Popular culture

“Why is India afraid of a caste census?” : responses from a conference

New Delhi: In September 2021, the The unity government excluded a Socio-economic census of castes (SECC), saying it was impractical, “administratively difficult and cumbersome”. This was in response to a written petition from the government of Maharashtra asking the Union government to collect data on the Backward Citizen Class (BCC) of rural India in the 2021 census enumeration.

The petition also called on the government to release the SECC-2011 raw data on Other Backward Classes (OBCs). Several political parties, including the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Bihar ally, Janata Dal (United) led by Nitish Kumar, had advised the Union government to reconsider its decision.

In light of the same, a two-day virtual conference was organized by the University of Oxford, entitled “Counting Caste: Breaking the Caste Census Deadlock” on February 5-6, 2022, organized by the South Asian Alternative Forum and supported by the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, the South Asian Research Cluster (Wolfson College) and the Oxford South Asian Society.

Over six panel discussions with leading scholars, authors and activists, the conference raised questions about how ‘majority’ and ‘minority’ have been constructed in Indian politics, scholarly writing and culture. popular.

Speakers at the conference included prominent authors, politicians, activists and artists such as Dilip Mandal, Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, Ali Anwar, Grace Banu, Christophe JaffrélotEllis Monk, Kancha Iliah Shepherd, Nandini Sundar, Meena Kotwal, Pa Ranjith, Bharat Patankar, Anupama Rao, Gopal Guru, Sonajhariya Minz, Suraj Yengde and Satish Deshpande among others.

Poster announcing the conference. Photo: Twitter/saaf_oxforduni.

On the first day of the conference, themes such as ‘Rethinking Majority and Minority in India: The Question of Caste Census”, “Census and the Colonial Construction of Hinduism” and “Decoding Caste in “Popular” Culture” were discussed through three panels. The panelists made poignant remarks which highlighted the urgent need for a caste census and why the BJP government has a problem with it.

Speaking of the relevance and necessity of the census of castes, the former editor of India today, Mandal explained how, over time, political parties have changed their position on a caste census. Mandal said, “During their first term, the BJP in 2018 through (then) Home Minister Rajnath Singh formulated a support for a caste-based count and also made a statement about it in Parliament. This happened for the OBC vote as later Prime Minister Modi would run, in 2019, as the leader of the OBC”. He added that in July 2021, the BJP informed parliament that the 2021 census, which had been postponed due to the pandemic, will not include a caste count.

Karunanidhi, Member of Parliament and also a member of the panel, then raised an important point by saying: “We cannot pretend that caste does not exist”, adding that there were people who thought that a census of castes “would rekindle the feelings division between people”. She added: “But they should know that caste is very present in the way people refuse to share ration stores with a particular caste; in the way people refuse to be cremated alongside people of a particular caste; as long as they do not rent their houses to people of a particular caste”.

In another session on “The Census and Colonial Construction of Hinduism”, Anupama Rao, associate professor of history at Columbia University, explained how in the immediate postcolonial period caste had simply been transformed into a socioeconomic category and how this period saw efforts to reduce the prevalence of caste discrimination, caste experience and life. in practices of socio-economic exclusion and discrimination.

The urgency of caste registration was also highlighted by Kotwal, activist and founder of the media platform Mooknayak, when she asked the panel, “Today is Saraswati pooja, but is Saraswati for all?…Why do Saraswati devotees keep pushing Dalits and Adivasis away from education? She then elaborated on how Savarnas, viewing India in a binomial of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ only, tends to erase the history of caste-based oppression that OBCs and other marginalized communities have faced.

She also pointed out how the last caste census took place in 1931 and that the government still uses it as a basis for estimating demographics and the grip of different caste groups on resources. Since then, there have been significant changes in the demographics of this country, she explained. “A caste census would help us identify those castes that are not represented in the institutions of this country so that steps towards equality can be established,” Kotwal said.

The need for a caste census is also seen in the wide disparity of income in the country. An Oxfam 2020 report claims that the richest 10% of the Indian population owns 74.3% of the total wealth; the middle 40% have 22.9%; and the bottom 50% have a shocking 2.8%. Such an unequal distribution of wealth demands a better understanding of Indian society. Meaningful policies that address affirmative action as a method of reducing the rich-poor gap are essential, and in order to fully understand the distribution of wealth in the country, a caste census is imperative.

The speakers all reflect the growing demand for a caste census in the country. Yet the BJP has only backtracked on its previous promises on the matter.

Opposition parties, especially regional caste parties, criticized the government’s position. Nitish Kumar from Bihar, Hemant Soren from Jharkhand and Naveen Patnaik from Odisha reiterated their support for a caste census. Moreover, the BJP also does not want to be perceived as opposing the caste census.

On the second day of the conference, during the session titled, ‘From colonial to everyday life: the ambiguity of the Hindutva caste”, Sagar, writer for Caravan The magazine observed how the media actually cemented the caste divisions propagated by the BJP and the Hindutva brigade.

Sagar recalled how recently the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Adityanath, said, “God was from my caste”; a highly controversial statement that highlights how Hindutva is not limited to crowds, monuments or hate speech and how its larger agenda is to create an economic structure that resembles hierarchy Varna system.

Other panel discussions at the conference included, ‘Caste Census and the Muslim Question’ and ‘Race and Caste: How do Oppressive Systems Count?’

The consensus among observers is that the BJP’s reluctance to conduct a caste census stems, in part, from the UP assembly elections scheduled for this month. UP, being the most populous state in the country, is often considered one of the most important states when it comes to Indian politics. Apart from having the largest assembly of all Indian states (403 seats), the UP also sends the most lawmakers to the national parliament, representing 80 Lok Sabha seats and 31 Rajya Sabha seats.

Ahead of the announcement of election dates, up to three BJP ministers and eight MPs, mostly from the OBC community, left the ruling party, triggering panic in the party ranks and changing the scenario state election. The BJP is clearly losing ground with these UP communities and does not want to risk its chances of electoral victory by holding a caste census now. It reflects the party’s fear that counting castes could upset its electoral stratagem.

Besides these arguments, the conference speakers also explained how the BJP tries to unite all caste communities under the umbrella of Hinduism in order to “other” non-Hindu communities, such as the Muslim community. As such, the speakers see the party’s opposition to a caste census as an attempt to consolidate the entire Hindu vote in the country into one.