'Census will bring out evidence on caste inequalities'

'Census will bring out evidence on caste inequalities'

'In our society, caste has always been and continues to be as important as class politics in determining social structure'

Satish Deshpande

With elections around the corner, caste census has come up for discussion once again. Satish Deshpande, a well-known sociologist who teaches at Delhi University spoke to DH’s Shemin Joy on the issue. Excerpts:

Suddenly, there is a discourse on caste census. Why is it so?

This is a census year. In 1999-2000 and in 2010-11, there were discussions on caste census. Now, there are discussions again. So, it is not sudden.

Some sections are opposed to caste census. What do you think are the reasons?

There are different kinds of opposition. Broadly speaking, governments in power regardless of their ideology have been reluctant to have caste census because they fear that it would give rise to demands, which are difficult to handle. Another is an unstated reason - nobody has stated it explicitly. In general, those who are among the dominant side of the society are unwilling to have information about inequalities come out. Indirectly, a caste census will bring out evidence on caste inequalities.

One of the arguments is that caste census will lead to the collapse of the existing social structure or social harmony. Do you agree?

If you think there is social harmony today, then, maybe, this argument would work. But there is hardly any social harmony today. Like so many other things, caste census may, in the short-run, increase frictions. But pretending that these inequalities are not there is much worse.

Read | A riddle called caste census

The demand for caste census leads to another argument on the existing 50% cap on reservation. Can this cap be breached?

It can be breached because the argument for 50% cap has not been made explicitly. So in the same way, the argument for breaching the 50% cap should be made clearly. There are good arguments for doing it.

What are these arguments?

Let us start with why this 50% cap in the first place. If the underlying idea is that there is 50% for what is presumed to be equal competition and 50% for quotas that address historical discriminations and exclusions, then we will have to start by pointing out that it is not as though the absence of reservation makes competition fair. And today, there is fierce competition within reservation. There are a number of reasons why resources are unequally distributed in our society. People who engage in competition have access to unequal resources. So reservation is not the only thing that makes competition unequal. In fact, reservation is a method designed to bring more fairness because of the accumulated inequalities in the society.

The quota debate always ends up in an argument that reservation hampers merit. Does reservation deny merit?

These are all biased arguments. There are two very big sets of problems associated with the idea of merit or at least how it is used in our society. One set of problems has to do with the measurement of merit. How is merit measured? In our society, merit mostly means ranks in an examination. Often it can mean rank to the third decimal place, which is ridiculous as an argument for any kind of significant difference in ability. Second set of problems have to do with the consequences or the force of the idea of merit. Assuming it is measured successfully and properly, what should then follow from that measurement? It is not the case at all that if I have more merit than you, then in each and every situation I should get 100% of resources and you should get 0%. So, the idea of merit is a context-specific idea if it is to be an honest idea. That should be how it should be interpreted. It is very grossly misinterpreted in our society for vested interests.

BJP and Congress appear to be not much enthusiastic about caste census though they do not oppose it outright. How will caste census be politically beneficial for these pan-India parties?

Both parties have problems with intermediate castes. Congress is very hard to describe now. It has now become a shadow of its former self. The core base of Congress, when it was much stronger, was upper castes plus Dalits and Muslims with whatever regional variations. The BJP is identified as an upper caste party much more than Congress was. The issue of caste census, demands for changes in quota and so on is a very big challenge for the BJP in particular. That is why there is a shared antipathy to the caste census in both the parties.

Interestingly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Bihar leaders, including Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and his arch-rival Tejashwi Yadav, who raised the demand for caste census. Is it an indication that the BJP is changing its stand?

It is possible but we can’t say. This is a very personalised government. It is probably the most personalised, individualised government since Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s. Because of the style of functioning, a sudden decision announced by the single leader is possible. But it will most probably be like the Congress trying to hide behind the Socio-Economic Caste Census, which was basically an excuse. There may be a similar kind of face-saving or compromise type of solution, which may not really amount to a caste census.

When we have caste census, will it lead to a further assertion of identity politics over class politics?

A census will not be the reason for any kind of politics having the upper hand. In our society, caste has always been and continues to be as important as class politics in determining social structure. So in our context, you cannot talk of class without talking of caste. Today, you cannot talk about caste without class because there is differentiation within large class groups. So, I don’t think that argument is valid. You need to pay attention to caste as much as to class. Pretending that it is not there is not going to help. I feel that the most important reason why we should have a caste census is to ensure that everybody is asked the question about caste. In principle, every Indian has a caste. You can have your own attitude towards caste. Just like the religion question is asked you can say you do not follow any religion, but the question should be asked.

The question not being asked suggests that some people don’t have caste and others have, and that the people who have caste are only those who require something from the government. This attitude has to be broken. The caste census, paradoxically, is an important step on the way to fully egalitarian citizenship.

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