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May 24, 2010


Hi Namit Sir, it was indeed very well balanced (like always) article on Indian democracy. I am now thinking about the effect of caste census on indian democracy. There are two groups opposing each other on this issue. I am going with 'Say Yes to caste census' group as knowing the depth of problem nakes it easier to approach towards answer . But what will happen to our democratic norms after this census? There may be uprise of more Gujjar agitation depending on the number census produce. Due to rise of caste based politics, the development issues have been put in backseat as put elegantly by Bhikhu Parekh. I will produce opinions from both school and asking for your views on this matter.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta makes a point of defining our identities in the society :

First, a caste census condemns us to the tyranny of compulsory identities. The premise of enumeration is that we can never escape caste. Our identities are not something we can choose; they are given as non-negotiable facts which we can never escape. The state has legitimised the principle that we will always be our caste. This is a way of diminishing our freedom, agency and dignity in a way that even votaries of tradition could not dream of. It takes away the fundamental freedoms we need to define ourselves.


And there is an counter argument by Gail Omvedt:

The fact is that to deal with an issue, one has to have information about it. Policies require understanding and analysis; pretending that caste doesn’t exist is perhaps the best way to perpetuate it. On one hand, there are numerous acts and regulations dealing with caste; on the other hand, there is a genuine dearth of information. There is no encouragement for studies of caste; indeed, the only sociology students who are at all encouraged to deal with the issue are an occasional student from subaltern caste background who is taught to write on his own people. But looking at the caste system as a system is not so often done. The National Sample Surveys, for example, have only recently started using the very broad (and often not very useful) categorization of “OBC”; but this pulls together a diverse and hierarchically broad group of castes or jatis into one overall category. And Brahmans - those who, as sociologist Satish Deshpande has argued, “ride incognito in our social system” - are never looked at; all the “upper” castes together are lumped in the “other” group. There is almost no solid statistical data available about them. And issues like intermarriage - all we can do is speculate, on the basis of scattered personal experience and matrimonial ads in the newspapers, about what percentage of marriages (95%? 99%?) are still within caste marriages.



Thank you. I am entirely with Omvedt and you on whether to include caste in the census. Another article I liked on this was in The Hindu. Refusing to gather hard data on caste is not the way to make caste discrimination go away. :-) Parekh's point ought to be taken seriously, but even if this data helps in tuning reservations to reality, the exercise would have been worth it. Abuse is likelier in the absence of facts.

Ever since I read Priya Sahgal's infuriating cover story, The Caste Curse, in India Today, I've been meaning to write a short post on this topic. This shameful article is the work of the shoddiest intellect. Does India Today hire such openly petulant, self-absorbed, casteist dimwits to write for them? It really has become the junkiest major magazine in India.

Namit, from another favourite blog of mine -


Namit Sir, Thanks for the valuable feedback. Both of us agree that the reality is that there are castes in India and not counting them will not eliminate castism. I too read Priya Sehgal story. I will not say that she is quite wrong but has a narrow vision of history. Internal politics of Congress was governed by Brahmins and further declination of democratic process inside congress under Indira Gandhi led to its decay. There is strong prjudice in higher caste that how these persons like Mayawati, Lalu and Mulayam can handle the matters like economy and foriegn policies;

Santosh Desai has put fears of middle class very well :

Perhaps the larger truth is that it is impossible to shake off one's past. Both caste and class are the ground on which we have been cultivated; we can till this land, fertilise it or leave it fallow but we cannot disown it. The world does not begin and end with us; it is our individual consciousness that gives us the illusion it does.

We evaluate others based on a single yardstick- one which comes to us from the dominant cultures of our time. Seen from this eye, caste is 'backward' but rooting for Chelsea is not. All cultures are now getting asked the same questions in the name of modernity and when they reply in their own terms, we see them as being insufficiently modern.


Also check passages of a Book : ‘The Indians’ By Sudhir Kakar & Katharina Kakar.

The inner experience of caste

The preoccupation of the caste system with high and low has been associated with suffering and humiliation for several millions through the centuries. As the Marathi poet Govindraj puts it, Hindu society is made up of men ‘who bow their heads to the kicks from above and who simultaneously give a kick below, never thinking to resist the one or refrain from the other.’ The hierarchy is so fine tuned that even a low caste will always find another caste that is inferior to it, thus mitigating some of the narcissistic injury suffered by it at being seen as inferior. Thus for instance, ‘among those lowest scavenging sections which remove night soil there is still a distinction: those who serve in private houses consider themselves higher than those who clean public latrines.’ [pp 27, 28]

Fair Skin

The psychological association of fair skin with everything ‘clean’, ‘regal’ and ‘desirable’, together with memories of being ruled by fair skinned invaders and the presumption of wealth associated with the fair skinned visitors, makes most Indians fawn over the goras (‘whites’). A dark skinned African, on the other hand, will often be an object of condescension, even ridicule. Little wonder that many a gora leading an anonymous, run-of-the-mill life in his own country feels like a special ‘somebody’ in India, the admiring gazes and flattering tones of voice constantly feeding his self-esteem, his narcissism. [pp 37]

