ON February 5 and 6, the South Asian Alternative Forum, with the support of the department of Oxford School of Global and Area Studies, The Asian Studies Centre, St Antony’s College, the South Asia Research Cluster (Wolfson College) and the South Asian Society conducted a two-day conference ‘Counting Caste: Breaking the Caste Census Deadlock’ at the University of Oxford. The forum, formed to promote marginalised voices and discourses from South Asia, brought together 30 notable names in academia, politics, activism and art to debate and discuss this issue.
Through its six panels, the conference hoped to discuss how a caste census in India could take forward conversations on representation, access to resources, wealth distribution, and participation of marginalised caste groups in governance and electoral politics.
Also read: The case for a caste-based census in India
Why the need for caste census?
Despite the plurality and prevalence of varied castes in India, travelling beyond religion and region, only a narrow subset is recognised constitutionally. The National Census of 1931 recorded and published the caste data. Since then, the census only records caste information for the narrowly recognised ‘Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes’ categories.
The 1931 census made inroads in collecting caste data and connecting the same with other socio-economic issues, such as social practices, infant mortality rates, access to healthcare, living conditions and basic necessities. 90 years later, the Maharashtra government pursued before the Supreme Court a prayer to collect caste data in the next census. The data sought to gain a clearer picture of the caste composition of the country, so that the reserved seats may be distributed accordingly. The demand for data comes from Justice Ashok Bhushan’s obiter which recognised the importance of contemporaneous data to the decision-making process, specifically in the need for affirmative actions in present or in future to help any particular community.
Prof. Deshpande elaborated that a castelessness approach is not feasible. The State being caste-blind has led to a situation where “caste” only means “lower caste” – like race only means non-whites, gender only means women, and so on. So upper castes are invisible. And their disproportionate share in national resources is also invisible.
Considering that 2022 is a census year, the demands for disaggregated collection of data by the State authorities has been taken up again.
Prof. Sonajhariya Minz, Vice Chancellor at the Sido Kanhu Murmu University in Jharkhand, inaugurated the conference with her keynote speech. She highlighted that in the 2011 Census, 4,28,677 castes were recorded, and brought to the fore the problems of aggregation and disaggregation. Recognising the complex question of caste and the layered Indian society, Prof. Minz sought a common denominator that would yield dignity to all citizens, that would make justice a habit, that would not continue to perpetrate the hierarchical society into which we are born.
Furthering the argument, Member of Parliament Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, trans rights activist Grace Banu, sociologist Prof. Satish Deshpande and senior journalist Dilip Mandal discussed the need for rethinking majority and minority in India. Karunanidhi, a Parliamentarian from the Dravida Munhetra Kazhagam, elaborated how caste is a reality. “People don’t want to share the same ration shop, go to the same temple, or be buried in the same place.” To understand how reservations have been implemented, to reflect on State measures and status of institutions of power, the need for data is essential. Prof. Deshpande elaborated that a castelessness approach is not feasible. The State being caste-blind has led to a situation where “caste” only means “lower caste” – like race only means non-whites, gender only means women, and so on. So upper castes are invisible. And their disproportionate share in national resources is also invisible. Banu talked about the need for horizontal reservations, a separate reservation for trans community, under all existing categories.
Hinduism, Hindutva, Religion and Caste
A substantial portion of the conference discussed the religious angle of caste. The colonial construction of Hinduism, its sub-categorisation into castes, and the process of consolidation of ‘Hinduism’ were some of the questions raised. Two panels discussed issues of census and the colonial construction of Hinduism, and Hindutva’s caste ambiguity.
Dr Ansari posited that Hinduism was categorised as a tolerant and inegalitarian religion, while Islam was framed as intolerant but egalitarian religion. This is a conceptual violence of categorisation. The Muslim community was presented as monolithic and egalitarian, representing the entire community as oppressed.
The former discussed issues of sociological content of religion, the relational aspect of religion, and the need to broaden concerns from the colonial boundaries. Prof. Gopal Guru, editor of Economic & Political Weekly, historian Prof. Anupama Rao from Columbia University, New York and Dr. Rekha Raj from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kerala led the discussion. Prof. Guru problematized the usage of term caste, whether it was an ideological, political or administrative term which would explain its purpose of usage. He insisted that caste as a category should not be collapsed into religion, but should be given a modern secular understanding in its own rights.
Prof. Rao stated that the colonial process of census produced the politics of minority. She stated that by reducing the problem of caste to untouchability, everyone could agree to its eradication. So, this definitional reduction was a social victory of sorts. However, the past two decades showcases that the way caste unfolds goes beyond the colonial understanding of caste. The debate of the inclusion of other backward classes [OBCs] within the legal affirmative action regime displays the rift between symbolic inclusion within Hinduism and socio-economic exclusion – a muddle in the middle.
Dr. Raj brought in the perspective of subaltern caste groups, with an example of Dalit Christians in Kerala. By converting into Christianity, the hope was to ensure social mobility to challenge the caste system. However, even after conversion, caste discrimination persisted. From an administrative point of view, religion becomes a barrier to access social justice schemes like reservation. While the administrative steps demarcate a clear separation between religion and caste, it is not possible to separate Christian Dalits from their social life and reality.
The second panel, consisting of Dalit rights activist Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd from Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Sagar, staff writer at Caravan magazine and political scientist Prof. Christophe Jaffrelot from Sciences Po, discussed how caste is situated within the Hindutva ideology. Shepherd highlighted how capitalism, property rights and other related discourses never showcased the caste angle. If the idea of caste census touches upon the need for OBCs, it would unravel the current political factions and support. Currently, caste census is important not only for reservation, but for advancing democracy, and the need for rising above legal and spiritual censorship.
