By BRP Bhaskar
A noisy debate is going on in India on whether or not to gather caste data during the census operations now in progress. The issue does not, however, figure in the public discourse in Kerala.
As soon as the census operations began national political parties like the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, which draw support from the backward classes of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar respectively, demanded that caste data be collected. The Bharatiya Janata Party supported the demand but the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh opposed it.
In Kerala, the Nair Service Society, which represents the forward Nair community, joined backward class organisations like the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalana Yogam in endorsing the demand for caste census. As a result, a quiet consensus has emerged on this issue even though the state’s major political parties, the Congress and the Communist Party of India-Marxist, have not publicly taken a position.
The SNDP Yogam, which represents the Ezhava community, was the first to join the demand raised in Parliament by the SP and RJD. On caste-related issues, the Yogam and the NSS are generally in disagreement as the interests of Ezhavas and the Nairs, who together account for the bulk of the state’s Hindu population, differ.
Since 1872, when the subcontinent was under British rule, the government in New Delhi has been gathering population data every 10 years without fail.
In Britain, the census exercise usually steers clear of religion. On the few occasions when religious data was collected, the information was published separately, and not included in the census report.
Departing from the practice, the colonial administration gathered information on religious affiliation and made it part of the census report from the very beginning. The official explanation was that the government wanted detailed information about the governed.
The first census classified the people in four groups: I. Indo-Aryan; II. Iranian; III. Semitic; and IV. Primitive.
Among Indo-Aryans, three subgroups were recognised: A. Hindu, which was further divided into (a) Hindu Brahmanic, (b) Hindu Arya-Vedic theists and (c) Hindu Brahmo-Eclectic theists; B. Sikh; C. Jain; and Buddhist.
Parsis, who profess the Zorashtrian religion, were the only community in the Iranian category. The Semitic category covered three religious groups: A. Musalman; B. Christians; and C. Jews. The Primitive category was divided into two: A. Animistic; and B. Miscellaneous.
Scholars are of the view that the census reports promoted consolidation of the Hindus on a national scale. Over the years the government refined the classification but it continued to be fuzzy with the result that the reliability of the data relating to castes was in doubt. The administration did not have an equal interest in religion and caste.
The officer in charge of the 1931 Census wrote: “India is the most religious country in the world and (that) must be regarded as the justification for the importance attached to religion in the Census of India as compared, for example, with the US of Americas where culture is relatively independent of religion.”
In the early 1930s, Madras presidency in British India and princely states like Travancore and Mysore introduced reservation in government services for backward castes.
After the 1931 census report was published, the Hindu upper castes, who, though numerically small, dominated government and politics, mounted pressure to stop gathering caste data. Following this, caste enumeration was dropped. However, in 1941 the government gathered information about Maithili Brahmins of Bihar at the instance of their association for a small payment of Rs24,000.
The Travancore and Cochin regions of Kerala, which were under princely rule, were among the earliest “native states” to follow the British example and conduct census operations. Population data from these states formed part of the census reports published by the Indian government.
At election time, all parties of Kerala, including the Congress and the CPI-M, take into account the caste and religious composition of constituencies, as assessed by their leaders, while selecting candidates. Their silence on the issue of caste census is attributable to the lack of clarity at the national level.
With the Congress divided on the issue, the Union Cabinet recently constituted a committee of ministers to take a final view in the matter. The CPI-M’s position, as outlined by its leader in the Lok Sabha, is that the party considers caste a divisive factor but is not against collecting data in the context of the reservation available to backward classes.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, May 31, 2010.