I have been pro reservation for SC/ST, pro the caste census, and on the fence as far as OBC reservations go. However I was very disturbed to hear an argument in favor of the caste census. Sharad Yadav (who, along with Mulayam and Laloo led the pro caste census faction in parliament) said to a TV channel "Kiska kitna hissa hai, sab saaf ho jayega". Essentially he argues that we should all have our respective pieces of the pie; not as individuals but as communities. While one may argue that he is just a cynical politician, it's a paradigm that's fairly common. I firmly believe that a society where one lives as an individual and not as a community is the answer to several of our social ills. I don't know how that can fit in with my support for reservations. The way things are going (With reservations proposed for "economically backward forward castes") we may soon have a state of affairs where Brahmins compete only with Brahmins for a pre defined Brahmin share of the pie, Yadavs with Yadavs and Rajputs with Rajputs.

One more example to support that even mainstream academics has gone wrong. The writer is professor, sociology and social anthropology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi


One must not also underestimate the mischief that enumeration of social identities has the potential of enabling — if electoral rolls have been used for targeting religious communities, how do we know that next time it won’t be on the basis of caste?

Thanks Himanshu, Vinod, and Kapil.

There is indeed much complexity is the matter of reservations / "positive discrimination" in India. Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Yogendra Yadav debated many key issues in an exchange that took place some years ago (first, second, third). I've jotted down below some random thoughts, directed at no one in particular (many provoked by an offline exchange I was recently involved in).

In a representative democracy, the idea of "representation" says that an upper caste male can fairly represent the interests of the lower castes and women. It can be reasonably argued that this did not happen in the early decades of the Indian republic. Since the seventies, India has seen the rise of caste-based politics, which is built on the idea that only a member of your own (or proximate) caste can best represent your interests. Its emergence can be seen as validating the failure of upper caste politicians to represent the interests of the lower castes. When the latter began organizing and putting up their own candidates, the upper castes grew anxious and began lamenting the rise of caste politics. Few upper caste folks are willing to look at themselves in the mirror and say that "the problem" they now see is essentially of their own making; or should I invoke the term 'bad karma'? :)

An upper caste friend recently complained that reservations are socially divisive and instigate disharmony. I had to laugh. Isn't the caste hierarchy all about social division? Caste identities have been strong for ages, since folks marry within their own. If caste now also shapes political consciousness, it is because, in part, its members share a common experience of discrimination and inherited disadvantage. If the db level in society has gone up, it's because the lower castes are unwilling to put up with the "harmonious" arrangements of the past. They want a greater share of the opportunities and resources they think is their due, and the primary tactic open to them is via political alliances and lobbying for favorable government policies. So it's easy to understand why caste politics has gained prominence in India.

The more difficult question is: where is this heading? Many of us think: not in the right direction. We see a fair number of abuses, excesses, and crooked politicians; absurdities of the kind that Kapil fears ought to be checked; for the sake of fairness and preventing backlash, the debate ought to also include periodic assessments to keep the 'creamy layer' off the reservation rolls.

Having said that, aren't we also witnessing a much larger drama playing out in slow motion, i.e., a long overdue social revolution? And it is mostly happening via democratic processes. In another country, with the kind of inequities India has, the masses might have resorted to a violent revolution long ago. Further, we have to ask why we tend to assume the worst about caste identities asserting themselves in politics, especially if this could be an intermediate stage en route its disappearance? In the US a few decades ago, blacks had strong identity politics too (which made a lot of whites uncomfortable; for good reasons, blacks voted disproportionately based on race), but it has since reduced after society and attitudes changed enough. Likewise, South American politics has seen an assertion of "indigenous Indian" identities, as in Evo Morales's Bolivia. Why do we not think of caste politics as pathways / means to potentially progressive social transformation?

Alternately, can we not see caste-based organizing as a counterpart to the rise of labor unions? When wages and benefits rise sufficiently, labor unions tend to wither away (ever heard of them in B'lore call centers?). Likewise, when equality across castes advances far enough, the politics of caste may wither away too. It seems to me that for caste identities to diminish from politics, casteism may have to diminish first (a goal that will require far more than mere reservations, which, as I wrote in my post, should be only one in a bag of tricks). Thoughts?

Namit Sir, thanks for such a detailed response. The hierarchy is all about social division only. And privileged class can't see this obvious discrimination. It is the fear of understanding the other and eventually loosening their status to the other. For if privileged class or upper caste understood Dalit's motivations, they would have to accommodate their worldview in themselves and that would be very problematic indeed. Its very hard to get a man to understand something, when his status quo depends upon his not understanding it!

