Caste Counting Politics: From a Historical Perspective

The current debate on caste counting provides an opportunity for the Indian state to be reminded of the core value of social justice enshrined in the Indian Constitution and its framework in order to evaluate the requirements of caste counting and its policies

The census is not just a head count. This gives everyone an identity in the modern nation-state. In addition, the census, by and large, provides an opportunity for all communities and castes to assess their participation and stake in the constitutional government institutions at the central and state levels, as well as in past and present development plans and programs. This group identity also creates a measure for assessing the participation and share of the community vis-à-vis other groups, communities and castes by enumerating them in the census. This description of the salient features of the census in government documents and textbooks is rather neutral.

On a deeper level, if we critically evaluate the census historically, this has been one of the factors driving identity politics, especially the caste-based representation politics since the beginning of the India census, in which political parties, social groups and the government have remained the main actors. The first all-India ten-year census in 1871 was based on the varna consisting of jati as the main indicator for the classification of the enumerated data by the colonial administrators such as Risley, Nesfield, Baines etc. Then jati instead varna remained one of the key indicators in the census of the years 1881, 1891, 1901 to 1931, even if the type and form of classification of the enumerated data changed in many ways.

Based on the dates and the effects of the enumeration, the colonial administrators profoundly realized that jati in Indian society is central and the root of identity between different social groups. It is noteworthy that Nicholas B. Dirks, a Dutch scholar and author of “Box of Mind: Colonialism and the Emergence of Modern India“Wonderfully formulated the implications and effects of caste counting in the late 19th century. He showed that the emphasis on caste membership in the ten-year census had led to increased excitement about caste membership and the assignment of social status within caste groups. The colonial census might have re-inscribed a brahminic notion of caste, but ironically, in doing so, it led to competitive politics that began to make the caste the basis of political mobilization on a new scale.

The caste count ultimately also proved to be the basis for the government and administrative architecture of the colonial state at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. The colonial state presented itself in a neutral role among the people, but skillfully manipulated the competition policy of the castes in order to consolidate its influence on administration and governance.

Against this background, Dr. BR Ambedkar, a great icon of 20th century social reform, caste counting in colonial India from a new perspective. He made it a base for social mobilization and politics. But he soon recognized the limits of representation politics and placed the issues and questions within the broader framework of social justice. As a result, social justice became the core value of the Indian Constitution, manifested in the adoption of reservations for SCs and STs in relation to their caste census proportion of the population.

The passage of the reservation on SCs and STs led to a new type of social justice policy for the other backward castes under the leadership of Ram Manohar Lohia in India after independence. In the 1960s and 1970s, the SANSOPA slogan was strongly admonished that the backward-looking must reach sixty out of a hundred (sansopa ne baandhi ganth pichda pawe sau my saath) became the main slogan of the mobilization of the OBC policy. Although this slogan arose from common sense statistics, its basis was provided, directly or indirectly, by the census data. Moreover, it remained a central factor in the confrontation and negotiation between the governments and the political parties, especially the socialist parties. As a result, the provision of reservations for the OBCs in central government agencies as a result of social justice policies became a milestone.

The contradicting role and purpose of caste counting in colonial and post-colonial India that emerges suggests that the number of employees is jati in itself has no special meaning. On the one hand, the underlying goals and politics of caste counting were decisive in shaping caste-based identity politics in the narrower sense. On the other hand, this also shaped the idea of ​​social justice and the constitutional provisions of modern India.

In this context, it is worth noting that the caste is a hierarchical social institution based on heredity, and its ideology and values ​​are reproduced in society from generation to generation. Furthermore, the mere evocation of caste identity has remained an obstacle to the development and government of India after independence. As a result, most of the victims became primarily those on the edge of the horizontal base of all caste groups.

The current debate on caste counting provides an opportunity for the Indian state to recall the core value of social justice enshrined in the Indian Constitution and its framework in order to evaluate the requirements of caste counting and its policies.

At the same time, all political parties have the opportunity to carry the legacy of social justice in their votes and opinions for the caste count if they really work to empower all marginalized groups. Otherwise, voices and opinions would be raised, which would lead to confrontation and competition within and between castes. With that in mind, the future of caste-counting politics is likely trapped in the legacy of the past that the colonial state built in the late 19th century.

(The author is the founder of Deshkal Societ, Delhi, and co-editor of the book “Interrogating Development: Insights from the Margins”, OUP, New Delhi)

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