Pitfalls and questions on the Caste-religion-poverty census

John Dayal

Bargad Exclusive

Professional journalist and occasional documentary filmmaker John Dayal has been a human rights activist since the early Seventies. His book on the Indian Emergency (1975-77) is a major document of that period. He edited the monumental Gujarat 2002 – Untold and Retold Stories, on the anti-Muslim genocide in the state of Gujarat. His latest book is A Matter of Equity –Interrogating Indian Secularismpublished in 2007. He is a Member of the National Integration Council, chaired by the Prime Minister of India. John was National President of the All India Catholic Union [2004-2008], the country’s main Catholic Laity movement, and is Founder Secretary General of the All India Christian Council. An internationally respected and honoured Journalist and Human Rights and Peace activist, John has spent years developing his database on peace issues, particularly right wing violence against Christians in India. John is currently researching Hindutva and its interface with Christianity in contemporary India. He can be contacted at john.dayal@gmail.com.

Would they count you if you said you were a Dalit Christian?

When St. Stephen’s college this year did away with the “”Dalit Christian Quota” they had announced some years ago with such fanfare, it was not the college management, much maligned though it is, but the country’s legal dispensation which made the retrograde step inevitable. How does a Dalit Christian really prove his identity? The Bishop or pastor will give him a baptism certificate attesting to his membership to a church. But who will give him the “Dalit” certificate. Civil authorities will routinely deny the student a Scheduled Caste certificate because under existing law – the “black law” of Para Three of Article 341 of the Constitution of India – will recognise him worthy of affirmative action only if he is a Hindu, or at least a Buddhist or a Sikh. Christians, and Muslims, are just outside the law, much as their ancestors were outside Manu’s legal perimeter of caste.

It may be interest to note that the National Sample Survey Organisation, which conducts regular qualitative surveys in the country, in its report on the 61st round data for 2004-05 says only about 26 per cent of all Hindus are considered as the High Castes or socio-economically better offs; whereas, about 60 per cent of Muslims fall into the non-OBC and thus socio-economically better off category. This is because none from the Muslims, and Christians, are classified under the Scheduled Caste category. Many of them may well be listed as Hindus, as happens in Andhra all the time.

So what are the chances that the Caste census, controversial for a hundred other reasons, will count Dalit Christians? The chances seem Zero at the moment of writing, because the government has quite deliberately woven a cloud of confusion on just what is its intention.

And while the Muslims, and a section of civil society, have spoken out, the combined Church has kept quiet, possibly because it remains preoccupied with issues spiritual or in protecting institutions and text books from the vagaries of the State,. But also because historically, the church has sought not to be the first to intervene, or to cry foul, when civil and constitutional issues are being discussed. Little wonder that while the Muslim community is going into the preparation of the 12th Five Year Plan armed with thousands of pages of data and analysis, the best the Christian community journals and institutions have been able to do is to congratulate the handful of Christians nominated to various committees or commissions.

We should really have been the first to be awakened to the ramifications of a Census! Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem because Mary and Joseph were trudging to their hometown to be counted in a census ordered by Caesar.

But perhaps it is still not too late to stand up and be counted as others pose serious questions to the government on the caste census. The first question of course, should be whether this is within the laws which govern the work of the Registrar General of India, or the Census Commissioner as the office is popularly known, in preparing the. National Population Register (NPR).

This is an important issue because the laws specify that a citizen is free to spell out his identity as he sees it. The second is that the information that an individual gives to the enumerator is kept a secret. It is not the individual but the totals that are published in the final picture.

In fact the government goes much beyond the law when it comes to the Census. It releases the religious composition of the population of the country, and of individual states, much after it has released the general figures. And then, it refuses to announce the religious composition in units smaller than the district. There is no chance of anyone, including government departments, of ever finding out the religious composition of a “Block”, and there are eight to sixteen blocks in a district. The religious composition of any particular village within the block is of course never published. Even if every local politician and caste leader may know it by wrote, micro level religious (and caste,) breakdowns are deemed far too “sensitive” as data. Asked why is such data deemed to be sensitive, senior government officers told this writer that it may lead to religious profiling, and possibly violence if groups come to fear an unexpected growth in the number of a community they deem to be hostile, or at least estranged.

It was because of a political reluctance to face facts – the exact number and size of various caste groups in India – that the government never bothered to include Caste identity while enumerating censuses after the 1931 one, which was done at the height of the British Raj. After Independence in 1947, the only statutory enumeration was of the Scheduled caste (excluding those converted to Christianity and Islam) and Scheduled Tribes which was needed to fulfil Constitutional obligations by way of reservations in government jobs and educational institutions, and other affirmative action benefits and sops.

Even after the so called Mandal revolution which politically empowered the backward communities – catapulting into power such people as Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh and Lalloo Yadav in Bihar — the Union government fought off all demands to count the castes. The issue figured repeatedly in Parliament eve decade, with the government refusing to budge.

It was only as a consequence of the reservation of up to 27 per cent for Other Backward Communities (OBCs) ordered last decade that the government at last said it would consider making a head count of caste populations specific to each state. This was because castes defined as OBCs in one state may not be so defined in another case. An example was that of Jats (Hindu Jats, not Jat Sikhs of Punjab) who are a powerful landowning group in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana but are a weaker OBC group in Rajasthan. A political consensus was reached in parliament on such a census last year.

