*Caste, the Census, and the Political Arithmetic of Modernity

‘I will give you’, wrote Gandhi not long before his death, ‘a talisman.  Whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test:  “Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him.  Will he gain anything by it?  Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny?  In other words, will it lead to Swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions?”’  Characteristically, Gandhi, who probed deeply into most matters, ends on a note of affirmation:  ‘Then you will find your doubts and your self melting away.’

Gandhi’s talisman may appear to be a quaint and clichéd way of marking an entry into the heated debate on whether the decennial Indian census should record caste.  The talisman appears in every NCERT [National Council for Educational Research and Training] history and civics textbook, and it is emblazoned on government social policy documents.  The extent to which it has been followed by India’s policy makers is inversely proportional to its wide dissemination, much like everything else that we can associate with the life and teachings of Gandhi.  If the talisman is all but dead, the debate on the collection of caste data also appears to be settled.  The Union Cabinet has lately announced that caste data will be recorded; indeed, the Cabinet has now authorized a separate caste census.  We may leave aside, for the present, the question of whether the government is entitled to squander the country’s precious resources in carrying out a second exercise when the census enumerators can just as easily collect caste data along with information on education, marital status, occupation, and the like.  In the nearly 150-year old history of the Indian census, there has never been a separate caste census.  There are certainly legitimate, even critical, questions about whether the separate caste data will be successfully co-related to other demographic, socio-economic, and educational data.  But this leaves unresolved the question on which the debate has pivoted so far:  should caste data at all be collected, and how does the collection of such data enhance or retard India’s tryst with democracy?

We may consider briefly the arguments on either side of the divide.  Those who advocate the collection of caste data take the view that caste consciousness is an overwhelming reality; even more so, caste determines to a great degree how life is played out on the ground, whether it be with respect to marriage, education, the allocation of resources, or one’s entitlements in life.  The ‘realists’, if we may call them that, are certain that caste will neither disappear nor even be diminished merely by embracing the view that caste identity is deplorable; they also point to the sheer brutality of caste violence and to the complicity of upper castes, and the institutions of state that they pilot, in the perpetuation of caste-based discrimination.  If the state collects data on sex, education, religion, occupation, and other vectors of identity, why should the objective reality of caste not similarly be captured by the census?  Proponents of the caste census argue that the upper castes have a hugely disproportionate claim over the country’s resources and a caste census would be critical in bringing awareness of their monopoly over the political, economic and social life of the country.  If the census made us aware of the enormously skewed sex ratio in most parts of India, thus (in part) prompting policies designed to enhance the lives and livelihoods of girls and women, why should we not believe that a caste count will in like fashion improve the prospects of the lower castes?

Opponents of the caste census recognize that we live in an enumerative world.  If we learn to count in school, we also have learnt to be counted as part of collectivities.  But here’s the rub:  does the census merely capture ‘objective reality’, as many suppose, or does it create its own reality?  If a census or some other enumerative instrument asks a person to represent himself or herself as a Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, or otherwise, what of those people who perceive themselves to be both Hindus and Muslims?  If members of a certain caste group are entitled to privileges, is it not obvious that this serves as an incentive to others to demand similar entitlements and even alter their membership in a caste group? Opponents marshal many other arguments, in some cases taking a leaf out of the book of the realists.  They argue that surrender to a caste consensus is tantamount to an admission that different castes form vote blocks that are altogether indispensable in an electoral democracy.  True, every society has an obligation to furnish opportunities to its members to improve their life prospects, and the mobilization of identities is a crucial aspect of the democratic experience. But those opposed to the collection of caste data strongly dispute the suggestion that a caste census will enable new and useful remedial measures to those laboring under caste disabilities.  India already has some of the most progressive legislation on the books, and a caste census has no bearing on the will and capacity of both the state and civil society to root out caste-based injustice.  A caste census, moreover, forces mobilization along caste lines, thus obscuring the mobility that might take place along other axes of stratification.

There is much more that be can said on either side of the debate.  Advocates of the caste census find it not accidental that opposition has come largely from the upper castes.  The person who claims membership in a group such as ‘Meri Jaat Hindustani’ is akin to the privileged ‘world citizen’:  putting aside the question of whether self-proclaimed world citizens are any more cosmopolitan than the Indian villager, it is vital to ask from what vantage point a person is speaking, and with what authority, privileges, and effect.  On the other hand, the opponents of the caste census ask why, if caste was not recorded after the 1931 census, it has become necessary to revive this instrument of enumeration.  Is it not reasonable to believe that the framers of the Indian Constitution would have been aghast at the notion that caste should be given an immutable identity?  They argue that if our intention is, as it should be, to move towards a casteless society, the caste census is calculated to solidify and reify rather than dissolve categories of caste.  The demand for a caste census, it is further argued, comes from those sectors of Indian society, such as the OBCs [Other Backward Classes] who have usurped the far more legitimate claims to grievance held by the Dalits, Scheduled Castes (SCs), and Scheduled Tribes (STs).

It is tempting to believe that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. But, perhaps, compelling as are the arguments on both sides, there are larger questions at stake.  Indians have come into the enumerative world comparatively recently, even if, as some neo-Orientalist historians will insistently remind us, the Home Minister of Maharaja Jaswant Singh Rathod had a caste census conducted in the kingdom of Marwar between 1658 and 1664.  Some commentators, pointing to the ‘divide and rule’ strategies of the colonial power, are quite certain that a caste census will be terribly divisive.  It is not entirely necessary to form a firm opinion on this matter, since the caste census disguises other categories that have been entirely normalized.  We have to ask, for instance, how ‘majorities’ and ‘minorities’ became an inescapable part of the language of modern politics.  Why is it that the Hindu ‘majority’ has in recent years displayed the political behavior that we might reasonably expect from ‘minorities’?   If the Parsis, a miniscule minority within India, had a disproportionately huge role to play in the rise of Bombay, as indeed they did, did they not act with the confidence of a ‘majority’?

So, even as we recognize the fact that we are now severely and increasingly compromised by having to live in an enumerative world, the greater imperative seems to be to resist the political arithmetic of modernity in all its manifestations.  This, I suspect, is the true meaning of Gandhi’s talisman.  We can attempt to settle questions about the caste census, mobilization, political participation, entitlements, and mobility across strata by recourse to sociological data, legal arguments, legislative measures, and judicial redress, but none of this diminishes the ethical obligation to think about one’s own conduct, speech, and thought.  One of the one many reasons why Gandhi’s talisman has fallen by the wayside is that we have been, quite predictably, careless in reading it.   Gandhi commences with the formulation, ‘whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much with you’, but neither the advocates nor the proponents of the caste census entertain much if any doubt about their positions.  So, when there is no doubt, why would the test that Gandhi proposes at all come into place?  When Gandhi spoke, moreover, of swaraj, as he does in the talisman, he meant obviously not only political emancipation or self-rule but the rule over one’s own self and over one’s own baser instincts.  That Gandhi chose to use the word ‘swaraj’ rather than ‘freedom’, ‘emancipation’, or ‘a better life’ is amply illustrative of his view that improvement cannot come about merely through instruments of the state.