Home / Opinion / The politics of data: 1931 & 2015

There are countries where discussion on race and class is discouraged. And there are countries where gathering demographic data is discouraged. Lebanon hasn’t held a census since 1932 fearing an explosion of sectarian strife.

India is no longer among such countries. It bravely went ahead and ordered a caste and poverty census in 2011 and now a boisterous political debate is playing out over unpublished data from it—that’s the bit to do with caste.

Has it chickened out? This is a multi-layered story, but with strong political overtones. It all boils down to how societies and governments use census data—that’s the grand picture we will come to a little later.

This enumeration was ordered in 2011 after a lively debate, completed in 2012 and published—partially—on 3 July. The project had three components—rural development, urban development and caste. The government has only published data on rural development so far, saying there are several ministries involved in processing the data and that the rural development ministry was first off the mark. The others, it says, are still on the job.

This sounds like a reasonable explanation, except for the timing: assembly elections to the state of Bihar are due this year and caste calculations are more important in this large and populous state than anywhere else in India. That means talk of political conspiracy is rife.

The accusation by the socialist ruling party in Bihar is that the government is hiding caste data. “I fail to understand why the caste census report has not been made public," said Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. “This has exposed the intentions of the Narendra Modi (federal) government. Projects to uplift the poor people could be planned and implemented only on the basis of such a report."

The overarching caste group that every politician’s talking about and trying to woo is the OBCs, or other backward classes. But there is some confusion over which castes qualify as an OBC. Prime Minister Modi says he is an OBC, others say he isn’t one.

OBCs are an umbrella group, and many sub-castes within them are thought to be lagging behind other castes. However, no one is sure who the backward ones are, or of the extent of deprivation. As a result, all OBCs are entitled to a blanket 27% affirmative action (by way of quotas in government jobs and seats in higher educational institutions). OBC sub-castes are identified on the basis of the last caste census held in India—in 1931 by the British.

The situation is plainly anomalous. For instance, the Jats are a wealthy, dominant and powerful north Indian caste, but the government wants jobs and other quotas to be extended to them as well simply because it is politically expedient to do so. Jat votes count in states such as Haryana, where the Bharatiya Janata Party rules. On 21 July, the Supreme Court threw out a government plea on Jat quotas.

Experts say if and when published, the caste data could cut both ways. “It could show castes that are perceived to be prejudiced are actually doing quite well. Or you could see that, perception-wise, groups thought to be privileged could be suffering from economic reforms," said Edward Rodrigues, professor of sociology at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

The bigger point is what the government does with the data: does it make them the basis for targeted positive discrimination of the kind India has had for decades without having much to show by way of results, or does it use them as a basis for wider policy interventions aimed at all groups?

What, in other words, is the point of collecting census data? Is it to match subsidies with votes and thus create a vote bank to stay in power? Not everybody is sure that enumeration should be so closely tied to policy interventions.

“The data may threaten to destabilize our dominant perceptions," said Rodrigues. “Enumeration should not be used to develop caste-sensitive policies. This is a problem with us and we need to get out of this mindset. We need to address these as universal problems and develop a universalist approach to policymaking rather than a caste-sensitive one."

One example of such an approach would be the public food distribution system—it’s not aimed at any caste group. Whosoever comes under the particular economic marker qualifies for subsidized food. “Linking up caste data with policy has been divisive because everyone ends up fighting with everyone," said Rodrigues.

This is the debate on the effect of census data—the Lebanon example we started with. In 2010 and 2011, the debate on the proposal for a caste census was marked by critical voices. The late demographer, Ashish Bose, an adviser to several Indian prime ministers, even likened it to the policy of divide and rule followed by the British Raj.

Strangely, back in 1931, the British census takers were similarly besieged by political criticism, chiefly from the Congress, the party of independence. The 1931 report acknowledged the criticism—it centred around the view that the mere act of listing “persons as belonging to a caste tends to perpetuate the system", it says. “And on this excuse, a campaign against any record of caste was attempted in 1931 by those who objected to any such returns being made."

Unfortunately, the 1931 census came in the middle of Gandhi’s salt march, and the Congress declared 11 January, 1931, as Census Boycott Sunday. Not just that, nationalists described their professions as “Bande Mataram", prompting enumerators to shunt them off as workers in “other unclassified non-productive industries".

Gandhi did not call for a boycott of the census, but the 1931 report notes, “It seemed good to some Congress leaders to do so, as, although they do not seem to have regarded a census as objectionable in itself, the opportunity for harassing the government seemed too good to be missed."

In 2011, it was the Congress that ordered the 1931 census updated. Naturally, it is rather keen to lay its hands on the caste data. Caste politics is here to stay.

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