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Casting out caste - The Times of India

Andre Beteille ()
June 11, 1998

Title: Casting out caste
Author: Andre Beteille
Publication: The Times of India
Date: June 11, 1998

A move is afoot to include caste in the forthcoming Census of
India. The enumeration, classification and ranking of castes
became a major part of the census of population periodically
undertaken by the colonial government since the end of the last
century. The practice was discontinued, as a matter of principle,
when the country became independent. Bringing caste back into
the official census of population will in my judgment be a
retrograde step in the light of our Constitution al commitment.

It is said that liberal intellectuals act against their own
principles in opposing the collection of a wider body of
information: they ought to support and not oppose the move by the
government to make more information on caste available to the
public. This is a shallow argument. The question is not simply
whether to have more information, but how and by whom such
information should be collected and; presented. Information on
caste collected by the census will no doubt be very large in
quantity, but, going by past experience, its quality will be open
to very serious doubt.

Fragmentary Maps

It goes without saying that caste is an important part of our
present reality. Nothing would be more perverse than to put a ban
on investigations into caste. Sociologists have actively studied
caste for the last 50 years, and their studies have provided many
valuable insights into Indian society. I support the continuing
study of caste by private individuals, universities and
independent research centres. I am at the same time opposed to
the state giving recognition to caste for official purposes
without special and valid reasons. In a liberal democracy, the
state should not be directly involved in every type of
investigation; some types of investigation are best left to
independent agencies.

Many members of the public take a somewhat simple view of what
the census does. A census does not merely enumerate, it also
classifies; and a classification presented by the census has the
authority of an official classification. Every individual carries
in his head some kind of a map of his own society which provides
him with a sense of its main contours and cleavages. These maps
are usually partial and fragmentary, and they change over time.
The colonial administration sought for its own reasons to create
a definitive map of Indian society whose principal demarcations
were to be the cleavages of caste and community. Fifty years
after Independence, do we need to start that same exercise all
over again?.

Divide and Rule

Even while they greatly value tradition, Indians appear to pay
scant regard to history. It will be a pity if we forget the
history of caste in the decades preceding independence and the
part played by the census in that history. Some of the earlier
Commissioners of Census, such as H H Risley and J H Hutton, were
men of great intellectual ability, and they used such resources
as they could muster to bring into full view what they considered
to be the real significance of caste in Indian society. They did
not stop with making lists of the castes they enumerated, but
sought in various ingenious ways to classify and rank them. They
also came to be used as courts of appeal in matters relating to
the social standing of castes.

A hundred years ago, those responsible for using the census
operations for the study and management of caste could not
anticipate the full range of claims and counter-claims to which
the official involvement with caste would give rise. Even if they
could foresee the future, they would not all have been equally
alarmed, for some clearly found the policy of divide and rule to
their advantage. We are not in the position in which the country
was 100 years ago. We cannot say that the official involvement
with caste will be a harmless exercise in fact finding; and why
should an elected government seek to foster divisions among, its
own people?

Attempts by the census authorities at the classification and
ranking of castes led to the most extravagant claims from the
most unexpected quarters. If the census becomes involved once
again in the enumeration and classification of castes, it will be
difficult for the authorities to turn a deaf ear to contending
claims from interested parties. No doubt there will be a
difference. Whereas in the past, castes with the most humble
antecedents sought to register themselves as Kshatriyas, now
politically dominant castes will vie with the each other to be
classified as Backward, More Backward and Most Backward.

The increasing attention paid by the colonial government to caste
led to changes in its nature and practice. What took place has
been described by some sociologists as the 'substantialization of
caste'. To be sure, the census alone cannot be held responsible
for heightening the competition between castes for status and
power. But it certainly contributed something to it. If we wish
to reduce instead of increasing that competition, we should give
serious thought to the reasons that led the first government of
independent India to turn its back on the policy of recording
caste in the census.

Casteless Society

I would like in the end to dispose of one argument that is
persistently made to justify the inclusion of caste. That
argument is that since we include language and religion, which
can also be socially divisive, it would be inconsistent to
exclude caste. This again is a misleading argument. Caste cannot
have in any modern society the place that belongs rightfully to
language and religion, whether or not they are socially divisive.
The makers of the Constitution of India sought to create a
casteless society; they did not by any means seek to eliminate or
even diminish the significance of religion or language.

Language and religion are and have been important constituents of
culture everywhere and at all times. Not only that: liberal
Indians take pride in the fact that their country is the home of
many languages and many religions. The plurality of languages and
religions is what gives to Indian society its special place in
the comity of nations. We not only record but also celebrate the
presence of many languages and many religions in our land. Who
celebrates the division of Indian society into the thousands of
castes, subcastes and sub-subcastes that have long outlived such
social utility as they might have had in the past?

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