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BC, DC or EC? What lies ahead of the census - Haphazard lists and multiple definitions could pose hurdles in establishing identity during the caste count

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RADHIKA RAMASESHAN   |   Published 12.05.10, 12:00 AM

New Delhi, May 11: When officials carrying out the 1931 census, the last to take account of caste, asked a “waterman” on the Coorg border his place in the social hierarchy, the answer left them amazed.

The “extremely dark individual”, wrote then census commissioner John Henry Hutton in his report, said he was from the Suryavamsa (family of the Sun).

The focus on skin colour probably reflected Hutton’s own prejudice, but the British official anyway thought the waterman would be from a low or intermediate caste, perhaps even an untouchable.

He noted in his report that some people were using the census as a ladder to ascend the social order.

Today’s census officials, as they carry out a caste count almost 80 years later, could face the opposite problem, with the lure of reservation inflating the Other Backward Classes’ numbers.

But that is not the only reason officials say verifying every Indian’s caste identity will take at least five years after the 2011 census simply records citizens’ own claims on the matter.

Cataloguing the labyrinth of castes, sub-castes and sub-sub-castes — differing from region to region — will be an enormous task because the key issue of who belongs to the Other Backward Classes has historically meant different things in different places, and to different people and politicians.


In the beginning, the term Backward Class was too wide, with the OBCs left undistinguished from the Dalits and tribals, sometimes even the Kshatriyas and Vaishyas.

One starting point could be 1918, when “BC” first acquired a technical meaning in the princely state of Mysore, says US academic Marc Galanter, author of the seminal Competing Equalities: Law and the Backward Classes in India. The Maharaja of Mysore was then looking to fix a job quota.

However, all communities barring the Brahmins were notified BCs. In 1928, the Hartog Committee tried to narrow down the BCs as “educationally backward” castes/classes.

However, already in 1916, another term — the “depressed classes”— had been discussed in the Indian Legislative Council. It initially covered the “criminal and wandering tribes, aboriginal tribes and untouchables”.

In 1917, Sir Henry Sharp, education commissioner of India, enlarged it to cover the “backward and educationally poor and depressed and also certain classes of Muhammadans”.

Then began an attempt at sharpening the definition, propelled by the so-called lower castes’ resentment at being clubbed with the “untouchables” in the omnibus “depressed classes” label.

A memorandum from the United Provinces Hindu Backward Classes League, founded in 1929, suggested that “depressed” carried a “connotation of untouchability in the sense of causing pollution by touch”. It proposed the term “Hindu backward”, that is castes that were “low” socially, educationally and economically.

But in 1930, the State Committee of Bombay mixed things up again, recommending that “depressed classes” should refer only to the “untouchables” while a wider term, “backward classes” or “intermediate classes”, should cover even the tribes, whether aboriginal or hill-dwelling.

Census & separation

Some kind of order was imposed by the 1931 census — just in time too, since it proved to be the last caste census. It separated the Dalits and tribals from its version of the OBCs, whom it called “Hindu backward communities” and whose population it put at 43.7 per cent.

The census also counted the backward non-Hindu communities (8.4 per cent). Half a century later, the Mandal Commission primarily used this data to suggest, rather arbitrarily, a 27 per cent OBC reservation figure. But the 1931 figures stayed controversial.

Then independent India botched up some more.

The term “OBC” was first enshrined in the Constitution through Article 340 in 1953, and efforts began to fix its meaning. The first backward classes commission was set up the same year by a presidential order, and was headed by a Gandhian, Kaka Kalelkar.

The panel tried to define the OBCs by their low social position in the caste hierarchy, lack of “general educational advancement” and inadequate representation in business and government service.

Its report, submitted in 1955, listed 2,399 OBCs, classifying 837 of these as “most backward”. It put the OBCs at about 32 per cent of the population.

Deep flaws

Critics said the report was “deeply flawed” because it was mainly based on a list of castes prepared by the education ministry in 1949 to award scholarships. Additionally, the panel relied on the “general impressions” of bureaucrats, opinion-makers and social workers.

It did not carry out an independent survey, nor did it spell out the basis on which it calculated the reservation percentages in jobs and education.

The panel recommended 70 per cent reservation in technical and professional institutions for “qualified” students, and 25 per cent job reservation in Class I, 33 per cent in Class II and III, and 40 per cent in Class IV posts.

The panel admitted to being “deluged by communities claiming to be backward”, and was later charged with, of all things, mixing up the OBCs with the Scheduled Castes.

Back to square one.

Jawaharlal Nehru rejected the report for its unverified findings and “unexplained adherence to caste as the principal index”. Then home minister, Govind Vallabh Pant, a Kumaoni Brahmin, had a different reason. He said: “The recognition of specified castes as backward may serve to maintain and perpetuate the existing caste distinctions.”

Bowing to pressure from the Congress’s Brahmin lobby, Nehru passed the responsibility for classifying OBCs to the states in 1961.

States join party

How did the states go about the job? Haphazardly and ad hoc, mostly, thanks to the lack of a clear definition of OBC.

For instance, the southern states and Maharashtra had a long history of backward-class reform struggles and reservations from pre-Independence days. They included a huge chunk of their population (from 38 to 55 per cent and more), while Jammu and Kashmir selected the OBCs on a religious basis.

US academic Galanter noted: “Caste lists range in magnitude from those which include a substantial portion of the state’s population to those comprising a narrow stratum just above the untouchables.”

By the time the Mandal Commission’s (1980) recommendations were implemented by then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s, the report’s anomalies had been highlighted by Neelam Yadav in her Encyclopaedia of Backward Castes.

Mandal’s data-gathering was random: he covered only two villages and one urban block in each district, for the rest depending on the states’ lists and the 1931 census.

His findings were a little of this and a little of that, raising the number of OBCs to 3,743 castes while sticking to the 1931 figure of 43.7 per cent of the population.

Yadav observed that the Mandal commission had made the “impossible assumption” that the various OBC castes had grown at the same rate as the all-India population over half a century.

Although much of the confusion is historical, a lot of it still lingers and could tie up the current caste count in knots.

The count of the Scheduled Castes never suffered from such ambiguity, their physical untouchability, as vouched for even by the lowest of the other castes, setting them clearly apart.

Denoted “depressed classes”, “excluded castes” as well as the “backward classes” at various times, their “SC” identity was established with the Government of India Act in 1935.

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