Can a caste census in India help reduce inequality, discrimination?

Reuters file

Delhi-based journalist Meena Kotwal knows all about how the ancient prejudices surrounding caste continue to affect the lives of people in modern India.

The 32-year-old, who runs a YouTube channel called The Mooknayak, or "leader of the voiceless", belongs to the "untouchable" caste of Dalits.

As a reporter with a leading international media agency in India's capital, she found that editors were from the upper castes "while the marginalised castes, if they are represented at all, occupy the lowest rung of the journalistic hierarchy".

Kotwal resigned after two years in her job, claiming that her editor "didn't clear my story ideas, criticised my work and belittled me in front of the entire staff just because of my caste".

"India's class system is a direct result of the millennia-old caste system, and unless there are targeted policies to rectify the inequalities caused by the caste system, the situation will not change," Kotwal said.

She is among the many activists, human rights groups, and political parties who are calling for the Indian government to undertake a caste census - an official count of the thousands of different castes and sub-castes that exist in India.

Currently, only the highest (Brahmins or priests) and lowest (Dalits and Adivasis or tribespeople) castes are counted in the national census, done once every ten years.

Under the current national policy, 27 per cent of government jobs and places in publicly funded schools are reserved for members of this group.

But this figure was put in place almost a century ago by the British, who based it on the 1931 caste census, and used the positive-discrimination policy to identify ways in which the colonial administration could strengthen its control over the citizenry.

Proponents of the OBC caste census say knowing how large this group actually is will help increase representation in workplace and educational institutes through official reservation quotas.

However, critics say that sharing such data could end up hardening caste identities and creating social fragmentation. Others argue against more affirmative action for the majority and say a revamp of policies to promote equality and justice are key.

Meena Kotwal runs a YouTube channel called “The Mooknayak”. Photo: Handout
Meena Kotwal runs a YouTube channel called "The Mooknayak". PHOTO: Handout

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The Mandal Commission, set up by the government to address caste issues, issued a report in 1980 saying that OBCs made up 52 per cent of India's population. But government statistics in 2006 said this figure was 41 per cent.

Activists believe a fresh count is warranted, as only a few among the 2,633 groups on the OBC list - who are relatively affluent - are benefiting from the reservation quotas.

Recently, a delegation of regional parties met Prime Minister Narendra Modi to demand the inclusion of an OBC census in the upcoming general census.

A member of the delegation cited figures from the Rohini Commission - set up by India's president in 2017 for the subcategorisation of OBCs - that found 97 per cent of all jobs and educational seats went to just 25 per cent of all classified sub-castes.

On top of this, close to a quarter of these jobs and seats went to just ten OBC communities.

The commission also said that 983 OBC communities, a third of the total, had almost zero representation in jobs and admissions in educational institutions.

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"Given this fractious backdrop, a fresh caste census can provide correct empirical data, missing so far, to help the government understand the exact deprivation levels and remove historical injustices among the OBCs," said Milind Eknath Awad, assistant professor in the school of language, literature, and culture studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

"We're a country of cultural plurality and massive social diversity that requires affirmative-action policies to empower the downtrodden. Without hard data, progressive policies can't be formulated," he said, adding that fresh data would ensure "current skews that exist in favour of upper castes can be eliminated".

Caste and economic prosperity are deeply interlinked in India.

According to an Oxfam report released last year, the top ten per cent of the Indian population owns 74.3 per cent of the country's total wealth, while the middle 40 per cent and the bottom 50 per cent own a mere 2.8 per cent.

A 2018 study, titled "Wealth ownership and inequality in India: a socio-religious analysis", found that upper-caste Hindus owned around 41 per cent of national assets, OBCs own 31 per cent, while Scheduled Castes (Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes (indigenous communities) own 7.6 per cent and 3.7 per cent, respectively.

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Police try to stop people belonging to the Dalit community as they take part in a protest during a nationwide strike called by Dalit organisations in 2018. PHOTO: Reuters

Political ammunition

The government has said it will not do a caste count "as a matter of policy".

But opposition parties allege that caste is a crucial factor in every Indian election, and the ruling BJP has also used it to its advantage by uniting members of different castes into a Hindu nationalist support base.

"The underlying fear is that the census will provide fresh ammunition to the regional parties to mount pressure on the government for an OBC quota in central government jobs and educational institutions," said a senior member of the opposition Congress party, who declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak publicly on the issue.

Abirami Jotheeswaran, general secretary of All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch, who belongs to the Dalit community herself, said fears of marginalisation were very real within her community.

She said even though Dalit women made up eight per cent of India's total population, according to the 2011 general census, "they continue to be victimised by caste and class patriarchy, with the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak making lives even tougher for them".

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Jotheeswaran pointed to the All India Survey on Higher Education for 2018-2019, which reported that Dalits accounted for only 14.9 per cent of the 37.4 million students enrolled in higher education.

"We have come across thousands of Dalit girls who are deprived of access to education. They do not get proper uniforms or books, and sometimes also have to walk or travel long distances to reach their school," she said.

"This era of online learning platforms, and extensive use of these platforms during the pandemic, has added another layer of hardship for them."

Delhi-based social policy expert Niranjan Sarkar said reservation quotas had bred a sense of resentment among some middle-caste groups and the upper castes who felt they were being subjected to reverse discrimination.

"Instead of pandering to the endless demands of various groups for quotas, the government should aim to put in place policies that encourage merit and talent for a just and equitable society," he said.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.