Is counting the caste good or bad? India is divided

New Delhi, May 31 (IANS) Is it good to ask the Indian his or her caste? The political class is divided although a vast majority of Indians carry their caste firmly etched in their names.

Ever since the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) ignited a storm by demanding that caste identity be included in the national census, political parties have been locked in a war of words.

The government’s initial reported decision to bow to the demand and then ask a panel of ministers to study the issue — effectively keeping the caste-count from the mammoth national census now under way — has added fuel to the fire.

The Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the two biggest parties in parliament, are divided within their ranks.

But Samajwadi Party’s vocal MP Dharmendra Yadav knows his mind. ‘Various welfare schemes of the central government use caste as a yardstick to provide benefits to weaker sections,’ Yadav told IANS. ‘It is important to get a proper enumeration of castes to get accurate data about their numbers.’

Those who want to put the caste back in the census — it was tabulated way back in 1931 when India was under British rule for the first and last time — say there is nothing wrong in counting the caste since Indians are asked their religion anyway.

However, there are dissenting voices.

Ajay Maken, a junior minister in the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, has warned that a caste-based census would lead to demands from communities to be categorized as OBCs (other backward classes) — to gain official benefits available to people who are socially backward. He is mobilising younger and progressive MPs to lobby as a pressure group against caste-based census.

India’s Hindu community is home to hundreds of castes and sub-castes. The caste system forms the basis of a strict hierarchical society where the lower castes have been economically and socially oppressed for long, though this division is disappearing among the surging middle class as it pursues expanding professional and economic aspirations and integrates socially.

Some of Maken’s ministerial colleagues, including Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily, want caste to be included in the headcount of India’s population.

Opinion among MPs is divided.

BJP leader Arjun Munda, a former Jharkhand chief minister, said any decision on a caste count should be taken after thoroughly analysing its impact on politics, especially the experience of the past 20 years. ‘Having caste census has its merits and demerits. I am against caste politics and feel that an enumeration will accentuate caste identities and hence will have a negative impact,’ he said.

Madhu Goud Yaskhi, a Congress MP from Andhra Pradesh who left a flourishing legal practice in New York to join politics in India, argued that India was a caste-based society anyway.

‘One cannot avoid the caste system. Political parties give ticket on the basis of caste. They look at caste equations in a constituency. Caste is a factor in giving job and education opportunities to weaker sections.’

Like others, he said lack of reliable data on castes was a problem.

So why was his party colleague Maken opposed to Indians being asked their caste? Yaskhi replied that the minister belonged to the upper caste and could be addressing his own constituency.

The Communists are clear: cast away the caste.

Said Anup Kumar Saha, a Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) MP from West Bengal: ‘We are not free from the problem of casteism. A caste census will only complicate matters.’

Saha said even if the government wanted to get data on caste, such information should not be put in public domain as it would only strengthen caste identities.

A senior Congress leader said on the condition of anonymity that caste-based census would pose problems due to the possible clamour for inclusion among the OBCs. If more communities became OBCs, it could pose resistance from those sections already taking benefits of reservation.

Even as the government tries to buy time by referring the issue to a group of ministers, the debate rages on.