Can caste census change the caste system of India?


Many argue that since the colonial state conducted the caste census for eight decades, and the caste system has not yet changed, the post-Independence state should also do the same. While some think that caste is like sex and age, about which the census organisation can collect information easily. But caste does not really have the kind of certainty and rigidity frequently attributed to it. This is the burden of much of social science research that has developed during the last sixty years or so.


The demand for caste census assumes that every caste is a discrete unit with clear boundaries determined by the rule of endogamy. It is true that caste boundaries are clear in a village, which is a small community, but the census has to count the members of every caste as they are spread in every village and town in a state and often more than one state. The population of small castes may be counted easily, but most are not so small. The Kolis in Gujarat, the Marathas in Maharashtra, the Jats and Yadavas in north India, the Kammas and Reddis in Andhra, and the Okkaligas and Lingayats in Karnataka are huge castes, with unclear boundaries. The colonial census officials used to point out that they faced enormous difficulties in collating caste data provided by local enumerators.


To whom in a village or town would the census enumerator ask the caste question? Would it be every individual in a household or its head? Do we assume that all members of a household belong to the same caste? In which language would the caste question be asked? In Indian languages the English word 'caste' has more than one equivalent. In Gujarati, for example, there are five words for caste: jat, jati, jnati, nat, varna, kaum. Each has more than one meaning. Let us choose the word jati which is more common. It means sex, religion, sect, caste, tribe, race, and lineage. 'Jati' may also get confused with 'jat' which has different nuances. A caste may also be divided into sub-castes and sub-sub-castes. The word jati is used for such divisions also, and only a close inquiry would reveal the division to which the respondent refers in a particular context.


How will the caste question be framed? Let us assume it is framed as follows: "What is the jati of your household?" The respondent is likely to give a name keeping in mind anyone of the meanings of jati mentioned above. There would therefore be confusion in collating responses.


Let us presume that there is no confusion about the meaning of 'jati', and the head of the household gives a certain caste name. But caste names are not as simple as they appear. It is well known that frequently members of a caste claim to belong to a caste higher than their own, and therefore different members of a caste use different names for themselves. Caste names are also used contextually: one in the context of marriage, another in the context of religion, and a third in the context of claiming a privilege from the state. There is rarely a straight answer to the question: "What is your caste?"


Since migrations have increased during the modern times, almost every caste is much more dispersed now. Members of a single endogamous unit may use different names in different places. The task of aggregating data is therefore much more difficult now than during the colonial censuses.


The definition of caste as an endogamous unit is questionable. Social scientists have known widespread practice of inter-caste hypergamy, i.e., a lower caste gets its girls married into a higher caste but the latter does not give its girls in return. The Rajputs are known to have received brides from a large number of castes all over western and northern India. A caste which appears to be strictly endogamous at the top of its internal hierarchy may be loose at its bottom. Anthropologists have also known tribe-caste hypergamy in many parts of India. Where hypergamous marriages take place, many members of the bride-giver caste or tribe use for themselves the bride-taker caste's name as a mark of higher status. Hypergamy has been a long established negation of caste endogamy. Ancient Hindu law sanctioned it as anuloma marriage. Caste boundaries are fuzzy in such a situation.


Since the boundaries are so loose and fluid, it would be impossible for the Census to collect reliable information. Should the census enumerator in a village or town — usually an ill-paid primary school teacher or lower government servant — record only what the respondent says, or should he investigate 'the truth', i.e., status in the context of societal relationships or in the context of getting reservation benefits? How does he ensure that the respondent does not answer under pressure from the local politicians, which was common during the colonial census operations? Is the enumerator trained to capture the social reality on the ground, that too in a short time at his disposal? If he fails to get the correct information, should his boss decide, like in colonial times decided? In the case of the caste whose population is spread over vast areas, how will the boss reconcile the varied responses? Are there competent anthropologists and sociologists to give reliable opinion?


Caste endogamy is negated by modern inter-caste, inter-religious, inter-regional and international marriages which have increased rapidly after independence. In an inter-caste marriage the husband and wife belong to different castes. To which caste do their children belong? A child of one inter-caste marriage may marry a child of another such marriage. Since such cosmopolitan marriages have been taking place for the last several generations, a large new class has emerged which is caste-less. What will be its fate in the census?


Sometimes a sample survey of caste is suggested as a substitute for Census, but it has even greater complications. The efforts to fix caste and tribe boundaries might also lead to violent conflict. In this situation, should the government become an agency to impose rigidity and should the judiciary endorse it by considering castes and tribes as discrete units? That is, should the state take a retrograde step towards caste-and-tribe bound society?


In the midst of all these ambiguities regarding caste membership, does the Constitution empower the state to force a citizen to declare the name of her 'real' caste if she chooses not to declare it? If she does not declare it, does the state have the power to fix it?


The writer is former professor of sociology at the Delhi School of Economics.


Indian Express / Nov 14, 2009