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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 6.03.10

Caste is one of the thorniest issues in Indian society. Any discussion of it opens up spaces of ambiguity and hypocrisy. In all that is considered official and hallowed by the Indian State, caste is not recognized and is deemed to be non-existent. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, declared the caste system to be reactionary and a barrier to progress. B.R. Ambedkar, the chairman of India’s constituent assembly, went even further and wrote, “You cannot build anything on the foundations of caste. You cannot build up a nation; you cannot build up a morality. Anything you will build on the foundations of caste will crack and will never be a whole.” According to the Constitution, any form of discrimination based on religion, caste, race and gender is punishable by law. Yet no observer can deny that caste is a ubiquitous aspect of Indian social life. Caste is something that the State does not recognize and approve of, but its presence is undeniable.

This ambivalence or contradiction is, in fact, the failure of the Indian State to engineer social reforms to eradicate an embedded sign of inequality. This vitally affects some of the operations of the Indian State. One example of this is the decision taken that the census operations of 2011 will not collect caste-based data from any section of the population except those belonging to the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. This was announced by the junior home minister, Ajay Maken, in the context of “request for conducting caste base [sic] census has been received from government of West Bengal… among others”. One interpretation of this decision is that the 2011 census, like the previous ones, will not reflect a vital aspect of India’s social reality. The other interpretation — and presumably this will be the State’s rationale — could be that the official recording of caste-based data would reinforce caste divisions in society. The moot point here, of course, is what is perceived to be the purpose of a census.

The State, as social scientists following Michel Foucault have pointed out, enumerates its citizens under various categories through the census. The census is one of the instruments that the State uses to gain knowledge of the governed. The British Indian State that started census operations in India in the late 19th century chose to enumerate the population by caste. This enabled it to deploy policies of divide and rule to maintain its dominance over a colony and a subject and an increasingly recalcitrant population. The aims and priorities of the independent Indian State are different. To maintain its power over the governed, it needs to set itself forth as the primary upholder and protector of Indian unity. The unity of India is one of the raison d’être of the Indian State. For this purpose, the rhetoric of castelessness is more useful to it than the enumeration of castes.