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Fear of quota claims, ‘need to save secular state’ — why caste never made it to the census

The last time comprehensive data on caste was collected was in the 1931 Census, and there is now a growing clamour to include caste as a category in the 2021 Census.

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New Delhi: Last month, Bihar became the third state to pass a resolution in its assembly demanding that the 2021 Census exercise be based on caste. 

In January, both the Odisha and the Maharashtra governments had adopted similar resolutions urging the Modi government to determine the population of Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the country. Naveen Patnaik’s government went a step further and ordered a survey into the socio-economic conditions of OBCs.

Their concerns had been spurred by the fact that the last time comprehensive data on caste was collected was way back in 1931 — pre-Independence India. 

ThePrint traces the history of the caste census that continues to remain a highly controversial and contentious exercise in the country 

Also read: Census 2021 will be paperless as Modi govt develops data collection app

Enumerating caste in the pre-Independence years

A population census was first carried out by the British colonial state in 1872. The 65-page census volume enumerated the populations of various castes, including Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Rajputs, across several provinces. 

“In this wider view of the Hindoo people, we find 149 millions so designated, of whom about 10 1/8 millions are Brahmins and 5 5/8 millions Kashtriyas and Rajpoots; 105 1/2 millions belong to other castes; of nearly 7,90,000 the caste is unspecified; 8 3/4 millions are out-castes or recognise no caste (as the Buddists); not quite 600,000 are Christians (including it is presumed, any converts from the Mussulman religion as well); and 17 3/4 millions are aboriginal tribes or semi-Hindoo aborigines,” the 1870s report reads

Caste populations were specifically counted based on their traditional occupations at the time. For instance, “Hindoos” in the Madras province were counted in 17 sets, which included “priests, warriors, traders, agriculturists, shepherds and pastoral castes” among others. 

Dr R.B. Bhagat, a professor at the International Institute for Population Sciences in Mumbai, in his paper Caste Census has explained that the categories of caste and tribes were “loosely used” in these early censuses. “For example,” he wrote, “Jats and Rajputs were often treated as tribes.”

At the turn of the century, the 1901 census identified 1,646 castes but the number rose to 4,147 in the 1931 caste census. According to Bhagat, this figure included over “300 castes whose religion was recorded as Christianity and over 500 who were recorded as Muslim”. 

In 1941, the census exercise was severely curtailed because of World War II.

“On the conclusion of the 1941 exercise and owing to the exigencies of World War II, tabulation and publication of the results were limited to only three or four basic tables for the total population,” wrote Asok Mishra wrote in his paper titled New Pathways: Census 1961. The exercise entirely omitted a caste census

Through those years, several census commissioners, including W.C. Plowden, under whom the first census was conducted, noted the enormous difficulties posed by the exercise and the “suggestions…made in favour of omission of the question regarding caste”. 

The column — ‘Race, Caste or Tribe’ — however, stuck in all these early decadal reports (except 1941), with the commissioners noting the importance of understanding caste as a distinguishing feature of an “individual’s official and social identity”.  

Also read: Modi govt proposes to raise OBC creamy layer income limit to Rs 12 lakh per annum

When caste was erased

After 1947, the census exercise was drastically revamped.

The categories of ‘Race, Caste or Tribe’ was replaced by the ‘Scheduled Tribe/ Scheduled Caste’. There is little documentation about the discussion or debate that had transpired between leaders of the time on what the census would include. 

Subsequent reports and studies have, however, attributed this shift to the belief that “including caste data in census enumeration will perpetuate the caste system and deepen social divisions”.

“Recording of caste was abandoned after Indian Independence in 1947, to help smooth the growth of a secular state,” a Reuters report highlighted

Bhagat told ThePrint that leaders had wanted to drop the question of caste as it was thought of as a British policy to divide and rule. 

“The British wanted to understand and control India through their understanding of religion and caste. It was only through the census that we know Hindus are in a majority and Muslims in a minority,” he said. 

“The leaders (of an independent India) wanted to omit the columns of religion and caste,” Bhagat added. “But the argument at that time was that we need to build a community based on social justice and data would thus be required. And as those communities (SC/ST) are also related to religion, then data on religion was also required.” 

This was further necessitated by the Constitution, which mandated the reservation of seats for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. Articles 243T, 243D, 330 and 332 of the Constitution had mandated the reservation of seats for the SCs/STs in panchayats, municipalities, parliament and legislative assemblies respectively. 

The SC/ST column would thus come to be included in the census slips from 1961. The question regarding OBCs was completely dropped from the exercise.  

Also read: Tamil Brahmins were the earliest to frame merit as a caste claim, and it showed in IITs

Census in the post-Mandal era

In the years that followed, the government tried to determine the criteria to identify socially and educationally backward classes for their “upliftment”.

The First Backward Classes Commission constituted under Kaka Kalelkar in 1953 “prepared a list of 2,399 backward castes or communities for the entire country” (including 837 of the ‘most backward’ classes) on the basis of the 1951 census.

The registrar general and census commissioner of India at the time also “assisted the Commission in making population projections of 930 backward castes or communities”. 

The Kalelkar Commission report had recommended that “as long as social welfare and social relief have to be administered through castes, classes or groups, full information about these groups should be obtained and tabulated”. It was also suggested that “census slips should consist amongst others ‘caste’ in a separate column”. 

The report was, however, rejected and it was decided that “all India lists of backward classes should be drawn up, nor any reservation made in the Central Government service for any group of backward classes other than Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes”. 

It wasn’t until 1979, with the appointment of the Mandal Commission that an estimate of ‘other backward classes’ would be attempted. This was made on the basis of the 1931 Census, “on an assumption of uniform growth for all religious groups and communities in the next half a century”. A social-education survey was also conducted to identify the backward classes (castes). 