The kind of democracy in India has not allowed the rule of the majority. Issue after issue, state after state is that powerful minorities landed interests have been able to capture the political system and extract government benefits for themselves. The educated persons in higher caste has gathered a lion's share in government jobs and molded public opinion as per their needs.

I am thinking about identity politics issues. "indigenous Indian" identities in Latin America is really good example. And with the displacement of Marxist ideology from mainstream in India, caste politics has come in full frontal.

The caste is more taken as an identity issue rather than problem in general.There will always be division in human society based on different parameters. Sticking to the tradition like caste, regionalism or religion brings down the moral and intellectual fibre and consequently dogma prevails in the society.

If a society does not move to new parameters of the identity with time and if clinge on the old norms used to define identity, it gradually leads to decay of the culture values. There is an intimate link between identity issues and intellectual freedom. The identity crisis drives human to discover new standards and that is readily adapted by contemporary generation. When an old identity symbol is repeated several times, either it degrade like caste or elevate like nationality.

As per your opinions, caste identities to diminish from politics, casteism may have to diminish first; And upper caste has to endure even the wrong doings in the name of democracy. Even a dalit corrupted by power may act unjust but that only will be reflection of what they had received in thousand years.

Thanks, Himanshu.

I came across three good articles in favor of the caste census:

1. Why Caste Counts by Raja Sekhar Vundru (Outlook Magazine).
2. Counting Castes by Vinod K Jose (Caravan Magazine).
3. The Politics of Not Counting Caste by Satish Deshpande and Mary E John (Economic & Political Weekly).

And three against:

1. The big deal about caste by Sunil Khilnani (Live Mint / Wall St. Journal).
2. Caste in doubt by Anonymous (The Economist).
3. Counting Castes: Advantage the Ruling Class by Anand Teltumbde (Economic & Political Weekly).

democracy has lost its meaning in india n thats completely truuuuuuuuueeeeeeee............!!!!!!

@tavisha, there is nothing in the world like "completely true". I am expressing my opinion here, that's because of democracy. Tell me the place where any form of governance has got full approval of the people ?

Here is an article by Prof. Jayati Ghosh, perhaps the best I have come across that makes a Case for Caste-based Quotas in Higher Education. On this page are additional articles of interest from EPW.

Here are some more opinions on including caste in the new census. The first is for, the second against.

SATISH DESHPANDE, Professor of Sociology, DSE, Delhi University

Count caste in this census to annihilate it

THE SINGLE-MOST IMPORTANT LESSON offered by the history of independent India is that caste awareness is the only viable route to the true abolition of caste. The new republic and its idealistic Constitution opted for a caste blind policy, treating the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes as an unavoidable exception.

In order to succeed, caste blindness needed to be preceded by an all-out assault on caste privilege. Instead, Nehruvian India squandered a historic window of opportunity. By limiting itself to abolishing caste formally, it turned a blind eye to the perpetuation and deepening of substantive caste inequalities.

Read more.

Read another great article, The contemporary meanings of caste, by the same author. More articles in favor of including caste in the census are here.

SALIL MISRA, Professor of History, Indira Gandhi National Open University

Official recognition of caste can widen social schism

CASTE IN INDIA IS A SOCIAL INSTITUTION that performs multiple functions. It is a unit of social division,a source of discrimination and exclusion, a strong community consciousness based on ascribed status, and a social category chosen for a policy of protective discrimination by the state in independent India, all at the same time. The four functions mentioned above are not mutually exclusive. They feed into, and reinforce, each other. A strong caste consciousness creates boundaries along caste lines and helps in the making of a hierarchical social order.

A hierarchical order excludes those organised at the bottom from sharing the benefits of development. Their exclusion makes it essential for the democratic state to extend protective discrimination to them. Benefits extended on the basis of caste inevitably consolidate caste consciousness. Caste consciousness produces strong boundaries along caste lines and creates caste solidarities, cutting across region.The circle is closed and complete. Is it possible to break through the circle in order to diminish the role of caste in our social life.

Read more.

Prof. Kancha Ilaiah gives reason to go for caste census; I have also quoted two paragraphs for a comfortable reading. :)


Caste culture is all around us. In the dalit-bahujan discourse, the upper castes are being shown as constituting less than 15 per cent. This could be totally wrong. Even within the lower castes there are several false claims about numbers. Every caste claims that it is numerically the strongest and keeps asking for its “rightful” share. How to tell them that their claims are wrong? When caste has become such an important category of day-to-day reckoning it is important to have proper data at hand to tell communities that they constitute this much and cannot ask for more than their share.

It is true that we cannot distribute everything based on caste. But caste census is the right basis for statistics such as literacy rate and issues like the proportion of representation. Once we cite the Census data there cannot be any authentic opposition to that evidence. The upper caste intelligentsia is afraid that once detailed data on number of people in lower castes is available it would become a major ground for asking for accurate proportional representation in certain sectors, such as education and employment. "

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