AFTER Independence, it was decided to discontinue collection of data regarding caste, except in the case of Scheduled Castes (SCs); for the Scheduled Tribes (STs) also detailed data on affiliation to specific tribal groups continued to be collected. The demand that is being raised now is for the collection of similar data for Other Backward Castes (OBCs) also.
The issue has become extremely controversial with some groups insisting that any counting of caste groups shall cause deep disharmonies and discordance in Indian society; others are equally insistent that data about OBCs needs to be collected to get a true picture of their social and economic status today.
Caste data of pre-Independence censuses, and the data on Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes of the later censuses, gives some appreciation of the information that a detailed caste census can provide.
We have recently compiled the 1931 census data for Orchha state, which now constitutes Tikamgarh district of Madhya Pradesh. The population of the state at the time was about 3 lakh. Of them about 22 per cent belong to castes that are now classified as Scheduled Castes in Madhya Pradesh, another about 3.4 per cent belong to Scheduled Tribes; the two together form about 25 per cent of the population. Besides them there are about 7 per cent Brahmins, 3.7 per cent Rajputs and 3 per cent Banias; the three groups together account for about 14 per cent of the population. The remaining more than 60 per cent of the population belongs to what would be called OBCs today. Proportion of this group would probably vary somewhat in different regions, but in general the figure is unlikely to be very different from the 60 per cent counted in Orchha state in 1931.
Within the nearly 60 per cent people that belong to castes that are called OBCs today, the data shows wide diversity. The service castes of barbers (Nais) and washermen (Dhobis) form about 4 per cent of the population. The artisanal and manufacturing castes like the carpenters (Sutar), the iron-smiths (Lohar), the gold-smiths (Sunar), the weavers (Jolaha), the dyers (Rangarez), the tailors (Darzis), the oil-pressers (Telis), and similar other castes constitute another 8 per cent of the population. The group of artisanal and manufacturing castes is in fact bigger; potters (Kumhar) and bamboo-workers (Basor) form about 4 per cent of the population, and they are now counted among the scheduled castes.
Orchha also has about 7.5 per cent boatmen (Dhimars), who work the rather large number of big tanks that the kings of Orchha, like all indigenous kings of India, built and maintained.
This leaves about 40 per cent of the population belonging mainly to what may be called cultivating castes. There is great diversity even within them. On a broad classification, 18 per cent of the persons in this group belong to castes associated with animal husbandry, about 19 per cent to castes associated with cultivation alone, about 2 per cent to caste groups within Muslim peasantry, and about 2 per cent to other miscellaneous castes. Within the group of castes associated with animal husbandry, 12 per cent are Ahirs, 2 per cent Ghosis and 4 per cent Gadarias. Within the group of castes associated with cultivation alone, about 11 per cent are Kacchis and Kurmis and about 8 per cent are Lodhis.
From the above it is clear that within the large group that is today classified as Other Backward Castes, there is large variation. The castes clubbed together under this category are associated with diverse professions and economic activities, they differ greatly in their access to land and other resources, and they belong to widely varying strata in the power structure of the rural society.
Incidentally, a predominant majority of the Muslims in Orchha belong to the cultivating castes; Sheikhs, Sayyads, Pathans, etc., account for more than 6 thousand of the total about 7 thousand Muslims, forming about 2.5 per cent of the population. Among the rest there are 249 Fakirs, 217 Rangrez, 129 Nats and several smaller groups.
The detailed data on the caste composition of Orchha that we have listed above gives a fairly complete picture of the social structure of the indigenous society. And, this is the kind of data that every political person, every serious journalist, and every concerned administrator keeps on his fingertips, at least for the area and region of his interest.
A modern census, if carried out in the same detail, shall also give some information on the educational, economic status and the vital statistics of different caste groups that are clubbed together under the category of OBCs.
For the scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, the census does tabulate different caste and tribal groups within them separately. It is therefore possible to know the numbers, the educational status, and the age structure of several different castes and tribal groups that may be present in a district. For the scheduled tribes, it is further possible to know the religious composition of each tribal group within a district. For the scheduled castes, the census gives the number of Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists within each caste in a district.
If the census decides to carry out a complete census of the Other Backward Castes, along with the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes who are already being counted in this manner, then there is little reason to leave out the remaining about 14-15 per cent of Indian society from such counting. After all there are diverse groups within Brahmins, Rajputs and Banias, and it is equally important to know the relative numbers, educational and vital status of these different groups in different regions. There is no reason to believe that all those groups would be equally developed and privileged in all parts of India.
Such a complete census of the people of India can be of much use in learning about the status of different groups in different parts of India and in devising a polity that takes care of the legitimate needs of all groups. But, instead of obtaining such detailed information, the census may decide to just count the number of those declaring themselves to be OBCs, just as the NPR is counting the number of those declaring themselves to be Indian citizens. That kind of count is surely going to be disastrous for Indian polity.
Such a count is likely to return a number of about 60 per cent for the OBCs. The number would be of little sociological value; as we have seen, the castes grouped together under OBCs encompass a great diversity. That kind of number obtained through an abridged caste census, however, has the potential of deeply disrupting the Indian polity for years to come.
The census seems to be left with little time to conduct a proper caste census. But, just as the census has been saddled with the task of collecting the NPR database along with the house-listing operations, it may be saddled with the task of counting the OBCs along with the regular population enumeration. The census of 2011 shall than end up registering the number of citizens as declared on one hand, and number of OBCs as declared on the other. Both these numbers would lack rigour and would end up being a blot on the long history of census operations in India.
Before closing, let us remind ourselves that though the modern census is only 150 years old, yet the localities and habitations of India seem to have always kept detailed records of their people. We have access to the late eigh-teenth century records of some 2,000 localities of the Chengalpattu region of Tamil Nadu. These records, etched on rough-cut palm leaves and kept in every locality, give details of every house and every plot of land. The name of the head of the household, caste of the household, the street where the house is located, dimensions of the house and the backyard, the dimensions of the street in front of the house are all recorded in minute detail in these palm-leaves. The records also give the location, dimension and kind of water-bodies within the habitation and in the fields, and of the number of animals in the locality. For the fields, the records give further details, including the crops grown on every plot in a given year, the produce of these crops, and how the produce is shared between the members of the grama. And, there are many other aspects of the economy and polity covered in these records.
A society that keeps this kind of detailed records for every locality does not really need a decennial census; the records constitute a continuous census. Such a society also does not need a national population or citizenship register. Every grama keeps a complete register; no outsider could enter such a society without being approved, adopted and recorded by the grama.
While we consider the controversies that have arisen around the current census, we should also give some thought to the way we managed such issues just a couple of centuries ago, and whether we can learn something from our own ways of a not too distant past.