According to the Mandal Commission report, scheduled castes and tribes made up 22.56 per cent of the population, non-Hindu religious groups comprised 16.16 per cent and ‘Forward Hindus’, including Brahmins, Rajputs, Marathas, Jats, Vaishyas-Baniyas, Kayasthas and others, 17.58 per cent.  

The Mandal Commission report, which was implemented in 1990, would result in the provision of a 49.5 per cent quota in government jobs and public universities, this included (for the first time ever) a declaration for 27 per cent reservation for OBCs.

M. Vijayanunni, who served as the census commissioner from 1994 to 1999, said that caste data through the census became a compelling need of the time.

“I had accordingly re-opened the question of caste data collection in the census and initiated an open national debate on this matter in 1999 for the then upcoming 2001 census of India,” he told ThePrint. “But the Indian government did not take up caste data collection in the 2001 census or in the subsequent 2011 census.”

“It was only later that the government had second thoughts and took up a caste survey as part of the poverty survey in 2012 but it never released the caste data,” he added.  

Also read: It’s a puzzle why VP Singh was never accepted by OBCs even after Mandal Commission

The caste census that wasn’t

Amid growing demands for a caste census, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in 2011 decided to undertake the fourth Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC). 

The SECC was conducted independently of the Population Census, which is mandated by the Census Act of 1948. Like the decennial census, however, information was collected through door-to-door enumeration. The survey covered 24.49 crore households across 640 districts. 

The Rs 4,893.60-crore SECC exercise was carried out by the Union Rural Development Ministry in the rural areas and the Union Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation Ministry in the urban areas. Since it did not fall under the Census Act, which prevents citizens from furnishing the wrong information, it did not mandate the involvement of the Registrar General. 

Around 46,73,034 distinct caste names emerged from the report. It included sub-castes, surnames and gotras. The Modi government then issued a statement, saying that these caste names would be classified. 

For the first time since 1931, data on OBC population was also collected. The government, however, published the socio-economic part of the data in 2015 but withheld the caste numbers.     

The caste data was withheld over political implications that it would have and the errors that had been identified by the RGI (Registrar-General of India). Days after the report was published in 2015, the Modi government said that 8,19,58,314 errors had been detected in the census, of which “6,73,81,119 errors have been rectified…1,45,77,195 errors were yet to be rectified”. 

The socio-economic data has since formed the basis of determining beneficiaries of government schemes, thus, becoming a crucial tool to ensure targeted disbursement of welfare initiatives.

“It wasn’t a successful exercise as it wasn’t technically sound. We don’t know much of what has happened, especially why the data that was collected wasn’t made public,” Bhagat said. 

This trend is likely to continue the next time the SECC is updated as reports last year indicated that it would only be a socio-economic and not a caste census. Census 2021 might also come as a disappointment as the pre-test recce, conducted before the census, excluded the OBC column.   

“The National Commission for Backward Classes Act considers OBC as a dynamic category, which means that some castes will be included and some will be excluded in 10 years’ time. In that case, the government definitely has to provide data. So the data on census is required,” Bhagat reasoned.  

Also read: The golden era of caste politics is still ahead of us

The political brouhaha

The issue of the caste census has always been a politically-charged one because of its implications on the percentage of reservation in education and jobs. This has precedence in the heated protests that followed the Mandal Commission report, which eventually led to the toppling of the V.P. Singh-led coalition government in 1990.   

It gave rise to the ‘Mandal’ and ‘Kamandal’ politics as it brought backward castes like the Yadavs, Kurmis and Thakurs to the vanguard of the political landscape. Parties such as the Samajwadi Party (SP), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Janata Dal (United) “have taken up the OBC cause” in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where backward castes comprise a significant portion of the electorate. 

In 2015, for instance, SP supremo Mulayam Singh Yadav and RJD chief Lalu Prasad Yadav had criticised the government for withholding caste data of the 2011 SECC. 

Lalu had even led a protest march in Bihar demanding its release. “The caste census was completed long ago but the central government is not releasing the figures under a planned conspiracy. The data should be released immediately,” he had said back then. 

Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, the RJD’s alliance partner at the time, had also slammed the Modi government for not disclosing the data. “What is the Centre’s justification for not releasing the caste data as under the socio-economic caste census when the people want to know about it?” Kumar had asked. 

Four years later, and batting in the BJP camp, Kumar had last year once again demanded that the caste census be published. “There is a need for a caste-based census in 2021 in the country. A caste-based census will reveal many things. The last such census was conducted in 1931,” he said last year. The Bihar Assembly passed a resolution in 2019 and then for a second time this year pushing the Modi government to release the data. 

The Congress’ stance on the caste census has, however, been far from consistent.

It was the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government that had back in 2011 refused to enumerate caste as a part of the decennial process, a move that was severely criticised. This is despite some of its own lawmakers insisting on its inclusion. It then conducted the SECC after pressure from Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav. 

Then in 2018, for the first time ever, the party demanded the disclosure of caste data from the 2011 SECC. Party MP and Congress OBC cell chairman Tamradhwaj Sahu had then said, “The caste census was done under the Congress government. That report should be implemented.”

In Maharashtra, the Congress, which is in alliance with the Shiv Sena and Nationalist Congress Party, voted in favour of the resolution demanding a caste-based census in 2021. A month later, during an Assembly session, it was the Congress’ Vikas Thakre who had raised the issue following which it was announced that an all-party delegation will meet PM Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah to seek the enumerations of OBCs in the upcoming 2021 census. 

Also read: There’s no accurate data on Other Backward Classes. 2021 census should start counting



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