every 10 years. It provides the statistical lens through which the State can formulate its social objective for the next decade.

Currently, a large chunk of affirmative policy is designed without any concrete data. Caste census can fix that. Even in the 21st century, social identity is a force that defines privilege. Social inequality at different levels reflects a problem that deserves the State attention while formulating policy. One of the most effective ways to provide attention is by incorporating questions related to caste in the census. Moreover, a universal caste census in 2021 could have been a fitting acknowledgement of the fact that when it comes to the questioning of caste and its injustices, State complicity, as well as its redemption are both inescapably interlinked. In 2018, the home ministry announced the inclusion of caste in the census. However, the government has, for some inexplicable reason, betrayed its promise.

Kumar Atul is a student at National Law University, Odisha. Views are personal.

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