Following the conclusion of the 1931 Census, J H Hutton, a celebrated anthropologist and the then census commissioner, is reported to have recommended that all future census operations should desist from collecting data on castes. He was echoing the views of all his predecessors who conducted such projects and failed miserably.
So, What IS Caste?
Anomalies coming out of such exercises were too many. For instance, the group of upper castes, in the 1867 Census in Oudh, included Brahmins, Bengalis, Jains, Kshatriyas, Kayasths, Kashmiris and Marwaris, among others. It only goes to show that ‘caste’ meant different things to different people. After the conclusion of the 1871 Census, some British officials would complain that certain individuals would identify as Marathas when they were Kunbis from the Maratha region, some would write their religion as Brahmins, when they were Brahmins by caste.
These and many more anomalies, of confusing caste with religion, region etc, persisted through all the census operations that aimed at collecting data on caste.
The practice continued till 1941 and was abandoned subsequently. The question of caste was made optional in the 1941 Census and limited data thus collected, was never published.
A Desire for Caste Mobility
Confusing caste with other primordial identities was not the only complication facing enumerators and respondents. From 1901 onwards, there were growing demands from several caste organisations to be accorded a status different from what was assigned by the enumerators.
Backed by elaborate genealogy, some castes would request inclusion in the category of Brahmins, some others claimed to be Kshatriyas, and many more wanted to be known as Vaishyas.
That was the phase of, what is called Sanskritisation, wherein people belonging to the so-called lower castes would emulate customs and practices of upper-castes, to claim membership to the higher-up groups.
The data on castes coming out of census operations therefore, were found to be very inconsistent and unsatisfactory.
A social scientist thus, concludes, “caste had a troubled presence in the pages of the census reports. No exhaustive list of castes could ever be prepared for any province, let alone for the country as a whole, every such list was completed only by adding columns named as “other castes”, “castes not specified/not known”, etc; no list was ever submitted without questions being asked whether those enlisted were really castes; no two reports on the census of India ever matched in the way these classified castes; no inventory of caste was ever compiled without the presiding census commissioner expressing misgivings about the whole project.”
Why is Collecting Data on Caste So Difficult?
Noted social scientist AM Shah says that there are five words for caste in Gujarati—jat, jaati, jnati, varna and kaum. Each of them has multiple connotations, depending on the context they are used in. As a result, while an endogamous group is referred to as a caste in some context, traditional association with an occupation also comes to represent a caste. Gotra too is seen as connoting caste. In certain contexts, surnames too can represent caste.
Since there is no consensus on the working definition of caste, census enumerators in all past operations ended up also recording names of castes which were either vague or non-existent.
No wonder, the latest attempt through the 2011 Socio Economic Caste Census to get a sense of the caste composition, ended in chaos. According to reliable reports, the exercise pegged the number of castes in the country at a staggering 4.6 million. This comes to an average of one caste for 72 households.
Urgent Need for a Working Definition of Caste
Is the proposed exercise in 2021 going to be any different? Not quite, if enumerators go around collecting data with open-ended questions on caste. The only way out is to have an expert panel of sociologists and anthropologists come up with a working definition of caste. The task though is not going to be an easy one. Caste is as much a social reality as it is a marker of relative deprivation of a group of people.
While collecting data on economic parameters is easy, capturing a situational reality in a tabular form has been elusive throughout.
Take a look at the complexity of the caste matrix in the country. The National Commission for Backward Classes compiles and updates a list of backward castes for all the states. For instance, Bihar, according to the commission’s list, has many as 136 OBC categories and Karnataka has 199 such categories.
Census Exercise Should Not Be Rushed
Then there are separate lists prepared by respective state governments. The combined number of OBCs alone, based on reports of the national as well as state commissions, would run into several thousands. Any expert panel thus constituted, will have to go through all the names, see the characteristics and then arrive at a working definition of who are the other backward classes. Enumerators will then have to be trained accordingly.
Can something like this be done along with the census? Very unlikely. The government, however, will still do it. And we will end up with grossly inconsistent data contributing very little to the existing scholarship on OBCs.
While there is no denying the need to have a comprehensive data directory of OBCs for effective delivery of welfare schemes, such an exercise must not be rushed through without careful planning.