Caste is a reality in India. Remaining in denial by avoiding a caste census will not do any good to society or meaningful policymaking. As a nation, we can hardly choose to ignore the structural deprivations and oppressions it wreaks in our social, political and economic life. No one needs reminders of this, but we get them with depressing frequency.
In Koppal district, Karnataka, two incidents came to light quite recently. In one case, the parents of a Dalit child were fined `25,000 just because he strayed into a temple—Lingayat priests making a mockery of Basavanna’s teachings. Even as this was being probed, another Dalit youth was fined for offering prayers at a temple. In Mainpuri, UP, school officials had to be suspended for making Dalit children wash their plates separately. Caste rape and dishonourable killings for marrying outside caste are quite the norm.
So deep are the biases that global experts fear they may percolate into artificial intelligence—because AI algorithms learn from human behaviour. Political parties have only sharpened and exploited these divisions for strategic convenience. Chief ministers are chosen, Cabinet expansions calculated and political alliances struck with an eye on caste—the bigger the social catchment offered via caste identity, the bigger the bargaining power of leaders.
Governance too is frequently coloured by caste. Mandal had liberated politics from elite monopoly. So it is not surprising to see Nitish Kumar asking for a caste census and being supported by his arch rival Lalu Prasad. And who are opposed to the idea? Parties that seek to aggregate caste votes using more ‘universal’ slogans. India may not be in any danger of becoming an egalitarian democracy of equals in a hurry, but the target of policy must be that. A census gives us rich data that allows us to take stock of where we are as a nation. And caste is a vital part of that.