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Week 6: Different positions on caste enumeration

This week, as a follow up to Prof Philip’s paper on the debates around caste enumeration, I read a variety of short articles written after the MIDS  (Mysore Institute of Development Studies) seminar on counting caste in census. I briefly summarize them here.

In the opening article, Prof Durgam Subba Rao invokes colonial anthropology and how the census was traditionally a colonial instrument. He mentions the works of William Hunter, J.H Hutton Herbert Risley, and Edgar Thurston who all research caste for the British administrators. Rao says that caste is modern India is often an alternate name for poverty,  suppression, boycott, superiority, domination, social status and honor. Similarly within colonial caste studies, in order to grasp at the object “caste”, a caste name was also compounded with descriptions of caste-occupations, purity, neatness, endogamy, marriage practices and so on.

Clubbing this insight with a point that K Satyanarayana makes in his article in the same issue of Anveshi, the author says that in counting caste (as mandated by the Supreme Court of India), India will have to legally acknowledge caste as a category. To elaborate, and this point is made by multiple authors in the issue, caste in independent India comes into public discourse in very specific ways only – legally caste (akin to gender, race, religion, sexual orientation etc) is seen as a disability, administratively within welfare schemes, identifying ST and SC castes is primarily done to promote the redistribution of national resources and finally, since in any domain where caste is recorded, only the castes of ST and SC populations are recorded, and not each and every caste (“forward” and “backward”), the implicit understanding remains that those in charge of “running” the nation continue to be the invisible and un-enumerated others, their caste privileges not ever rendered visible. The last point is made by Satish Deshpande and Mary John who, then, along with others in the debate emphasize the need to also evaluate what instruments could really capture the fluidity of caste, the problems with equating caste groups as OBC or BC (backward classes –  identified based on socio-economic deprivation) across North and South India and finally reckoning with the political stakes and vote bank interests in supporting caste census. Deshpande and John list objects to caste census as primarily moral (should we do it), pragmatic (is it even possible) and technical (how do we produce usable/accurate information).

Without elaborating their positions here, I want to reflect on nuggets from the articles.

For instance, Subba Rao ends his article by saying that, “it is a scientific principle that quantitative transformation will increase power. This quantitative transportation may lead to a qualitative change that will accelerate BC consciousness.”

Not only Subba Rao but also Deshpande and John argue that the pragmatic and technical concerns are not valid because of technological progress (handheld devices to record data, easily searchable catalogs, the possibility to cluster homologous caste descriptions as families and sub-groups).

Here, VK Nataraj’s article, the only one opposing caste census  is worth looking at. Nataraj argues that there are solid instances of misinformation in on-ground data (both deliberate and also otherwise), hinting at caste enumeration as a political exercise of mobilization itself. Since caste (drawing on Anand Teltumbde), unlike race is not as self-evident in physiological characteristics and is both socially reproduced and leveraged depending on who one is speaking to (caste as described for matrimonials vs caste described at a social gathering etc); the moment to count and fix caste identities is obviously not going to be a mere exercise in capturing “truth”.

Taking off from this debate, I am currently reading Christopher Pinney’s article on the photographic construction of caste and tribe as well as Dirks’ book Castes of Mind. However, the gaps I am locating pertain to Nataraj’s argument that caste was pivotal in public sector employment and post-liberalization, the public sector has ceased to be the main source of employment. I couldn’t find work on caste in corporate India and then how caste is recast as ancient, political while technologies

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