There was a bit of a national shock, however, when government changed its mind in October 2010, when preparatory work had almost been completed for the 2011 household survey and the Census. It was official: Caste was not being counted in the formal Census.

In the face of an almighty howl of protest from across the country, government reluctantly announced it would have a separate counting of OBCs, even if cost the national exchequer another couple of thousands of cores of rupees. But this is not a government that let things be as promised. Even as agitated OBC groups were coming to terms with a separate Caste count, not a formal census as understood in law, came the news that the government planned to “dovetail” caste census with a survey of the BPL, or below the poverty line, families. As the Hindu newspaper reported, the entire exercise should be completed by the end of this year. Governmnt officials who briefed the newspaper off the record said dovetailing the two exercises would ensure that the castes enumerated can be correlated with the socio-economic data, and facilitate a more focussed targeting of the government’s welfare measures. “Correlating people’s caste identities with their educational and economic status would help map the population better, thus ensuring a more accurate targeting of welfare schemes.”

As currently envisaged, the caste census cum BPL survey will be conducted by the Registrar-General and Census Commissioner India, and the Union Ministries of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (HUPA) and Rural Development (RD), sources added. While the HUPA Ministry will focus on the urban areas, the RD Ministry will survey the rural areas. Those surveyed will be asked to name their caste, but this caste data will not be cross-checked. People will be free to say “no caste” as well. Dalit Christians and Pasmanda Muslims unfortunately, cannot get thimbles listed. But in Tamil Nadu for instance, and in some other states, Christians in certain traditional professions such as boatmen and fishermen can articulate their OBC or Most backward Community status.

The spotlight focussed on the Below Poverty Line families after a World Bank review – done at the behest of the Planning commission now drafting the 12th Five year Plan – which analysed centrally-sponsored social security schemes, including the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the Public Distribution System, the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, Indira Awas Yojana and Indira Gandhi Old Age Pension Scheme.

The World Bank is of course against programmes that are focussed on BPL groups. It finds serious problems with the scheme. According to its survey, a third of the poorest ten per cent of the people have been incorrectly identified as non-poor in the 2002 BPL census. The data becomes worse for slightly better off – but still BPL — families.

The World Bank has a good word for “general” schemes such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment scheme which covers the rural poor irrespective of caste, religion or other factors.
But we digress.

Dr Abu Sahel Sharief, the economist who actually wrote the celebrated Justice Rajindar Sachhar report on the socio-economic situation of Muslims in India, told this writer there are many controversies in terms of a methodology and variables which will be used to identify the poor.

“What is underplayed and not adequately highlighted is the fact that the Caste Census will be undertaken for the first time since the Independence. Such data are likely to be used in determining and revising the cast and class linked quotas in national and state government jobs, admissions in educational institutions such as in colleges and universities and access to targeted social services. The caste census is being conducted without adequate methodological and analytical preparedness and since caste, class and religious identities have complex inter-relationships there will be ramifications which will be difficult to resolve in future” he added in a written statement.
The Muslim community has done a detailed analysis of the situation.

They note that the collection of caste data is politically motivated and is expected to provide structured information so as to allocate or enhance respective shares in reservations for the SCs, the STs and the OBCs.
They feel the Indian Caste Census (ICC-2011) is likely to trigger a drive for Indian citizens of all castes and communities to get enrolled into deprived categorizations in what Abu Saleh Sharief calls Competitive Backwardness. Muslims converted from the former untouchable Hindu castes (now called Pasmanda Muslims as those who converted to Christianity from the same caste group are called Dalit Christians) will face census enumerators who will not recognize them because the ‘Census filtering procedures’ which only list officially recognised caste-religious groups. This entire issue is before the Supreme Court of India in a Public Interest Litigation writ filed by various Islamic and Christian groups.

The Census will also collect data on select economic and education indicators and asset ownership so as to categorize households into the ‘below poverty line’ or ‘above poverty line’ status. Such data long with religion and caste are expected to be used to compute the relative backwardness or forwardness of a caste group; which, the economist says, will have ramifications in determining the eligibility to jobs and higher level educational admissions under the quota system. In future, this may hinder efforts of the poorer sections of religious minorities from raising their economic and social status.

The government has not yet clarified if the caste-BPL census will be generally based on the Mandal Commission list of OBCs. The government at present does not really have any alternate lists to be used in the 30 States of the Union.

Muslim intelligentsia have suggested, a point I entirely endorse, that the caste Census should be undertaken only after the pending Supreme Court judgment in the matter of the recognition of the presence of ‘dalit’ identities amongst the Muslims and Christens in India is decided.

It is also suggested that enumerators be instructed to collect this information as reported, and not to filter out caste reporting linked to religion.

A civil society memorandum to the government, which this writer also signed, also demands that the caste-related data collected from June-December, 2011 reliably capture the castes’ educational status and their share in various job categories. This should show which castes have been left behind in education and employment in six decades of independence.

Secondly, the census should enumerate numeration socio-economic, educational, living standards, economic and employment profile, land holding and if the family has derived any benefits from Union and state development schemes.

The memorandum has again stressed the point raised by Dr Sharief, that data should be collected for all the castes and caste equivalents in non caste practicing communities or religious populations. No particular caste or caste group should be excluded from this. Any non-Hindu religious group that volunteers its caste identity — Dalit Christians, for instance — should be identified as such. But all this makes for data not legally sound, unless government bring it under the Census Act, 1948.

Christian Dalits will have to await the Supreme Court decision. And no one can say when that judgement will be delivered.

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