The issue of counting caste in the population census has now been referred to an empowered group of ministers (eGoM). This may be the easier way of addressing the vertical split that this issue has created among India’s major political parties (the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP).
Interestingly, there is a parallel to this debate elsewhere—the case of France, which prohibits by law any collection and maintenance of data on race, ethnicity and religion ever since the Third Republic. As a result, the French census is devoid of these classifications. However, there has been a continuing debate to include these in the census with overtones similar to the Indian case.
Two years ago, I was invited by the French government to visit that country. One of the issues I decided to study was discrimination, knowing well that there was no data that could help me understand the level of discrimination in French society. More importantly, I wanted to know how one goes about removing racial, ethnic and religious discrimination without knowing its nature and extent.
The “colour blind” French are proud of the fact that their republic treats everybody as equal without any reference to their race, ethnicity and religion. But that is easier said than practised. The movement for inclusion of race in the census is spearheaded by CRAN (Conseil Representatif des Associations Noires, or the Representative Council of Black Associations in France). According to the council’s survey, 56% of blacks reported having suffered racial discrimination in everyday life in 2007. Similar stories of discrimination were reported by Muslims and immigrants in France, represented by higher drop-out rates and low employment availability. The November 2005 riots were in many ways a reflection of the frustration and anger of immigrants and similarly disadvantaged groups.
A decade ago, the response was to brush such statistics under the carpet. That ignorance is bliss was best represented by the French position. But things have started changing. By the 2007 presidential election, when counting race in the census became an issue, most of the political parties in the country had come around to the idea of including race and religion in the census except for the socialists, who feared the data might be used to target minorities.
More importantly, there is recognition of the problem at the least in government circles. The Haute Autorité de Lutte contre les Discriminations et pour l’Egalité (HALDE, The French Equal Opportunities and Anti-Discrimination Commission) is an independent statutory authority, established by law to fight discriminatory practices.
Nonetheless, the problem remains. How do you counter discrimination when there is no evidence of it in official statistics? That also rules out affirmative policies as a means of fighting discrimination. How do you achieve equality (one of the three tenets of the French republic—liberty, fraternity and equality) of opportunity when you have no idea what inequality is? The only way, then, is to be an ostrich and behave as if everybody is equal.
The French solution is not acceptable in India’s democratic framework—based on the explicit recognition of diversity, inequality and constitutionally mandated instruments to eradicate them, such as reservations. It was this recognition that led to the inclusion of caste data for scheduled castes/scheduled tribes groups in the census.
It is obvious that a strategy for equality has to be based on a solid diagnosis of inequality, its nature as well as dimensions. It is this necessity that is being lost in the debate over the caste census. Those who argue that this will lead to demands for affirmative action (reservations such as in the Gujjar case) must also recognize that such demands emanate and are accepted even in the absence of such data. Wasn’t the other backward classes (OBC) reservation demanded and accepted without any credible evidence? On the contrary, such data have helped uncover evidence of inequality and discrimination. A good example of this is the Sachar committee, which was successful in highlighting the situation of Muslims. Could we have done this if there was no data on religion? No. But, of course, it would have given us the comfortable pretext of a working secularism. It is this fear of accepting failure in providing equality that bothers most of us. The fear is also that this truth will embolden OBC leaders in the populous states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. What also hurts the BJP is the inconvenient truth that these OBC leaders have used discrimination to ally with similar disadvantaged groups such as Muslims.
But it is better to face the truth than hide it under the carpet. The problem is not the data itself, but what we make of it. It is here that politics plays its role. A caste census may or may not lead to demands from various caste groups. Either way, aren’t we interested in better targeting government subsidies, as the latest Economic Survey argues? Caste data will at least give us the information as to which castes should be included for affirmative action/reservation.
A personal confession: for those of you who have wondered why I go with only a single name, I was trying to be an ostrich. I always thought that the best way to decaste oneself was to drop one’s surname—the obvious manifestation of caste. But those who saw things through the prism of caste still managed to uncover the truth. And here I was thinking that I had got rid of my caste. Ignorance is bliss, but not when the reality is omnipresent. It is then convenience that becomes bliss.
Himanshu is an assistant professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University and a visiting fellow at Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi.
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