The next speaker, Sagar, looked into the historical origins of Hindutva by Savarkar as a common religion, with common heroes, common histories, common festivals, and common flow of blood (national purity). Through this, an automatic othering of Christian and Muslim communities happened, as they did not share this ‘commonality’. This idea of common histories allows people belonging somewhere in the ranges of OBC and Kshatriyas, to be subsumed within the Hindu identity to unite against Muslims to ‘protect their women’.
Lastly, Prof. Jaffrelot highlighted his research undertaken on the data of Members of Parliament, which showcased a majority of Brahmins in the position of power. Citing Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla’s remarks on the Brahmin community, he reflected on the deep-rooted ideologies of casteist discourses.
Understanding the prevalence of caste beyond religion, the Muslim question was raised in the caste census. This panel looked into how the lack of census data about caste within Muslim populations will answer the invisibility of Muslim backwardness. The panel consisted of Dr Khalid Anis Ansari from Azim Premji University, Bangalore, Prof Srinivas Goli from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, former Member of Parliament Ali Anwar, and Prof Faisal Devji from University of Oxford.
Dr Ansari posited that Hinduism was categorised as a tolerant and inegalitarian religion, while Islam was framed as intolerant but egalitarian religion. This is a conceptual violence of categorisation. The Muslim community was presented as monolithic and egalitarian, representing the entire community as oppressed. The Indian Muslim social reform outfit Pasmanda Muslim Mahaz countered this Muslim minority discourse and highlighted that Islam is not monolithic; in fact it is deeply inegalitarian as practised in South Asia. Prof. Goli, referred to his research on Backward and Dalit Muslims. Similar to the issues raised by Dr Rekha Raj, Prof. Goli stated that Dalit Muslims lose a lot of educational and economic benefits post conversion because they lose affirmative accommodations. Despite the prevalence of acute backwardness, no support was garnered for data collection of caste within Muslims, stated Anwar.
Also read: SC rejects Maharashtra’s plea to direct Centre to disclose data on OBCs as per 2011 caste census
Overlapping oppressive systems – unpacking race and caste
A panel consisting of Prof. Ellis Monk from Harvard University, Prof. Meera Dhanda from University of Wolverhampton and, Prof. Kamala Visweswaran from Rice University, moderated by Dr Suraj Yengde, from Harvard University brought the experiences of caste and race in the conversation of census. Prof. Monk covered enumeration, stratification and amelioration of racial domination. The US Census in 1850 evolved to understand differences within black people. Then in 1890, Indian (Native American), Chinese and Japanese categories were added. Comparing this with Brazil, it showcased that the racial hierarchies manifested as White, Brown and Black categories. By highlighting the case of United States vs. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923), Prof. Monk elucidated that the census is the handmaiden of racialisation. It is about the creation, organisation and maintenance of colonial subjects in a racialised hierarchy.
Prof. Visweswaran highlighted the dual nature of understanding of oppression by upper castes. She stated that savarna upper caste elites play minoritarianism to enjoy the affirmative action policies in the west. They stop oppressed castes in their country but adopt the language of social justice while in the US. Similarly, Prof. Dhanda raised questions on identification – How would we package the many groups we have; how would we go about these categories? How do we identify patterns of disadvantage? Building global solidarity would then require understanding of imposed collective silences. The discussion ended with possible methods beyond census to enumerate experiences of minoritisation.
How does caste trickle down into popular culture?
While understanding caste, discrimination, and its demands under the caste census, the question of cultural appropriation of practices of the marginalised castes by the dominant castes came up. Discussing the issues of ‘caste factor despite various achievements as artists, doctors and journalists’ were panellists Dr. Sylvia Karpagam, a public health researcher and doctor; Nrithya Pillai, hereditary Bharatnatyam dancer and Meena Kotwal, editor of Mooknayak, a journal founded by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in 1920, and filmmaker Pa Ranjith.
Kotwal started the discussion by talking about the binary narrative which erased caste struggles. In her words, caste is not about Dalits; it is about the power that Brahmins have, and the atrocities they cause. Dalits are not the cause of caste; they are victims of caste. She highlighted how protagonists in films are always upper caste characters. Even when movies talk about caste, there is a perpetual stamp of victimhood; No one sees beyond the lens of atrocity, she told the audience.
Caste is not about Dalits; it is about the power that Brahmins have, and the atrocities they cause. Dalits are not the cause of caste; they are victims of caste.
Ranjith talked about the struggle for dalit artists to be accepted, beyond the ‘caste factor’ that comes up. He shared his experiences, on how privileges of an upper caste person have not been available to him. He explained how while his art form is different and unique, he still has to learn the language of the oppressor.
Pillai’s talk focused on the institutional casteism present within Bharathnatyam spaces. Acknowledging the trauma and stigma caused due to the usage of the word ‘devadasi’, she introduced an alternative term ‘hereditary dancer’ which would allow people to speak more about stories of discrimination. She talked about how important it is to bring to light the caste system present within spaces to claim her history.
Dr. Karpagam talked about caste systems within the medical community. She pointed out how upper caste doctors access affirmative action abroad but are furious when asked about reservations in India. She also explained how Dalit and Adivasi populations have high rates of under nutrition.
The two-day conference also included cultural performances showcasing well-known Dalit artists. Rap performances by Arivu and Gana Balachandar, from the Casteless Collective, touched upon Dr. Ambedkar’s indomitable commitment to truth and justice.
The entire conference has been recorded and can be accessed on their Facebook page.
(Almas Shaikh is a human rights lawyer from India. She is currently reading for a D.Phil. in Law at the University of Oxford.)